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BY Todd Aglialoro
Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, by Michael D. O' Brien (Ignatius Press, 1996, 600 pp., $24.95)
AUTHOR MICHAEL O' BRIEN warns in the preface to his recently released Father Elijah: An Apocalypse that his book “does not proceed at the addictive pace of a television micro-drama, nor does it offer simplistic resolutions and false piety.”
While there is a point to each of these caveats, the latter requires more heeding. The pacing of the novel is slow, thick with unbroken dialogue and lengthy descriptions of interior experiences. Plot changes occur unexpectedly and without fanfare—mere vessels for the theme in what the author calls “a novel of ideas.” But the book doesn't bore: the dialogue is heady but crisp, and though the plot doesn't rival Indiana Jones for thrills, it usually rewards the reader's patience with a good twist.
The title character is Father Elijah Schaefer: archeology expert, Holocaust survivor, widower-turned-Carmelite monk. Called to Rome by the Vatican from his peaceful monastic existence in the Holy Land, Elijah lands in an Eternal City rife with pornography and violence, its inhabitants hostile—sometimes physically—to men in clerical clothing. The Pope describes for Elijah what he believes to be an imminent crisis for the Church.
“Certain figures on the world stage are now moving toward the flock for a definitive attack,” he says. “They are approaching the moment where they will exert every effort at division and destruction. 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 described as saviors.”
“They,” in O' Brien's vision, refers to a powerful global consortium of businessmen, politicians, religious leaders and academicians bent on a global revolution, ostensibly aimed toward peace and prosperity, but requiring the annihilation of those who don't fit the scheme. The Pope (never named, but by description undoubtedly John Paul II) chooses Father Elijah to contact and attempt to convert the movement's leader—a powerful businessman and head of the European Parliament, referred to simply as the “President.” The Pope believes he is the Antichrist.
Though Elijah's first reaction is one of surprise, it becomes increasingly more clear why he is well-suited for the task. His archeological knowledge gives him a part to play in the President's collection of “useful” persons. He is also, it seems, cut from similar cloth: once a powerful lawyer in Israel, Elijah admits he “was heading toward a future that contained power, the power to do good for mankind,” until he was granted a spiritual message that “dislodged” him from that path and lead him, instead, to the anonymity of contemplative life. In the end, Elijah's ability to persevere through hardship—whether as a “sewer rat” in World War II Warsaw, Poland, or after the death of his wife in a Tel Aviv bombing attack, proves to be his most valuable asset.
All the while, memories haunt him; the desires for power, revenge, physical affection, emotional intimacy—things he had renounced before entering the monastic life—return to tempt him and distract him from his task.
After several seemingly fruitless meetings with the President—the spell of the man's greatness nearly lulls Elijah into forgetting his mission—the priest is drawn into deeper and more sinister levels of the conspiracy. Enlisting the aid of a Tolkien-quoting priest-friend in Rome, and later an Italian widow and disillusioned former member of the President's inner circle, Elijah comes to learn the full extent of the attack on the Church.
All the while, memories haunt him; the desires for power, revenge, physical affection, emotional intimacy—things he had renounced before entering the monastic life—return to tempt him and distract him from his task. He becomes aware of “the barely perceptible movement of his heart” towards the widow, Anna Benedetti, recognizing a longing for “union with another heart.” Desperately, he offers this longing to God in prayer.
“Long ago you gave away your heart,” comes the response. “Countless souls depend upon your fidelity. In Paradise the love that awaits you far surpasses your present loneliness.”
As Elijah's interior struggles and sufferings mount, so too does the persecution of the Church. But divine intervention finally paves the way for the monk to deliver God's warning to the would-be Antichrist.
The absence of a neatly ribbon-wrapped ending notwithstanding, “Father Elijah” succeeds, foremost by making the interior struggles of Elijah applicable to all believers. Even married Christians, who celebrate the physical and temporal intimacy priests forsake, must recognize the place of primacy held by the spiritual and eternal love of God, a love that necessitates suffering. We don't just visit Calvary, O' Brien reminds; we don't just carry a cross—we must hang on it. The players in this novel share in Christ's death individually, as believers have for two millennia. They also suffer as a body, cursed and blessed together to undergo the prophesied persecution at the End of the Age.
The few consolations offered by the author mirror those given by God. We—and Elijah—do witness a glimpse of the heavenly reward, of cosmic justice being carried out, even as evil forces in the temporal world reach their apex. It is a satisfying glimpse.
Todd Aglialoro is based in New York.