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.

  • Daily Grace

    My mother bought me this book last Christmas! It is truely one of my favorites! I am so glad you shared this… a MUST read!

  • Webster Bull

    I have to add my dear friend Carol to the list of those in the parish who have read and loved "Island of the World." Get it. Read it.

  • Shannon

    And have you read "The Sparrow" by Maria Doria Russell? Around our (Jesuit) parish, it's known as "Jesuits in Space."

  • Webster Bull

    No, Shannon, but I will check it out. Perhaps you know that a sparrow plays a central role in "Island"?

  • Maria

    Webster, I love these brief reviews. Thank you. Adrienne von Speyr was a mystic. I have been meaning to order some of her writings. Ignatius Press has them all. She was a mystic. She used to dictate her revelations to this Jesuit. He recorded it all and hence the books we have been left. She was puprotedly quite brilliant. He left the Society to devote himself exclusively to her. She was an MD. Thanks for reminding me. I think this is how I will spend the vaca.

  • Webster Bull

    Yeah, P82, I used to think I would make a good mystic, but 58 years later, I can say that the mystic experiences haven't been coming . . . So, I am more attracted to the down-to-earth, the pedestrian, the everyday Catholic experience. But we can always hope!

  • Maria

    The mystics are just a part of the rich treasure trove of Catholicism. Me and thee. We tread the same path.

  • Webster Bull


  • Tommy

    I suspect that you shall eventually read all of O'Brien as I did. I think the best is "Strangers and Sojourners." It's about the most Kristin Lavrensdatter-like of his, and is, with "Island…" the most naturalistic.

  • RFP

    After reading about the novel on your blog, I decided to find KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER for myself. On a lark, I checked the electronic catalog of our local library system for the book—-and it was there! We live in a rural county and space in our local libraries is at a premium, so many older or more obscure titles get removed from the shelves. But there it was, so I took it home and began to read. Once I was immersed in the story I didn't want to put the book down. What a heart-breakingly bittersweet saga; it resonates in your mind long after you turn the last page. Thank you for recommending this book.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Tommy.I am expecting Father Elijah to be less naturalistic–don't know how I'll do with that. I'm pretty literal in lots of ways!

  • Webster Bull

    And RFP–I have never read the old English translation, from the 1930s, I think, but I have heard it's a completely different experience, very archaic in sound, while the new translation by Tiina Nunnally is an award-winner and completely accessible.

  • Anonymous

    Please read Fr James Schall's review from the website of Island of the World which I copied below. If you have not read anything by Schall, I strongly recommend. Reading Schall on Chesterton, Another Sort of Learning, or The Mind That is Catholic etc will leave you wanting more from Fr. Schall. He is a true renaissance man and one of the great thinkers of our time and a nice complement to Chesterton. “Michael O'Brien's novels always have haunting plots. St. Augustine wrote, ‘You touched me, and I burned for your peace.’ Something burning is found here. Young Josip is told that the Odyssey was written about a man who longed to return home. What is our home, in this island in the world? O’Brien’s words touch us deeply in this work, by lives that seek in their very living that peace for which those who were created to live first in this island of the world are finally destined. ‘In eternity we will know fully.’ Such are O'Brien's words, such are Augustine's words."-James V. Schall, S.J., Georegetown University. Author, The Order of Things

  • Webster Bull

    Anonymous, Thanks for the tip on Schall, especially on his work about Chesterton. I need all the help I can get reading Chesterton!