Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Apocalyptic Rhetoric in the Literature of Michael D. O'Brien

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Apocalyptic Rhetoric in the Literature of Michael D. O'Brien

Article excerpt

CANADIAN AUTHOR Michael D. O'Brien is one of the most prolific English-speaking Catholic authors living today. Speaking of the beauty of O'Brien's works, Peter Kreeft states that "a thousand pages of Michael O'Brien is like a thousand sunrises." (1) In contrast to other famous Catholic authors like Walker Percy or Flannery O'Connor, his novels are not gritty or dark, for his project is different from theirs. As Clemens Cavallin recently noted in the pages of Logos, O'Brien utilizes a realism that transcends the reductionist categories of modern realist literature. (2) Along these lines, speaking through a character, O'Brien explains modern realism as holding that "a man is real only if he betrays a vow, leaves a monastery, or cheats on his wife. Then he is a real flesh-and-blood fellow." (3) Though there is an aspect of truth to this type of realism, the darkness of evil and sin does not encompass all of reality, for the light of goodness and beauty also exists. O'Brien's novels, rather, could be considered to be "romantic" Catholic novels, such as one that is described in the following manner in O'Brien's Father Elijah: "The struggle between light and darkness was in it, and the author had taken care to bring his characters to the brink of absolute hopelessness before rescuing them through the intervention of a saint.... It presented the struggle as relentless and full of appalling twists and turns, but it was uninfected by the existential nausea of twentieth-century fiction." (4) Contrary to Marci Whitney-Schenck's analysis of O'Brien's Father Elijah, O'Brien's romanticism is not a form of idealism, nostalgia, or naivete. (5) O'Brien explains through a character that "the believer is not a killjoy. He's in love with life, with all its comforts and all its troubles. The complete Catholic is a kind of romantic--but a very unusual kind of romantic, because he is also a realist." (6) Along these lines, this article analyzes how O'Brien uses the lives of his characters during "apocalyptic" times to reveal the beauty of taking up one's cross and uniting oneself with the will of God. This message of grace and beauty is especially relevant in the current historical moment; as Pope Benedict XVI stated, "the real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects." (7)

O'Brien's overall theme is that of the beauty of God's love as it is revealed through His providential mercy and the freely chosen responses to this mercy. The following words of Father Elijah could be applied to O'Brien himself: a "well-examined" and favorite theme of "serious writers" is "the search for beauty and for love in a fallen world." (8) O'Brien states: "In all my work I seek to contribute to the restoration of Christian culture. I try to express the holiness of existence and the dignity of the human person situated in an incarnational universe." (9) In this way, O'Brien's novels directly correspond to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's claim that "for the faith to grow today, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to come in contact with the beautiful." (10) O'Brien explains that his hope in his works is that "the face of Christ will be visible" through the lives of his characters. (11)

In order to analyze O'Brien's apocalyptic rhetoric, apocalyptic rhetoric must first be defined. Then the apocalyptic scene in which O'Brien's stories take place can be analyzed. Next, O'Brien's use of the immolation of the will as a form of apocalyptic rhetoric is analyzed. Finally, a case study of an individual character from O'Brien's The Father's Tale is developed. Indeed, O'Brien's works are imbued with an apocalyptic rhetoric that reveals the beauty of the experience uniting the sufferings of life to that of Christ's redemptive suffering.

Apocalyptic Rhetoric

O'Brien's stories, generally speaking, take place in "apocalyptic" times in the sense that every generation of the Christian tradition "anticipate[s] the coming of an actual Antichrist. …

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