Loneliness or Solitude?
Elijah, the subject of this painting, was a great prophet in the Old Testament. At one point, he predicts a terrible draught is going to ravage the land. God told Elijah to flee to a stream called Cherith. Lonely and in despair, Elijah did as he was told and waited on the Lord. Ravens delivered bread and meat to him every morning and evening, as God had promised.
Guercino was the painter of this scene. While Elijah’s story embodies piety, Guercino’s representation is profoundly human. Notice how the prophet sits awkwardly, his aged face turned expectantly toward the birds above him. Elijah unquestioningly followed God’s commands and the ravens represent both physical and spiritual nourishment that comes from his obedience. The wilderness can be a dangerous place, signified by the empty bowl at his feet and rips in his clothing. The inscription on the stone slab refers to a passage where this story is told (1 Kings 17:1-6).
Eventually, the brook dries up and Elijah is forced to move on. God directs him to another area where a widow supplies him with food.
Elijah is truly a patriarch of the faith. He obeyed God even when the obeying was hard and often dangerous. But Elijah was also human and became lonely and in despair. At one point he finds himself in the desert, under a broom tree, hoping for death. “I’ve had enough, Lord,” he says (1 Kings 19:4).
We’ve all have likely reached that point at one time or another. We have had enough! The Lord responds to Elijah by telling him to stand on the mountain and wait for the Lord’s presence to pass by. Elijah does so, and he encounters a powerful wind, an earthquake, and a fire. But God’s presence is not in any of those. Then comes the “still small voice,” and it is there where God can be found.
Being Human connection: Elijah was alone and feeling deflated. But it is interesting that our English language has shown us that there are two sides of being alone. First, the word, “loneliness,” expresses the pain of being alone. Second, the word, “solitude,” to express the glory of being alone. For it is often in silence and solitude where we hear the voice of God.
“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10
Featured art: Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino, Elijah Fed by Ravens, 1620, ©National Gallery, London