Novelist Michael O’Brien: ‘God Is Writing a Vast, Complex Story’

Canadian writer speaks about ‘By the Rivers of Babylon,’ scriptural inspiration and the times in which we live.

Novelist Michael O’Brien
Novelist Michael O’Brien (photo: Courtesy of subject)

Michael O’Brien is an accomplished writer, painter and iconographer. He lives with his wife, Sheila, in Ontario’s beautiful Madawaska Valley. He is at present the artist and writer in residence at nearby Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, a Catholic liberal arts college dedicated to academic excellence and the fullness of the Catholic faith. 

His latest novel is By the Rivers of Babylon (Ignatius Press), which presents the early life of the prophet Ezekiel.

He spoke with Register correspondent Charles Lewis in February via email.


Why Ezekiel or Yezekiel, as you call him in the novel? There are so many prophets to choose from.

I always felt a strong natural love for the prophets Elijah and Daniel but knew next to nothing about Ezekiel. Then came a night nearly 30 years ago, when I had one of the most powerful dreams of my life, in which 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. I’ve had 10,000 other dreams, swiftly forgotten, but not this one.


What do you think the dream meant?

Shortly after having this dream, 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. Then, during the months that followed, they came again and again with a gentle insistence, always when I was praying. 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. The lives of the people thus marked would be spared from the coming destruction of Jerusalem during the Babylonian invasions. It struck me also that Ezekiel 9:6 describes the Lord commanding that the purification of Israel must begin in the sanctuary of the Temple and spread out from there.


You are referring to the defilement of the Temple. Is that for our Church?

Yes, I believe so. If one reads Chapter 8 of Ezekiel, which deals with the horrendous corruption within the Temple priesthood and is the reason for the chastisements found in Chapter 9, one sees many parallels. It is worth considering the purification of the world, prophesied by Jesus and the apostles and earlier prophets, may very well begin in the sanctuary, which is the Church. We who live in the New Testament era fulfill earlier patterns or models that were enacted in the Old Testament, as is the case of the first Passover and the Exodus. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the events foretold in the Book of Revelation will be a “final Passover.” Similarly, each Christian, in his way, conforms his own life to the cross, leading ultimately to resurrection. 


Your novel Sophia House and this latest book both deal with oppression of the Jews. Why is that? 

The Church calls the Jewish people “our elder brothers in the faith,” “the chosen people” and “the firstborn of the Lord.” St. Paul grieves that the whole household of Israel has not yet come into the New Covenant but foretells in Romans (11:25-27) they will turn to Jesus Christ at the end of the ages. Our task is to love them and pray for them and in this way to help the reunion to come to pass. I think also of the diabolic crimes against the Jewish people during the Second World War as a prologue to what may someday befall all Christians, as described in Revelation 12:17:

“Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.”


In Rivers of Babylon, Yezekiel says­: “Moreover, it must never be forgotten that Israel’s chastisement has come about chiefly because of mingling with the alien nations and their ways.” Is that us too?

We have confused “inculturation” (adaptation for the sake of dialoguing with unbelievers) with assimilation by paganism, the perennial temptation of the people of God. We have made grave moral compromises, both as individuals and as nations that were once Christian. Either through naivety, indifference or cowardice, we have failed to resist the culture of death; indeed, we have helped spread it. We have desired to reconcile God and mammon, have been willing to betray the truth in order to maintain comfort, security and our endless pleasures and addictions. We have forgotten crucial things, just as the Israelites in the Exodus fell into worshipping idols in the desert, forgetting the many wonders and blessings God had shown them in releasing them from slavery. 


We want to think of God as loving and merciful. Yet what befalls all the Jews, not just the corrupt priests, ­­­­is awful. How do the two ideas go together?

Bishop Fulton Sheen once wrote that we mentally and emotionally make a false split between mercy and justice. In his discussion of the Book of Revelation, he points out that the Apocalypse is generally considered to be an absolute, even merciless justice falling upon mankind. In fact, he says, the Apocalypse is justice and mercy as a single unified whole. The chastisement must come, for God in his mercy will not allow evil to go on devouring the good indefinitely. There comes a point when nations become well-nigh irredeemable, though he continually sends them prophets to warn them and call them to repentance. This applies to all the earlier stages of apostasy in biblical history. But we should never forget that the Lord yearns for all men to turn to him, and even should they refuse to repent, he promises that a remnant will come through the catastrophe. Such was the case of the Babylonian captivity, and such will be the case with us.


Do we see Jesus or his coming in Ezekiel? 

His presence is there in the passage of Ezekiel’s first vision, in which the prophet sees seated upon the heavenly throne “one who had the appearance of man … in the likeness of the glory of the Lord,” as written in Ezekiel (1:28). This is the Son reigning with the Father. The passage has close parallels to the vision of the throne and “one like a Son of Man” written in Daniel (7:13-14). Six centuries before the birth of Christ, both illumine the later theological understanding of the Holy Trinity. Isaiah, who lived a century before the deportations, and Jeremiah, who lived during them, also foretell the coming of the Messiah, emphasizing his role as the Suffering Servant — Jesus in his humanity.


There is a lot of resonance between Ezekiel and other Old Testament prophets and Revelation. Why do you think that is? Is this the Old Testament pointing to the New Testament?

The Christological signs in Ezekiel’s visions, also in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel, are reinforced and made comprehensible in Revelation. 

God is writing a vast, complex story, the one true story that is moving toward the final stage of salvation history — the ultimate conflict between good and evil, between Christ and Antichrist — culminating in the restoration of all things under the authority of Christ, and the giving of the new heavens and the new earth. 


Is there something about being a Canadian artist that informs your work, or is it more being Catholic? 

It may be that having lived much of my life on the edge of vast wilderness, I have an ingrained sense of the infinite — and the inexpressible beauty of the infinite. But above all, it is my Catholic faith that has given me eyes to see and the yearning to make truth visible in beautiful forms.