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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 you’ve 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?

O’Brien: This question is so monumental I hesitate to reply with a short answer. I’ve written many essays on it, and even they, lengthy and packed with ideas as they were, only scraped the surface of the problem.

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--God’s 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 man’s 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 dehumanized.

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.

O’Brien: 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. I’ll 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, I’d have to say that all my books are about this grave wound of fatherlessness in modern consciousness. It’s 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 children.

In Sophia House I’m 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 series?

O’Brien: I’m back to being a n’er-do-well painter again, and loving it immensely. I may be wrong about this, but I think I’ve said about all I can say in text form. I’ve just completed final revisions of the manuscript of a novel which, of all my books, is the one closest to my heart.

Titled The Father’s Tale, it’s 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--it’s 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 it’s 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?

O’Brien: First and foremost we need to rediscover the light that comes from humility—a 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 Father’s 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 of Christ.

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.


A 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 O’Brien 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 Rose’s 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.

O’Brien 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 O’Brien beautifully demonstrates that no matter how insignificant a person may be in the world’s 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. O’Brien 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 O’Brien’s 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 O’Brien.”
Joseph Pearce, Author, Tolkien: Man and Myth

“Like O’Brien’s 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 voice.”
Michael Coren, Author, The Man Who Was Chesterton

A Cry of Stone by Michael O’Brien 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 General’s Prize for Literature

“O’Brien is a painter as well as a novelist, and his unlikely heroine—an 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. O’Brien has chosen a broad canvas with complex themes and plots.”
D.J. Dooley, Professor of English, St. Michael’s College, Toronto



Michael 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.

Michael O'Brien's author page | StudioOBrien.com, Michael's personal web site



   




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