It’s rare to be able to count a page-turner of a thriller as spiritual reading, a profound social commentary, and a treatment of the human condition. That’s probably why Father Elijah, An Apocalypse was a best-seller when it was published in 1996. That book, now translated into 12 languages, sees Carmelite priest Fr Elijah, a convert from Judaism and a Holocaust survivor, chosen for the pope’s secret mission to confront the Antichrist and give him a final opportunity to repent. Now the author, Canadian writer and artist Michael D. O’Brien, has just released a sequel, Elijah in Jerusalem. He shared some thoughts with The Catholic Weekly on his latest book, some current signs of the times, and the prophetic role of Catholic art.
You’ve said you never intended that Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, which was set quite credibly in contemporary times, would have a sequel. What have you observed over the 20 years since that changed your mind?
The war between good and evil has grown ever more intense, and complex, since I first wrote Father Elijah. We are now living in an era of apostasy, the degeneration of a once-Christian civilisation in the West, with the inevitable assault against religious freedom. This is substantially different from the condition of the early Church, which was largely composed of people who had known darkness and were thirsting for light; theirs was a world crawling out of paganism.
In our times, apostate Christians have known something of the light and yet are choosing to slide back into the darkness of a neo-paganism, justifying it as more ‘loving’ or ‘tolerant’ than the exigencies of God’s law – the Spirit and Truth which lead to life.
Though the possibility of a sequel was often suggested to me by readers, I rejected the idea for many years. However, during the past few years powerful images and scenes for the continuing story kept arising in my imagination, begging to be set down on paper. So I prayed and waited. Then came a moment when it was clear that I should write the book, and that the time was now.
You’ve written an apocalypse featuring an ultimate Antichrist world leader and yet warn in your introduction against becoming fascinated by a proliferation of apocalyptic scenarios and doomsday prophets. Why are we so fascinated by the idea of an all-powerful embodiment of sin and a great fight between good and evil? What are the temptations here, and have you ever succumbed yourself?
Early after my conversion to the Catholic faith nearly 50 years ago, I became convinced through scripture and prayer that our times are indeed the ones prophesied by the Old and New Testament prophets and by Christ himself. How long the prophecies of Revelation will take to unfold is uncertain – no man knows the day or the hour – but they will indeed come. In such a climate, our temptations are two-fold: on the one hand a psychology of denial, and on the other a tendency to over-focus. Satan attempts to mesmerise, like a serpent paralysing its victim with fear before devouring it. The many fronts of evil are components in the vast and complex war between good and evil – the war that will last until the end of time. As the forces of evil, visible and invisible, appear to spread and grow ever stronger, we who follow Jesus must keep before the eyes of our hearts the ultimate truth of his coming victory. A healthy balance is needed in our pondering of ‘end times’ questions. We should remain prayerfully alert, but we should never allow ourselves to become obsessed with the darkness. Again, the eyes of the serpent can delude us into discouragement and even feelings of despair.
I have felt this at times, but less and less as the ongoing process of maturing in Christ has shown me that our Lord Jesus has already won the war, and there remains only the final battle to come.
In Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, the Church is effectively silenced through being deemed irrelevant or compromised in its credibility by an increasingly secular culture, and due to internal division. In the sequel, you allow the consequences of that to play out. In Australia, there are signs of an increasingly aggressive secularism, for example, our Tasmanian Archbishop is under fire for distributing a pamphlet on Catholic marriage in Catholic schools. What advice do you have for us here in this country, based on your experiences in Canada where the Christian way of life has also been challenged?
Words alone will not reverse the tide. Prayer and fasting are needed. Our defence of reality itself, our resistance to various forms of neo-totalitarianism, will demand both strong reactive measures and pro-active ones. At the foundation of any effective dissent, we must begin with our own examination of conscience, a restoration of reverence for the “whole truth about man,” a return to Gospel principles in all aspects of our lives, and, above all, a profound conversion to worship of God. In this way, by moving from a tragically stunted concept of the rights of man to the primacy of the rights of God and the responsibilities of man, we will live within the mainstream of grace under the mantle of divine authority, submitting completely to the mission of the Church. In this way, by uniting ourselves to the obedience of Christ on the Cross, we will participate in the reversal of Adam’s sin and find the gateway to freedom, the dying which leads to life. And in doing so we will assist in the redemption of the world.
In a way, the Father Elijah books are study of the impact of 20th century ideologies upon the human person and the cultural and religious landscape. It’s also a study in spiritual warfare on a world-wide scale and in every human heart. In your characterisation of Fr Elijah, you’ve shown how from this battle can emerge growth in integration and virtue, especially growth in humility and profound trust in God. Was it part of your intention to create a current-day Story of a Soul?
Yes, that is certainly an important aspect of the trilogy, a sub-narrative, if you will. Father Elijah embodies in his character and spiritual life the basic journey of all believers – the path from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. A desert must be crossed; there is hunger that must be filled by manna; there will be consolations and at times severe tests. Suffering will forge our character and deepen us, if we accept to continue on the journey and do not turn back toward slavery.
Fr Elijah, by the end of his life, has developed finely tuned skills in discernment, which allows him to continue the mission the pope gave him despite their plans being wrecked at the end of the last book. It also allows him to see through deceptions. Why is this so important for ordinary Christians? In your own life, in what areas do you use discernment? What signs of the times today lead you to believe there is a more urgent need today for Christian discernment than at other times in history?
The faculty of spiritual discernment is one that in recent centuries has fallen into a kind of dormancy, or relegated to the purely theological realm. And yet by virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation this gift from the Holy Spirit is intended by God to be used by us for our strengthening and guidance, to give us clearer eyes and a kind of inner radar regarding the temptations that strike us personally or may seek to invade our families. In these times of grave moral confusion and spiritual assault, we have urgent need for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to be awakened within us – and to be developed through exercising them, accompanied by constant prayer and full fidelity to the sacramental life. It’s important to remember that God will never force his gifts upon us, and that we must ask for them specifically.
In your preface, you state your aim to stimulate reflection and recall readers to the principles of the Christian life through the imagination. Fr Elijah is a great model of sanctity in an imagined tumultuous contemporary society similar to our own present day. Can you tell us more your thoughts on the prophetic vocation of Christian fiction, and the particular need today?
Written into our human nature is the desire to tell stories that show us the true shape of the world, so to speak, and to be filled with delight by hearing them, to be enriched by the enhanced “seeing” that the arts at their best can help give us. For example, if a novel is simultaneously a well-told tale that grips the imagination and is true to ultimate reality, it can reveal to us the great drama of existence in its inexpressible beauty and its perils. That is why creators of Christian culture must be profoundly rooted in a life of prayer, so that their works may be not only outstanding as art, but effective in conveying the truth in such a way that it becomes fruitful.
What is your writing process like and can you tell us your prayer routine? Is your writing a form of iconography?
I strive to live the ordinary life of a Catholic, with daily Mass, family Rosary, Divine Mercy prayers, and other prayers throughout the day. In addition, when I’m writing a novel I’m constantly praying for the Lord’s inspiration, asking that the work will take shape and come to its final form according to the mind of Christ. I rely very much on what theology calls “co-creation,” grace working together with my human nature to produce a kind of “word” that will give life to others.
Whenever I grow lax in prayer, the writing process becomes more difficult, and though the inspirations are still there it’s as if they’re filtered through fog. By contrast, when I’m praying consistently for the good of the work and for the good of those who may one day read it, the process and inspirations flow swiftly and clear. None of this is emotional, you understand. Though you cannot feel it, taste it, see it, grace is incredibly powerful.
Why did you choose the Carmelite order for Fr Elijah? What about this order and its charism do you believe is especially needed today?
There is much that St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila have to teach us about the spiritual life, about perseverance when God seems to be absent and when all seems to be lost.
The “dark night of the soul” can be in some ways a helpful model for us as we pass through exterior and interior trials. If our times prove to be definitively apocalyptic, then we will need to overcome fear, as Elijah learned to overcome fear and the vertigo of despair.
The final prophetic words of the Old Testament are from the prophet Malachi: “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible Day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with doom.”
The book doesn’t have a happy, tidy, ending. But it includes a happy beginning. Without spoiling it, why did you choose to end the book this way?
The book does not end happily in a superficial sense, but it underlines the truth that lasting happiness is to be found in being who we really are in the Body of Christ.
At the conclusion of the novel, Elijah fulfils his personal mission and the greater mission of the Church continues. Whether our tasks are ‘small’ or ‘large’, all of us are needed.
I intentionally wanted my readers to return to the world with refreshed eyes, not with any thought that they had received yet another end-times prediction. Yet the book presents a warning. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in section 675-677, teaches that mankind will, for a time, be deluded by secular messianism, which is ‘intrinsically perverse’ and will be a primary negative factor in the ultimate persecution of the Church. This, combined with the ‘pseudo-messianism’ of the Antichrist, will bring about the supreme deception which offers apparent solutions to mankind’s problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The bulk of contemporary culture is dominated by this spirit – designed to intoxicate and addict us into the ways of apostasy. For this reason, the creation of authentic Christian culture is now more urgent than ever. We are called by God to be signs of contradiction against the anti-human “humanism” of the false messiah. And to be signs of man’s true hope.
What can fans expect from your next book?
The Fool of New York City, which is scheduled for publication next year, is a kind of fairy tale for grown-ups. In this whimsical story there are no fairies, though there is a giant. I’ve had a lot of delight writing it and I hope readers will experience that too.
Father Elijah in Jerusalem by Michael O’Brien is available in print and electronic form.