Michael D. O’Brien, Elijah in Jerusalem: A Novel.
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015.
A Review by John R. Stephenson
In the late 1990s a seminarian with a passion for good literature importuned me to read Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah, but not until a friend took me to Eerdmans bookstore in Grand Rapids on the morning of Good Friday 2001 was I able to procure a copy. Since an exclusive diet of academic theology can be stodgy, to say the least, I like to factor a modest amount of fiction into my reading matter, in which setting Father Elijah proved a needed tonic for my soul during six months of sabbatical spent racing to complete the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics volume, The Lord’s Supper. Over the intervening years I have reread Father Elijah at least seven times, and to this day never put it down with a sense of ennui or déja-vu. Back then and still now O’Brien struck and strikes me as spiritually attuned, eschatologically on the ball, keenly alert to the signs of the times. So deeply did Father Elijah impress me that I eagerly devoured every succeeding volume in its author’s Children of the Last Days series. After completing the six originally scheduled novels, O’Brien went on to write three more in the same genre, to which the sequel volume Elijah in Jerusalem is now added, making ten books of interrelated fiction in all, a body of literature that occupies going on a whole shelf of one of our family room bookcases.
Novel writing is not the only string to Michael O’Brien’s bow, for he has also distinguished himself as a painter of mainly religious art. Remarkably, this artist and novelist is an autodidact without a college degree. Born in Ottawa in 1948, a natal year that he shares with Prince Charles, who has taken a radically different spiritual path, O’Brien has stepped forth from nowhere as Canada’s Tolstoy, the writer of a copious stream of fiction that rarely fails to delight. His characters are oftentimes so real that you would recognise them on the street or include them in your prayers. Unlike Tolstoy, however, O’Brien has hitherto been a prophet without honour in his own country. While his books have been translated into and widely disseminated in an amazing number of languages and lands, he is brusquely cold-shouldered by the Canadian literary establishment, which is small wonder, given his clearly expressed Christian faith, which revolves distinctly but not abrasively in a Roman Catholic orbit. His message is not one that the Canadian elite will ever gladly hear.
Elijah in Jerusalem describes the momentous events, telescoped into just over a week, that end the earthly course of the Carmelite priest Father Elijah, the story of whose early days was told in Sophia House, set in the dreadful days of Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Born into a pious Jewish family, David Schäfer was a prodigy of Talmudic learning by his early teens already. The only member of his family to escape the Warsaw ghetto and avoid extermination in Treblinka, the young David was taken in by a devout Catholic bookseller, himself a tormented soul, who ended up giving his own life so that David might elude German arrest and flee Poland to emerge in Palestine just as the State of Israel was being set up.
Father Elijah begins, clearly sometime in the mid to late 1990s, with an elderly David Schäfer pottering around the garden of the Carmelite monastery on the Mount Carmel where his Old Testament namesake contended with the prophets of Baal. Having enjoyed a dizzying rise through Israeli public life that might have landed him in the prime minister’s chair, along with a perfect marriage that ended tragically early through his wife and unborn child’s murder in an act of Palestinian terrorism, David was delivered from despair by an encounter with Christ, which moved him toward ordination and entrance into religious life as a contemplative monk. As Father Elijah starts, the ageing Schäfer is a publishing archaeologist and sought-after spiritual director in the evening of his life, forgotten by the Israeli public and “hidden,” as our RC friends would say, “in Carmel.”
Michael O’Brien’s “eschatological sensitivity” as a well-informed, pious Roman Catholic chimes perfectly with my own as an erstwhile, occasional Lutheran dogmatician. The opening chapter of my Eschatology is entitled “General Apostasy: The Sign of Our Times,” and its first page registers a marked “intensification” in our generation of the signs of His coming specified by our blessed Lord in the synoptic “little apocalypses” (Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21). Alas, the only substantial criticism that could be offered these pages, which from one angle are rightly read as a young man’s rhetorical flourish, is that they understate the case. Who could contest the fact that in external, visible Christendom, at any rate in the Western world, apostasy is now much more the rule than the exception? O’Brien attests the same “intensification of the signs” in general and of the specific sign of intra-ecclesial apostasy in particular while wisely refraining from setting timelines for the Parousia, whose date he is prepared to leave in the Father’s hands, where it belongs.
Sketching the background to Elijah in Jerusalem requires a summary of its predecessor volume. Summoned to Rome by a thinly disguised John Paul II, who is assisted by a cardinal prefect for doctrine modelled on none other than Joseph Ratzinger, Fr Elijah is given the task of confronting the newly elected President of the Union of European States who is taking the world spellbound as a leader with the remedy to every global problem, and as a thinker who bypasses outworn secularism, Marxism, and even Christianity itself with a “spirituality” of the Gnostic-occultic-New Age variety. The Pope deems the obscure Carmelite to possess just the right background and the needed combination of spiritual gifts to attempt to reclaim the President’s soul for Christ. Elijah gains access to key members of the European elite including the President himself in a series of rapid-fire, larger than life events that include murder and much other mischief besides. By the end of the volume Elijah has heard the deathbed confession of the debauched Polish aristocrat who blew the whistle on him when he was holed up with the Catholic bookseller in Warsaw and who managed to prosper under the post-war Communist regime; the tale of Count Smokrev’s rescue from the jaws of hell is a gem of pastoral theology hewn and polished by a layman. Moreover, Elijah has also begun to chip away at the agnosticism of a lady Italian judge who gets assassinated by the President’s henchmen only for the blame to be laid on Elijah himself. No less a figure than the archangel Raphael in the guise of a young boy enables Elijah, on Christmas Eve of all days, to penetrate the President’s compound atop Capri, from which pinnacle Tiberius had governed the whole world centuries before. In the President’s study Elijah attests the truth of Christ, with the result that the demons infesting the rising world ruler rush to the surface, showing themselves unable to withstand the Carmelite’s rebuke. Exorcism renders the President unconscious, and Elijah makes his way to the mainland and starts driving to Rome by the time the President, now fully resolved on his uncanny course, sounds the alarm. An unscheduled Christmas Day audience with the Pope is interrupted when an apostate cardinal in cahoots with the President barges into the papal apartment. Ordered to withdraw to an antechamber but forbidden to intervene, Elijah witnesses Cardinal Vettore strike the Pope, and neither he nor the Vatican police manage to restrain the treacherous prelate who rushes from the Vatican to continue his duplicity. The shaken, bleeding pontiff consecrates Elijah a bishop on the spot, informs him that his present dire circumstances have been foreseen, and tells him that he has been assigned a false identity for which a Vatican passport has already been supplied. The Pope directs Elijah to assume the persona of an archaeologist and flee to Turkey, where he will be prepared to bear witness at an approaching eschatological climax. Sure enough, Elijah surfaces in Ephesus, where he shares rough accommodation with his former prior and one of the monks of that house, a Palestinian lay brother whose name in religion is Enoch. In Mary’s house in Ephesus, the three Carmelites, joined by the Ratzinger figure dressed as a labourer, have a mystical experience of the Assumption of the BVM. As the book draws to a close, after Elijah undergoes a forty-day period of purification in the mountains around Ephesus, he and Enoch head to the Holy Land, where the reader leaves them crossing the Jordan to walk to Jerusalem just as the President’s plane is preparing to land for the next instalment of his self-manifestation as Antichrist. Momentous “stuff” is clearly about to happen, and O’Brien ends his narrative with italicised quotation of Revelation 10:10-11:13.
In his preface, O’Brien admits the awkwardness of the timeline on which Elijah in Jerusalem operates. Since the follow-up novel starts the day after the preceding story ends, i.e., at the end of the 1990s if not at the very turn of the third millennium (more precisely, two years after Elijah’s unscheduled Christmas Day audience with the Pope, 34), while the narrator writes from the perspective of the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, anomaly is unavoidable. “Thus I depend on the forbearance of readers to overlook the gap of twenty years and to see it as the merest blink of an eye—or as a watch in the night” (13). The storyline is aware of Al-Qaida and the Islamic State (29, 188) and refers back with appreciation to the pontificate of Benedict XVI (134), while giving no impression that the Woytyla-based Pope of Father Elijah has passed from the scene. Dr Tarek Abbas, the first new character introduced in the sequel volume, himself a Muslim convert to Melkite Catholicism, welcomes the hunted bishop to Jerusalem as the emissary of O’Brien’s barely disguised John Paul II (27, 29). Moreover, the Ratzinger figure heading up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is alluded to under the easily decipherable alias Sidi Ayif (30); he is expected in Jerusalem at the same time as Elijah and Enoch, but fails to show. Yet readers are aware that the Pope who commissioned Elijah died in 2005, and that the Dottrina unexpectedly elected to succeed him even more unexpectedly abdicated the papal throne in 2013. Given the timeframe within which he is operating, O’Brien is obliged to keep his Woytyla- and Ratzinger-based characters in the present tense; his awkward reference to Benedict XVI as a figure of the past underlines his unavoidable chronological entanglement.
Elijah enters Jerusalem by foot for one last confrontation with the President who simultaneously lands from the air, and O’Brien creates the space for an almost 300-pp narrative (short by his standards!) through having Enoch and Elijah settle into an apartment in Al sheikh Jarrah, the Arab quarter of the city, to be informed that the President’s schedule extends over eight days to include some zipping around the Near East with events in Jerusalem on days one, two, and eight, and a symbolic seventh-day rest sandwiched in between (37f.). This affords some breathing room for Elijah to celebrate some liturgies, say his prayers, and engage in some characteristic pastoral encounters with lost and wounded souls, availing himself of every opportunity to impart comfort to the stricken faithful.
Not having been able to attend Mass for three weeks on account of the widespread arrest of the local clergy ahead of the President’s visit, Dr Abbas is grateful to Elijah for celebrating the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom at the apartment’s kitchen table (39; at their final meeting, the Pope had conveniently granted Elijah bi-ritual faculties). As they relax on the balcony afterwards, Elijah is for once not obliged to step into pastoral top gear, as Dr Abbas tells the story of his own conversion from Islam, in which a blind Lebanese Christian boy, Gabriel, who was tragically shot dead in communal violence, played a pivotal role, enacting the triumph of forgiveness over hate (42-61). Unlike Pope Bergoglio, who is viscerally opposed to proselytism, O’Brien is much into conversion to Christ, with one sensitive partial exception that we shall discuss below.
Rested from their arduous hike, Elijah and Enoch head into Jerusalem intent on coming face to face with the President at the Temple wall, the former sporting a convincing disguise as he wears a prayer shawl (tallith) and black velvet cap (kippah) provided by Dr Abbas. Planning to meet at an agreed location, the two brothers in religion resolve to enter the Old City at different points, Enoch succeeding in getting through the Damascus Gate while Elijah is detained at the Dung Gate by guards understandably suspicious that one of such obviously Jewish appearance is travelling on a Vatican City passport. As he stares the failure of his mission in the face, Elijah is dramatically rescued through the intervention of a well-connected middle aged woman who takes him into her chauffeur-driven car and whisks him off to her luxurious villa somewhere in the Judean countryside. A fabulously wealthy Austrian national shaped through and through by the 1960s, Karin has gone through four marriages and several abortions, and has become adept at covering up her inner emptiness with high culture and all the perks of the super-rich. As a former student of David Schäfer’s wife, Ruth, Karin had followed Father Elijah for several decades past, thus recognising him as he was apprehended at the Dung Gate. The motives for her philanthropy toward the pursued Carmelite become plain during the course of their afternoon visit in her home: her family and the President’s were closely connected, so that his venom had paralysed her for decades prior to her meeting with Elijah. Both only children, they were acquainted from their youth, she thinking of him as “the Prince”. When she was 15 and he 21, she happened upon him practising sickening cruelty on some turtles and suffered brutal rape from him. Threatened of the dire consequences of ever revealing this crime, she thereafter moved in his circles, having some affinity in this respect with Anna Benedetti, the murdered Italian judge. As Karin cynically lays her life story before Elijah, she appears hardened in unbelief, an instance of the description of inborn sin and its inexorable consequences in the novel’s prologue; at this stage she considers her fall her ascent and her darkness light (15). Typically of O’Brien’s narrative artistry, by story’s end Karin is re-entering upon her baptismal grace, exchanging human fear of the President for filial fear of the Father.
Before being driven back to his lodgings, Elijah promises to make every effort to attend a party Karin will be throwing in Jerusalem for various notables on the evening of the fourth day of the President’s visit, when he will be off working his magic in Tehran. Elijah spends day three in solitary devotion at the apartment, with no sign of Enoch, who has not returned from the Old City. Nor does he show up during day four, which Elijah spends quietly anticipating the evening gathering. The mansion at which the party is held turns out to be one of Karin’s many homes, and the social event is in some ways a reprise of the dinner in a Roman palazzo at which Elijah had first met Anna Benedetti some years previously. Dressed in suit and tie and still wearing rabbinical accoutrements, Elijah veils but does not deny his priestly identity. His nagging worry that Karin will use this occasion to deliver him to the security forces proves happily unfounded, and Elijah goes through the evening overhearing the conversation of an unbelieving famous writer with an inflated ego (106-109), entering into deep conversation with a pious but somewhat unconventional Israeli professor (111-115), undergoing a brief encounter with the British ambassador to Israel whose erudition is eclipsed by his loyalty to the President’s “vision” (118-121), having a pastoral conversation with a Japanese woman cellist who is a devotee of Our Lady of Akita (122-124), and finally confronting a German cardinal of the Vettore persuasion strangely attired in civvies atop which a scarlet zucchetto strangely perches, while he wears an episcopal ring on his right hand (124-131). This cardinal archbishop had spent too much time with Walter Kasper and, if he was present at the 2013 conclave, certainly cast his vote for Jorge Bergoglio. As Karin visits with Elijah in between these conversations, her ambivalent sentiments toward the President become ever plainer; like Anna before her, he has no illusions about the evil purposes lurking hardly a millimetre beneath the President’s surface bonhomie.
On his late night walk back to Al Sheikh Jarrah, Elijah stops to pray outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he meets with Father David, a young American priest, just ordained, who is greatly downcast over the state of the Church. After Elijah reveals his true identity, the old bishop and the new priest console each other with prayer and the mutual impartation of Christ’s blessing (135-145); mercifully, the apostate cardinal is not the only face of the RC ministerium. Once again, there is no sign of Enoch at the apartment, and an extended description of the thoughts and prayers of the old Carmelite affords O’Brien opportunity to voice his own eschatological musings (145-153). Are the two witnesses of Rv 11 specific individuals (within the parameters of this novel, Elijah and Enoch themselves) or symbolic of many persons over an extended period? I appreciate O’Brien’s Jein.
The morning of day five, when the President has an engagement on the West Bank, sees Elijah woken up by a young Arab boy rapping at the door; the lad’s cleft palate makes it difficult to understand his rapid Arabic, but Elijah eventually makes out a message from Enoch, telling him to make haste to Ramallah, over ten kilometres away, which the weary but determined monk does on foot in the space of three hours. O’Brien devotees will be unsurprised by the skilfully wrought subplot that comes in between the walk to Ramallah and Elijah’s meeting up with Enoch (159-172).
Reaching the teeming centre of Ramallah, Elijah is diverted by the voice of his guardian angel, who conducts him to a hotel where he ends up in the presence of the owner, a sinister figure, originally from the Ukraine, who runs an empire of crime with tentacles on several continents, seemingly enjoying the unbounded power he wields through the exercise of targeted terror, but in reality imprisoned by crippling loneliness and crushed down by guilt. Elijah is given to read his heart and tell him the story of his life in which a childhood victim became an adult predator; his interlocutor wonders whether he is a shaman! Viktor (whose real name is Petro) orders the strange old man out of his presence, bundled into a car, and driven to a gravel road to be shot in the back of the neck. In an act of mercy of which the aged Carmelite had no inkling, the stunned master criminal had quietly ordered his henchmen to fire blanks, with the result that Elijah is left bound and gagged, managing to free himself and to walk a few unsteady yards before Enoch comes uphill to meet him.
Enoch has found Elijah on one of the two mountains surrounding Ramallah, and the two set off for the other mountain, on which the President is holding forth before his entranced followers. By the time they enter the intervening city, the President’s event is winding down, and the two monks hear the distant cheering before seeing the Man of Sin’s helicopter taking off into the sky (176). Enoch, who had prudently spent the last couple of days in Ramallah staying ahead of the pursuing security forces, had met up with a young friend, an Arab convert boy (ironically, actually providentially, the one who had deprived him of vision in one eye during a riot eight years previously, 235-238), arranging to meet him at a certain spot should he and Elijah return from the encounter they hoped to have with the President. Amal is accordingly on site to pick up the two Carmelites and take them to a farmhouse out in the country, which has turned into an informal, loosely structured religious community known as the House of Reconciliation presided over by an elderly Coptic Catholic widow, Katherine Shafiq, who had been a university teacher of art history during her professional life. The remainder of day five and the whole of day six are taken up with two Masses, the hearing of lots of confessions, communal eating and festivities, and encounters between Elijah and men and women from a variety of cultures, all but one of whom are witnesses to the light amid the encircling gloom (178-230). In some ways these pages set out as it were the bright spots in O’Brien’s State of the Church report, showing the vibrant reality of the mystical union that he had pinpointed earlier in his narrative: “Goodness was everywhere, he thought, and the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the souls of believers was a power greater than the serpent now coiling itself around mankind, seeking to devour everything” 145). In a conversation that appeared in veiled form in a Canadian Lutheran article published six
eighteen years ago,* John Kleinig once told me that, in his experience, three things had to go on for conversions to take place: people must be prayed for; they must see the Christian life modelled before their eyes; and they must experience worship. Readers of O’Brien’s account of the communal life presided over by the elderly Coptic woman might reflect on the marked overlap between his Roman Catholic and Kleinig’s Lutheran spirituality. Not that O’Brien views even the livelier segments of his Church through rose-coloured spectacles: am I wrong in sensing that he takes aim at a contemporary Irish visionary who enjoys some fame, a lady by the name of Christina Gallagher (202-210)?
On day seven, Elijah rose early and celebrated what would be his last Mass here on earth; afterwards the Arab boy Amal drove Enoch and himself into Jerusalem, receiving Enoch’s forgiveness for damaging his sight in the riot referred to earlier—the supernatural healing of the lay brother’s eye in the cave at Ephesus is a tangent on which we need not currently embark. The general public and the tourists thronging Jerusalem were expecting this to be a quiet day, a prelude to the much-trumpeted event to be held on the Temple Mount upon the morrow. But in a moment of garrulousness the apostate German cardinal archbishop had let slip that a significant gathering would take place at the Western Wall upon the seventh day, out of the public eye yet to be videoed for posterity. Initially, the archbishop offered to procure a ticket for Elijah, whom he took to be a harmless elderly Jew, but backed away from this commitment once the disguised Carmelite betrayed his true colours (129f.). The narrator recalls the archbishop’s slipup as he brings Elijah and Enoch into the Old City after Amal has dropped them off (236), but unless I missed it, Elijah does not explicitly inform Enoch of the secret agenda of the day. Even so, Enoch seems to pick up by supernatural means the necessity to gain access to the Western Wall in order that the two witnesses might complete their mission. Finding an unusually heavy guard barring access to this part of the Old City, the two calmly seek an entry point, which opens up for them when a generically Middle Eastern-looking boy of twelve “dressed in a white shirt and trousers and wearing sandals” (242) bade them follow him—you can count on the archangel Raphael to find a way when all other doors bang shut in your face! The boy leads them into an apartment building, at whose rear is the plaza of the Western Wall; the lock at the back window comes apart in Elijah’s hand, and the two realise that their helper is not of this earth. “‘Pray to your Saviour to unlock men’s hearts,’ he said to them. ‘Pray that the sea will be parted, that you may speak the word you bear.’ Enoch and Elijah nodded, their hearts beating hard, for they knew that the person before them was of a rank of beings who had not needed a saviour. Material or immaterial, he was real” (243).
From their window the two Carmelites espy an array of world religious leaders taking their seats in a section of the plaza, noting how they can easily descend from their perch to the area marked off as the landing pad for the President’s imminently expected helicopter. Noting how symbols of all religions are displayed before the religious leaders in a display that would do King Manasseh proud, Elijah begins to offer prayers of exorcism. From this point in the narrative, O’Brien draws heavily on Vladimir Soloviev’s vision of the end in his “Short History of the Antichrist,” an unforgettable tale that has gripped me these forty years past. As Soloviev had foreseen, leading representatives of Rome, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism succumb all too readily to the blandishments of Antichrist. Accordingly, leading clergy from these three severed branches of Christ’s earthly flock gladly converge with representatives of other religions to greet the President as mankind's final deliverer; Elijah is unsurprised to spot his old nemesis, Cardinal Vettore, in their midst (245). And just as Soloviev had foreseen minority resistance to the false saviour among the three branches of Christendom led by Pope Peter, the Elder John, and Professor Pauli, so Elijah’s guardian angel communicates to him the knowledge that he and Enoch are not the only believers present at the President’s syncretistic ceremony: “There are others” (248). O’Brien buys into Lumen Gentium #15, emphasising “brothers” in the phrase fratres sejuncti.
Hoping to escape instant detection from the security forces as the President’s helicopter lands and the welcoming party lines up to greet him, Enoch and Elijah descend onto the plaza to complete their mission, finding unexpected assistance as a Protestant and an Orthodox who have somehow managed to gain admittance break ranks from their apostate colleagues by delivering brief protests to the President. “A young man ran out of the crowd waving a bare white cross and yelling, ‘Antichrist, Antichrist, Antichrist!’” (249). Swiftly apprehended, he was “handcuffed, and carried off still shouting, ‘Abomination, abomination, abomination!’ until he was silenced by a hand across the mouth” (250). While this drama was being enacted, “an elderly, bearded man, barefoot and dressed only in a sackcloth robe, had stepped out of the crowd on the other side, lifting high a bronze Byzantine cross. He got as close as ten feet to the President and cried out in Greek, ‘Anathema, anathema, anathema!’ The guards near him overpowered and disabled him. He too was dragged away” (250).
Now noticed by the shaken security forces, Enoch and Elijah would have been shot on the spot had not their raising their hands in the orans position been understood as a gesture of surrender:
In the confusion of noise and mayhem around the helicopter, the President did not at first notice the two friars. But then Enoch lunged forward and shouted in Arabic, “May Jesus Christ rebuke you, Satan!” Immediately guards fired into the brother’s chest. Blood spurted from Enoch’s body and he fell, crying out once more, “Yasu,” the name of Jesus.
Simultaneously, with his arms still raised, Elijah’s voice boomed,
“Repent, Man of Sin!”
The President had turned to stare at this latest outbreak of disorder. Now he was visibly shaken, his face gripped by sudden fear. As if he and Elijah were alone in the universe, they faced each other across an abyss, though they were but a few feet apart. It was no more than an instant of suspended time, yet within it the final confrontation was made visible. In Elijah’s face there was authority beyond all worldly power. In the President’s there was the shock of recognition.
Elijah cried out, “Turn now, for you are dust, and into dust you will return!” Paralyzed, terrified, his face flaming red, the President opened his mouth to make a retort, but from it there issued nothing. Through his eyes, the hidden spirit that controlled the man roared—a torrent of violent malice, of fire without light, of absolute hatred.
Suddenly the President convulsed, and from his mouth there erupted an unearthly scream.
Calm and fearless, Elijah addressed the spirit:
“He who is faithful and true, the Word of God made flesh, the King of kings and Lord of lords rebukes you, and on the day of his coming he shall destroy you with a breath of his mouth!” (250f).
At this dramatic denouement of the novel (I overcame the temptation to read ahead!), Enoch gains the crown of martyrdom, while Elijah suffers arrest and becomes the victim of all manner of indignity (251-259), like Paul completing in his own flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, the Church (Col 1:24; my point, not O’Brien’s) . Questioned by the Israeli security forces, he undergoes sharp torture, but a doctor’s warning that his heart is weak (259) causes the officers to proceed at less than full capacity. And then, in a life is stranger than fiction twist so typical of O’Brien, Elijah comes to groggy wakefulness to find a very old man, Lev, sitting at the foot of his prison bed, someone who had been his colleague during his years of rising prominence in Israeli public life (261-268). It turns out that the Israeli security forces are not keen to hand over an ostensibly harmless religious crank to their opposite numbers under the command of such a bossy Gentile as the President; moreover, Lev himself has some doubts about the President’s agenda—“I smell another Führer” (265). The decision has therefore been taken “to release you. We are waiting for an ambulance to arrive, and it will bring you to any place you want to go” (264). The House of Reconciliation just north of Kafr Malik will be no problem (267) and, as far as the Israeli State is concerned, “We have no idea who you are and where you’ve gone” (268). The President is denied his prey for once. Remarkably, Elijah will be able to take Enoch’s body with him for burial (264f.). Lev’s involvement is not the only surprise at this stage of the closing tale: he himself had been alerted to Elijah’s plight by Karin, the real puller of the strings (267).
The last chapter of the novel depicts Elijah succumbing to injuries and old age, living only a few days after the Western Wall experience to die in his bed under Katherine’s kindly care (269-280). Dr Abbas administers medical care (271), and now that Elijah can himself no longer impart pastoral care, Fr David, the young priest he had met before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, hears his confession and gives him Holy Communion before presiding over Brother Enoch’s obsequies (271f.); a small world indeed. Karin herself is among his final visitors (273-276). Trying to cling to at least some fragments of her decades-old cynicism, Karin hears the purest Gospel from Elijah’s lips. “For you, Karin, the One who loves you would have died for you alone” (274); there is such a thing as an ecumenical bottom line. Unsurprisingly, given her connections, Karin had been present at the Western Wall on the seventh day. “As I watched you and your friend confront the President, I saw the most powerful man in the world become terrified. Never in my life have I seen him afraid of anything. He wasn’t afraid of being wounded or killed. He was afraid of you—of your presence” (274). Karin has accepted Katherine’s invitation to stay awhile at the House of Reconciliation, a prodigal daughter in the Father’s house at last (275). So Elijah goes to his eternal rest.
Throughout the volume, O’Brien squarely faces the mounting global persecution that now so brutally threatens the mystical body of Christ on every continent. Moreover, he lays the utmost stress on conversions taking place under what outwardly appear to be the most unlikely circumstances, and he depicts masterfully in narrative form the reality of the mystical union. Rather than supply pages numbers to support these assertions, I would encourage people to acquire and read the novel; my purpose is to whet appetites, not still them.
Two footnotes conclude this brief review of O’Brien’s luminous tale, which brings the story of David Schäfer-cum-Father Elijah to its needed conclusion.
First, very much in the flow of Lumen Gentium #16 and Nostra Aetate, O’Brien acknowledges the salvation of ethnic Jews apart from explicit faith in Jesus the Messiah of Israel; this thread in his narrative appears most brightly in the accounts given of David’s wife, Ruth, and their unborn daughter. As I said in my LTR review of the first two volumes of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, God grant that it may be so. Amen. But He does not promise what O’Brien and undoubtedly the huge majority of contemporary Roman Catholics take for granted. The tiny remnant of orthodox Lutherans in the world need to recall our Roman Catholic counterparts, of whom O’Brien is a leading lay representative, to the sureties of the potentia ordinata over against the uncertain speculations of the potentia absoluta. After all, the New Testament nowhere says that the apostleship to the circumcision died out with Peter. And who can gainsay the old traditionalist RC lady who corrected even her Pope when she said to me at the St Catharines market, “Everyone needs Jesus!”?
Secondly, let us briefly acknowledge the elephant in the living room. If the conclave of 2013 had turned out differently, O’Brien would still get entangled in the complications of supposing that Pope #1 is still on the throne while Pope #3 is in office. But the startling fact of the matter is that, after the wolves drove out the gentle Benedict XVI, Cardinal Vettore, ut ita dicam (as it were)—who makes an appearance at the end of the tale (245)—followed him on the cathedra Petri, with the result that the Pope of 2018 is an ally, not a foe of the President and his nefarious agenda. As a devout Roman Catholic attuned to the magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (and probably more in sync with the latter than the former), O’Brien clearly did not expect the monkey wrench thrown into the papal works by the accession of Jorge Bergoglio, and he understandably makes no attempt to grasp this nettle as he concludes the tale of Elijah and Enoch. Many priests and layfolk are meanwhile sounding the alarm on this matter, and one can only hope that believing bishops and cardinals would join them in sticking their heads above the parapet rather than keeping them in the sand. To this point, despite his large international readership, Michael O’Brien has not succeeded in rousing the Canadian bishops of his Church from their spiritual slumbers. Goodness, I would give more than a penny for his thoughts on the papal meltdown that day by day goes from bad to worse over in Rome; if those wheels are not off the wagon, what, pray tell, might a disabled vehicle look like?
* “One theologian who, like me, believes that the second century is coming back, says that he has never seen a non-believer come to faith without three things coming together in that person’s life. First, he says the unbeliever must experience the Church at worship. Second, he says he’s never seen someone come to faith without one or more Christians praying for that person. Third, he says he’s never known someone become a Christian without having the Christian life modelled before them by someone who is already a Christian.” JOHN R. STEPHENSON, “The Challenge of the Centuries,” Part Two, Canadian Lutheran 15, 1 (January/February 2000):10.