Following ‘Father Elijah’: An Interview With Michael O’Brien
The Canadian novelist discusses the sequel to his 1996 bestseller.
Michael O’Brien, the Catholic novelist and artist, just published his latest work, Elijah in Jerusalem. The sequel to Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, a bestselling 1996 novel that followed a Catholic monk's quest to bring God's invitation to conversion to a powerful political leader who might be the Antichrist, this new work continues the author's exploration of the battle between good and evil in history and in the souls of individual men and women. This is a celebration of God's desire for the human person to choose to love him through an act of free will and a cautionary tale for those tempted by the messianic visions spun by political ideologies of every age.
O’Brien’s other works of fiction that have been published by Ignatius Press include Sophia House, The Father’s Tale: A Novel and Theophilos. He has also published a critique of contemporary children's stories that incorporate pagan symbols and themes, A Landscape With Dragons. The father of six children, O’Brien lives with his wife, Sheila, in Combermere, Canada. On Oct. 15, in an exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, the author discussed his reasons for writing Elijah in Jerusalem and the spiritual and literary insights he has gained over the two decades following the publication of Father Elijah: An Apocalypse.
Your book, Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, published 20 years ago, is a page-turner about the rise of the Antichrist and the efforts of Father Elijah, a Catholic monk, to change his mind and heart. Did you intend from the beginning to write a sequel?
No, I didn’t. Though the idea of a sequel was often suggested to me by readers, I rejected it 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.
In the sequel, Father Elijah’s mission to engage the Antichrist continues. What have you learned about the complex and mysterious aspects of spiritual warfare over the past two decades?
That would take a book-length reply. In short, I would say that Satan is far more clever than we are, having observed human nature for thousands of years. But he is not creative and uses a limited weapons kit of tactics against us — often subtle, almost always disguising himself whenever he prompts us to sin and error and disordered thoughts and emotions. Crucial to our understanding of spiritual combat is the truth that we cannot resist him effectively by our own strength alone.
Exorcists report that those who come under Satan’s power lose their freedom. In contrast, Father Elijah’s efforts to invite the Antichrist to change his path affirms a bedrock Christian truth: God desires each person to freely choose to love him and seek his will. Is this the heart of your message to readers?
Yes, this is the heart of the message in all my books. In his holy will is our authentic and lasting freedom. Much depends on our saying, “Yes” to grace. God never sweeps our nature aside. Because he is Love, he never forces our will; he invites us to come with him on the path to eternal freedom.
In the sequel, you seem less interested in how the final battle between good and evil will play out and more interested in a truly Christian response of hope in anticipation of such events. Do you agree?
Very much so. While the dramatic narrative is set in the context of the final battle, I’m also conscious that the Apocalypse foretold by Old and New Testament prophets and by Christ must not be viewed as a purely symbolic mega drama enacted as high theater sometime in the safely distant future. When the foretold events actually occur, they will be experienced at ground level by all kinds of people, in a variety of subjective ways. If our times prove to be the ones prophesied, we, too, will experience it in our particular, personal ways. The book asks, “Am I awake? Am I spiritually ready?”
Here in the U.S., there have been two recent attempts to hold black masses in public. Abroad, ISIS recruitment videos depict the beheading of Christians. It is tempting to speculate about the end times, so how should we cultivate in ourselves the right response to such events?
Satan attempts to mesmerize, like a serpent paralyzing 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 obsessively over-focused on the darkness. Again, the eyes of the serpent can delude us into discouragement and even despair.
How have you developed your gifts as a novelist since you wrote the previous book about Father Elijah’s quest, and what did that mean for this book?
It’s hard for me to know, since I’m an intuitive, creative novelist, not an academically shaped fiction writer. But I think I have come to a greater appreciation of the literary concept that “less is more.” A shorter novel, for example, can have deeper impact than a magnum opus of a thousand pages. I say “can,” because it’s not necessarily true that a fast read is a better read. I won’t stop writing long books, but I’m now more aware that quantity is not necessarily quality.
Father Elijah, a Jewish convert who survived the Holocaust, is a study of faithful perseverance and strength through weakness and surrender — the paradoxes of Christian life that scandalize unbelievers. Did you base him on a real-life character?
Not intentionally. Even so, I believe he 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.
Tempted to despair, Father Elijah must find hope in Christ, not his own powers. Does his struggle offer a lesson for our times, as secularization in the West leads some Church leaders to question whether Catholics can live the Gospel?
It’s my hope that the story will dramatize the truth that we must always be willing to lose everything for the sake of the Gospels. We must be prepared to be “signs of contradiction” and to do it in a spirit of caritas and veritas, in love and truth. If we are unwilling to be this for the people of our times, we will inevitably slide into various forms of compromise, which, in the end, will help no one. Love demands courage — the courage to not only speak the truth, but to live in it totally. Any compromise of the truth — even for so-called “pastoral” reasons — is a betrayal of love.
Like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, Father Elijah bears the burden of his mission to alter the path of the Antichrist. But he has the benefit of friends. Has J.R.R. Tolkien been a source of inspiration for you?
Yes, very much so. Tolkien’s imaginary Middle-earth introduces the reader to an atmosphere of the ultimate Real, the true contours of the great war in which we are all immersed. And he does it with extraordinary power and beauty.
Tolkien also explores the mystery of God using evil to achieve the good. Would you discuss your exploration of this theme?
As a young man I experienced a few ill-spent years as an agnostic and sometime atheist. I know what it is to view existence through that form of blindness. I have an immense love of people trapped in grievous sin and error, and as I write my novels, I’m yearning to tell them their own true story — the real story — of their eternal dignity and value, of God’s love for them. I’ve experienced in my own life and in the lives of others how God is always at work, even when we cannot see his hand. He is always seeking to bring about hope and fruitfulness from even the most damaged lives. We must never despair over others, nor of ourselves. But we must pray without ceasing, as Jesus exhorts us to do.
Father Elijah: An Apocalypse ended with its protagonist heading to Jerusalem, and this sequel begins in the holy city. Likewise, the culmination of Robert Hugh Benson’s classic, The Lord of the World, unfolds in the Holy Land. What makes this a compelling place to depict the battle between good and evil?
The Holy Land is, of course, the site of crucial apocalyptic events foretold by Scripture, and this cannot be bypassed. Moreover, as one of my fictional characters points out, the birth and survival of modern-day Israel is a drama that grips the imagination of the world, because it is the land from which came the major foundation stones of Western civilization. St. Paul prophesies that there will come a time when the whole household of Israel will come to faith in Christ, the true Messiah. Some early Church Fathers taught that, toward the end of the ages, the Jewish people would be beguiled for a time by the Antichrist, the false messiah, but then they would be shaken and would awaken and resist him.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam revere Jerusalem as a holy city, and these three faiths all anticipate the coming of the Messiah. But this messianic vision has been appropriated by secular ideologies to take hold of power here on earth. Is that part of the book’s message?
Yes, it’s an important part. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in Section 675-677, teaches that secular messianism 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 delight and 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.