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Michael D. O’Brien: Wisdom Through Suffering

Michael D. O’Brien: Wisdom Through Suffering

Michael D. O’Brien. Voyage to Alpha Centauri. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013.

Michael D. O’Brien. Theophilos. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010.

Michael D. O’Brien. Island of the World. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010.


In the first parts one and two of this three-part review essay I discussed novels by Michael O’Brien that, despite their differences, had much in common, since their stories all took place in the twentieth century, with four set in Canada and two in Europe. In this last group are three rather different novels that explore the cosmic warfare theme in disparate times and places: Theophilos, in first-century Crete and Palestine, Island of the World, in twentieth-century Croatia and New York City, and Voyage to Alpha Centauri, in twenty-first century interstellar space and on a distant planet.


In Theophilos O’Brien uses the early days of Christianity and the Roman persecutions to explore the meaning of Christianity. Theophilos, meaning “God-beloved” or “lover of God,” is the addressee of Luke’s gospel. Was there such a person or did Luke simply use this word to address the reader? O’Brien has chosen to imagine such a person and has created a vividly realized life and a complex world out of this enigmatic name at the beginning of the third Gospel. The protagonist, who narrates the story through his journal, is a practicing physician, the son of a physician and the grandson of a slave, living on the island of Crete around thirty years after the death and resurrection of Christ, and “Loukas,” also a physician, is his nephew and adopted son. An ethnic Greek and Roman citizen in his sixties, Theophilos has long been married to Paeonia (whose name means healing, medicinal) with whom he has two daughters, Theodosia and Mila, both grown and married. There are several grandchildren, and Theophilos had a close and loving relationship with the members of his family. He also has friends, particularly Gaius, with whom he discusses the news from Rome. Loukas lived with the family for seventeen years after his parents died when he was eleven and he was rescued by Theophilos in Thessalonike, but when the novel begins he has been away for nine years, traveling in the Middle East with Paul and sometimes living in the house in Ephesus where “Miryam” lived and died.

The novel begins in 64 A.D. with a letter from Theophilos to Loukas in response to the arrival of a manuscript of the gospel, about which Theophilos observes, “If what you have written happened as described…it will overturn the world.” Theophilos has heard rumors about Christians, their persecution after the burning of Rome, and he even encounters a number of crucified Christians near his home. Because he prides himself on being a humanist and scientist he is rather skeptical of this new sect and concludes that it really will not overturn the world because it is all a myth invented for consolation. However, he is also a man of integrity and compassion and the son of his father who was devoted to the writings of Plato and believed in a single benevolent Creator and a cosmos that had been damaged by “a dark archon of the heavens, one of the angeloi who had gone bad and in malicious spite had come down to break or befoul God’s work of art.” He also believed that human beings “are within an epic tale, as great or greater than the myths of the gods.” The end of this tale he believed was not knowable by human beings. But it is noteworthy that almost the first statement ascribed to Loukas, who is a questioner and searcher after truth, is from The Agamemnon: “Zeus, who guided mortals to be wise, has established his fixed law—wisdom comes through suffering.”

Eventually Theophilos decides that he must travel to Syria to find Loukas. When he succeeds, Loukas introduces him to the life of early Christians, tells him what he knows of the Christos, and urges him to speak to people who had known Jesus so that he might see for himself that Christ was divine. So Theophilos conducts numerous interviews with, among others, a Nazareth neighbor, a priest, a former leper cured by Christ, and the groom at the Cana wedding. Some of the people he talks to claim to have seen nothing special about Jesus and flatly deny that he could be the Messiah, but most are inclined to believe otherwise. In these conversations Theophilos is treated to reminiscences about Christ as a boy and young man in Nazareth, some of which may seem surprising. (If you have never imagined Jesus discoursing on the practical uses of dung, well, O’Brien has, and in the context it makes perfect sense. His point is the Incarnation, which means that Jesus is God made flesh and that includes every non-sinful aspect of being human.)

The reader will not be surprised by Theophilos’s eventual conversion to Christianity. What makes the book rich is the evocation of first-century Roman provincial life, Theophilos’s family life, the rigors of travel, the persecution of nascent Christianity, the numerous philosophical and theological discussions, and especially O’Brien’s imagining of Christ’s hidden and very humble life and of the ways in which he was known by his contemporaries. There are also Christian hints around Theophilos, such as the incident early in the story when he encounters a “pack of boys” stealing unripe pears and comments that their pleasure must have been entirely in “the art of theft.” O’Brien is, of course, using Theophilos as an example of how someone who had never met or even seen Christ could come to believe through the search for truth. This is primarily a novel about faith and the beginning of Christianity, and about how and why an intelligent, well-educated Greek skeptic could have found his way to faith in Christ.

Island of the World

Island of the World is ostensibly the life story of a Croatian poet named Josip Lasta, but it is on a deeper level the story of most of the twentieth century, and all the disorders that have erupted in the world. In the Afterword O’Brien tells the reader that “all that is most improbable in this tale occurred. Only the ‘ordinary’ is invented.” At the beginning of the story Josip, who is nine, is taken on a journey from his inland village to Split on the Dalmatian coast by his devoutly Catholic father, who visits all the Christian sites that they pass. Josip also has his first experience of the vastness of the sea and the ethnic and political conflicts in Yugoslavia. This is before World War II and the country is, at least on the surface, rather peaceful. It is a memorable journey for Josip who also encounters the lastavica, the swallow that, like the kingfisher in The Father’s Tale, is a bird that plays a major symbolic role throughout the novel, in this case as a symbol of hope, and it is not a coincidence that Josip’s name is Lasta. While in Split they visit Josip’s aunt, a cloistered nun, who introduces him to a rare treat, Swiss chocolate.

But, this being the Balkans in the twentieth century, the reader knows that Josip’s almost idyllic life is not to last. World War II arrives, bringing with it vicious partisan warfare that engulfs Josip’s family and forces him to undertake a harrowing journey to seek refuge with another aunt in Sarajevo, only to find that she is living with one of the worst of the partisan leaders. Josip eventually builds a life for himself in Sarajevo only to run afoul of the postwar Communist system of another Josip, Tito. Eventually, through a long and torturous odyssey he finds himself in New York City where he lives for decades as an unassuming janitor but also a poet and a man who makes deep, long-term friendships with people with whom he seemingly would have little in common. Towards the end of his life he feels compelled to return to Croatia where he dies. I do not want to reveal too many details here because the reader has to experience the twists and turns of this story, as well as the depths of Josip’s character, without knowing what is going to happen next. After reading a few of his novels one acquires a sense of what O’Brien is likely going to do, but he always finds surprising ways of doing it. O’Brien’s immense narrative powers make this, like all of his novels, difficult to put down.

This is the story of a good man who is caught up in the political and cultural disorders of the modern world and who by discovering and overcoming the evil tendencies in his own soul and by enduring much redemptive suffering becomes not only a poet but a saint. (At the end of the novel are several of Josip Lasta’s poems.) His life story is an indictment of modern ideologies, not only the obvious villains of Nazism and Communism, but also the Western disorders of materialism, “global governance,” scientism, abortion, and sexual licentiousness that present themselves as “progressive” and “humane.” However, Josip realizes that “beneath their constructs and even beneath their supposed humanitarianism you will always find a killer. Presumption and arrogance over mankind brings forth, in time, the fruit of death.” He quite intentionally becomes the opposite, a man who lives a life that, in New York, at least, is superficially ordinary but extraordinarily rich in its very non-ideological ordinariness because his soul is so open to “the beauty and harmony of the cosmos” and “the miraculousness of life.”

Voyage to Alpha Centauri

Science fiction might seem a departure from O’Brien’s usual interests but it simply provides him with a medium to explore many of the themes of his first nine novels in the time dimension of the future rather than the past or the present.   The basic symbolism here is that of the voyage or journey, a symbol for the human condition since at least The Odyssey. Most of O’Brien’s novels include some kind of long and difficult journey that involves immense hardships and leads to self-discovery, but this novel involves by far the longest journey—to an earthlike planet revolving around the nearest star that is some 4.3 light years from Earth. It is the first interstellar voyage and it has been made possible by the scientific research of its physicist protagonist, Neil Benigno Ruiz de Hoyos, the winner of two Nobel prizes, the second for discoveries in the dynamics of anti-matter enhancement and catalyzed fusion power that made possible the means of propulsion that could reach half the speed of light. Even at such an incredible speed, which is approximately 105,000 miles per second, it takes the ship, called the Kosmos, nine years to reach Alpha Centauri, including lengthy periods of acceleration and deceleration. Time, of course, passes more slowly on the ship: one Earth year is 301 ship days.

O’Brien has done his usual assiduous homework, presenting enough scientific detail to enable the reader to consider it sufficiently plausible, although a little more detail on how a ship one kilometer in length, a quarter kilometer in width, and sixty meters high lifts off from the surface of the earth, how it is able to accelerate to half-light speed without crushing everyone and everything in it in the rear of the ship, and how the artificial gravity is created and maintained would be helpful. However, the focus of the story is, of course, not science but humanity, the struggle between good and evil, and the inescapable search for human self-understanding wherever there are humans.

The Kosmos is a microcosm of humanity, containing a flight crew, specialists in most research fields as well as service personnel, and even a small wealthy class, two trillionaires (married to each other) who can afford a luxury suite, for a total of 677 passengers and crew. The story is told through the personal journal of Neil de Hoyos who is in his late sixties at the beginning of the voyage. He is on board because of his scientific work, but some of the other scientists are of a similar age and one wonders why a twenty-year voyage would have several elderly scientists as passengers, no matter how eminent. It is, however, a splendid opportunity to escape from a planet that has a post-World War III semi-totalitarian world government that subjects everyone to surveillance, is hostile to religion and freedom, promotes scientific progress and “ethical barbarism,” and determines who can marry and legally have children, or, to be precise, a child. It seems to be what would evolve from the kind of government that O’Brien describes in his Delaney family trilogy. De Hoyos grew up in the American Southwest as the child of devoutly Catholic parents at a time when Mass had to be celebrated on the back of a pickup truck by an itinerant undercover priest, but he has long since abandoned all religious beliefs. However, the experience in his youth of seeing the seemingly impossible spiral staircase of the St. Loretto chapel in New Mexico remains with him, along with its symbolism of the ascent to God. He also retains the vivid memory of being bitten by a poisonous snake at the age of fourteen. When he cut across the bite to draw out the venom he cut deeply enough to injure his leg permanently so that he still walks with a limp. While he was recovering someone gave him science books to read, which turned him toward a career in science.

Because the Kosmos is a very large ship it has enough people to carry with it all of the moral, political, and religious problems that plague Earth, including the necessity of clandestine religious beliefs. Although the passengers were told that during the expedition there would be no internal surveillance as is ubiquitous on Earth, in the early part of the voyage de Hoyos discovers that this is not the case and then one person disappears under mysterious circumstances. These things bring de Hoyos into conflict with the ship’s bureaucratic equivalent of the secret police, which at least helps to distract from the sheer monotony of space travel (which is why many science fiction writers put interstellar travelers in suspended animation). There are other distractions, including scientific lectures and every possible form of entertainment loaded into the ship’s computers. On this space-going equivalent of a luxury cruise ship on every concourse there are also libraries with actual paper books, a theater, alcoves with paintings, which prove useful for secret meetings (and O’Brien has carefully chosen the paintings), a central atrium with a daily schedule of birdsong, and restaurants serving a number of different cuisines.

When, at long last, the voyagers arrive at their destination they find an Eden, a planet that is very earthlike and almost perfect in every way, except for the occasional deadly snake. The scientists spend a year studying every aspect of the planet, which they name Mundus Novus, or just Novus (which de Hoyos connects with Novus Ordo Saeclorum), until shortly before they are scheduled to depart for home they make stunning discoveries with momentous implications. At this point some readers might find O’Brien’s plot too much of a strain on their credulity (even allowing that this is science fiction) but O’Brien is dealing with spiritual truth, not scientific realism, and he is a writer in the tradition of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. As in all of his novels O’Brien is exploring the war between good and evil and adherence to or rediscovery of faith under challenging circumstances. There is also a transmutation of the apocalyptic theme that the twenty-first century is the end-time.

Quite simply, you will find that O’Brien is one of the most serious and profound writers currently grappling with the spiritual problems generated by the eclipse of transcendence in modernity. His novels all contain incisive, highly intelligent arguments and analysis, a deep love of Christ and the Catholic faith, plots that are full of surprises that reflect the often amazing and providential tapestry of life, and vividly realized, complex, deeply human characters who all live sub specie aeternitatis. He says that he always prays before he writes and asks for divine inspiration, which I believe he receives. So be forewarned: I started reading O’Brien with The Father’s Tale, and then I couldn’t stop until I had read all of his other novels. I wish he had already written many more.


Also available are reviews of “The Father’s Tale,” “Sophia’s House,” “A Cry of Stone,” “Father Elijah,” “Plague Journal,” “Eclipse of the Sun,” “Strangers and Sojourners,” “Elijah in Jerusalem,” and “The Fool of New York City.”

Michael HenryMichael Henry

Michael Henry

Michael Henry is a Board Member of VoegelinView, Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York, and was editor of The Library of Conservative Thought series at Transaction Publishers (1998-2016). His latest book is The Loss and Recovery of Truth: Selected Writings of Gerhart Niemeyer (St. Augustine's, 2013).

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