Canadian writer and artist Michael D. O’Brien has penned 28 books in his career, but he may be best known for his apocalyptic-themed novel, Father Elijah, one of six volumes in his Children of the Last Days series. Now, in a new nonfiction work, The Apocalypse: Warning, Hope and Consolation (Wiseblood Books), O’Brien offers readers a reassuring yet realistic look at the end times from the perspective of Scripture, prophecy and Church teaching. In an email interview with Register correspondent Judy Roberts, he talks about his work and the present state of the Church and the world.
How did you become interested in writing apocalyptic fiction such as Father Elijah? Was this something that merely intrigued you, or was developing this topic in a fictional context a spiritual calling?
Half a century ago, at the time of my conversion to the faith, I experienced powerful graces that gave me eyes to see the condition of the world in our times, lights or understandings that I had been blind to during my years of unbelief. The question, “Are we living in apocalyptic times?” began then for me, and it has continued ever since. In late 1994 or early 1995, while I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament, the story of Father Elijah appeared in my imagination, fully formed and very vivid, accompanied by a supernatural peace and the inner sense that I was being asked to write the story. It was never a case of saying to myself, “I think I’ll write an apocalyptic novel!” and then setting out to do so. It really was a kind of spiritual obedience.
Why a nonfiction book about the apocalypse, and why now?
Many aspects of eschatological theology cannot be adequately addressed by fiction alone. This new book is really the fruit of many decades of pondering and praying about the issues. I never predict dates and times or the specifics of possible unfolding events. I strive always to ask the essential questions that should be asked by every generation of those who seek to follow Christ wholeheartedly. For example: Am I reading the signs of the times rightly? Are there characteristics in our present world that are distinctly unprecedented and apocalyptic? Am I spiritually prepared if this generation proves to be the one foretold by the prophets, the apostles and the Lord himself? Am I “awake,” as Jesus exhorted us to be at all times?
As an author of apocalyptic fiction, you are seen by some as an authority on the Antichrist and the last days. How do you feel about this perception? And how did you develop your knowledge of the subject?
I am not an authority on these matters and tremble at the thought that anyone would consider me so. No, I am an ordinary layman who ponders these things in his heart, in a spirit of prayer and what one might call a “deep listening” to the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit. Of course, what I write is also the fruit of long and careful research — especially into what the Church Fathers have written on the subject, and the popes of the last century and a half, as well as serious Catholic thinkers such as Blessed John Henry Newman, Josef Pieper, Etienne Gilson, Christopher Dawson and a host of others.
Your writing suggests that you are keenly aware of the nature and significance of our times and able to imaginatively synthesize and interpret events and trends in the light of the faith. How does the way you live facilitate your ability to listen, observe and comment on what you are hearing and seeing?
My wife and I have always lived with material simplicity and with faith as the primary focus of our family life. Daily prayer and sacraments are crucial for us, and that includes asking God for the particular graces of our vocation in life as well as the graces all believers need in these times —that is, to be inwardly alert to the deceptions of the spiritus mundi, the spirit of the world, and the diabolic spirit behind it. Spiritual combat with the unseen “powers and principalities of darkness” is normal Catholic life. I also reconsecrate my work each day to the service of the Lord and his Church, asking for the light I need to fulfill my mission.
You say in The Apocalypse that we are indeed living in what is called the “final hour,” but you also point out that the Church has been in this hour since Christ ascended into heaven. Still, you acknowledge the darkness of the current age and the spirit of the Antichrist within it, even allowing that the “Son of Perdition” may be among us now. How, then, can we conduct our daily lives by being aware of this, but not obsessed with it?
A delicate balance is needed here. One chapter in the book reflects on this problem specifically: As awareness grows of the intensifying battle, which may indeed be the final battle, it is perfectly natural to feel fear, and then, on one hand, to push such thoughts out of one’s mind in order not to deal with the anxiety involved, or, on the other hand, to succumb to terrified obsession. Neither of these is a solution.
Christ asks each and all of us to grow in union with him and to trust in him with confidence in his coming victory. This growth takes practice. We need to be “deep realists,” neither shallow optimists nor near-despairing pessimists — neither of which are Christian responses. Practicing trust means that every time a bolt of fear or confusion hits us, we immediately turn these thoughts and feelings to the Lord and pray, “Jesus, I trust in you!”
Part of the present darkness involves the scandals in the Catholic Church, yet you write that only the Church has the capacity to block the path of greater degrees of evil. What advice can you offer Catholics who, though aware that the Church is to pass through a final trial in the last days, are nonetheless troubled and discouraged by her state?
We must pray for the purification and strengthening of the Church in a way that we have not since the beginning. While it is a healthy reaction to be profoundly troubled by what is happening in the Church, discouragement should have no place in our hearts. We must recognize that, after sin and error, the temptation to discouragement is one of the major tactics used by Satan against believers.
At this time, there is added anguish as the laity throughout the world, along with countless faithful priests, feel betrayed on a colossal, systemic scale. After decades of sorely tried patience, they have had enough. Christian charity demands, and Divine Mercy demands, that not a single soul, not one more child or adolescent or adult, be sacrificed on the altar of an “image of the Church” or “public relations” or “damage control” — or yet another neo-Modernist pastoral experiment such as that which is currently in vogue in Rome.
Those who are capable of a longer view will turn more deeply to our Lord Jesus, seeking him as never before and loving the Church with a profound understanding of her nature as the Bride of Christ being prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom. But many others will lose faith and apostatize, and innumerable souls will be lost. This is the vastly more ominous scandal.
The truly faithful will continue to pray and offer sacrifice for their pastors — more than ever. At the same time, the shattering of foundational trust begs the questions: Does support mean that we let it all blow over, so that we may get back to our normal lives? Do we passively approve the extinguishing of “spot fires” of protest, so that we may breathe a sigh of relief and won’t have to face painful realities? Have we fallen into the trap of thinking the protesters are the problem? Do we aid the return to business as usual, minimalizing horrendous violations and, in effect, excusing them, because it’s all so horribly embarrassing? Do we say nothing, because that is what docile sheep are supposed to do, even as their lambs are being devoured?
To do so would be to dismiss the violated person as an unfortunate statistic and nothing more. But he is my child. And your child. And above all, he is Christ’s child.
In the Book of Ezekiel, the Lord, speaking through the prophet, has a great deal to say about shepherds, the good and the bad. He does not assess the shepherds by what they say with their mouths, but by how they act. I suggest that those who are concerned about the condition of the Church in our times read Ezekiel prayerfully and with attention. The ninth chapter is especially pertinent (as is Ezekiel 8, which is the reason for 9). In it, the purification and chastisement of Israel began in the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. Is it beyond the realm of possibility that the purification and chastisement of the world in our times also begins in the “temple,” which is the Church? If the Church does not cleanse its own household, God surely will.
You talk in the book of “bizarre manifestations of apocalypticism” seen in both Protestant and Catholic circles and their tendency to fascinate us and draw us away from the Book of Revelation’s exhortation to “stay awake.” What is the best antidote to becoming preoccupied with such scenarios?
First, we must recognize the problem. We should understand that inflammatory apocalyptic writers are in essence saying that we can save ourselves if we just get enough insider knowledge or clever strategies or the right survival gear. A litmus test we each might apply to ourselves is whether we are spending more time reading or watching such material (even material that is dipped in holy water, so to speak) than we spend reading sacred Scripture and praying.
We should ask ourselves whether we are becoming more fearful or more loving. Are we growing in trust? Do we stand firm? Do we hold our ground? Are we a sign of hope for others? Are we willing to lose everything for the sake of truth? At every moment, do we commit ourselves to the call to personal conversion, taking up our crosses daily, and fulfilling our particular roles in the evangelical mission of the Church? Do we keep the eyes of our hearts on the true horizon? Do we believe in the heart of the soul that the Bride is being prepared to meet the Bridegroom? Do we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!”?
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.