Thomas Howard, a respected Christian literary critic, gives high praise to Michael D. O’Brien’s first novel, Father Elijah: An Apocalypse (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1996): “Enthralling reading. This book deserves the very exalted tribute of being reminiscent of Tolstoy and Charles Williams. One is almost agog at the dexterity–the artistry really–with which O’Brien shapes enormously charged material into a narrative which exhibits the integrity one finds only in the very best fiction.” The novel’s subtitle and flyleaf suggests its theme: “Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death” (Rev. 3:2). As O’Brien explains in his Introduction, an apocalypse ponders the end of history. “The Greek word apocalypse means an uncovering, or revealing,” allowing one to search for “the key to his identity, in search of permanence and completion” (p. 11).
Taking seriously St John’s Revelation, O’Brien roots his story in an amillennial view, the “one favored by most of the Church Fathers, [which] holds that it is a theological vision of a vast spiritual landscape, containing descriptions of the situation of the Church in John’s own time, and also the events that are to unfold at the end of time. For John, the “end times” begin with the Incarnation of Christ into the world, and there remains only a last battle through which the Church must pass” (p. 12). Consequently “this book is a novel of ideas.” It’s not a TV thriller, “nor does it offer simplistic resolutions and false piety. It offers the Cross. It bears witness, I hope, to the ultimate victory of light” (p. 13). Toward the novel’s end, one of the godly cardinals–admitting that the world seemed about to collapse into a barbarian darkness, manipulated by architects of world power allegedly working for man’s “good”–noted that even in the face of insuperable odds the church must continue doing what she had always done. “‘Our task is to proclaim Jesus. We must strengthen the things that remain. It’s not for us to count the numbers who listen'” (pp. 439-440).
Given that background, the novel introduces us to Father Elijah, a converted Polish Jew, an archaeologist and Bible scholar living peacefully in a Carmelite monastery. He’s summoned to Rome for an interview with the Pope, who has an important assignment for him. On the plane, reading a newspaper, he’s reminded that the Church is in crisis. The Pope’s latest encyclical, On Freedom and the Human Person, had aroused the expected theological dissenters to proclaim their independence from Rome. Safely in Rome, he meets up with an old friend, Billy Stangsby, who briefs him on recent developments. Reflectively, Father Elijah wondered about his times: “Was there a missing component in all human beings? The rural masses seeking the metropolis; the urban young fleeing to the woods. Women pretending to be men; men becoming more like women; everyone aping divinity in his desperation to escape creaturehood? Western youths seeking the Orient; orientals seeking capitalism: Monks abandoning their monasteries; married men pining for solitude. Liberals seeking to demythologize the Scriptures in an attempt to flee the exigencies of biblical faith; fundamentalists seeking to fill the empty places in their religion by a return to the Old Testament, fleeing the tasks of the baptized intellect. Was the promise always to found elsewhere, always just beyond the next horizon?” (pp. 40-41).
Was the world finally at the end of its tether? So it seemed to the veteran cleric. Especially because the Church herself seemed so desperately troubled! Riddled by the cancerous profusion of heretical theologians, plagued by priests dreaming of utopias and plotting revolutions, the ancient foundations were shaking. Suitably troubled, Father Elijah kept his appointment with the Pope in his simple Vatican apartment. The Pope (clearly modeled after John Paul II), “one of the foremost philosophers of the century,” warmly greeted the priest and commended him for writing a fine “article on biblical spirituality” which had effectively challenged the voguish modernism of most biblical scholars. But he’d summoned Father Elijah not to praise his scholarship but to enlist him in what could be “‘the final confrontation between the Gospel and the anti-Gospel’ he said gravely, ‘between the Church and the anti-Church'” (p. 59). The enemies of the Church, the Pope said, were like “wolves” devouring the flock of God. “‘They are crying peace, peace, but there is no peace. Their hearts are full of murder. They hate the flock of God, and yet everywhere they are proclaimed as saviors'” (p. 63). External threats also existed, and one man in particular, the President of the European Parliament, a member of the Club of Rome, who was widely honored for his endeavors to “save mankind,” seemed to represent the gravest threat, and the Pope wanted Elijah to undertake a personal journey to warn him–to speak the truth to him–before he trespassed too far. Exciting adventures ensue. The reader encounters saints and scoundrels within the Church, seers who discern portents to come, figures from Father Elijah’s past.
All weave together as Elijah follows the Pope’s instructions, which leads to an inconsequential meeting (partially flawed by Elijah’s inability to remember and say what he’d intended) with the President in the villa he was reconstructing on the Isle of Capri, not far off the coast of Naples. Maintaining his facade of cordiality, the President sent the Pope a precious manuscript, allegedly a Syrian copy of one of Aristotle’s lost books. The pontiff spent a night reading it, presciently seeing it for what it truly was, a spiritual threat to the West. “‘It reintroduces the concept of the divine into the civic order, precisely at the moment of history when the mass of men have lost their bearings, have abandoned all hope that there is anything beyond this material world. More and more, they long for systemic solutions to “the problem of man”. They want totalitarianism without brutality. This book is a gentle, O, so very subtle, but powerful, nudge toward that world system, mixed with intoxications of the pagan East. Although there is no evidence in the text, its gnostic origins are obvious'” (pp. 167-168).
To engage the powers of evil, then, the Church must wage spiritual warfare. Father Elijah still needed to confront the President with the truth, but such proved quite difficult, given the insulation surrounding him. Thus the priest travels about Europe, revisits his Warsaw roots, attends scholarly meetings, gradually understands how deeply the Church herself has been infiltrated by the forces of evil. In the process he better understand both this century’s history and the nature of man. He especially delves into the truth that pride underlies man’s sins. The adulation which washed around the President was little more than an illustration of “the myth of the Great Man” which has pervaded human history. Yet the President, with his blending of pantheistic ecology and humanitarian sensitivity for the world’s cultures and (especially) its disadvantaged peoples, posed a radically new personification of that ancient evil.
As the struggle intensifies and moves toward its climax, the action shifts from Capri to Ephesus and the culmination of the saga–the details of which will go unmentioned lest I deprive a reader of enjoying the suspense. An engrossing story, skillfully written so as to elicit a page-turning anticipation whenever reading it, O’Brien’s apocalypse richly merits attention. One might consider the judgment of one of C.S. Lewis’s students, the author of A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken: “I’ve read thousands of books, and this is one of the great ones. I hope tens of thousands read it, and are shaken as I have been. It’s a novel that grip one like a thriller–indeed it is a thriller, but also something far deeper. There are love and friendship, interwoven with drama, but what is is essentially is faith, faith in the Christ.”
In addition to Father Elijah, O’Brien has published a trilogy, set in his native Canada, with apocalyptic themes. In Strangers and Sojourners (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1997), he sets the stage, chronicling the four generations stories of settlers and residents in British Columbia a century ago.
Anna Kingsley Ashton, a refined, well-educated, “emancipated” woman who served as a nurse in WWI, seeking adventure and “new world” experiences, leaves the comfort of England to teach some “bush children” in the rugged world of Swiftcreek. She was warned that it was: “Wild. Not a place for a lady. One muddy street of boxcar houses along the rail and a few cabins out in the bush” (p. 44). Overcoming her initial revulsion, attracted by the children and their need for education, she decided to try it for a year. Then she met Stephen Delaney–an Irish homesteader, a trapper, a traditional Catholic, her opposite in almost every way. Responding to one of his neighbor’s pleas, she found herself nursing him back to health and, almost irresistibly, was drawn to him. He was, in her words, “a man of renowned physical courage and of some mysterious private fear!” (p. 115).
She also met the village pastor, Reverend Edwin Gunnalls, a typically “modern” cleric, skeptical of the “myths” central to Christianity, confident that “any intelligent modern person recognizes the need for something radical, something new that will break us out of our old habits” (p. 73). She enjoyed his company, affording as it did a level of educated discourse otherwise unavailable. Like the parsons and lawyers in her own family, he was “a decent man, willing to build a better society, to go to any lengths to alter basic human nature, whether or not it desired to be altered.” Her father had dabbled with spiritualism and supported the Fabian socialists so fashionable in Victorian England. But she’d reacted against his “religion,” and she smelled something similar about the young pastor Gunnalls. Even when he played the piano “His music, like his exercise of religion, was by rote, theoretical and possibly loveless” (p. 133).
So she pondered the intermingled meaning of life and romance. She wondered: “What is human life? Is it designed? Is it accidental?” (p. 99). Similarly: “What is it exactly that draws me to the opposite sex?” (p. 99). Reality beckoned! And she struggled with inner fears: “My soul is becoming thin and gray.” Still more: “I am not afraid of being unloved. But I am terrified of never learning to love” (p. 136). In time, inexplicably to some, she married Stephen Delaney, joined him in his cabin, and began bearing his children, finding that he “has begun to make me whole but does so with gentleness, with silence” (p. 155). Yet despite her happiness she was not quite happy. Something remained undone. “We are starved for the unknown God” she concluded (p. 190). Her husband found Him in the Eucharist and his elemental Catholic faith. She felt “him hidden in the deepest currents of life, flowing beneath verse, lovemaking, the smile of a child, the cycle of the seasons” (p. 190), but somehow she really didn’t know Him.
In time, as WWII approached, Anne began to write articles for the local newspaper, The Swiftcreek Echo. They proved controversial and made her something of a celebrity in the area. With an inheritance from her father’s estate, she then bought the paper, sensing that the world needs truth more than anything else. “I am allowed one weapon only–truth,” she said (p. 343). Her son Ashley went to war and returned to teach school, shattered by the ordeal, rejecting the faith of his father. Anne found herself defending her husband’s ancient faith. Ashley had a son, Nathaniel, with his Indian wife. Anne tried to teach her grandson some of the abiding truths his father rejected.
Then she got involved in trying to protect the people and the land from an increasingly dictatorial government, seizing property to build dams to make electricity. Speaking to one of the government agents, Maurice L’Oraison, one of her neighbor’s boys, she said, in 1961: “the seeds of tyranny are in every democracy. You mustn’t fool yourself. Anyone, any one of us can be seduced into trading away freedom to defend whatever we think the common good is at the time” (p. 460). But the architects of “progress” prevailed, and Anne sadly watched the transformation of her beloved valley. And she took sick. As death approached, she recognized that faith alone equipped one to meet her Maker. A priest, Father Andrei, came and talked with her. She confessed and was forgiven. And she radiantly told her husband: “I want you to know that the shadows went away. They’ve gone forever. I’m not afraid anymore” (p. 545).
Plague Journal (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1999) continues O’Brien’s trilogy. The journal is Nathaniel Delaney’s. He analyzes political events in Canada and reflects on daily developments in Swiftcreek. He composes the editorials he’ll publish in The Swiftcreek Echo. He records debates he has with his thoroughly secularized father, Ashley, the schoolteacher who supports ever brave-new-world proposal, every “new quality of life law” set forth by political left-wingers such as himself. Ashley even conjures up a justification for the new “civilian internment camps” the government established for dissenters of various sorts. Despite his resolutely anti-religious rhetoric, Ashley’s liberalism was in fact his religion, a dogmatism of the strictest sort.
But Nathaniel could not rest easy, knowing what he knows about his society. His honesty, during the past two decades, had pushed him to the right politically. He also examines his conscience and probes theology and philosophy for understanding of his times. He wonders at the impact of TV, noting that his grandfather Stephen’s cabin, though without electricity or central heating, had exuded a light and warmth which modern homes lacked. He worries about the public school his children attend, where they “were being indoctrinated against ‘value judgments’, against homophobia and witchophobia” etc. (p. 79). He struggles against the constant encroachments of the “statism” which spread its tentacles everywhere.
Subtly but effectively the world had changed. As he noted in one of his editorials: “The most effective revolution is the one that appears as liberation. The culture of negation, which took forty years to germinate and produce its fruit under the severe pressure of dictators, has evolved smoothly and efficiently in the democracies, where there has been little public violence to alert us to the fact that the worst is indeed happening. The enemy, we find to our surprise and disbelief, is not so much this or that tyranny as it is a concept of man that has become well-nigh universal” (p. 95).
That new notion empowered a new class–the “social engineering class.” “Counselors, therapists, social workers, psychologists, and facilitators of one sort or another sprouted everywhere” (p. 162). They enabled folks to forever embark on “continuously shifting programs of self-improvement. Relationships are conducted with a psychological puritanism far more oppressive than the old moralism. ‘Dysfunction’ has replaced sin” (p. 162). Nathaniel wondered: “Why did we not understand what was happening when the family began to disintegrate? Why did we not resist it? Why did we not fight against the corruption of our culture? Why did we no pray as we ought? Did we defend the little ones from the ravages of wolves? And now, lo these many years later, do we any longer cherish the very old and the very sick? Do we tolerate the young in noisy, demanding numbers? Do we bear with dignity the pain of existence (and the beauty of it), or avoid it at any cost? (p. 181).
Discerning developments which would take his children from him, he bundles them up and successfully journeys (much like the heroes in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings which his children so loved) through the mountains to the home of his mother’s father, an old Indian named Thaddeus Tobac, who lived in a remote region of the North Thompson Valley. Thaddeus represents all the modern world has rejected. But he and his world were both real and good. While there, Nathaniel senses an awakening religious impulse, and one senses he will soon find his grandfather Stephen’s faith. But the story ends as he is betrayed by a friend and hauled away by the security police, setting the stage for the final volume in the trilogy.
O’Brien’s saga involving the Delaney family concludes with Eclipse of the Sun (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1998). The velvet-gloved tyranny described in Plague Journal has crept over Canada. “Hate speech” has been outlawed–making dissent concerning government policies a crime. Guns have been confiscated–rendering ordinary citizens helpless in the hands of a police state. Religious freedom has been curtailed–driving the true Faith underground. Opposition to abortion and euthanasia now elicit coercive governmental response.
Amidst degenerating conditions, Nathaniel Delaney, editing the newspaper his grandmother had bought, The Swiftcreek Echo, courageously spoke the truth, including the truth that abortion and euthanasia are murder. Just before he’s arrested (and ultimately killed) killed in a government plot, he sent two of his children to a mountain refuge and asked Father Andrei to rescue another child, “Arrow,” from a hippie commune where he lived with his mother. A series of adventures (punctuated by dark, death-dispensing government helicopters on search-and-destroy missions) ensue as Father Andrei guides Arrow to safety. The commune is attacked and the people liquidated. A nearby monastery suffered the same fate. Father Andrei is apprehended and subjected to interrogation (orchestrated by Maurice L’Oraison, now a highly-placed bureaucrat) which reminded him of similar sufferings he’d endured at the hands of the Gestapo half-a-century earlier.
Embedded in the narrative is O’Brien’s apocalyptic vision of a country–and of the world itself–slipping into Satan’s clasp. Goodness, especially Christian goodness, is oppressed, while the forces of evil run rampant. And it’s all in the name of tolerance, pluralism, building a “good society” where everyone’s equal and well-cared for. And in the Church there’s a battle for truth–the truth necessary for the souls of men and women. As one of the admirable parish priests, discovers, “The Lord wanted trust, above all trust. And this trusting was the foundation of the personal holiness from which right action flowed” (p. 732). Furthermore, “at some point every soul was put to some ultimate test, each must turn and face its eternal foe in a definitive struggle between radical terror and radical faith” (p. 733). The times demand, from all of us, radical faith! At the end of time, will we be found faithful? Such is the true meaning of apocalyptic literature such as O’Brien’s.