©2009, Randall A. Beeler
Today, we are living though a kind of "emergency" in [education], and it is necessary to increase our efforts in order to ensure that people, and above all the new generations, receive a valid formation … [We must ensure that candidates to the priesthood] are given a solid and rigorous spiritual and theological formation, and receive due guidance as they undertake a serious and profound examination of the divine call. The current situation of our society requires a particularly attentive discernment. (Pope Benedict XVI, from "Ad Limina Address to Catholic Bishops of Belarus")
The Faith Formation that Our Holy Father calls for is underway in an unexpected place—flowing from the pen and brush of a writer and artist whom the secular media overlooks but to whom Catholics are flocking: Michael D. O'Brien.
His bestselling Father Elijah continues to open the eyes of the faithful across the world. O'Brien and his wife are faithful Catholic artists, whose careers were verging on success in the secular art world. But, even with a burgeoning family, the two made a conscious decision to concentrate on religious themes, for which their work was summarily dismissed by the worldly media.
Some 15 years ago, O'Brien was prostrate before the exposed Eucharist, calling out to God for an answer to the spiritual miasma that had descended upon the world (much as does his character, Father Ron, in Eclipse of the Sun), and the Lord filled O'Brien with the story that became Father Elijah.
Finishing the massive work in only eight months, O'Brien promptly stored it away, letting only a friend here and there read it. Their enthusiastic reception (and the serendipity of the Spirit) led to Ignatius Press' publishing it, and the rest is another page in the rich history of Catholic literature.
Father Elijah's protagonist is David Schäfer, a one-time Hasidic Jew, ripped from his family in the Nazi-imposed Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw. Upon escaping the holocaust, Schäfer becomes active in the Zionist movement, adopting a secular life that is leading him to world power. On the heels of the tragic destruction of his wife and child, he finds solace in a Carmelite monastery, where he becomes a priest. The book opens with his summons to the Vatican, by the Pope himself, who asks Schäfer to serve as the Papal emissary to a man whom the Pope believes might be antichrist, a man in whose position Schäfer himself might have been in, had he continued on the road to power.
Written in the first half of the 1990s, Father Elijah is eerily predicative of world events since that time. Instead of being a sensationalist pot-boiler apocalyptic novel like the execrable Left Behind series, Father Elijah offers a Tolkien-meets-Dostoevsky eucatastrophic vision of how even the most unimaginable sufferings pour forth God's grace.
As O'Brien's life has been filled with comic turns, so his literary and artistic worldview is comic—but by no means "lightweight." No, O'Brien's novels and icons bear the gravitas of what Flannery O'Connor calls "the price of restoring good in the face of evil."
Such is the faith formation that enables O'Brien's writings and paintings to have—and to impart—the "attentive discernment" of a "creative minority" that is itself the comic vision of Pope Benedict XVI. O'Brien's paintings and novels are exactly what Vatican II envisioned when the Council Fathers sought the Church to engage the modern world.
O'Brien's work does not compromise with the world. He does nothing in the erstwhile and abused "spirit of Vatican II" that has run rampant all over Church teaching. Nor do his efforts represent a "traditionalist backlash" against the abuses attempted by those who misread Vatican II.
Rather, Michael D. O'Brien is a living example of reading Vatican II and the Church's engagement with the world via a "hermeneutic of continuity." If O'Brien's works are visionary, they are so only insofar as he and his wife are Catholics abundantly faithful to the Magisterium, despite what it costs them in their engagement with—and suffering at the hands of—a world bent on an ultimately slavery to a false materialistic and demonic nightmare.
Yet, as O'Brien's hauntingly beautiful paintings and prose reveal, a la Flannery O'Connor, "the devil lays the groundwork for grace," and, a la J. R. R. Tolkien, the only road to the Fourth Age goes to and beyond the Cracks of Doom in Mordor.
Read this artist's works. You will not forget them. They brought me back to the Church. Back to my senses. Back home, beyond the perils of my own Mount Orodruin.