The following interview was published in the July-August, 1998, issue of Gilbert!, a journal devoted to the ideas of G. K. Chesterton.
by Ronald McCloskey
Gilbert! Mr. O’Brien, Ignatius Press has just published your third novel, Eclipse of the Sun, and we’ll be talking about it, of course. But before we do, could you tell us something about the first two, each of which has enjoyed such tremendous success. You’ve been primarily an artist for so many years, tell us, were these, and novel writing generally, recent inspirations?
O’BRIEN. Well, Strangers and Sojourners, published last year, is something I had been tinkering with for almost twenty years. Father Elijah, on the other hand, I wrote only three or four years ago.
G! Let’s start with Elijah then. Tell us about it.
O’BRIEN. Father Elijah is a tale about the dilemma that people would find themselves in at a moment of history when all that we tend to think of as our securities begin to crumble; the social order, the religious order, and so on. And so the central character, Fr. Elijah, is plunged into a crisis that would afflict anyone when his world falls apart. At the same time, he is called to a kind of heroic courage, a heroic mission for the universal church, at the very moment when he feels weakest, and least prepared. It is of course a paradox rooted in Scripture that in our weakness we find the strength of Christ. It is when we are most conscious of our poverty as creatures before God that grace can pour most powerfully into us. Without that consciousness of weakness and poverty, pride inevitably takes over. It is this spiritual problem that afflicts all of us to some degree in the modern world, and it was this which impelled me to write Father Elijah.
G! Its subtitle is “An Apocalypse.” It is a view of the end-times. Are we there now, at a time near the end of the world?
O’BRIEN. I don’t know. Every generation has to stay awake and watch, as Our Lord exhorted us to in the Gospels. Each is called to an attitude of vigilance. The scriptures warn us that the generation that is least vigilant is, in fact, the one that will be visited by the ultimate test. So my novel, unlike a number of other end-times novels which have appeared in the last couple of years, does not so much try to predict specific details of an apocalypse or to pinpoint certain characters and personalities on the world stage, as to ask the reader to go deeper and to ask himself, am I personally in a fit condition to meet the spiritual crisis into which I will be plunged if these are in fact the last days to which the prophets were pointing? True Christian prophesy is about preparing the heart and the mind to embrace the truth. Therefore, wanting neat fortune-telling packages about the near future is really in a sense undermining a true spirit of vigilance.
G! Still, you do use modern characters. The Pope in Elijah is a not very well-disguised John Paul II.
O’BRIEN. Yes. I tried to straddle the two dimensions of present and future. I wanted to make the questions universal but at the same time situate them and root them to some degree in the present-so that the reader is not always pushing the concept or question of apocalypse into some distant mega-drama at the end of history far beyond his present reality. I wanted to give the reader a sense of immediacy, a sense of place, a sense of rootedness in history, but at the same time not to be so overly specific that we limit the possibilities. It was not my intention to play the prophet. I wished simply to build upon a tradition that has always been with us, to ask the essential questions that must be asked by every generation.
G! You mention this idea that the actual end times will be a time when people are perhaps least prepared. This puts me in mind of an essay you wrote for The Chesterton Review many years ago. In it, you said that people today don’t realize that “the worst is happening.” Do I recall this correctly?
O’BRIEN. Yes, this is a thought that haunts me continuously. Human psychology is such that we always tend to perceive our own times as normal. We are born and raised in a certain culture with certain spiritual and material realities all around us. Every generation experiences it as an imperfect world but it is still our world. Well, at some point in history, a generation is going to go through the final apocalypse, and yet to them it will appear to be a normal world. It may have problems. It may even have serious problems, but it will not be perceived by them in terms of the absolute crisis presented in the Book of Revelation. That is our danger, if indeed this is a final apocalypse that we are going through, and not some kind of dress rehearsal. Thus, our spiritual and intellectual guard is lowered and we become extremely vulnerable to the spirit of Antichrist that will be more active at the culminating moment of history. We have to be able to step outside of history perceptually and spiritually. Without this depth perception, man becomes easily victimized by collectivist social theories, by political systems, or by his own fallen impulses, which in our times are confirmed and rewarded at every turn by the culture.
G! This mention of political systems puts me in mind of another essay you wrote, “The New Totalitarianism,” where, borrowing from Chesterton’s The Well and the Shallows, you quote his remark that it is always the state that destroys, that exterminates and abolishes, whether it be Americans with beer or Hitler with everything else. You then say that today’s totalitarians are different in that they are more difficult to perceive than ever before. We are blind to them. What causes this blindness?
O’BRIEN. The origin of this blindness is spiritual disorder. Spiritual disorder has its roots in sin and error. We are living in a culture that is dominated by lies and which rewards with great pleasure those who adhere to them. When man gives interior assent to sin and error, the faculties of his humanity arc systematically dimmed, dulled, and darkened; in the worst cases, they are shut down entirely. He is no longer able to perceive reality itself. The culture such a people produces, the political systems that rise out of such a culture, must eventually devolve or corrupt into various forms of totalitarianism. Peter Kreeft in one of his books puts its succinctly and wryly. He says, “We choose—either conscience or cops.” A people that abandons the moral absolutes which God has revealed will become increasingly violent, will relegate other human beings to nothing more than objects to be consumed. The resulting social collapse will invite the intervention of the state. Police states rise to control the increasingly chaotic human condition.
G! Before leaving Elijah, I want to ask you about the story of Smokrev. Few read your novel without being captivated by this subplot in the novel. It is in some ways a story within a story, a beautiful novella in its own right. I’m curious as to whether Smokrev’s tale was a separate concept with you or whether it grew organically out of the novel you were writing.
O’BRIEN. It did grow organically out of the writing of Father Elijah. When I began to write the novel, I had not even a flicker of a hint that anything like the Smokrev section would appear in it. But as the story grew, it seemed to me that there was a kind of multidimensionality to the problem of sin in the modern world. I sensed that there was a need to provide a counterpoint or a counter-reflection to the spiritual evil of the character of the President, who in many ways is a person of virtue-let’s call it natural virtue-a man of great intelligence, great integrity, a peacemaker, a person with a highly developed ethical system. Yet as we see towards the end of the novel, the President is the person who brings about the greatest evil, and in fact potentially could cast the world into an unprecedented darkness. Now Count Smokrev’s moral corruption is more repulsive to us. It is hideous. It is ugly. It is deformed. It is certainly evil. But the understanding I wanted to engender in the reader was that there are forms of evil, spiritual pride for instance, which may in the long run bring about the greater devastation of the world and the greater devastation of souls.
Christopher Dawson, in The Judgment of the Nations, points out that the modern tyrant does evil coldly, and on principle. In a sense, he is a Puritan. Unlike the monsters of the past, like Nero and Attila the Hun, the modern tyrant commits his evil with the highest motives. He is “improving humanity.” Dawson warns that this is never more dangerous than when a modern tyrant employs all the technique of psychology, propaganda, and the media to accomplish his ends, when he uses the human psyche itself as the engine of his purpose. Joseph Pieper makes the same point in his essay, “The Art of Not Yielding to Despair,” which I read several times each year, and which I urge upon everybody I know. In it he warns that the new totalitarianism is the most dangerous of all because it never reveals itself for what it is. It becomes thereby almost impossible to throw off because it is unrecognizable. Yet its ultimate effect is the same as the more brutal exterior forms of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is about the negation of the worth of the human person, and the annihilation of the principle of freedom in the universe. Its ultimate aim is to enthrone the human will, the sovereign human will in the place of the Godhead. What I hope to point out in all of my books is that there is a kind of universal onslaught underway at the very foundations of reality itself, and that the one voice that is the bulwark standing in the path of this juggernaut is orthodox Christianity, because it dares, in season or out of season, to speak the whole truth about man. I think if you look at the best of Christian fiction, you will always see this depth perception, see that the Christian writer or artist is attempting, with the tools that come to his hand, to speak the whole truth about man.
G! Let’s move to Strangers and Sojourners. You were at it a long time, you say?
O’BRIEN. Yes, I began to write it twenty years ago and it has been through a number of major rewrites ever since. I see it as a huge, clumsy, beloved handicapped child. It is not my most beautiful child but it has, I think, strokes of hidden beauty and truth that are very dear to me. It is the story of a soul. It is the story of a very modern person raised in a Fabian socialist ultra-liberal milieu at the turn of the century. Such people were a minority in England at the time, but they are representative of what a very large number became in our generation. The liberal socialist worldview has become the reigning ethos in culture, politics, and even most ominously in religion, at least in the West. I wanted to trace through the life of the central character the consequences of what would happen if a generation or two lived out that worldview. Ann Delaney is a person of intelligence, creativity, great sensitivity, and no religious faith. She is cast into the dilemma that nonbelieving people are cast into in these times: how to be ethical, how to be idealistic, how to be humanitarian without any real foundation for it. They are, in a sense, lost in the cosmos. They are the ultimate exiles. Now the difference between this character and a person of faith is that the Christian recognizes that because he is living in a fallen world and is not yet in Paradise, he is an exile—but he is an exile on a path that leads to the ultimate promised land, and union with God. I wanted to trace the movement of a soul lost but searching for faith, searching for absolute truth. It is the story of a conversion, and is an attempt to trace the character of modern man in all his paradoxes.
G! Before moving ahead to your latest novel, I’d like to go back a bit to the work you’ve spent the best part of your life doing, your art. This has been your main livelihood, has it not?
O’BRIEN. Yes, Christian art, the painting of religious work, has absorbed most of the past 22 years. My paintings are in churches throughout North America.
G! I suspect Christian art today does not yield material reward.
O’BRIEN. Let me say that from the very first day of launching upon this work of being a Christian artist, never once during that entire period have we been without the basic essentials of living, of being unable to raise our family. Our Lord has provided all our basic needs, often in spectacular last-minute rescue operations. But it has never been a “comfortable” life.
G! Few take your path. Why?
O’BRIEN. I would say that what has been lacking is a sense of willingness to abandon oneself to Divine Providence to the point of sacrifice. No restoration of culture is really going to happen unless there is a willingness to walk the path of sacrifice, to accept the cross of, to some degree, material poverty. The spiritus mundi, the spirit of the world, is very powerful in our times. The culture of the Church has been severely weakened in its worship, in its art, in its concept of the sacred, and in its understanding of the transcendent. People are losing an understanding of how the transcendent and the immanent world actually interpenetrate in an Incarnational sense. Some people are opting for immanentism, which seeks salvation as a purely linear historical process. This is a grave error. Others adopt a kind of super-spiritualism that sees the things of the flesh, the things of the world, as evils to be denied, repressed or escaped. The Catholic vision, and this is embodied very well in the saints and in our arts, is about the restoration of all things in Christ. That means living with Christ on His way of the cross. I would say that a large number of highly gifted, highly motivated people of beautiful faith, like the rich young man in the Gospels, turn sadly away.
G! Who are the masters that you look to in your art? Have you modeled yourself after anyone in particular?
O’BRIEN. It would be very hard for me to say that this or that artist is stylistically my master. As to art as a vocation though, I have learned a great deal from the great French Catholic painter George Rouault. His style was a heroic attempt to baptize abstraction and to a large degree he succeeded. His work is extremely reverent and beautiful. The Canadian Catholic painter William Kurelek is a man I knew, a man who gave me great encouragement in my early years as a painter. Although our styles are very different, he showed me that within the vast and rich field of Christian art there are many possibilities. His work is often overtly evangelical: there are cautionary tales and scenes from the Gospels. He exhorts his viewer, moving him with profound insights. Many artists are only implicitly religious in their reflection on truth and beauty. They enlarge our perceptions of truth and beauty, and ultimately point to an engagement with the living reality of God Himself, who is perfect truth and perfect beauty. But I think by far the greatest need in our times is for Christian artists to be explicitly religious, to find forms that express the mystery and the majesty of God’s creation and of his revealed truth.
G! Any others who are lights to your work?
O’BRIEN. Yes, the great patron saint of artists, Blessed Fra Angelico, is also an inspiration to me as a man, as a saint, and as an artist, although again our styles are different. Fra Angelico said that “to paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ.” I think this is an important teaching to our era. We are all very much the creatures of a culture that talks almost endlessly about reality, a culture drowning in images and words. True Christian art is about the imparting of reality, the imparting of the word of God as a living reality. That means the artist has to live in the fullness of the Christian faith. He has to be praying, and he has to be very much a disciple of Christ. That means continuously seeking to rid himself of sin and to rid himself of error. Such an artist believes so much in the glory of creation, in the holiness of beauty, that he will not settle for anything less than the fullness of what Jesus Christ longs to give us. The Christian artist is freed by grace, by the merits of Christ’s redemption on the cross, not merely to escape a fallen world but to help restore the world in Christ, to the Father.
G! To what extent should an artist who dedicates himself in this way expect the support of the Christian laity, or the Church hierarchy itself?
O’BRIEN. He can’t rely on it. Christians have been fed on pseudo-religious imagery for more than a century and a half. The majesty and glory of God has been sentimentalized and trivialized. We have by and large settled for sentiment instead of truth. It is the artist who must change this, who must lead us from this. To do so, he must trust that God will do the rest by prompting in our Christian people a response to the work. It is not the job of the artist to ask how it can happen or if it is possible. His job is to say, “Here I am, Lord. I come to do your will.”
G! I’m anxious to hear about your new novel, Eclipse of the Sun, which has just been released. It follows Father Elijah and Strangers and Sojourners as the third in a series Ignatius is calling “Children of the Last Days.” Can you tell us a little bit about it?
O’BRIEN. Yes. Eclipse of the Sun is different from the preceding two novels. Father Elijah looks at the apocalypse from a kind of global perspective through the eyes of a holy priest combating the Antichrist and dealing with betrayal that is going on within the Church. Strangers and Sojourners deals more broadly with the spirit of the age, the spirit of unbelief, alienation and despair. Eclipse of the Sun is far more specific. It is a speculative apocalypse, set in Canada in the near future. In this novel I present a scenario of a totalitarian state which has arisen out of the rotting corpse of liberal socialism. It concerns a family cast in the path of this gradual shift from a democratic parliamentary government to a quiet but deadly totalitarianism. The father of the family is the editor of a small newspaper that continues to publish the truth even when it is no longer popular. I try to show what happens when a family is shattered by the power of the state-a state that has very ominous intentions, the total control over private life, total control over family life, total control over everything, while maintaining all the while a veneer of liberal democratic ethics. The society has become dominated by falsehood and propaganda. The media condition everyone’s perceptions of reality. It is a world pretty much like our own but taken just a little notch further along the process of decay: The novel examines from a grass-roots level what happens when the conditioners, as C.S. Lewis calls them, arrive at that position of total power in which they can work out the awful consequences of their abstract theories of man and society. Real people begin to suffer. Real principles begin to be eclipsed, with dire consequences.
G! Sounds altogether rather chilling.
O’BRIEN. Except that in all of this the hand of God is operative. Grace is at work. As St. Paul says, “Where evil abounds, grace also abounds.” So, the theme of the novel is ultimately about the meaning of Christian hope. Eclipse of the Sun is not, although it deals with dark issues, a pessimistic view of history or man. Neither is it optimistic. I would call it a Christian realism founded on hope. It reflects, I think, what John Paul II has repeatedly warned against, namely, that nations of the West should not conclude that because the more brutal forms of Marxism seem to be in decline, all of mankind is now freed to become what it was intended to be from the beginning. He warns that materialism takes many faces and that a capitalist materialism which renders the human person into an object to be consumed or into a consumer without conscience, may in the long run bring about a more comprehensive destruction of souls than Marxism did.
G! Is there any significance to your choice of Canada as the place where this happens?
O’BRIEN. Canada, I think, is an ideal place for a globalist power elite to make just such a move, to establish this type of soft totalitarian state. It is a nation without any significant revolutions ever having taken place on its soil. America, by contrast, for all its grave faults, still has a very strong sense of its foundations in the pursuit of liberty, and of nationhood. Canadians are more sheep-like, more passive, more eager to prove themselves good citizens of the world, often without giving serious consideration to the meaning of distinctions between nations and peoples. Each nation, each people, has a unique genius, but if it is absorbed into a kind of homogenized world-culture without any real moral foundation, it could become the vanguard of the ultimate collapse of everything that we have called human. It could be done here, I think. Canada has a smaller population than America, and is more easily managed. I think we may be a prototype, and that we’ll see more and more efforts to turn us into a kind of terrarium of the globalist new world order.
G! And we see it especially in education, don’t you think? The state controls education in a way that would shock even Chesterton, who saw it all coming, of course. How have you handled this with your own family?
O’BRIEN. One of the responses my wife and I have made to what we see as a devastating cultural revolution, is to withdraw our children from the educational system, which we did ten years ago. The younger three of our six children have never been to school. The three older ones attended both public and Catholic schools. There are too many stories to tell you here, but I would say that from top to bottom, the conditioners—even people of high motivation and great love of children—are people who have, to some degree, abandoned the absolute rights of God and the teachings of the Church. This is not to say that there aren’t people of heroic ideals still at work in the system trying to keep it sane and true, but they are fighting a losing battle.
G! Yes, and the rot runs deep, doesn’t it?
O’BRIEN. This is such a big topic. Where does one begin? The definition of the human person. The corruption of moral absolutes. The choosing of lesser evils to fight great evils. Ersatz culture. The death of classics. The decline in literacy. Even though children read more books, the quality of the books is in steep decline. The lack of thinking. Values clarification that really are not so much about values as they are about re-engineering social attitudes. Perhaps most grave, the undermining of parental authority over the formation of their children. Sometimes parents willingly turn over this authority to the system and to the state because they themselves have been poorly formed. It is a condition of social collapse in which the system will have to increase its control in order to sustain itself, increase its attempt to shape the minds of the young, not of course to give them classical education, but to shape their perceptions of reality itself, according to the values of the new global elite.
G! Mr. O’Brien, if you’ve been home-schooling all these years, you will know first of all that it is a growing phenomenon in North America. Also you have linked it just now to an attempt by families to bypass the new totalitarianism, what you’re calling the “soft totalitarianism” of the modern state. Therefore, do you see a time when the state will make concerted efforts to restrict home-schooling? Will the state stand still for it much longer? Does it do so now?
O’BRIEN. I think the situation varies from province to province and from state to state in America. Some states are extremely tolerant. In Canada, Alberta is very encouraging of home-schooling. In Ontario, which has a massive investment in the system and is the largest educational entity in Canada, there is often open hostility to home-schooling, even to the point of harassment. Certainly some home-school defense lawyers have pointed to an increasing pattern of harassment and actions that are outside the limitations of the law regarding education. But there is a parallel pattern that I think is quite hopeful. It occurs whenever parents have had a clear understanding of their rights as first teachers of their children—rights, by the way, which are strongly supported by the Church. Wherever parents have understood this principle, and wherever they have known their rights under the law, and wherever they have resisted the state’s encroachment upon these rights and responsibilities, the state has backed off.
G! But home-schoolers remain a small minority of course.
O’BRIEN. Yes, but regardless of numbers, we must understand that whenever the state infringes upon the traditional rights and duties of the family, we must see in this a symptom that the nation has made a major move in the direction of statism. If and when we see that happen, we must understand that worse evils are inevitable and are soon to follow. God willing, that will not happen. We must hope that people will wake up and put a stop to destructive tendencies in politics and social life and culture, that we will start to reverse the culture of death and the culture of statism. But if we do not wake up, we will inherit a frightful world. Russell Kirk warns that if the culture becomes corrupted and the imagination becomes diabolized, society will inherit “slaughter and fire.” It’s that simple.
G! What would you say is the ideal in education?
O’BRIEN. My dream would be to see the resurrection of small Christian schools everywhere that are dedicated to the traditional concepts of a real classical education. They should be small enough so that the children can be known and appreciated as individuals by teachers who are vitally concerned with each child’s destiny. Is that ideal so far beyond our capacity? I don’t think so. I think there is a very large number of very gifted young teachers, highly motivated men and women who love children. Today they think their only option is to be absorbed into the mega-system of the educationist state. I think a return to smaller, more personal, one might even say more Chestertonian concepts of education, would bring about a revitalization of society itself, because its primary concern would be with the personhood of the child and his growth in truth. The present system is really just a vast factory for mass-processing children.
G! Let’s switch to some of your current projects. What’s in store for fans of Michael O’Brien?
O’BRIEN. I have just finished the manuscript of the next novel in the “Children of the Last Days” series. It is called Plague Journal and will be published in the spring of 1999 by Ignatius Press. Also, a new edition of my book, A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind will be published some time this fall. It addresses the problem of the pagan invasion of children’s literature and culture generally. There is a long chapter on Disney Studios. There is another chapter on children’s fantasy writers such as Madeleine L’Engle and the Gnostic neo-pagan worldview which is being introduced into children’s reading programs, even in Christian schools. It also looks at the effect which the video and television revolution is having on children’s perception of reality. By and large, even in many Christian homes, children’s fundamental perception of the world is increasingly Gnostic. This is going to have its consequences in the coming years. Another serious battlefront in the culture wars.
G! You mention Disney. Does any good come out of Disney today?
O’BRIEN. Well, I am very fond of Pinocchio and Jimminy Cricket, but if Walt is thawed out some day, he is going to raise hell with the guys who have taken over his company.
G! Mr. O’Brien, you’re a Catholic, and one who is known to have a high regard for the person and teaching of John Paul II.
O’BRIEN. John Paul II, I think, has a grasp of the dynamics of this century as few other people do. He is criticized from many sides and yet he has achieved what few Popes have done in history. He has really captured the imagination of the world. He is respected even by those who strongly disagree with his teachings, and with the magisterium of the Church. He is recognized as a man of integrity, of vast courage, and genius.
G! Yes, but some of the criticism you mention is that he has also presided over a continuing decline of faith in the Church and the world, and that he has failed to stem an obvious corruption from within.
O’BRIEN. Many particular churches of the Western world, so imbued with the spirit of materialism and pragmatism, are in a tragic state, one that frequently goes right into the sanctuary. I think many of us would have preferred to see John Paul II swoop down on these scandalous situations and simply demolish them and impose orthodoxy. He has done that, charitably, in some places, but I think his major focus has been to do something on a cosmic or planetary scale. I am guessing, of course, but I think what he has done is to perform an end run around modernist theologians and the tragedy of liberal and modernist bishops. He has called all mankind to repentance and to reflection upon the last things. He has done it in a spirit of moral force and at the same time of charity. There is a strong eschatological thread that runs through his writings. I think he understands that these are definitive moments in the history of mankind. Whether they are the final moments, I don’t know. Perhaps even he does not know for sure, but I think he knows, as few men know, that this is a decisive, possibly the decisive, moment in history. His ultimate concern is the salvation of every soul. He knows that the orthodox believers will survive practically everything. I think his concern is for the salvation of the weak, those who do not understand the dynamics of this time, either in its spiritual, political, or social dimensions. I think he has done, according to his lights, what will help to save the most number of souls. That is my hope.
G! Who have been your main inspirations as far as writing goes?
O’BRIEN. A wide variety of writers, but among many there has been especially Flannery O’Connor, the American Catholic short story writer, the American novelist Walker Percy, and a wonderful, not so well known, but truly gifted Christian writer, Wendell Berry. Also, Alexander Solzhenitzen’s works have moved me very much, especially his great novel Cancer Ward.
G! And G.K. Chesterton?
O’BRIEN. In Gilbert! magazine, I would expect that goes without saying! My debt to Chesterton is immense. Chesterton provided a model for me in the way of the saints of the last two thousand years. Chesterton, being a thoroughly modern man, as well as a man totally dedicated to Christ and His Church, provided a model of a largeness of mind, coupled to a largeness of heart and imagination. Chesterton is an icon, if you will, of the greatness to which we are all called by the power of grace. His was a mind awake, and vivid. His was an imagination that was baptized. His was a heart that truly loved. Even his enemies couldn’t help liking him. This betokens an extraordinary integration that I think is only possible by grace. His humor was one of his most winning characteristics. He made truth credible. He made the Christian life believable and immensely attractive, even to intellectuals, where the walls are thick. You know, since the Enlightenment, intellect and imagination have more and more become the realm of pride, the realm of the sovereign self. The mind of Western man is in great need of a man such as Chesterton. He shows that Christ came to illuminate the mind, to sanctify the imagination so that its creativity reflects the infinite creativity of God. The heart also must be purified in order for it to freely love. Chesterton knew this and lived his life accordingly, I would say to the point of sanctity.
G! Sanctity? Well, what else to say, then? A good place to stop, I think, for Chestertonians.
O’BRIEN. And everyone else.