Book Review: the Luminous Novels of Michael O’Brien

In 2002, St. Pope John II announced the addition of the Mysteries of Light, or the Luminous Mysteries, to the Rosary. These mysteries remind us that the core of our faith is the divinity of Christ wonderfully revealed in human form, human gestures, a human life, human relationships. St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 15, covering the Sermon on the Mount, bears a similar theme: Christ’s acts on earth are acts in heaven. His deeds, words, and existence in time express deeds, words, and existence that are eternal.

This luminous dimension of our faith in Christ has captivated mankind for over two millennia because it corresponds to a natural sense commonly expressed in art, music, and poetry: a painful longing for transcendence, for something beyond, that is impossibly far away but that we sense and experience. The recent novels of Canadian Catholic, iconographer and novelist Michael O’Brien are notable for the way they evoke this luminosity of life and faith, the Mysteries of Light, in a classic and fresh way.

O’Brien’s highly praised novels include themes of faith, suffering, and religious longing. His most famous trilogy includes the novels Father Elijah and Elijah in Jerusalem. In these books, Father Elijah, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and Carmelite monk, is sent on a special mission by the Pope to confront the man they believe to be the Anti-Christ. O’Brien’s power is not just in a plot of biblical proportions, but in his power to create moments of intimacy between characters capture a mysterious light behind their beings as they battle between good and evil. Father Elijah often finds that people open up their darkest secrets to him, telling him the broken horrors of their lives throughout the ravages of the 20th century. He ministers redemption to a dying old man who was not only responsible for the deaths of Jews in concentration camps, but was also a prime agent of horrible suffering in Father Elijah’s own life. With charm like Dickens and power like Steinbeck, O’Brien is thus able to explore the deepest questions of life, suffering, and ultimate meaning through luminous moments of depth and candor.

In another novel, Strangers and Sojourners, O’Brien is similarly able to evoke mystery and a sort of transfiguration of being through the perspective of an agnostic but searching woman, Anne, who toils to overcome her intellectual abstractions about her own life and love her rural family and rough husband in an authentic and real way, which becomes for her, almost by accident, a search for God. It is the beauty of his characters and their interactions, as if grace runs through their very movements, O’Brien brings the splendor of the Christian faith into his fiction with masterful brilliance. Read O’Brien’s novels, and you will be inspired by high Christian art that carries on the genius of a J.R.R. Tolkien, a C.S. Lewis, a Dante in prose.

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