“The essential architecture, if you will, of the struggle between good and evil in our times has grown ever more intense, and the warnings I sought to convey through the novel remain no less urgent.” ∼ Michael O’Brien, Preface, Elijah in Jerusalem
“Do you remember what happened to Elijah?… On Horeb, he (Elijah) would get his answer, not in the great wind…, not in the earthquake, not even in the fire. God’s grace does not shout out; it is a whisper which reaches all those who are ready to hear the gentle breeze—that still small voice. It urges them to go forth, to return to the world, to be witnesses to God’s love for mankind, so that the world may believe.” ∼ Pope Francis, Prayer Vigil, St Pete’s Square, October 3, 2015
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Novels depicting catastrophe—cosmic, planetary, political, economic, religious, or personal—are written with some regularity and often receive much attention. The past, the future, and the meaning of our kind, cannot but be of fascination to us, especially if we are told that everything might blow up tomorrow at 2:37 a.m. standard time. Much space fiction, when it is not merely western or Homeric imitation, is of this genre.
Our scriptures contain various “apocalyptic” passages that have, over the centuries, been meticulously searched and mined for clues about our fate. Hardly a decade goes by without some novelist or filmmaker proposing that “this” time is the “last” of the times before the Lord returns as he promised. Many a prophet has affirmed that the “end is near” or has already arrived, only to be disappointed, or relieved, whatever the case may be.
Michael O’Brien’s trilogy on the life of Father Elijah comes to an end with Elijah in Jerusalem. (The previous two were: Sophia House and Father Elijah: an Apocalypse). In the Preface, O’Brien wisely includes the following caveat: “It is also my concern that readers of the trilogy do not bring away from these stories any thought that they have been given a neo-gnostic key to the Apocalypse—in other words, a hermeneutic for survival.” Our daily lives, O’Brien hopes, will go on with a renewed attention to spiritual things and a renewed prayer for the Lord’s return.
The plot of this trilogy, as was that of Robert Hugh Benson’s 1913 novel, The Lord of the World, concerns the coming and triumph in this world of the “Man of Sin.” The Lord of the World ends in the Holy Land with the actual destruction of the world with its few faithful believers still remaining and then, presumably, the judgment.
Elijah in Jerusalem rather ends with the death of Father Elijah and the apparently this-worldly victory of “the President,” the “Man of Sin.” Elijah has succeeded in giving this “President” of the “new world order” the final message of the then pope to repent, which “the President” of the world refuses to do. We do not know what happens next, except that, in the kingdom of darkness, some few are left who understand.
In The Lord of the World, the man who finally organized the world against Christ was an obscure, charismatic American senator from Vermont named, not Saunders, but Feldstein. In the Father Elijah series, he is the cold-hearted son of an Austrian banking family. In both cases, the reigning pope, as the last bastion of orthodoxy, is involved either personally or in sending a final messenger to the “Man of Sin.”
Father Elijah is a Carmelite monk who becomes a bishop in the novel, He is a Polish Jew who survives the Holocaust. He is converted. He becomes aware of increasing evil in the world, a subtle evil that reaches everywhere including into the Church.
While both the Benson and the Elijah novels are aware of the geo-political nature of the coming evil, they remain rooted in the view that evil stems from the human heart, from pride and vanity, from unwillingness to admit one’s limits, from personal sin. I think it is well to read these novels in the light of something about which Benedict XVI remarked in his conversation with Peter Sewald:
A real Last Judgment takes place here… This judgment is always coming upon man already in, shall we say, a penultimate form in his death. The grand tableau that is painted, especially in Matthew 25, with sheep and goats, is a parable for a reality that is unimaginable. …We are dealing with an utterly unique event that we cannot picture to ourselves: the fact that the whole cosmos now stands before the Lord, that the whole of history stands before him. This has to be expressed in images that convey to us an inkling of what is going on. How it will all look physically escapes our ability to imagine. But that he (the Lord) is the judge, that real judgment takes place, that humanity is divided so that there is also … a possibility of damnation, that things are not equally valid are all very important truths.
O’Brien’s novels adhere to these observations, as does Benson’s novel. They attempt to explain to us in images, stories, and myths what we only have inklings of. Yet the principles that generate the action of the novels are, when examined, true.
The Last Judgment, in which the un-repented evil of each person will be damned and virtue rewarded, is certain to happen. Things are not equally the same. Between good and evil is a chasm over which no one can cross and in which everyone is involved. This is what divides mankind.
What is striking in all of these novels, I think, is not the character of the envisioned “anti-Christ” whose force of personality and shrewdness send him off to “save the world.” In both cases, he is handsome, shrewd, magnetic, eloquent, and wholly devoted to what seems to be the “good” of humanity. He wants to overcome all “divisions.” He presents himself as the ultimate humanist. In all cases, in his view, what is keeping humanity from reaching its goal is any philosophy and religion that still distinguished good and evil, that did not locate it in things that he, the “Man of Sin,” could manage and manipulate.
This essay is not intended to be a book review, though I will say that too many of the complex events or knowledge of them were solved by a supernatural help that seemed detached from human capabilities. That was the point, of course, but it left me thinking the knowledge of Father Elijah was not really feasible. I can grant that holy confessors and saints often did seem to see into the souls of those with whom they dealt. But too much of this “seeing” into souls makes it appear that the whole thing is contrived to fit a preconceived plan.
On the other hand, and this is what I want to comment on here, the novel’s picture of the disorder that “the Man of Sin” brings into the world was pretty much correct. I have a friend who used to tell, as a parody, this story about how characters in Morris West’s novels reacted to the final days when old-fashioned communists were closing in on the Vatican. The last pope was rushing through the halls of the papal palace being chased by NKVD gunmen.
The pope suddenly recalls the Fatima letter. He rushes into the Vatican archives and hurriedly fishes out the third letter. Frantically, as they close in on him, he opens it and reads it. It says: “The Communists will get you.” We do not want to take these things too lightly, of course, but the abiding lesson of this type of literature, as O’Brien recognizes, remains: “Ye know not the day nor the hour.” So do not get too excited.
One point about Catholic novels of this kind is that they usually presume—something their next generation may not presume–that there is no problem with the pope himself. He need not be wise, but he needs to be orthodox, holy, and aware of the forces lined up against the Church. The famous “Gates of Hell” will not prevail against him. “Holy Father,” Elijah asks, “are these the times that Jesus and the prophets foretold?” The pope responds: “The Antichrist reaches deeper into man than ever before.”
But this protection does not apply to other Church leaders. Hence, in Elijah in Jerusalem, at the final organization of the world against God, we have eight or nine cardinals, several archbishops, and some Orthodox prelates, not to mention the presidents and prime ministers of the leading democratic and Muslim countries of the world.
What, so to speak, is the “pitch” of the “Man of Sin” who has remarkable capacities to bring the world to its long overdue “peace” that the popes themselves are, sometimes naively, writing about? Early on, we read that Elijah saw “the confusion of mind spread by the Man of Sin and the spirit that accompanies him.” This “spirit” desired to be “worshipped as God. Hidden within its self-exaltation and its transitory exaltation of man was the relentless objective: to destroy the image and likeness of God in any way possible.”
I read that passage with considerable pause. Not too long ago, a friend of mine, a housewife with her own children, wrote to me that what is behind the divorce, abortion, gay-marriage, euthanasia, in vitro, and human parts business is precisely the hatred of the image of God in each of us, especially children. The real enemy is human nature as God created it. This is why we can kill fifty million human beings in the womb every year and call it a “right,” a freedom from what we do not “want.” This “freedom” includes calling evil the very way we beget and care for children in families with father, mother, and children.
Jennifer Roback Morse remarks that what we never hear in the public order are the voices of the victims of these supposedly liberating individual “rights.” Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay spells out in considerable detail the lies on which many of these “rights” are based. Essentially, it is a question of using compassion, mercy, and sympathy to gradually close off any distinction between good and evil. What is striking about all of these movements is the often-brilliant intellectual cleverness that they manifest to justify evil as if it were good. And this division between good and evil remains the irreducible dividing line among us. Not all things, Benedict said, “are equally valid.”
The “Man of Sin” would agree with this position, of course. What his “new world order” really consists in, as it is spelled out in the O’Brien book, is the suppression and persecution of any position that would insist that there is an identifiable difference between good and evil as manifested in human life as such. As a once-believing South American novelist puts it: “The President is the new humanism…. He is telling us that, here and now, we dwell in the consciencia divina, which is to say le milieu divin.”
The “new world order,” which the “Man of Sin” seeks to form, absorbs all religions, including Catholicism, into a this-worldly, exclusively humanist order. In the end, Lev, Elijah’s Jewish friend, states where “the President” is going: “Everything would be absorbed into a new global monoculture.”
What “the Anti-Christ President” proposes, in the end, is a world order of “peace and justice” based on the denial of any distinction between good and evil. He must eliminate anyone who still holds to this old, “out-moded” separation. This is the ideological background that powers the drama of the life of Father Elijah.