The penultimate “nutshell” in this series focused on Declare by Tim Powers, a Catholic writer who has succeeded in the secular culture without compromising his faith or his principles. In this final “nutshell,” we will focus on Father Elijah by Michael D. O’Brien, a writer who has emerged as the most important voice in the literary catacombs, unknown to the toxic mainstream but widely read and greatly respected by those seeking the sort of solid Catholic literature which the secular culture has sought to “cancel.”
Father Elijah, published in 1996, is Michael D. O’Brien’s first and best-known novel. It tells the story of David Schäfer, a Jewish holocaust survivor who converts to Catholicism and subsequently becomes a Carmelite monk and priest. Father Elijah’s efforts to combat the power of a charming and sinister world leader, who has all the hallmarks of being the Antichrist, invites comparisons with the plot of Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World.
The obvious similarities aside, the most significant difference is that O’Brien doesn’t set his novel in the distant future but at a time which is essentially contemporary. The ailing but holy and courageous pope bears a striking resemblance to John Paul II, and the fictional cardinal who is prefect for the Congregation of the Faith bears a remarkable resemblance to Joseph Ratzinger. This makes the apocalyptic twists and turns of the plot much closer to home than in Benson’s futuristic apocalypse.
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Surprisingly and paradoxically, O’Brien’s contemporary setting has stood the test of time far better than Benson’s futuristic dystopia. Benson had little option but to play the prophet, in a science fiction sense, by inventing flying machines and other future-age technologies to make his setting seem realistic to his early-twentieth-century readers.
Today, in the real future, Benson’s imaginatively fanciful future seems quaint and antiquated, at best, or, at worst, simply silly. By comparison, O’Brien’s late-twentieth-century setting seems enduringly contemporary. We can still imagine an ailing but courageous pope and equally courageous cardinals, as well as corrupt and theologically modernist members of the curia who are in league with the diabolical spirit of the world.
One of the particular strengths of Father Elijah is the way in which O’Brien brings his eponymous hero to fully-fledged and fully-fleshed life. He is not merely human, in the abstract sense, but a solid, concretely real person. We are moved by his dignity and doubt and are as troubled by his weaknesses as we are moved by them.
We see him as a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who is hidden from the authorities before making his escape. We are as haunted as he is by his return to Warsaw as an aged Carmelite monk. We are moved by the discoveries he makes and are disgusted by the diabolical evil that is uncovered.
Another strength of the book is the depiction of the deathbed conversion of an aging and decrepit débauché, whose past is poured forth to Father Elijah’s disgust and discomfort and yet transformed by the holy priest’s charity in the presence of a miserable sinner on the threshold of the abyss of death.
A further paradoxical strength of the novel is its handling of the protagonist’s weakness. Before his conversion and calling to the priesthood and religious life, Father Elijah’s pregnant wife had been killed in a terrorist bombing. The loss of his wife and unborn child leaves lasting scars, beyond healing, prompting the radical turn to Christ in conversion, reminding us of the immortal lines of Oscar Wilde about the potentially positive and life-changing power of suffering: “How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in.”
Later, when Father Elijah meets a beautiful widow, whose own husband had been murdered brutally by the sinister and diabolical forces that he is called to confront, he finds himself falling in love with her. This powerful temptation, a longing that could compromise his belonging to the Bride of Christ, is handled with great tact and dexterity by the author, the mark of a truly gifted storyteller.
Such a gift is also present in the manner in which the supernatural penetrates the story. The presence of miraculous light demands a lightness of touch on the part of the author, the absence of which has ruined many a Christian novel through the clunkily inept handling of the deus ex machina.
O’Brien also succeeds, for the most part, in avoiding the descent into preachiness, a fatal flaw which kills so much Christian literature with the kiss of deadly didacticism. That being said, the excision of a few pages of gratuitous spiritual musings would have exorcised the didactic spirit on the rare occasions when it emerges.
Michael D. O’Brien has written many other fine novels, several of which would have warranted a place in the present company of fifty great works of literature. Since, however, one must come to an end, we will allow his first novel to have the last word as the final nutshell in the series.
Editor’s Note: This is the fiftieth (and final) in a series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”