an interview with Michael D. O’Brien about Theophilos: A Novel
Ignatius Insight: What was the inspiration for a novel about a man whose name is used twice in the New Testament, both times by St. Luke?
O’Brien: I’ve always been intrigued by the mysterious figure to whom St. Luke addressed his Gospel and the Acts. However, I never considered writing a novel about him, and felt no need to supply an imaginary, speculative “life” for him. The inspiration actually came while I was praying before the exposed Blessed Sacrament three or four years ago. I was feeling unusually exhausted that night, quite brain dead and poor before the Lord, wondering if I would even be able to pray. In all honesty I had felt sure my adoration hour would be extremely dry, without lights or consolations. I’m ashamed to say, all I wanted to do was sleep.
From the moment I entered the chapel, completely to my surprise, a series of vivid images of the life of Christ poured into my interior “seeing.” An extraordinary peace came with them, and the dissolving of all sense of time. The scenes were nearly visual and far beyond what I could have produced in my natural imagination. I have rarely if ever experienced anything like it in prayer. Perhaps the closest to it was my novel Father Elijah back in the early 1990s, and certain passages in Island of the World.
Ignatius Insight: Do you consider this a mystical experience?
O’Brien: I certainly don’t think of myself as a mystic. I believe the scenes from that single adoration hour were lights, graces. Praying and pondering over them for more than a year before beginning writing, I felt there were serious questions that first needed resolution. For one, the role of imagination in addressing sacred topics: How much freedom does the Christian writer have in his recreation of such events? For another, what is the mysterious interaction of grace working through natural human faculties? I wanted to be absolutely faithful to the essence of what occurred during the first century of the Church, even though imagination has a certain leeway in putting “flesh” on the unknown or “hidden” aspects of the Gospels. As I wrote the novel, I prayed every day for clarity, for faithfulness to the original meaning of partially known events, begging God for the particular graces for this work. The inspirations poured out steadily, often surprising me with their vividness and showing me depths of meaning that I had never seen before.
Ignatius Insight: Was this a conscious, purposeful departure from your previous novels, which are all set in modern times?
O’Brien: No, not a conscious literary decision in any way. I think it was entirely a response to a grace. It’s important to keep in mind that such graces are not necessarily mystical vision. It’s walking on very thin ice whenever we attribute more to them that the Holy Spirit intends. I believe that whenever we receive interior images or “words” from the Lord, they are filtered through our nature, and should not be taken as absolutely literal. As the great saints and spiritual directors caution us, such phenomena should be discerned with great care, since their sources can be divine, or purely human, or from the adversary.
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the challenges faced when writing a historical novel about someone whose identity and story is largely a mystery? In writing about Jesus and the Apostles?
O’Brien: There are two primary challenges. First and foremost is what one might call spiritual accuracy. This demanded constant and fervent prayer, a deep listening to the Holy Spirit, a sensitivity to the rightness or not-rightness of certain dramatizations of events as they arose in my creative imagination. Second, the historical accuracy. The latter dimension demanded a great deal of research, constantly cross-checked, since the novel takes the reader through three distinct civilizations, Greek, Roman, and Judaean, as well as the world of Christianity at its birth. In addition, there were the religious, cultural, intellectual, and linguistic aspects. I read widely in histories of those times, as well as philosophical and literary works from the preceding centuries and the centuries that followed, from Homer to Aeschylus, Cicero’s writings, and St Augustine’s. Major sources were the histories of the Jewish historian Josephus and the ecclesiastical history by Eusebius.
Ignatius Insight: How do you set about describing and constructing a world that is so far removed—time-wise, culturally, and so forth—from our own?
O’Brien: My “construction” was never based on a purely intuitive imagining of what it was like. My methodology, if you will, while never exclusively historical-scientific, was an integration of solid research with the inspirations that came with prayer. I was continually surprised by the way I could “see” and “hear” the unfolding events in the story. Often I would wonder if such an element could possibly have been real, then I did my homework and found that the very thing I had at first felt was implausible was, in fact, an actual component of that world. Gradually, a mosaic of the first-century world materialized and came into focus. A real world, containing real people, our forefathers in the faith living through extraordinary events.
Again, I must emphasize that this is what St. Thomas Aquinas calls “grace building on nature.” Later theology has called it “co-creation,” man and God working together to bring into the world a new being (a work of art) that has a unique identity and mission.
Ignatius Insight: What did you learn or discover in the course of researching and writing that surprised you and/or changed how you viewed Scripture and the world of the New Testament?
O’Brien: My view of Scripture was not changed fundamentally, but it was very much deepened, in terms of experiencing it more than ever as a true living word. I also began to reread the entire New Testament in a way that was more vivid for me than before. Everything came alive in a new way, both the events and the people. This has not faded since I completed writing the book two years ago.
Another blessing has been my increased understanding of how vast, how richly complex were the civilizations of the ancient world, specifically during the first century A.D. We generally have only thumbnail mental constructs of what it was like, with a few cartoonish highlights in our minds—archaeology, art, artifacts, a few primary documents. Once you begin to plunge into that world, your eyes are opened. All of this points again and again to the love of God who entered this milieu in the Incarnation and Redemption, the most astonishing and important act of all time—the very axis of history.
Ignatius Insight: Were you influenced in any way by the works of other novelists who have written about the same era? Others?
O’Brien: I don’t think so. I must admit that my very limited reading of historical fiction has always left me dissatisfied. The perennial danger of the historical novelist is his personal subjectivism, that is, projecting backward in time the consciousness or preoccupations of his own era. I think few novelists escape their own psychological cosmos. I prayed throughout the writing process that I would indeed escape mine. Perhaps only heaven knows if I succeeded.
Ignatius Insight: Was first century man a different kind of human being?
O’Brien: Human nature changes little from generation to generation, civilization to civilization. Intellectually and culturally there can be huge chasms between us, but in our basic humanity we are at all times recognizable, knowable. No matter how badly defaced it may be, the image of God remains within our nature. Having said this, we should keep in mind that in our own times there is a widespread reversion to the psychological-moral-spiritual condition of pre-Christian man. As apostasy from the Faith continues to spread in the nations of former Christendom, we see increasingly the degeneration of human relationships, and societies, into a condition that we once knew only under the worst forms of paganism.
My fictional character Theophilos is a Greek physician, like his adopted son Loukas, and he is a man formed by the best of the classical pagan age. He is intelligent, educated, cultured, gifted, humanitarian—and proud. The novel is the story of a literal voyage as he seeks to rescue Loukas from the “cult of the Christos”, and Theophilos’s deeper voyage into the core of his unbelief, which hides his unacknowledged despair. In this sense he is very much a modern man.
Ignatius Insight: How do you think you have changed or grown as a novelist since writing your first novel? How is this evident in Theophilos?
O’Brien: I think there’s growth in two main ways. The technical dimension of writing, which must always be in a state of development, comes more easily to me now. Of course, I’m too close to my own work—my own beloved “baby”— to be really objective about it, but I do think I have learned to trust more in the power of Story, to let it do its work, and to ease off on the didacticism. In fiction, it is far more effective when a truth is “incarnated” rather than “talked about.” I still do both, but I have greater faith in the incarnational aspects of writing than I did when writing my earlier novels. This represents no radical departure in my work, more a shifting of the delicate equilibrium between the two. Maybe it’s visible in the greater fluidity of narrative, and ease with the other dimensions of a novel, characterization, dialogue, plot.
If I’ve succeeded in the task of a Christian novelist, it will only be by pointing readers back to the Great Story that changed the world, so that they might see it with renewed eyes.
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Extract from Author’s Afterword, Theophilos:
I am indebted to a number of historical sources, notably the writings of Eusebius and Josephus and Philo of Alexandria (from whose life I have borrowed some details for the character of Philetos). My thanks also to Dr. Edoardo Rialti for his valuable help with classical literary references, and Will Pemberton for his extensive help with Greek and Latin linguistics and for his numerous technical corrections and creative suggestions.
This novel is an imaginative reflection on an obscure aspect of the Gospel, and is in no way an attempt to present its characters and scenes as visions of what actually occurred. The events described in the New Testament are communicated to us through divinely inspired written accounts of direct experience and through divinely inspired reflections by others, such as St. Paul and St. Luke, who did not see the events of Christ’s life with their own eyes. Even so, they personally witnessed astounding things done in the name of Jesus. Indeed they knew that they stood upon the very axis of salvation history.
Human imagination of a later age can reflect on much that was not written down, and yet our internal visualizations of dialogues, events, scenes, will remain by their very nature speculative and incomplete, and even at times off the mark. It is my hope that this fictional representation of the Great Story that happened, the story that overturned the world and launched a new world, is not too far off the mark.
Two pertinent scripture passages come to mind:
“There are still many other things Jesus did, yet if they were written about in detail, I doubt there would be room in the entire world to hold the books to record them.”
— John 21: 25
“Be forewarned, my son: Of the making of many books there is no end.”
— Ecclesiastes 12:12
And so the making of this book has come to an end. The stylus ceases to move, the scroll is rolled up. It is my earnest hope that the reader will return to the luminous living word of sacred Scripture with refreshed eyes, and that he will thirst for the One who is the eternal Word. In Him, may what we have considered old and familiar be revealed to us as ever new.
Michael D. O’Brien