Well, for the sake of argument, let’s say this is The End. It wasn’t nuclear war or an asteroid or a rogue planet or even some mystical force. But, merely—in a whimper—a cursed bug. Would it really matter?
“An apocalypse is a work of literature dealing with the end of human history. For millennia apocalypses of various sorts have arisen throughout the world in the cultural life of many peoples and religions,” writes Michael O’Brien at the beginning of his master novel, Father Elijah. “They are generated by philosophical speculation, by visions of the future, or by inarticulate longings and apprehensions, and not infrequently by the abiding human passion for what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the Canadian Catholic continues, rather convincingly.
These poems, epics, fantasies, myths, and prophetic works bear a common witness to man’s transient state upon the earth. Man is a stranger and sojourner. His existence is inexpressibly beautiful—and dangerous. It is fraught with mysteries that beg to be deciphered. The Greek word apokalypsis means an uncovering, or revealing. Through such revelations man gazes into the panorama of human history in search of the key to his identity, in search of permanence and completion.
Through the entirety of his Father Elijah world—seven novels in all—Mr. O’Brien expertly explores The End. He also does so in his various essays and especially in his 2018 book, The Apocalypse: Warning, Hope, and Consolation.
In recent artistic expression, Mr. O’Brien is by no means alone in thinking in apocalyptic terms. Indeed, there’s an entire subset of science fiction known as “post-apocalyptic.” Some of it, not surprisingly, is brilliant, and some of it, equally unsurprisingly, is ridiculous. The best, to be certain, is Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, an Augustinian work of wicked humor and relentless intensity. The worst, by far, is the Left Behind series, written with puritanical dread and unhesitating uncharity. For those interested in the latter, Catholic World Report’s Carl Olson has done a magnificent job of analysis. Within science fiction, one might also find novels that neither reach as high as Canticle or as low as Left Behind, such as Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley.
In rock music, one could readily turn to the relentless but compelling croon of “The End” (1967) by the Doors, or the inspirational marathon of a song, 1972’s twenty-three minute long “Supper’s Ready” by Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. One will depress, but the other will uplift.
For years, I’ve found the most convincing account of the Apocalypse (outside of St. John the Revelator’s, of course), to be G.K. Chesterton’s in his epic poem, Ballad of the White Horse.
For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.
For the end of the world was long ago—
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.
For the end of the world was long ago,
When the ends of the world waxed free,
When Rome was sunk in a waste of slaves,
And the sun drowned in the sea.
When Caesar’s sun fell out of the sky
And whoso hearkened right
Could only hear the plunging
Of the nations in the night.
What if Chesterton was right, perhaps in some kind of Blakean fit of ecstasy? Maybe all of our worrying about The End is for naught. Perhaps it did happen long ago, and we live somewhere in the final days. The Apostles certainly believed the End of the Age was near to them, and the New Testament confirms and affirms this repeatedly.
Of course, I am only being half serious. Still, look at the news. The Coronavirus might as well be the Black Death. As I type this, the governor of Michigan has declared (unconstitutionally, it should be noted) a “stay at home”/lockdown order. Walking the dog (named, by coincidence?, Chesterton) this afternoon, my hometown of Hillsdale, Michigan, might very well have served as the set of some Twilight Zone episode, so quiet and abandoned does it seem. (This might be the ideal time to become close friends with a Mormon.) And, of course, this is just one view. China and Italy have already gone through hell, or continue to exist in it. With this viral threat, half of the world seems to have lost its collective mind.
Well, for the sake of argument, let’s say this is The End. It wasn’t nuclear war or an asteroid or a rogue planet or even some mystical force. But, merely—in a whimper—a damned bug. Would it really matter?
I’m no wise man, but I do know several things—some from being taught by incredible and loving witnesses to the faith and many from simple but hard-earned experiences after fifty-two years on this earth.
First, love one another. Be good to one another. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. It’s not enough to say “I love you.” Show it, mean it, live it. Does your neighbor need a friendly ear? Does the homeless man (for whatever reason he’s homeless) need a crust of bread? Does that stray cat need to be loved? After all, even that skanky cat is a creature made by God for a purpose beyond mere existence. Every time one of my cats jumps in my lap and distracts me from writing, I am reminded that EVERY living creature has a purpose.
Second, forgive all of those who have harmed you. Yeah, I know, this is really hard. As easily as we say, “you can go to hell,” just imagine this for a moment. Do you truly want even your worst enemy to suffer eternal fire? Really, think about that for a moment. Eternal—never-ending—punishment? I just can’t bring myself to advocate that for all time and timelessness.
Third, and this one is hard (really, really hard), forgive yourself for the wrongs you have done. Be sorry and be repentant, of course, but also be forgiving. We have all done terrible things to one another, and we’ve all done beautiful things to one another. Can you imagine being judged exclusively for the worst thing you’ve ever done in life? What hell. That one moment, that flicker of wrong action or indecision. Learn from it, but move on once you’ve learned from it.
Fourth, we’re all going to die. Yes, gentle reader, I mean YOU. You will die. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but someday. When Edmund Burke passed away, he gave a rousing speech.
Never succumb to the enemy; it is a struggle for your existence as a nation; and if you die, die with the sword in your hand; there is a salient, living principle of energy in the public mind of English which only requires proper direction to enable her to withstand this or any other ferocious foe; persevere till this tyranny be overpast.
John Quincy Adams died on the House floor after giving a speech. Paul Elmer More wrote his magnificent Pages from an Oxford Diary in his final days. I hate to break it to you, gentle reader, but you’ll probably just grab your heart and fall over.
I would love to die in the middle of a lecture about the most important things. First, it would make an impression, and, second, well . . . it would really make an impression. I want to be remembered as THAT guy. “Did you hear about Old Man Birzer, he croaked in the middle of a lecture about Plato . . .” Come on, that’s cool.
Fifth and finally, make peace with God. Yeah, I admit, I find God sometimes hard to take. I don’t always get Him, and, quite often, I downright disagree with Him. He took a daughter from me, and I’m still unsure what to think about that, even thirteen years later. But, I also accept that I am His, and she was (is) His as well. As a father, I have never had to make a greater concession than this.
And, while it’s not enough to make it point six, let me just write . . . there are A LOT of folks in Heaven I really, really want to see. I want to see my daughter, Cecilia Rose, and I want to see my grandparents, and I want to meet J.R.R. Tolkien. What if all are just sitting there waiting for me?
Dear God, forgive me for all I have done and all I have failed to do. But, please, just be waiting for me. I could use a huge hug.
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The featured image is “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The Rider on the White Horse” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.