An interview with Michael D. O’Brien on his novel, The Father’s Tale
Lay Witness magazine, November/December, 2012
How long did it take you to write “The Father’s Tale”?
O’Brien: I began research for the book, and a first draft, more than 13 years ago. During the following years I rewrote the book several times.
The story begins in your native Canada, but the main character travels to England, Russia, and beyond. Did your research involve traveling to some of the places in the novel, and if so, how did those experiences paint the narrative?
O’Brien: The most crucial journeys were the two I made to Russia. There were also trips to England and Finland. I walked the trail of my central character step by step and street by street, so to speak, especially in the European section of the novel. This grass roots experience of the textures of real places helped me to put “flesh” on the characters and story. More importantly, I was greatly assisted by many human encounters with people in Oxford-Aylesbury, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. I stayed in private homes at the invitation of people living ordinary lives, and avoided entirely the tourist’s package-tour approach. I would say that the friendships formed have profoundly affected my life, my perceptions and thinking. They have, as a result, had great impact on both the story’s narrative structure, the texture provided by detail and atmosphere, and the character of various peoples in their specific cultures.
As the title indicates, your new novel is a rich and complex examination of fatherhood. Do you feel this is a pressing issue in today’s world?
O’Brien: Your question needs a book-length reply. But in brief: Yes, I believe it is one of the most pressing issues in today’s world. Pope Benedict XVI, in a talk he gave in the year 2000, said that the crisis of spiritual fatherhood in our times is at the root of many, if not all, of the world’s current problems. We live in a hierarchical universe, and yet mankind in vast areas of the globe no longer senses this, let alone believes it or has a living faith in it. He has lost essential connections not only to our Father-Creator but to himself as a human person. Most tragically, the vanguard of this colossal apostasy (where it is not simply ignorance) is in the nations that were once the Christian West.
What is the spiritual impact of a father who does not understand the nature of his own vocation?
O’Brien: The impact has many dimensions and can manifest in a wide variety of forms. But the end result is that a child can easily lose, or never develop, his innate understanding of the nature of love—which in its legitimate human expressions is a foretaste of the eternal communion of Love in Paradise. Side by side with this, is our constant need to be growing in love of Truth.
Numerous studies have shown that the father of a family is the primary “icon” in his children’s lives of what it is to be a person of faith, of fidelity, of sacrifice. The Church teaches us that a husband-father is called by God to be a “priest, prophet and king” in his “domestic church.” Ideally, both mother and father have complementary roles that help develop their children’s religious sense, their inner awareness and desire to know and love God. If this shared role is lacking in a family, or seriously damaged, then the child has greater difficulty finding his way. He must wrestle with confused signals regarding the fundamental premises of faith, and also questions of his personal identity and mission. Of course, we should never discount grace. And of course a mother can do a great deal to make up for what is lacking in a father, as many heroic women do. But regardless of her faith, the child’s inner life is weakened if the unique role of the father becomes a counter-witness. For sons this is particularly difficult, but the father’s role is crucial in the lives of daughters as well.
“The Father’s Tale” emphasizes the suffering of persecuted Christians. This is not a mere plot point. What message, or what memory, are you trying to impress in the reader?
O’Brien: Some of the fictional scenes and characters in The Father’s Tale are based in actual events, and on the sufferings of people whom I have come to know. I can say no more about this, because they are in the underground Church in China, which plays an important role in the story. The witness of faithful, persecuted Christians throughout the world, many experiencing both “red” and “white” martyrdom, should remind us of our own Baptismal promises and our Confirmation—in fact the totality of what it means to be a Christian. We in the free Western nations have too long made a compromise with the spirit of Mammon. We desire the blessings of God but resist what He would teach us through suffering and sacrifice. We work very hard to obtain all the comforts of the good life, including the illusion of security, and neglect the basic conformity to Christ. We believe with our minds, but not with our whole hearts.
It goes without saying that essential to our faith in Christ and his Church is a complete assent to the body of doctrine. However, if it is only this, then there is something gravely lacking in our role as members of the Body of Christ. Compromise with sin and error, most notably the corruption of authentic teaching in many particular churches, is not authentic Catholicism. But we should also keep in mind that a purely intellectual assent to orthodoxy does not necessarily bring about a full flowering of the Life of Christ, and indeed runs other kinds of risks. A rationalist Catholicism is an oxymoron. In the real war in which we are all immersed, the war that will last until the end of time, we have great need of all the gifts (including reason, but not exclusively reason) that the Holy Trinity desires to pour out upon us—and through us for the sake of mankind. The “witness” of our martyrs testifies to this living reality.
What should be at the heart of a revival of Christian art?
O’Brien: People of faith who have been blessed with creative gifts are called by God, though a co-creative grace, to bring into the world “living words” of truth, incarnated in beautiful forms. They need to know their responsibility before God and Man. If they desire their work to be fruitful in this regard, they must form their lives in constant prayer, sacrifice, docility to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, self-honesty, weeding out any nasty little sprouts of ambition or willfulness that rise up within the heart. In other words, humility. And again humility, combined with a willingness to lose everything for the sake of the truth, if it is asked of us. As serious as all this sounds, I should say also that there is an immense joy and many beautiful surprises in this path.
At the same time, we Christians of the affluent West—soon to be less affluent—must repent of the ways we have become addicted to secular, moral-relativist culture, the way we have funded it lavishly while authentic Christian culture has been left comparatively underdeveloped. All of us should become more sensitive to how we can help bring about a new and holy renaissance.
As a Catholic and an author, do you write as a Catholic or do you write to Catholics?
O’Brien: I don’t really think in those terms. It seems to me that they are strategic or occupational, rather than vocational. My faith in Christ is the source of my life as a husband and father, as a writer, a painter, a layman involved in culture. The Church is my home. In fact it is mankind’s home, though by and large he does not know it. The splendid and wondrous world in which we live is inexhaustibly beautiful. Yet there is a terrible war raging throughout its visible and invisible cosmology. I tell stories about this.
I write about what I see and experience, about my questions and my wonder over existence itself, its beauty and its tragedies. I do write as a Catholic, because that is who I am; and I do write to Catholics, because that is who every soul is created to be, ultimately, though most in this present age do not know it, and many who know it adamantly reject it. Maybe another way of saying it is this: I hope that my work simultaneously strengthens the household of the Faith, which is now under great duress throughout the world, while at the same time bearing witness to those unbelievers who may happen upon my work—a witness that says, “Here is a sign, here is a tale about real pathways across the desert of our age. And this path leads, even now, to a gateway that, in its seeming narrowness, opens into a vast and infinitely beautiful Kingdom.”
Why is it important for Catholics to write literature, or to be engaged in any form of the arts?
O”Brien: In one of his talks the Holy Father [Pope Benedict XVI] has said, “We are losing the basic memory of mankind.” At a time of history when the eternal value of the human person is degraded on every side, when existence itself is presented as a materialistic Flatland, our mission in all the arts is to “tell” the true story of mankind. In part, this means we must convey a vision of the great drama of human life and of the unfolding of salvation history. We speak about man’s greatness and about his vulnerability to falsehood, about his shame and about his authentic glory as a beloved child of the Father.
The languages of the arts may be verbal as in poems, novels, and plays, or non-verbal as in painting and music without lyrics. Moreover, the story can be “told” in forms that are explicitly or implicitly Christian. But the essential thing, the vital thing, is that the story must be true. It must give an account of reality that includes a sense (at the least) of the metaphysical. If the artist is faithful in this by responding to grace, and by the continual disciplining and development of his natural gifts, and by the lifelong discipleship of love, he will bear much good fruit, even eternal good fruit, in the lives of others.