Monday, December 21, 2009

Thanks to Michael O’Brien, for this Advent Gift

Posted by Webster 
I am the world’s slowest reader. I love long novels. Go figure. The two Catholic novels I have enjoyed most are very long. Still first on my list is Kristin Lavransdatter (1100+ pages), which I wrote about here and here. But closing fast is Island of the World (800+), which I finished today.

Kristin is a woman’s story written by a woman, 1928 Nobelist Sigrid Undset. Island, by present-day Canadian novelist Michael O’Brien, is all man—the life story of a Croatian peasant boy displaced by World War II and again by the Tito regime that followed. But the books have a lot in common. Each follows an entire life, from early childhood to death; and each of the lives—Kristin in 14th century Norway and Josip Lasta in the 20th century Balkans—ends dedicated to Jesus Christ and his Church, but only after a torturous odyssey.

Island is truly an odyssey. Through a series of horrific trials, a boy/youth/man raised in a Christian culture becomes desperately disillusioned; then, through a series of minor miracles, he comes back to the Catholic faith. The key, it seems, is waiting faithfully. As the author reminds us near page 800, a thousand years are as a day to God, and a day is as a thousand years. If we look for the cause and effect of grace, if we expect grace to heed deadlines, we’re going to be disappointed.

The miracle of Island of the World is that despite the most terrible sufferings—beginning with the annihilation of Josip’s family by Partisan guerrilas (and I’m only giving away the tip of the iceberg)—Josip arrives at a hard-won salvation. This takes every bit of patience he can muster. But God is always patient. “Much good begins in us before we learn to know its name,” an elderly Josip says to himself. ”Our Father is patient with us, for he loves us.”

Or as Josip writes to a loved one near the end of novel, “It seems to me now that even terrible absences can become a blessing if we do not lose heart, if we keep swimming in the many waters of God’s grace, if we give him time, if we permit a little space for his mercy.”

A bit further on, Josip shares the short “prayer/counsel” he tries to live by:

Seek nothing for yourself.
Stand ready to serve
in quietness,
demanding nothing, expecting nothing, 
sacrificing and praying without anyone knowing.

Island of the World was recommended to me first by Father Barnes, then by two fellow parishioners at St. Mary’s, Julie and Elizabeth. Father has recommended other books that I have not read—The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin and a book by Adrienne von Speyr, the title of which escapes me. So I’m glad I finally took him up on Island, which I bought while on retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. (There’s a great Catholic book shop at the abbey.)

For more details on Island of the World, check out the Web page put up by publisher Ignatius Press, which includes blurbs from luminaries like Peter Kreeft. Next on my novel reading list is O’Brien’s Father Elijah, also from Ignatius Press and recently recommended by Randy Beeler, who calls Michael O’Brien the “best living Catholic novelist.” I can’t disagree.