The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
— William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
It may disappoint some Catholics—and more than a few others—that there are no zombies lurking in Michael O’Brien’s latest book, titled The Apocalypse: Warning, Hope & Consolation. Events unfolding in the Apocalypse (Greek for “a revealing” or “unveiling”), as related in scripture, are enough for believers to meditate on without adding legions of ghastly corpses limping and lunging at people. If it falls to each generation to read the signs of the times, then as Catholics we must do so in fidelity to the teachings of Christ and His Church. It is essentially a descriptive act, not a predictive one. And it is never done without hope. In this vein, Michael O’Brien offers his meditations on our age as it relates to Catholic eschatological teaching.
In doing so, O’Brien attempts to fill a gap. As he has it, “The widespread reluctance on the part of many Catholic thinkers to enter into a profound examination of the apocalyptic elements of contemporary life is, I believe, part of the very problem they seek to avoid.” The problem is exacerbated by a culture that usually empties apocalyptic films and fiction of religious meaning and significance. To write or speak seriously about events surrounding the Second Coming of Christ is to run the risk of getting lumped together with doomsayers, preppers, and zombie enthusiasts.
It is, nevertheless, a necessary and urgent task requiring courage and prayerful consideration. O’Brien succeeds wonderfully.
An accomplished artist and prolific author, O’Brien writes with the concision of an essayist and the narrative skill of a novelist. It is a bit surprising that such a big topic fits in such a little book (by contrast, his novel Father Elijah: An Apocalypse is nearly six hundred pages). He offers some “stimulus for reflection” rather than an encyclopedic summary of Catholic eschatology. He neglects later popular accretions and academic commentaries in favor of significant passages from scripture and discerning selections from Newman, Pieper, Dawson, Pope Paul VI, and others.
It is a striking feature of this book that no matter how many times one has read Paul’s letters, the Old Testament prophets, or the words of Jesus Himself regarding the end of time, there is a force and clarity to them when gathered together. O’Brien allows the voices of spiritual authority to speak to us directly. And the effect is most powerful.
The book contains six chapters, the last of which is a supplemental selection of readings. O’Brien is careful not to overwhelm the reader with a doctrinal information dump. Instead, he generously weaves scripture and eschatological commentary among his reflections on the present age. On the whole, it makes for easier reading and better understanding. The second chapter, Various Questions, is perhaps the weakest part of the book. The trouble is not the question and answer format (which often works very well when discussing difficult or unfamiliar subjects), it just seems more like an interruption of O’Brien’s narrative. It would have better served as an appendix.
Unsurprisingly, the Book of Revelation figures prominently throughout The Apocalypse. But O’Brien distinguishes it from any kind of “schematic diagram or a flat blueprint or a purely linear time-line.”
“It is,” he says, “a mysterious multi-dimensional vision” that has chronological aspects. Its topological dimensionality renders exclusively linear interpretations misleading and ridiculous. History is littered with lunatics and liars whose deceptions we’ve been warned against. But we are not to sit on our hands and wait for the fireworks either. The Incarnation initiated the Last Days and the fulfillment of the Church’s missionary mandate is a precursor to the end (Matt 24:14). So there is much to do. And each of us, O’Brien encourages, must pick up our cross follow Christ. Knowledge, the summit of salvation for the neo-Gnostics of our age, will not save the Christian.
Of signal concern for O’Brien is the rise of “soft totalitarianism” in our century “through cultural and economic pressures of unprecedented power.” It clears the way for the “institutionalization of evil from top to bottom in our society” which “has been absorbed into our consciousness as the ordinary.” It is a sign of the times, he argues, that “on so many issues, man is now calling evil good, and good evil.” He cites abortion as an obvious but telling example of pervasive perversity in our societal understanding of moral goods. It is, then, these anti-Christian forces (inside and outside the Church) that pave the way for the Antichrist and the persecution of the Church.
How will this be achieved? O’Brien believes the corrosive power of these precursive forces will destabilize civilization, “creating the external conditions and the internal psychological cosmos that make men vulnerable to a new ‘messiah.’ It will be accomplished through multiple combinations of erosion and full frontal attack—by seducing us through lies and flattery and unceasing propaganda, and by the relentless social revolution that is dismantling the moral foundations of the West.”
Though we do not know the hour of Antichrist’s arrival, we are given to know of its quality. Examples of such forces already at work in the world abound. One has only to turn on the news.
If the hour was late two millennia ago, then it is later still. Technology, in the service of evil, acts as an accelerant to the deadfall that was once a life-giving moral order. One sees, especially after reading O’Brien’s book, the shadow of Spiritus Mundi lengthening over all. The road darkens. Will weakens. “The falcon,” Yeats wrote, “cannot hear the falconer.”
And yet we do not despair. We are to remain in hope of our redemption, standing erect. O’Brien encourages us to seek the consolation of faith in the One who is, was, and is to come, at the end of the ages.
The Apocalypse: Warning, Hope & Consolation
By Michael D. O’Brien
Wiseblood Books, 2018
Paperback, 172 pages
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