Wednesday, March 9, 2005

MH - Reflections on "Father Elijah"

Ignatius Insight has a link to the Catholic novelist Michael O'Brien's website,, and features a very interesting discussion of O'Brien's novel Father Elijah.

I've refered to this novel in the past as having played a significant role in my decision to drop out of politics. Father Elijah is, not surprisingly, the protagonist of the story. As we get deeper into the novel we see occasional glimpses of Father Elijah's life prior to entering the monastery. Through them we we learn that he is a convert from Judiasm, a man who was a prominent politician in Israel, headed on the fast track to perhaps becoming prime minister someday, when his wife is killed in a terrorist bomb explosion. After that he is forced to reexamine his life, eventually dropping out of politics, converting to Catholicism, and becoming a priest.

It's a disturbing novel, in which Father Elijah is called out of his simple life at Carmel by the Pope and the Cardinal Secretary of State to embark on a secret mission which involves a confrontation with the Antichrist. Just looking at the description of the novel contained in the Ignatius link, and O'Brien's discussion of it on his website, reminded me of how punishing an experience it is (in particular, a scene that describes an advertisement for an art show using the bodies of aborted children). The subtitle of the book is "An Apocalypse," and that's no exaggeration.

But my purpose here isn't particularly to discuss the plot of the book as it is to explain why it had such an effect on me. I read it just before or during my campaign for the Minnesota state legislature in 1998, a race in which I'm proud to say I finished second (but circumspect enough to avoid mentioning that there were only two people in the race). As I think about it, I must have read it some time in 1997, when the campaign was well under way, but before the point where I actually got out there and knocked on doors.

I'd been involved in politics for almost 25 years at that point, having worked on my first campaign in 1974 when I was still in high school. During that time I'd written for newsletters and designed campaign fliers, I'd gone on early-morning lit drops and worked evening phone banks, I'd done the typical grunt work. By 1998 I'd already managed a campaign for the legislature, served two terms as the chairman of the local party, spent three years hosting a public-access cable TV show, been appointed to the city's planning commission, and had emerged as a rising star in the party. It was a foregone conclusion that I'd be a candidate for public office, and when I decided to run for the legislature I won the party's endorsement without opposition.

What does all this have to do with Father Elijah? Well, one thing that I leared through all this time was that to succeed in politics you have to really want it, be willing to do whatever it takes to win. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to do anything illegal or unethical; I use that phrase merely to indicate that you have to be focused, with virtual tunnel vision, in order to rise to the top. And I think it was reading Father Elijah that first impressed on me the idea that politics wasn't necessarily the be-all and end-all that I'd thought it was. I'd already converted to Catholicism myself at this point, and I will say on my behalf that my campaign was, I think, sufficiently informed by my faith that even today I have nothing to be ashamed about. But there was this idea in my head that politics was for me a calling, a way to change the world, a way of life. Even if I ran for office and lost, I'd still be involved in some way.

But then to read a book about a man, a powerful man on the verge of leading his country, who abruptly turns his back on all that worldly power and walks away. That made a big impression on me, and I think it affected the way I ran my campaign. It wasn't the only factor (another one was Pat Buchanan's simple statement "You have to worship at a higher altar than the bottom line."), but coming at the time in my life that it did, I can't deny that it changed the way I thought about things. It was the first time I understood that I wasn't stuck in politics forever; I could walk away from it and there would be another life to live. I try to close my eyes now and think of what else went through my mind as I read the book, and nothing in particular is coming to me, just the feeling that there was more to life than this, that perhaps God had something else in store for me, that He didn't want me succeeding in this particular venture.

I don't want anyone who worked on my campaign to think that I wasn't giving it my all, but in truth by the time the election rolled around I genuinely didn't care whether or not I won. Part of that was because the campaign itself, particularly the candidate, was so inept that it didn't especially encourage continued participation. But a major part of it was the continuing influence of Father Elijah. As election night came and the votes were being counted, I knew that whether I won or not (and at that point I was pretty sure I'd lost; I was, in fact, the only person involved in the campaign who felt that way - but I don't think the campaign's overconfidence had anything to do with the final outcome) I'd taken part in my final campaign, that even if I won I wouldn't seek reelection. After my concession speech I walked out of the the banquet room and out of politics forever. It wasn't enough that I wasn't cut out to be a candidate; there was more to it than that. I had a different path to pursue, one that I'm still working on, occasionally having trouble keeping track of where that path runs, but doing the best I can.

As you can tell from this site I keep up-to-date on what's going on politically, and I comment when appropriate, but since then I've stayed away from political gatherings, dropped out of all the organizations to which I belonged, turned my back on my previous existence and lived a much more peaceful life. It's why I have such an affinity for the writings of Peggy Noonan, who always seems to get it that there's more to life than what meets the eye.

Could this change in the future? As James Bond once said, never say never, but if I were to go back (and I have to admit it looks better all the time when compared to the life of Corporate America), it would be with a different set of priorities and a different way of looking at things.

I probably haven't expressed this particularly well; personal confessions of this sort rarely are. But my purpose is to point out a couple of things: one, that literature can genuinely be a life-changing experience; and two, that at the end of the day, no matter what it is you're doing, you're going to have to answer for it. I have no doubt that committed Christians involved in politics are doing the best they can, but as I've warned in the past, make sure that you're not so wrapped up in getting "a place at the table" that you forget your place at the ultimate table, that of Our Lord at the banquet He promises us. Beàti qui ad cenam Agni vocàti sunt; Blessed are they who are called to the banquet of the Lamb.

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