The Church has a rule: A person can be canonized only after their death. This is a good rule. Let’s assure ourselves of its rationality, taking an example from history. Forty Christians were sentenced to death for their faith. They were tormented for a long time in freezing temperature in the lake of Sebaste. One of them couldn’t endure it, walked out of the lake, and perished eternally. Meanwhile, a pagan, standing by the shore, believed, took the “vacant spot,” and received a Heavenly crown. It turns out that the last moments of a person’s life are especially significant for their fate. For some, the last minutes before death become a transition to eternal life, while for others—a transition to eternal perdition.
The rule of canonizing one only after their death is strictly observed, although there are exceptions to this rule. There are but a few exceptions, and they have to do with extraordinary circumstances. What kind, you ask? Namely, when one finishes their life on Earth, but does not die like everyone else: instead, the Lord takes them to Himself. This happened with Enoch and Elias the prophet. One of the most venerated saints, Elias, lived long before the birth of Christ, and the Lord postponed the hour of his death. The two righteous men of ancient times, Elias and Enoch, were taken away by the Lord. They will yet continue their life on Earth during apocalyptic times. They will stand up against the antichrist, they will preach and perform miracles, they will receive martyrdom and be resurrected. In this sense, Elias is revered as a saint long before his death. We pray before icons of him, but he hasn’t died yet—something else happened to him. But what exactly?
The Bible says that the Lord would take up Elias into heaven by a whirlwind (4 Kings 2:1). Icons depict this moment, how the prophet Elias is carried up by a fiery chariot. Exegetes note that the chariot and cavalry symbolize the strength and glory of the nation. And Elias himself was set aflame by zeal for God and thus was taken up in a fiery chariot. A reasonable interpretation. The imagery of horses and chariots, a fiery whirlwind and flaming zeal are things worthy of our attention, but there’s something more besides this symbolism. What exactly is it?
It’s difficult to talk about, it’s too extraordinary of an event, and it’s mysterious; but we can ponder the glorious ascension of the prophet of God a little bit. Only, one shouldn’t insist that they possess the full truth in their reflections. I’m not doing so. There have already been enough people like that without me; so much has been fantasized about the ascension of Prophet Elias. One has to be careful not to add their own fantasies to the list. I’m writing this in advance in order to avoid misunderstandings.
To begin with, the ascension of Elias is considered not just an extraordinary religious event, but a mystical event. One cannot argue with that. Let this be the starting point of our reflections. The Orthodox tradition of hesychasm encapsulates many centuries of the spiritual experience of mystics and ascetics. The formation of the hesychast tradition has to do with monasticism, and rests upon a solid foundation—the experience of the apostles and prophets. It’s quite appropriate to use the reflections of the hesychasts in order to better understand the Fourth Book of Kings. The continuity of the spiritual tradition allows for this, although it’s not guaranteed that we can manage to clarify everything in the best possible way.
Prophet Elias not only had a mystical experience, but an ascetical one too. His asceticism, of course, was an Old Testament kind. Prophet Elias was able to have a mystical experience because he was prepared for the Heavenly life by this “ascetical training.” Let’s take a closer look. Before his ascension, he sought solitude in order to pray; he went wherever God sent him without murmuring; he placed himself into the hands of God and was ready to lay his life down if only he could fulfill God’s will by doing so. These are signs of asceticism.
Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) reveals to us the spiritual path of great ascetics. He writes about the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, about how the holy hesychast St. Seraphim of Sarov had experienced this. Fr. Sophrony notes that on the way to acquiring grace one goes through three stages. During the first stage, grace visits the ascetic when the Lord finds it useful. The Lord draws near, and the ascetic receives the uplifting experience of communicating with the Creator. During the second stage, God allows a person to grow spiritually, to mature. He seemingly starts to help the person less. It becomes necessary to force yourself to pray, to fight with despondency. One must remain faithful to God despite the fact that they almost stop feeling the help of grace. Sometimes grace is openly given again, and the ascetic rejoices that the Lord is near. Then grace “retreats” again. In such a way the ascetic learns to live with God even when he doesn’t feel His presence; he gets used to relying not on his own feelings, but on the will of God.
The third stage—mystical contemplation, when God suddenly manifests Himself as Light—is an extraordinary one. The grace that is given is so great that this marks the limit of what one can experience. If this experience of theosis “were to last more than an instant,” then a person would “go over from death to life.” If God wills otherwise, then the ascetic, having experienced this mystical moment, returns to the second stage of asceticism. Fr. Sophrony proposed that death for St. Seraphim of Sarov was a mystical experience of crossing over to eternal life… But what does this have to do with an Old Testament prophet? St. Elias was a great ascetic, and, perhaps, his ascension was a mystical experience that “lasted more than an instant.” The prophet crossed the line between life and death. He neither died nor finished his life on Earth—something else happened to him.
According to the description of hesychasts, during the third stage the ascetic sees the Uncreated Light of God. Let’s pay attention to the fact that Prophet Elias was raised up in a Heavenly Fire, in a Heavenly Light. The ascension itself was sudden, magisterial, and swift (hence the cavalry imagery). Add to this the fact that on Mt. Tabor, when the Uncreated Light was revealed to the apostles, they saw Prophet Elias standing next to Christ. Christ was transfigured on the mount, and shone with Divine Light. This was the mysterious Transfiguration of the Lord, and at that moment, Moses and Elias, the living personification of the Law and the Prophets, stood next to Him. Both of them were bearers of the highest spiritual experience.
The Law was given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. There he beheld God in “darkness”; or, in other words, in an “unapproachable Light,” unbearable for the human eyes and soul. After St. Moses came down, his face shone, reflecting the Light he had seen when he was atop the mountain. Even these weak reflections were unbearable for the God-fearing people around him, and the prophet had to wear a veil over his face in order to speak with others.
The righteousness of the Old Testament allowed one to reach experiences of great sublimity, however, the way of Christ is greater. According to the traditions of the Church, the ascension of Elias is comparable to the Ascension of Christ: “Awesome and dreadful is Thy Divine Ascension from the mount, O Life-giver, which Elias had depicted, ascending upon a four-horse chariot whilst hymning Thee, O Lover of mankind” (from the Matins service of the Transfiguration of the Lord, additional canon, Ode 5). In a way, Elias had given an “icon” or a depiction of Christ’s Ascension, but this “prophecy” of Elias cannot be equated to its fulfillment in Christ. No man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from Heaven, even the Son of Man which is in Heaven (John 3:13). No one, not even Elias.
Therefore, attention is given to how the Greek Bible speaks of the prophet’s ascension: The Lord would take up Elias as it were into Heaven by a whirlwind (4 Kings 2:1). St. Athanasius the Great argues that “as it were into Heaven” and “into Heaven” are not the same things (Second homily on the Ascension). Christ is above all, and only He ascended up into Heaven itself and sat at the right hand of God the Father. In Christ we obtain the fullness of theosis of the human nature, and from this fullness He gives grace to ascetics—to each based upon their measure. Nonetheless, great still was the measure of the spiritual gifts of the prophet Elias, who had ascended “as it were into Heaven.”
What did Prophet Elias experience during his ascension? We don’t know for sure; this is too great of an experience. Something like this was experienced by few great ascetics. So why talk about this then?! In order to better understand the greatness of Prophet Elias, to see the connection between Orthodox asceticism and Biblical revelation, and to understand what our own way is. Fr. Sophrony differentiates between three stages that can take place during our way in the spiritual life. Few are called by the Lord to enter the third stage, such as Prophet Elias. But the first and second stages are familiar to a certain extent to thousands and thousands of simple Orthodox Christians.
The first stage begins after a conscious conversion towards God. At that point the Lord helps one pray, repent, have humility, read the Bible and Holy Fathers, and stand during Church services. This is the experience of a neophyte. Then the second stage begins, when one begins to enter the life of the Church more deeply. At that point it becomes difficult to read the morning prayers, one has to force themselves to read a chapter of the Gospel every day, and confession ceases to be as much of a living experience as it was before. You start having more knowledge about Church discipline and become more informed, albeit your previously fresh and deep perception of the Christian life now leaves much to be desired…
Glory to God, at times things get easier and you again start having the desire to never draw your eyes away from the Gospel, to ask your close ones for forgiveness for offenses committed long ago, to stand before the icons, and to pray without hurrying. But then it gets harder again, and then easier yet again. The first stage is over now. I remember that stage and am thankful to God for it. I’ve received the experience of turning to God, and that is valuable. If I go astray, then I know how to get back on track and turn back to God. But the third stage is clearly not for me. I’m simply not ready and will not be ready for such a sublime experience. That’s not my way, and it’s not profitable for me to seek it out. The second stage, however, in accordance with my small measure, will be enough for me until the end of my life.