Ignatius Insight Interview – Part 2

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

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