Thursday, June 10, 2010

Father Elijah


A couple of weeks ago, a friend stopped me after Mass to chat about the state of the world and politics, something that has tended to happen to me a lot within this last year. She went on to relate how a friend of hers felt compelled to get this book, Father Elijah by Michael O'Brien, from the library for her. She said she'd read it years ago, and was starting in on it again. She encouraged me to read it as well, promising fruitful discussion for us afterwards.

This might have been the sort of exchange that I just walk away from and say "OK, whatever." But I've been practicing taking the events and people in my life a bit more seriously than that. So, I put in my library request, and a week later, the book was in my hands. I was a bit daunted by the size of it -- almost 600 pages. But when I started to read I found very quickly I had a hard time putting it down.

It is a work of fiction, but it is Catholic fiction. In other words, the characters and their journeys resonated with me so deeply that when I finished I honestly felt lonely, like a good friend had just left. The main character, Father Elijah, is a Carmelite priest of Polish birth and Jewish ancestry who, after the death of his wife, had converted to Christianity and subsequently become a priest. It is apocalyptic fiction, meaning it deals with life at the end of the world, which is set basically in contemporary times. (Written in the late 90s, it was interesting how conspicuous the lack of cell phones and Internet was in the story. Already dated!) Father Elijah is called to the Vatican on special assignment to develop a relationship and bear witness to the man the Pope believes to be (or will become) the anti-Christ. Along the way he interacts with other saints and sinners, and we see the inner workings of his soul in the process. It is absolutely fascinating to me.

It also sets me again to contemplating how Christians are called to be involved in society, in politics, in the countless "crusades" for good and decency. I get so many emails asking for my action on this, that, and the other issue that frankly I get bewildered. Top that off with the various news articles I read from many different and usually contradictory points of view. I am not one to throw up my hands and say "It doesn't matter." This world does matter. This is where we bear witness to Christ. But, what does it mean to bear witness to Christ? What is most important?

Though it is a work of fiction, Father Elijah reminds me that of utmost importance is to maintain relationship with Christ. Not "stay comfortable with the religious surroundings I've gotten used to," no, constantly follow where Christ leads. There's a dynamic. Movement is called for. And then, do what is in your hand. There are no magic answers. Discerning Christ's call is not an excuse for laziness or apathy. But activism does not equal holiness, either. It's about Christ.

I remember years ago being at a farewell party at the home of a woman (also) named Marie. At the time I knew her to be a prayerful woman, hot on the pursuit of holiness, but she also struck me as a bit odd. Other-wordly. She didn't laugh at my impious jokes, and I had a sneaking suspicion she prayed for me instead. At this party we were praying for this family that was moving away, and most people prayed for things like safety, friends in the new place, health. All good things. Suddenly Marie pipes in with asking for all the graces they would need to end the journey of their lives in heaven. I was so stunned by that, because once again, I saw that Marie had her eyes fixed on the Ultimate. Father Elijah reminds me that right now, in the midst of world turmoil, if I love the people around me I will have my desires set on the Ultimate for them. And that's not just saying "yeah, great, heaven is where we'll all be when this life is done." But it is realizing that we are in a spiritual war, and that it is not for nothing that St. Paul tells us to be diligent, train, be wary, have each other's backs, and spread and deeply root that which is holy in our lives and the lives of others by the grace of God.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Father Elijah is a profound work. I was given a copy by an old Irish priest, and have read it three times in the past four years. Like all good literature it reveals more and more with subsequent readings. I have now read four of O'Brien's novels that are all interlinked creating a large tapestry of eschatological design. His writing is easily read but is also rich in meaning and very deep, resulting in a mirror being held up to one's soul.