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Vision of Ezekiel inspired author’s latest novel

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A fresco of Ezekiel by artist Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
A fresco of Ezekiel by artist Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The latest novel by Catholic Canadian author and artist Michael O’Brien, By the Rivers of Babylon, imagines the life of the biblical prophet Ezekiel from the age of 12 up to when he received his first major vision at around 30.

It’s his second work of historical fiction, covering the destruction of Jerusalem and its first Temple as well as life in the Babylonian exile, reaching back six centuries before the birth of Christ.

Engagingly told, several scenes are profoundly moving and reveal its author as a person of prayer and faith. Mr O’Brien, 75, has previously spoken of receiving extraordinary creative inspiration from God.

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He says the novel is about “keeping hope and the promises of restoration alive in our hearts during times of extreme darkness and confusion.”

Why did you choose to write about Ezekiel?

I have always felt a strong natural love for the dramatic lives of the prophets Elijah and Daniel, but I knew next to nothing about Ezekiel.

Then came a night some years ago when I had one of the most powerful dreams of my life, in which the prophet Ezekiel appeared and I was singing to him with my whole heart and soul, calling him “my father.” I awoke, still singing, totally astonished, completely perplexed by the dream.

Shortly after, I heard an inner voice while praying before the exposed Blessed Sacrament in adoration. The words were, “Ezekiel 9.” I had no idea what this meant, or what was in that chapter. At first I shrugged it off as probably a distraction.

Then during the weeks and months that followed, they came again and again with a gentle insistence, always when I was praying.

By the Rivers of Babylon by Michael O’Brien. Ignatius Press (2022). 391 pages.
By the Rivers of Babylon by Michael O’Brien. Ignatius Press (2022). 391 pages.

I finally opened to the chapter and discovered that it refers to the Lord sending an angel to mark a sign on the foreheads of all those who grieve over the corruption of Israel [this becomes an important dream event at the beginning of the book].

The story is deeply grounded in the scriptures and richly detailed. How did you research for it?

There was an entire world to discover. My research was a plunge into a very rich body of materials that I had not known about until I began.

Over two years, I carefully read several biblical sources and later commentators, including the Church Fathers, St Gregory the Great, Eusebius, Josephus the Jewish historian, and numerous others.

And, of course, a careful reading of the scriptural books of Kings and Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Baruch.

Do you hope it will draw people to the scriptures?

It’s my hope that readers will be moved to read the Book of Ezekiel in a prayerful, thoughtful manner, not merely as a long-past drama but most importantly as a grace given to us that never loses its power and pertinence to our own lives.

Did you struggle to describe the indescribable, such as experiences of contemplation or the gift of tears?

It wasn’t a struggle for me, as over my lifetime I’ve experienced many consolations and inspirations. They are real and they are totally a gift from above, not generated by emotions or imagination.

Such consolations from God have nothing to do with one’s personal sanctity, or lack thereof, but are given for strengthening a soul for a specific task or mission. There is always a sensitive reverence needed when discussing or writing about the things of God.

But in writing about the extraordinary, sometimes shocking and beautiful visions of Ezekiel, I relied on his own accounts, and tried to intuit the period of his life before his great visions began.

For me, writing is always a “co-creative” process, grace working with my natural talents—as long as I am faithful to praying for light in the creation of the work.

By the Rivers of Babylon by Michael O’Brien. Ignatius Press (2022). 391 pages.

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