Beginning in 1996 with Father Elijah, Michael O'Brien—a devout Roman Catholic; a Canadian; a painter and writer—has been publishing a series of novels with the collective title, Children of the Last Days. Father Elijah is the story of Elijah Schafer, a Roman Catholic priest, a convert from secular Judaism, chosen by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring one last witness of God's mercy to the Antichrist himself. Set in the end of days, it finished with Elijah heading towards his prophesied martyrdom.
Due not only to the gravity of its themes but to its spirited writing, it was a tough book to follow with not just one but five others (O'Brien had projected both the number and subject of each of the novels from the beginning). O'Brien has been, in many ways, learning on the job. From the beginning he has been superb at forming full and powerful characters, with rich interior lives. And he has been simply unexcelled at writing about the importance of everyday life, unveiling for his readers the spiritual power of our simplest decisions and our casual commitments. O'Brien's focus on the spirituality of the everyday, not to mention his far superior writing, is what sets these books apart from dispensational novels like the Left Behind series—not to mention his very strongly held conservative Roman Catholicism, which is all-pervasive in his novels.
In A Cry of Stone, the fifth novel in the series, O'Brien has done his best work yet. This is a remarkable book, if for no other reason than for the wonderful and compelling character of its protagonist, Rose Wabos, an Ojibwa girl who grows into a solemn, winsome young woman in the course of the novel.
Born with a curved spine, abandoned by a mother she never knows, Rose is raised by her grandmother, Mary. Their love for each other is achingly described, and in a book filled with loves, theirs is perhaps most beautiful of all. They live in what can only be described as grinding poverty, but here O'Brien does one of the most wonderful things of the novel. While not pretending that their conditions are not miserable, he shows nonetheless their happiness without ever slipping into condescension.
O'Brien's great theme is the power of God seen in the weak. "Bent is the shape of love," Rose thinks once of her aging grandmother. The people around her who seem most straight turn out to be deeply twisted; and her bent spine holds together a vessel that brings grace and peace to those in need. But the actual pain that her deformed back gives her represses any pride that she might have in her brokenness. Her twistedness is not an accessory of virtue; it actually hurts, and makes her life one lived against a continual backdrop of ache, with spasms of agony.
Rose is an artist, and O'Brien has put a great deal of his artistic life in this book. It is not so much that he writes about pastels, oils, and the nature of tempera, though he does do that. The most important things he shares of his knowledge of art in A Cry of Stone are not techniques, but ways of seeing things. Rose from her childhood is blessed with a spiritual gift that she calls "falling into seeing," a prophetic knowledge of another person's heart. Her "falling into seeing" also enables her to see all the world around her as it actually is. In a wonderful scene when her painting class is studying the French artist Gericault's The Raft of Medusa, the following interchange occurs:
"It is as if the whole world is the sea," she said, "and the raft is the wreckage of a great ship that went down at the beginning of the world."
The professor's eyebrows raised.
"We are the survivors."
Her ability to see is related to her striving for. She knows more of pain and of the bitter things of life than most do or would want to do. Nor are these things accepted as if they caused no hurt. Like her bent spine, the events of her life cause her pain and suffering. Throughout the novel O'Brien follows moments of sweetness in Rose's life with moments of hurt, pain, and despair. It sounds a bit like a soap opera, when put like that. But Rose is meant to be a servant of the King of Kings, and O'Brien does not spare his creation from the same way of pain that the king himself took when he came into his own creation, and it knew him not.
The Raft of the Medusa summarizes the difference between sacrificial suffering and the suffering that leads only to despair. Rose is delighted to learn that Gericault painted his powerful work to show the moment when the survivors of the Medusa saw the rescue ship approaching after they had endured weeks of unimaginable suffering. In like manner, she is able to endure her suffering because she trusts that the rescue attempt on Earth has already begun.
In this season of Epiphany, here is a book alive with wonder at the Incarnation of God and its powerful work in the life of believers. Here is a beautiful depiction of another rose growing up amidst the world's thorns.
Albert Louis Zambone, a D.Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A Cry of Stone is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information is available from the publisher.
O'Brien's web site has more information about the artist.
Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
Baptized in Fire | A new book on Martin Luther King, Jr., emphasizes his spiritual transformation. (Jan. 19, 2004)
O'Connor v. the Antichrist (Jan. 12, 2004)
Moody, the Media, and the Birth of Modern Evangelism | A cautionary tale. (Jan. 05, 2004)
A Few Coming Attractions from 2004 | Plus: What to buy with those gift cards, and some of the books in my to-read stacks. (Dec. 29, 2003)
The Top Ten Books of 2003 | Plus: The Worst Book of the Year, more good reading, digital books, and a little Christmas music. (Dec. 22, 2003)
Books at Warp Speed | We continue our annual roundup of noteworthy books. (Dec. 15, 2003)
Is "Sensual Orthodoxy" a Contradiction in Terms? | Read this unconventional collection of sermons and judge for yourself. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Books, Books, Books! | We begin our annual roundup. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Urban Eden | In City: Urbanism and Its End, a new history of New Haven, Connecticut, the city (in its late 19th-century form) is an ambiguous heaven-and the suburbs that relentlessly followed are hell. Which leaves us where, exactly? (Dec. 01, 2003)
Cool Drink of Water | A poet's voice in the evangelical wilderness.
Faith, Hope, and Charity in North Carolina | New novels by Michael Morris—whose first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, was a word-of-mouth hit— and Jan Karon, who continues her beloved Mitford saga. (Nov. 17, 2003)
Remember Afghanistan? | Two inside reports. (Nov. 10, 2003)
The Troubled Conscience of a Founding Father | An Imperfect God examines George Washington and slavery. (Oct. 27, 2003)
The Year of the Fish | The 2003 baseball season concludes with a bang—and 2004 is just around the corner. (Oct. 27, 2003)
I Shop, Therefore I Am | Critics of "consumer culture" are all wet, Virginia Postrel says. The riot of choices available to us resonates with our deepest aesthetic instincts (Oct. 20, 2003)
Back to the Future | A sprawling new novel by the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon goes to the 17th century to investigate the birth of the modern world. (You won't be surprised to learn that the Puritans are among the Bad Guys.) (Oct. 13, 2003)
Poetry, Prayer, and Parable | The playful provocations of Scott Cairns (Oct. 06, 2003)
Terrorists on Trial | How the nation responded to an earlier attack. (Sept. 29, 2003)
The Contemplative Christian | Eugene Peterson calls believers to a life lived with "wholeness, honesty, without contrivance"-against the grain of much that's currently driving the church in America. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Recalling California | Want to understand what's going on in the Golden State? Toss your newsmagazines and pick up Joan Didion's new book (Sept. 22, 2003)
The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On | How Christians can make a difference in the upside-down world of graduate school (Sept. 15, 2003)
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 8, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)