In the Beginning

On a storm-plagued island in the Aegean huddle the last adherents—for all they know, anyway—of a besieged faith. The wind shreds cloth; the sea churns and lashes at the shore; food is paltry and fires flicker dangerously low; all is rain and rock and dark, tumultuous brooding. And in the midst of this turmoil lives an ancient blind man, the sight blasted clean from his eyes by something that happened to him, once, here, as he stood upon a stone.

Niall Williams’s latest novel takes up the story of the beloved disciple, John, years into his exile on Patmos. Williams, author of many previous novels and works of nonfiction, has said that the idea for this book came to him mysteriously, in the form of a single, simple question: What was John doing the day before he wrote the Gospel? The answer plays out against a backdrop of turbulence, not only in the conditions of life on the island, but in an unfolding crisis of faith. Though John has witnessed, and been witness for, what God has planned, the Christ has not come. The promised kingdom is still yet to be. And those who have suffered for the Word made flesh have been left, on a barren island, with the hard business of believing.

John digs down to the roots of both faith and heresy. The apostle is himself confused by God’s silence, and some of his followers have begun to fall away. One, Matthias, asks questions that echo skeptics through the ages: Why did Jesus not take himself from the cross? Why would he allow himself to die? Apparently Matthias believed at some point: he was sure that Christ would return again, soon, in triumph, and that the kingdom would come. But it has not, and Matthias has begun to doubt. It becomes clear that what he wants is not so much the kingdom as the power that would accompany it. What began with a zeal for justice, for the right, has become a zeal to be proclaimed right.

Matthias’s quandary challenges the reader: What is it exactly that we want? To be vindicated? To be victorious? Even those on the island who remain orthodox in their faith desire signs, confirmation that they were never the fools they were thought to be. Such desires are often born from a broken heart, and bring believers to the moment when the heart must prove itself, deciding either “I’ll love on, broken as I am,” or “I’m broken, and will love no more.” Niall Williams casts love as the means to test faith. Those who love—as John has loved, and finds his way back to love again—hold fast. But that love brings great pain. In passages that faithfully track the Scriptures, John remembers a love that was transformative. And in his closest followers, a boy named Papias in particular, the path to that transformation is every bit as rocky as Matthias’s fall from it.

A writer of immense descriptive powers, Williams achieves a visual rendering of Patmos with short, present-tense bursts of prose that lend terrific immediacy to a world distant in time, bringing an iconic place to life before our eyes. This is the Patmos of the Apocalypse, and at its center is a blind man who is an island himself—a man, surrounded by darkness, who has seen the end in the future. These metaphors will be rich to anyone familiar with the desert of faith. The author’s great achievement lies in illustrating how truly hard it is to believe; and how truly difficult not to explain away, or to recast in more palatable form, that which has been promised but not yet consummated. That faith and heresy walk so closely together, cheek by jowl, was as true in the early church as it is today. It is also testament to how high the stakes are, and to why even those who have been struck blind by love can find themselves wondering and wandering when they hear not trumpets, but the relentless sea, when they look for light and are met only by the gathering gloom.

Williams’s novel is most powerful when the disciples remain on Patmos. Once their exile is lifted and they leave for Ephesus, the nascence of the church has to compete with the storm of the outside world. This is necessary; belief has to leave its island. But as the fight between competing ideas of salvation takes the fore, the novel loses its interiority and some of its power. John is best when it remains in a dark room, with John, or within the mind of Papias. We already know the history of the next two thousand years. But the picture of timeless belief, the story of belief beyond assurance, is what rings most true. It is the windswept plain of faith upon which the old questions still whisper: Do I love? Is it for the right reason? Is it You I want? Or only me?

Published in the 2008-12-19 issue: 
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A. G. Harmon teaches at the Catholic University of America. His A House All Stilled (UT Press) won the Peter Taylor Prize for the novel in 2001.

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