Part Two (of Two) of an exclusive interview
with Michael O'Brien. Read Part One of the interview here.
Ignatius Insight: In some of your essays youve
lamented the state of the arts in the Church. What are the unique challenges
faced by Catholic novelists, artists, and musicians? What can be done
to revitalize the arts within the Church and within secular culture?
OBrien: This question is so monumental I hesitate to reply
with a short answer. Ive written many essays on it, and even they,
lengthy and packed with ideas as they were, only scraped the surface of
But let me say this at least: A new springtime of
evangelization and hope is beginning for the Church and the world. It
is strong, but still fragile. It can be
swept away or severely reduced by many factors. The field of culture is
the dimension of life where we have been losing our major battles (and
many souls) for more than a century--a loss that is accelerating. The
restoration of culture is absolutely integral to the new evangelization.
The Holy Father has written extensively on this symbiotic relationship.
I believe that the turning of the tide always begins with sacrifice. Choice
by choice. Person by person. What is most needed at this time in history
is a return to the personalist universe, that is the real universe--Gods
universe. This means that each of us must begin with the tasks at hand,
with the gifts one has been given. It begins where the restoration of
the world always begins, with a wholehearted response to grace, a willingness
to give everything for a seemingly impossible mission, a radical dependence
on divine providence, a willingness to live as a heart exposed, leaving
behind all those oh-so-reasonable desires for self-protection, advancement,
and "security". To let God lead, to let God be God, not in a
quietist or passive sense, but in docility to the Holy Spirit.
Our human resources alone are not enough to create a civilization of love.
It will have to be an extraordinary co-creative work with God, supernatural
grace illuminating and infusing mans natural gifts. Without grace
we will probably just add to the heap of verbiage and images in the world.
To be an artist in these times means that one will very quickly run into
the spiritus mundi that infects practically everything, that tries to
reduce the miraculousness of being to commodities in a vast commercial
enterprise. Worse, the spiritus mundi is more and more infested with a
diabolic spirit would reduce us all to mechanisms--productive maybe, but
Art, prayer, love, faith--none of these occur without willingness to sacrifice.
Out of sacrifice wonder is born. And when man rediscovers wonder he will
leave behind those aspects of modern life that would negate his eternal
meaning and destiny. But it begins with a small choice. Well, not so small,
really. Very big actually. Big enough to shift the balance of the world.
Ignatius Insight: The sixth novel in the Children of the Last
Days series is Sophia House. Is that a prequel of sorts to Father
Elijah? Tell us a bit about it.
OBrien: In a sense Sophia House is a "prequel"
to Father Elijah.
The story takes place in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. Pawel Tarnowski,
a bookseller, gives refuge to a Jewish youth, David Schäfer, who
has escaped from the ghetto, and hides him in the attic of the book shop.
Throughout the winter of 1942-43, they discuss good and evil, sin and
redemption, literature and philosophy, and their respective religious
views of reality.
Decades later, David becomes a convert to Catholicism,
is the Carmelite priest Fr. Elijah Schäfer called by the Pope to
confront the Anti-christ. Ill say no more about specifics of the
plot. I might add that the theme of homosexuality is examined in the story.
The novel is not, however, about homosexuality. It is ultimately about
the loss of spiritual fatherhood in late Western society. It is this catastrophic
loss that is the cause of many, if not most, of our current dilemmas.
Homosexuality is the most visible manifestation of the deeper problem.
Taking a step back from the entire series, Id
have to say that all my books are about this grave wound of fatherlessness
in modern consciousness. Its my hope that in some positive way they
expose the core problem and point the way back again to our Father in
heaven; moreover, to how we can discover new dimensions of love for our
In Sophia House Im also concerned with how symbols function
in the mind and emotions. For example, the damaged symbol of male and
female, father and mother. Part of the plot puts flesh on the concept
of the power of "language", and the language of symbols is absolutely
central to how we perceive and integrate truth and love. If we lose symbolism,
we lose our way of knowing things. If we destroy symbols, we destroy concepts.
If we corrupt symbols, concepts are corrupted, and then we lose the ability
to understand things as they are, rendering us vulnerable to deformation
of our perceptions and our actions.
Ignatius Insight: Are you currently working on other
literary projects in addition to the Children of the Last Days
OBrien: Im back to being a ner-do-well painter
again, and loving it immensely. I may be wrong about this, but I think
Ive said about all I can say in text form. Ive just completed
final revisions of the manuscript of a novel which, of all my books, is
the one closest to my heart.
The Fathers Tale, its not officially part of the six-volume
series Children of the Last Days, although I suppose it could be,
if we call it a seven-volume series. This novel is about fatherhood, a
modern retelling of the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Shepherd
combined, set in modern north America and ranging across Europe and Asia--its
a kind of Odyssey, an action-adventure plot with philosophical-spiritual
subtexts, if you can imagine. I expect it will be largely unpalatable
to current tastes and critical biases.
The central character is, of all the characters in my novels, the one
most like myself. That makes me biased too, and grossly unreliable, critically
speaking. It remains to be seen what my good editors at Ignatius Press
and (if it is ever published) the book reviewers will have to say on the
matter. As for myself, I think its the best of the lot.
Ignatius Insight: What should Catholic thinkers and creative
people do in order to help build the "civilization of love"
as the Holy Father has repeatedly called us to do?
OBrien: First and foremost we need to rediscover the light
that comes from humilitya light that invigorates the mind as well
as the soul.
There is an urgent need to return to a proper integration
of intellectual and spiritual life, an understanding of how mind, heart,
body, and spirit work most fruitfully in the human person. It seems to
me that disproportion rules practically everything at the moment, and
that few Catholic intellectuals are really listening to John Paul II and
the wisdom of the universal Church.
A stringent self-examination of conscience is desperately
needed. I suggest, also, a careful and prayerful reading of the Holy Fathers
extensive writings on the arts and on culture in general, for anyone interested
in the restoration.
I am disturbed by the growing tendency to limit Catholic culture to the
writings of Catholic academics, which seems to me a reduction of the multi-dimensionality
of "Word" to reason alone. Needless to say, the gift of intellect
is a God-given one, yet the world is dominated by a new non-cultic Gnosticism,
where reason has been largely divorced from faith. In the case of many
Catholic scholars, there has been no formal divorce, yet reason easily
becomes a law unto itself whenever it is not in submission to the Mind
Again, a true integration of thought and spiritual life is sorely needed.
It is, of course, a paradox rooted in the Gospels that in our weakness
we find the strength of Christ. When we are most conscious of our poverty
as creatures before God (beloved creatures, I should add), grace can pour
most effectively into us. Without humility, pride inevitably takes over,
with resulting blindness or one-dimensional thinking.
Regarding the specifics of how Catholics can infuse truth into new world
trends and the emerging powerful forces that are reshaping man (and re-defining
him to himself), I do not have pragmatic solutions. I believe the real
solution is for modern man (beginning with Catholic thinking man) to return
to the fundamental "architecture" of reality. He must ask himself
in every situation, What is the human person? What is the purpose of his
existence? What is his place and value in the social order? What is the
relationship between freedom and responsibility? And above all, who is
the true Lord of this world and source of wisdom?
Moreover, I believe that neither Catholic activism (even with the highest
motives), nor brilliant Catholic rhetoric, are going to change anything
for the better unless profound prayer and fasting are the foundation of
our words and acts. When we rediscover humility and proper proportion,
then the solutions to the myriad socio-political problems will come.
Cry of Stone
by Michael D. O'Brien
853 pages. Hardcover.
In this long-awaited fifth novel in his series, Children of the Last
Days, Michael OBrien explores the true meaning of poverty of
spirit. Loosely based on the real lives of a number of native North Americans,
A Cry of Stone is the fictional account of the life of a native
artist, Rose Wâbos. Abandoned as an infant, Rose is raised by her
grandmother, Oldmary Wâbos, in the remotest regions of the northern
Ontario wilderness. The story covers a period from 1940 to 1973, chronicling
Roses growth to womanhood, her discovery of art, her moving out
into the world of cities and sophisticated cultural circles. Above all
it is the story of a soul who is granted little of human strengths and
resources, yet who strives to love in all circumstances. As she searches
for the ultimate meaning of her life, she changes the lives of many people
whom she meets along the way.
OBrien takes the reader deep into the heart of a small
person. There he uncovers the beauty and struggles of a soul who wants
only to create, to help others to see what she sees. The story also explores
the complex lies and false images, the ambitions and posturing that dominate
much of contemporary culture, and shows how these have contributed to
a loss of our understanding of the sacredness of each human life.
Once again, Michael OBrien beautifully demonstrates that no matter
how insignificant a person may be in the worlds eyes, marvels and
mysteries are to be found in everyone. His central character, Rose, is
among the despised and rejected of the earth, yet her life bears witness
to the greatness in man, and to his eternal destiny.
Michael D. OBrien is a major
talent, one of the brightest lights in the Catholic literary firmament.
His latest novel, A Cry of Stone, makes for disturbing reading
at times. This is as it should be. We live in disturbing times and OBriens
narrative strips the gloss from the demonic reality of our heedless and
hedonistic age. Few writers of fiction unveil this paradoxical Presence
in Absence better than OBrien.
Joseph Pearce, Author, Tolkien: Man and Myth
Like OBriens other novels, this book has the same perception,
empathy and style; the same importance of subject; the same intense need
to tell a story and tell it so very well. Fans will be delighted to continue
their relationship, newcomers will be delighted to discover this remarkable
Michael Coren, Author, The Man Who Was Chesterton
A Cry of Stone by Michael OBrien is a delightful maze
of interest. After reading it through, I re-read it again. It is inspiring,
educational, and tests the sense of understanding. Altogether a good read!
Rita Joe, Native Canadian poet, Winner, Governor Generals
Prize for Literature
OBrien is a painter as well as a novelist, and his unlikely
heroinean Indian girl, Rose, with a twisted spine, is a painter
too. Endowed with the ability to get inside the souls of her subjects,
she reveals the grandeur of painting from past ages and attacks the barren
spirit of the modern age. OBrien has chosen a broad canvas with
complex themes and plots.
D.J. Dooley, Professor of English, St. Michaels College,
O'Brien, born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1948 is a self-taught painter and writer.
He has worked as a professional artist since 1970 when he had his first
one-man exhibit at a major gallery in Ottawa. The show was nearly sold out
in a short time, and has been followed by 40 exhibits across North America
during the ensuing 30 years. Since 1976 he has painted religious imagery
exclusively, a field that ranges from liturgical commissions to work reflecting
on the meaning of the human person, transcendence and immanence. His paintings
hang in churches, monasteries, universities, community collections and private
collections in the U.S.A., Canada, England, Australia, and Africa.
The artist is also well known writer on religion and culture. His essays
have appeared in several international journals and anthologies concerned
with these topics, urging the people of the Western world to examine the
negative effects of materialism, and to rediscover authentic spiritual sources
in the absolutes of the Christian faith. Both his written work and visual
art have been reviewed and reproduced widely. He is an author of several
books, notably his seven volume series of novels published by Ignatius Press
of San Francisco. The first volume, Father
Elijah, published in 1996, has sold more than 40,000 copies in hardcover,
and subsequent novels have also sold well.
O'Brien's author page | StudioOBrien.com,
Michael's personal web site