This is a very tragic story of the ark of the covenant. The book of Samuel gives an account of how the ark was taken from Shiloh to the camp of the Israel in order to help them in the battle against the Philistines. ‘Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.’ Tragically, it does not help. They are defeated and slaughtered, and the ark of the covenant is taken by the enemy.
The most moving part of the account is the relationship between the ark of the covenant and Eli. His sons, Hophni and Phineas, were killed in the battle. When he heard what happened to the ark of God, ‘he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck bake, and he died.’
There is something profound surfaces in this tragedy. This is not recorded, we have to use our ‘sacred imagination’ to see beyond the surface of history. The loss reveals a ‘oneness’, a spiritual merge with the Lord of the ark. Eli’s daughter in law, who gave birth to her child on this tragic day (her husband is among the victims) further confirms the depth of this relationship with the ark of the Lord. ‘And she named the child I-chabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken…’
So we are confronted with the living relationship to the ark of the covenant. The ark represented such a Presence, to Whom all the desires, yearnings, pains and hopes of Israel could be poured out. We can imagine how Eli loved serving in the sanctuary. It was a place where personal pains, unanswerable questions, could be shared with God. Eli’s heart was so one with the ark of the Lord that it stopped when he heard of losing the heart Jewish revelation.
It might be a distant parallel, but when visiting Mrs Gillings, who is on the sick list of our parish, she gave me a small pious work, The Letter from Heaven. The book is devoted to the work of Rebbe Nachman, a nineteen century Chasidic rabbi. I would like to see this brief account on personal prayer as insight into Eli’s relationship to the ark of the covenant.
‘I read in Hishtopchus HaNefesh that through prayer and conversation with the Lord, one can attain all that one needs in life, both materially and spiritually. The book shows that the main way to come close to the Blessed God is specifically through personal prayer and meditation. This technique is called hisbodedus (lit. ‘isolation’) which means to speak personally to God in one’s native tongue. Rebbe Nachman says that one who engages with sincerity in this practice, for at least an hour every day, will merit to speak words that literally have holy and prophetic spirit. Hisbodedus is a great virtue and a true and valid way to come close to God. Every person should set aside for himself a certain hour during the day for this practice. During this time he should speak out his inner feelings to God in the language he normally uses for conversation. The reason for this is that it is easier to express oneself clearly in the language in which one normally speaks. A person should tell God everything in his heart. This includes regrets about and commitment to change past behaviour or attitudes and requests and supplications to God to merit to come close to Him. One who cannot find words to express himself to God should cry out and supplicate about his having become so estranged from God that he cannot find anything to say. He should plead for God’s mercy and grace that He should look favourably upon him/her and open up his mouth to speak his heart to God. Every person, according to the inward pain of his soul, which is so far removed from God, should express this pain… All of the great Jewish Tzaddikim achieved their spiritual excellence solely through this practice. Happy is the one who sets aside one hour each and every day for serious introspection and hisbodedus and the rest of the day he will spend in joy and happiness.’
One can draw the spiritual conclusions of Eli’s story. There is a profound power in pouring out our life to ‘ark of the Lord of the covenant’, His Presence. His Tabernacle, in full power, is present in our churches.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..