We begin with Father Elijah being summoned to Rome by the Pope. Father Elijah was an elderly Israeli monk, who managed to escape being sent to the Nazi concentration camps as a child. He prosecuted war criminals as a lawyer, and then after the State of Israel was founded he was a rising star in the government. He married, but two years afterwards his wife was killed by a suicide bomber. Eventually he made his way to the monastery at Mt. Carmel, where he found peace.
As he entered back into society, albeit the somewhat cloistered Vatican, Father Elijah discovered that things had changed over the years, and that the Catholic Church was seen in a very negative light. Signs pointed to the book of Revelation being fulfilled, and the widely acclaimed President of the European Union seemed to be the Antichrist. Furthermore, Catholic publishers around the world were being pressured to print accommodating things in sync with the times and not the dreary old stuff. Even some Cardinals in the Vatican were unfaithful to the traditional faith. The President appeared to have bugs even inside the Vatican.
Father Elijah met his friend Billy, with whom he had studied to become a priest. Billy was attendant to a high-ranking Cardinal (nicknamed Dotrina, since he was in charge of doctrinary affairs), but it became clear that Billy had not mortified the flesh the way Father Elijah had. Their meeting was glad, and Billy accompanied him where possible. He was eventually summoned to see the Pope, who told him that he had selected Father Elijah for a specific mission—to gain an opportunity to offer the President an opportunity to repent and choose salvation. Father Elijah felt completely inadequate, but the Pope had complete confidence in him. The President was also motivated to see Father Elijah, since the President thought that Father Elijah’s desire to prevent another holocaust would offer a springboard for recruitment—think how much more influence he would have in the President’s circle! Of course, Father Elijah had repented of the fatal idea that doing good justified the use of power, but he was still afraid that he would fail the temptation.
Father Elijah and Billy accepted the President’s invitation for a meeting. They arrived at the boat dock, where they were invited to stay the night by the caretaker. Billy indulged in a glass of alcohol, but he ended up developing some illness and was hospitalized. Father Elijah had to take the boat to Capri and continue by himself. He saw one of the Cardinals at the President’s home while he was waiting. The meeting itself did not present the opportunity that Father Elijah hoped; the President steered the meeting, and presented Father Elijah, on behalf of the Vatican, with a manuscript of one of Aristotle’s previously lost works, and this successfully sidetracked Father Elijah on his interest in archaeology.
Billy recovered. Father Elijah reported to the Pope, who observed that the Cardinal had not been given leave to visit the President, so he must be one of the President’s insiders. The Pope also noted that while the manuscript was presumably genuine, it was not a pure copy of Aristotle, but a copy distorted with a philosophical point that made it subtly consistent with the President’s philosophy of a new age of Man. Father Elijah was assigned to teach theology at a school in the Vatican.
Father Elijah did get another invitation to interact with the President, being invited to give a presentation of archaeology at a world conference in Poland. Despite uncertainty, he did follow the Pope’s direction in continuing with his task. He went to Assisi and took comfort from a few days of solitude there. He met an old monk there who encouraged him with a gift of a piece of the True Cross, and they said Mass together for a few of the days. The last day, the monk was not there; he was recovering from wounds that the devil had given him. Seeing him was forbidden, but Father Elijah managed to find his cell. The monk encouraged him again, and Father Elijah realized that he was taking the physical attack from the devil in the place of others, such as Father Elijah. The monk suggested he look at the paintings in a church nearby. When Father Elijah did so, he found it was a painting of the Apocalypse, and it subtly showed a Christ-like figure being whispered to by the devil, which gave Father Elijah the insight he needed about the President.
Father Elijah arrived in Poland several days before the conference, and retraces his steps as a boy, where he evaded the police rounding everyone up to the concentration camp and found the house where the Gentile took him in and housed him in the attack, until someone betrayed them, and he had to flee. The Gentile was sent to the camps instead. The house was owned by an old pre-communist aristocrat, who was an unpleasant man. He gave Father Elijah the key to visit. Afterwards, Father Elijah tried to offer the man salvation and God’s love. The man tried to make Father Elijah loathe him, even going so far as to say that he was the one who betrayed them to the Germans. But Father Elijah was not shocked, and he was able to forgive the man, and so, the man saw God’s love, accepted Christ and did confession and received absolution before he died.
At the conference, Father Elijah saw the President’s fuller vision, which clearly Man-centered. He also met a fellow presenter, Anna, who was a judge at The Hague, who was not excited about the direction of things, too. He fell in love, although since priests are celibate, he did not let his emotions go far. His talk was very definitely a traditional Catholic approach to his topic, and although the conference was televised to the whole world, it seemed that the cameras had not been working. It was also very sparsely attended; the perspective of the Catholic Church was not in sync with the times.
Billy was killed in a car accident under circumstances that seemed suspicious only to Father Elijah and Billy’s supervisor, the Cardinal (one of the faithful). Father Elijah and the Cardinal took to meeting in the “garden”, which was a location in the catacombs outside Rome, to avoid speaking somewhere that was bugged. The first time they had to fight off a demonic attack. However, Father Elijah realized that they were still being bugged, and tracked it down to one of the relics that the Cardinal wore.
Anna had requested that Father Elijah visit her and her daughters because of a difficult situation, and although he declined, she insisted it was important. There she told him that her husband had been killed by someone in the President’s circle, and she was slowly gaining access so that she could take revenge. Father Elijah warned her that this was not safe, but she was convinced it she could navigate it. They met up some time later in Rome, where she had new information: she had found the killer. It was actually through her intuition about the man, rather than the logic that she primarily used, that she discovered him, but she had verified it. The President’s inner circle had demonic nicknames from the Apocalypse, like Abaddon, which confirmed to Father Elijah that the President was, indeed, the Antichrist. He and Anna agreed to communicate via fake love letters, since the President had tasked Anna with wooing Father Elijah.
Shortly afterwards, Anna was killed, but she left incriminating evidence of the President’s involvement in her husband’s murder. Father Elijah retrieved this, but on arriving in Rome, discovered he was wanted for Anna’s murder. He broke into the hospital where Dotrina was hospitalized for advice, and was given his bishop’s ring and a note to get into the back entrance to the Vatican so that he could give the Pope the evidence. With some difficulty he made it to see the Pope and delivered the evidence. The traitorous Cardinal came to see the Pope, who instructed Father Elijah to hide in the closet. The Cardinal made it clear that he did not accept the Papal authority, or the traditions of the church, but the Pope did not budge. Afterwards, the Pope anointed Father Elijah bishop in pectore (in secret) of a quite rural see in northeastern Turkey.
Father Elijah drove across Italy to the charter boat that would take him to his see. On his way, though, he passed the President’s boat dock. He snuck onto the boat at night and boated over to Capri, the island where the bloody Emperor Tiberius once had his palace. He had angelic assistance in the form of a young boy who led him past the defenses into the President’s office. The President turned around to find him, and was not terribly surprised. Father Elijah cast out the demons and offered him a clearly understood opportunity to repent. Then the angel led him back down to the boat. Father Elijah then drove on to the boat, eventually arriving in his see.
Father Elijah said Mass for an appreciative but small community there. He lived a long ways from the village, at an ancient monastery which he was slowly repairing. One day, the prior from his monastery and Mt. Carmel and Brother Ass, the least of the brothers—who was not entirely right in the head. The monastery had been sacked by insurgents. Father Elijah showed them the house where John had brought the Holy Mother Mary to live in to escape the persecutions in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him the cave where she was buried. (He took several people to it, and the people who were more in tune with God recognized it quicker than those who were not. When Dotrina showed up, he understood almost immediately.)
After some dark night of the soul times where Father Elijah felt that God had abandoned him, he realized that God was sending him to Jerusalem, with Brother Ass, who though he was not good at thinking, was very in tune with God. And so, two Witnesses sneak across the border into Israel, walk up the mountains towards Jerusalem, ending in praises to God as they see the Holy City, which, if the sequel follows Revelation, they will have a most interesting time.
The introduction to Father Elijah says that it is a meditation, more than anything else. Indeed, the plot is fairly straightforward, although it does slowly reveal the reality of the President, Anna, and Father Elijah’s past. I dislike anything to do with the “left-behind” view of Revelation, and sdo I procrastinated reading this book that a new friend practically forced on me. I almost quit after 100 pages or so, where it became clear that this is sort of a Catholic Left Behind. But... that is about where it starts being meditative. While the backdrop of the story is preparation for the Great Tribulation—and there is no pre-trib rapture for the Saved here—the book is not about the events of the Apocalypse, it is an enfleshment (so to speak) of the nature of evil and the nature of faith.
In fact, the summary above describes little of the true nature of the book, which is in the conversations between the characters. The prior of the abbey was elected ahead of Father Elijah by one vote, despite him thinking that Elijah was the better candidate. So the prior becomes the spiritual leader of a man who he feels is ahead of him. Father Elijah feels otherwise, and consistently feels like he is not up to the task. But it is his humility that demonstrates that he is the right person, for God’s strength is revealed in our weakness. And in the end, Father Elijah is made bishop, fulfilling the prior’s nighttime dream that he would kneel before Father Elijah. (Which happens when Father Elijah reveals that he was made bishop; apparently the protocol is that the bishop is seated and the “vassal” priest kneels and kisses the ring.)
Likewise, there is the contrast between Billy, who desires holiness but does not have the strength to see it through, and in the end that weakness provides the opportunity for the enemy to destroy him. There is a similar sort of contrast between Father Elijah and the wise old monk, who has become so selfless and so like Christ that he, too, takes in his flesh the pain of others. There is a meditative Catholic beauty to Father Elijah’s humble obedience to his spiritual overseers, the prior and the Pope. There is the beauty in how Father Elijah trust’s Christ even though he is confused, and a beauty in the slow understanding brought about by obedience and faith. There is beauty in a response to false accusation that is appropriate to the need of the times, but which does not lash out or try to get revenge, but which is content to flee the country and live alone, saying Mass to a small congregation. There is even the beauty of discovery, tainted in my opinion with an unbiblical and excessive reverence for Mary, but even so, a spiritual revelation by God. And a very satisfying entrance into Jerusalem, of two saints, Elijah and Enoch, who had endured trials and tribulations and come through praising God. (And also because in Revelation the two Witnesses get to put the smackdown, and who better but a humble monk and the lowliest but contemplative least-of-these?)
The essence of the is also in the conversations with the President and with Anna about the President, on the nature of evil. The primrose path of evil is to let your good intentions justify the use of Power, which ultimately will corrupt you and take you from God. Father Elijah had repented of this, because he recognized this evil in his own heart, as it lies in all men. So the book is a bit of a discourse on righteousness and the ease that something that sounds good can be twisted into something Man-centered, which then begets evil. The less spiritual people in the book look at the troubles on the outside, but Father Elijah and the Cardinals and the Pope recognize that the key area is the motivation of the heart. And so there is one minor character that does move from flesh to spirit, an editor of a publication who begins by trying to fight the battle to save the doctrinal correctness of the one of the publications of the Church, but in the end he finds peace in his jail cell where was unjustly accused and unjustly convicted, by meditating on Christ.
Unfortunately, I do not have the skill to do the conversations justice, but they reflect a mature Catholic viewpoint. The book feels like it was written by someone with a lot of experience in faith (or at least someone who has truly grokked the attitude of the saints). While I still dislike the Apocalyptic setting, it is at least a meditation with beauty. Frankly, some of the events are not beautiful, so I cannot say a beautiful meditation, but the book has decided beauty, and of a form that I lack understanding of. But at least after I closed the book I realized why the Catholics focus on strange things like depriving the flesh and humility as a singular virtue—they are trying to imitate Christ, literally, or perhaps literal obedience. Personally, I do not think that the guy who was enjoyed life so much that he was accused of drunkenness and gluttony (Matt 11:19, for instance) was very ascetic, nor do I think that the guy who drove the Temple merchants out with a whip was obsequiously humble, but Christ did humble himself from being ruler of the universe to a helpless baby, so seeking to imitate that humility as literally as possible has a certain beauty to it.
I guess ultimately this is a book of contrasting beauty and ugliness, which is what the Apocalypse and the rest of the Bible is ultimately about. Like them, this book contrasts the two so that we can seek to become the beautiful. It is a Catholic beauty, but a meditation that stick with you.