Friday, March 27, 2020

Lessons from Father Elijah

"It is a dark century ... To look into this darkness and see there the victory of Christ is the essence of hope."

My life today feels very different from the way it was just two weeks ago.  Two Fridays ago, I took our youngest two children to a science museum.  It was a carefree, leisurely outing.  We saw butterflies and played with bubbles.  Our oldest two were in school.  We were looking forward to a weekend of getting together with some friends and attending Mass at our parish.  Life felt normal and comfortable.

Today I spent the morning homeschooling our oldest two since their school has been closed due to the coronavirus.  I have no idea when school will reopen--if it even will reopen this academic year.  No one has left the house all week, except to play in the backyard.  All plans, socializing, events, and gatherings are cancelled.  Life is completely abnormal and unpredictable right now.

In the midst of all of this, one morning the news reported an earthquake in our area (upstate NY, so definitely an unusual occurrence).  I remarked to my Mom whether this is the end of the world.  At the time, I was saying it in jest.  But now, with the world in turmoil due to the coronavirus ... I start to wonder.

Father Elijah by Michael O'Brien is a Catholic, apocalyptic novel.  One of the fascinating points made in the book is the concept that those who are living in the end times, may not actually recognize it as the end times.  The book of Revelation speaks of huge, jarring events, but this language is also symbolic.  The Antichrist is a figure that rises again and again throughout history.  We may be in the end times right now.  

"The spirit of Antichrist has been present from the beginning.  Saint John says to the believers of his time that they are living in the final hour.  In a sense, all of the Christian era is the last days."

The protagonist, Father Elijah, is no stranger to suffering.  A Jewish boy living in Poland during World War II, he lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  He later became a political leader in Israel, but eventually found his way to the monastery at Carmel.  He converted to Catholicism and became a monk, separated from the world for twenty years.  

As the book opens, Father Elijah is summoned to Rome to meet with the pope.  Elijah finds the world much changed from how he remembered.  The culture of death looms large and there is a strong anti-clerical bias.  The President of Europe has captivated people, but the pope fears that his anti-religion message that deifies man, will ultimately destroy them all.  The pope asks Elijah to become acquainted with the President, to gain his confidence with the hope of warning him against this danger.  

"In those days the world had its evil masters, Nero, Tiberius, and Domitian.  But even amidst the collapse of civilization, the world was crawling out of darkness.  We are sliding back into it, and that is the difference.  Our autocrats are not vicious tyrants.  They are the architects of worldpower; and they manipulate all the resources of modern psychology to control the soul of man and make him an instrument of their purpose." 

Can Elijah convert the man who may be the Antichrist?  And, in the process, will Elijah lose his own soul?  This is rampant spiritual warfare.  In one gripping scene, Elijah is conversing with the Cardinal Secretary of State in secret, hidden in a private catacomb.  The door outside suddenly slams, extinguishing their sole candle.  The room fills with a horrid stench and Elijah's soul is filled with morbid dread.  

"It began in earnest some time ago.  The deadliest part of the battle is hidden.  Some of it is above our heads in the heavenly realms where the righteous angels battle against the demons.  But there is much unseen warfare on earth."

The President is an ominous foe.  His personality is effusive, dynamic, and compelling.  Elijah himself feels as though he falls under the President's power.  This President is also onto him: he is fully aware of Elijah's mission and plans, since he had a listening device secretly installed in the reliquary that the Cardinal Secretary of State keeps tucked against his chest.  

The President has his own ploy.  He would like to convert Elijah to his cause and the way to do that is through Elijah's heart.  The President solicits a world judge named Anna to secretly woo Elijah and made him fall in love with her.  

This is a spiritual battle on the grand scale (the world), but also on the individual scale.  There is a gripping scene--paralleling Dostoyevsky's the Grand Inquisitor--where Elijah dialogues with a bedridden, spiritually crippled atheist.  He is on his deathbed and Elijah fights for the man's soul as his death nears.  It is an intellectual back-and-forth of ideas and philosophies.  But it is an act of love only that can move this bitter man's heart.

Meanwhile, Elijah must face his own demons.  He has his own spiritual wounds.  Where was God during the Holocaust?  Even though God has given Elijah countless signs and graces, he still questions.  As the apocalypse nears, God asks him to step into the literal darkness and reach the dramatic point where he realizes--despite his accomplishments, his knowledge, his talents and gifts--"I know nothing."  And that is precisely when God says that Elijah has learned everything.

This is a novel that will stay with me for a long time.  From a literary point of view, it has passages that are suspenseful and page turning.  For example, at one point, Elijah finds himself wanted by the police for murder.  The political and spiritual threats are very real.  From a spiritual point of view, there is a keen sense of sacramental grace and heavenly assistance.  Some characters feel very familiar: the pope is modeled on St. John Paul II and there is a friar who is reminiscent of Saint Padre Pio.  The passages of prayer dialogue between Elijah and Our Lord are sincere and heartfelt.  For example, Our Lord says to Elijah,

I ask you to fear nothing.  I have brought you forth like a brand from the burning in order to address the foe and for the good of many souls.  I carry you always.  You must trust Me especially during times of desolation.

Today we are in the midst of desolation--a health and financial crises.  But it is also a spiritual crisis, too.  Our churches are closed.  There is no Eucharist.  The days feel dark. 

God wants us to enter into Christ's words, "I thirst."  We need to feel that thirst for God.  We can look into this darkness and see Christ's victory.  And that, ultimately, is the good news of the apocalypse.  

"In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the word" (John 16:33).

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