Elijah in Jerusalem: A Novel. Michael D. O’Brien. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015.
Michael D. O’Brien’s eleventh novel, Elijah in Jerusalem: A Novel, is also the third installment of what has become his Father Elijah trilogy. The first (although not first in the order of publication) was Sophia House: A Novel, which told the story of the Hasidic youth David Schäfer finding sanctuary in the bookshop of Pawel Tarnowski after escaping from the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. Although Tarnowski is the protagonist, to a great extent the meaning of his life is in saving David for a future destiny that, more than fifty years later, will require him to confront an even greater incarnation of evil than the Nazis.
In the second novel, Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, set in the late 1990s, the elderly David, who abandoned a successful career in Israeli politics to become a Catholic and a Carmelite monk, is living in obscurity in a monastery in Israel. It is an age of metastatic secularism when all religions, but especially the Catholic Church, are being rejected and persecuted and an Antichrist—perhaps the Antichrist—has appeared in the person of the otherwise nameless “President,” currently the President of the European Union but aspiring to become the President of the World by bringing about the creation of a World Government. His public persona is the embodiment of all good, the charismatic savior of mankind who will end wars, reconcile adversaries, and usher in an age of peace and prosperity. All that is necessary for this immanent Parousia is that humanity should surrender to him while at the same time believing that human beings are their own gods, the age-old seductive delusion that mankind can raise itself to a divine good even as it is actually descending into horrific evil. The President seems to have the world at his feet, including many members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, although not everyone is caught up in the enthusiasm.
Father Elijah is called out of retirement by the Pope and given the prophetic mission of confronting the President with the warning to repent for the salvation of his soul as well as of the many other souls who have fallen under his spell. His warning falls on deaf ears as the demonically-possessed President proclaims himself the victorious new Christ, “the Christ of this age,” who supersedes the defeated and deceased “little Christ.” This rich and complex book, more than a little reminiscent of the argument of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor that human beings will happily surrender their freedom to anyone who promises to spare them from the necessity of dealing with the difficulties of life, ends with the newly consecrated Bishop Elijah and a fellow Carmelite, Brother Enoch, who is a Palestinian, entering Jerusalem for the second and final confrontation with the adversary.
Although Elijah in Jerusalem, which begins where the previous book leaves off, can be read by itself, I recommend reading Father Elijah first because it lays the groundwork in its depiction of a modern world that has lost, or abandoned, all spiritual substance. Although both books are written in the shadow of the Book of Revelation, O’Brien does not claim to know the shape of things to come—far from it—but, as he observes in the Preface to Elijah in Jerusalem, he does insist that, like the prophet Elijah, we must listen to the “still small voice” of God that will tell us what we need to know “when we need to know it.” He intends his novel to be prophetic not in the sense of predicting the future but in the sense of offering “an imaginative possibility for the purpose of stimulating reflection” in order to awaken “the reader’s imagination in such a way that he is recalled to the basic principles of life in Christ.”
O’Brien’s work is nothing if not imaginative. This novel covers the few days of Bishop Elijah’s and Enoch’s sojourn in an almost completely secularized Jerusalem as the President presides over a series of ceremonies in various places that will culminate in his accession to world power in the city where Christ was crucified. The final event is a grand ceremony at which they must again confront him with his spiritual peril and attempt to unmask his evil in the eyes of a euphoric world captivated by the superficial worldly benefits but blind to their roots in corruption. During these days, Elijah undergoes something like a journey through the Inferno as he encounters human beings whose lives and souls have been permanently scarred by evil, in one case the evil of the President himself. He also finds kindred spirits who remain steadfast in their love of God.
Much of what sustains Bishop Elijah is the spirit of Carmelite contemplatives who trusted in God even in the midst of the greatest trials, particularly John of the Cross and Edith Stein. The latter was, of course, similar to Elijah in that she was a Jew who became completely devoted to Christ and was therefore doubly hated by the forces of evil around her that proclaimed themselves the new Good. Like Elijah, O’Brien is himself a prophet attempting to warn the world that the West’s abandonment of Christianity in favor of a new “faith” based on secularism and the apotheosis of man will serve only to plunge the world into the worst disorders of the spirit, if not the Last Judgment itself. An apt epigraph to the novel from Book IV of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy describes the effects of Circe’s poisonous drafts that bewitched the companions of Ulysses with pleasure even as the men were transformed into beasts: “These poisons more potently/Usurp a man’s true self,/Which penetrate deep within,/And, harming not the body,/Rage in a wound of the mind.” More than most contemporary novelists, O’Brien has comprehended the raging toxins that usurp the mind and spirit of modern man.
Also available are reviews of “The Father’s Tale,” “Sophia’s House,” “A Cry of Stone,” “Father Elijah,” “Voyage to Alpha Centauri,” “Theophilos,” “Island of the World,” “Plague Journal,” “Eclipse of the Sun,” “Strangers and Sojourners,” and “The Fool of New York City.”