This post is taken from part of an e-mail that I sent a couple of month ago to someone who wrote to me about the Catholic view of celibacy. He was apparently a Protestant. The lives of St. Elijah and St. John the Baptist came up in the course of the e-mail exchange, as part of the Biblical foundation for monasticism. He asked me where the Bible says Elijah was a hermit or that Elijah didn't have a wife. I have revised and added a few things here to my response.
St. Edith Stein, in an article titled "On the History and Spirit of Carmel (in The Hidden Life, ICS Publications), wrote, "Elijah stands before God's face because all of his love belongs to the Lord." It is a reference to I Kings 17:1 ("As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.") Scripture does not mention his parents, a wife, or children.
The Catholic Encyclopedia page on Hermits mentions St. Elijah, St. John the Baptist and Jesus as precursors of the hermits of the Early Church. St. Elijah and St. John the Baptist, of course, were precursors of Jesus, and the hermits' lives imitated the life of Jesus first and foremost.
I Kings 17 describes the Lord telling Elijah:
Elijah was alone in the Brook of Cherith. God provided a widow to provide for him in Zarepath, rather than a wife.
From there, he went to Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18). There, we read:
Elijah mentioned the people and their families who followed the Baals, so families were not being left out of the writing. But there is no mention of Elijah having a family. He is always described as alone. At Mt. Carmel, after the prophets of Baal were slain, we read, "But the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, who girded up his clothing and ran before Ahab as far as the approaches to Jezreel." Again, this would be a difficult environment for him to have traveled with a wife and children.
In I Kings 19, after Jezebel threatened Elijah, we read:
So, Scripture specifically mentions that he left a servant, but does not mention a wife or children. If he had had a wife with him, it would have been natural there for Scripture to say that he left his servant and family.
Also, in I Kings 19, Elijah is sleeping alone in the desert and eating what God provides. "He looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water. After he ate and drank, he lay down again." Then, "he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb."
Matthew Chapter 3 describes St. John the Baptist in a similar vein:
Like Elijah, John the Baptist was "crying in the desert", wearing what God provided and eating what God provided. The description of both of them in Scripture is similar to the lives of the hermits of the Early Church.
In their poverty, they foreshadowed Jesus's own way of life. In St. John's Gospel Chapter 1, people asked John the Baptist if he was the prophet Elijah returned to life, and he said he was not. The prophecy said to have been fulfilled by John the Baptist is from Isaiah 40:3: "A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord." Luke 9:58 tells us that Jesus said of himself, "the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." Jesus was never married. Luke 6:12 speaks of Jesus going into the mountain and spending all night in prayer. He spent 40 days in the desert, tempted by the devil.
The Desert Fathers of the Early Church were known for following Christ's way of life in many ways. St. John the Baptist, Elijah, and the early desert hermits were linked together by the Early Church at least as far back as the Fourth Century. John Cassian mentions it in writing about the Desert Fathers in the fourth century. In Chapter IV of his Conferences, John Cassian wrote:
In Chapter VI, Cassian wrote:
Early monasteries and groups of hermits were established early in Church history in the places associated with Elijah. St. Catherine's Monastery (Orthodox Church) on Mt. Sinai is near the place where Elijah is said to have spent 40 days and 40 nights communing with God. Christian Hermits began to settle there in the third century.
There was a group of them on Mt. Carmel by 570 a.d., when they were mentioned in writing, and probably much earlier. The well of Elijah on Mt. Carmel was also the location of a much later church by Latin-speaking hermits who settled there during the Crusades (the beginnings of the Catholic Church's Carmelite orders).
So, I told the person who wrote to me about celibacy, that marriage is a calling, and that celibacy is also a calling, and it is honorable and just as natural. To say that either is natural does not mean that it is easy. Both require the Holy Spirit's power, and neither works well if limited exclusively to what is "natural.