The following is the original text of an interview with the Italian journal Famiglia Cristiana, in which the author discusses his novel Sophia House, just published in July, 2008, by Edizioni San Paolo under the title Il Libraio (the bookseller). The abbreviated Italian language version of the interview can be found at the end of this article. It appeared in
Your novel Il libraio is the spiritual journey of Pawel Tarnowski. Can you help us to understand better what kind of journey it is? What did it mean for you writing it? How much of it is your personal experience?
O’Brien: The central character of the novel, as well as some of the other characters, represent the spiritual and emotional-psychological damage suffered by men in our times. Their sense of abandonment and a feeling of being unloved generates a struggle against discouragement and even ultimate despair. The story asks the question, how does a person find hope in the midst of absolutely dehumanizing situations, such as the Nazi occupation of Warsaw in which the story is situated. How does man find hope and authentic love at a time when love seems to have been annihilated?
It is not my own story, except in the sense that the basic human struggles are universal, and only the specific details of temptation and grace are particular to each soul. In this sense, Il Libraio is every man’s story. The specifics of Pawel’s temptation are based on the lives of people I have known, friends and family members of my and wife’s families. None were as bad as Count Smokrev, but all have experienced degradation through sin. For a Christian author, creative fiction demands a candid view of human nature seen through the eyes of grace. It is not only a product of ones own imagination, but also of inspiration. I found myself writing scenes and dialogues that were entirely vivid to me, as real as lived experience, and yet I do not see how I could know these things. It was grace working through my creative gifts, and thus it was not me alone who made this novel. Writing it helped me to come to new understanding of human nature and its myriad struggles.
In the drama you compare the suffering Catholic bookseller and the young orthodox Hasidic boy: two hearts, two stories, two points of view, two faiths….what does unite them?
O’Brien: Of course their common humanity unites them at a foundational level. There is also their religious faith in God. As the Popes have taught us, the Jews remain the chosen people and are our “elder brothers in the faith.” In the unfolding of salvation history there will come a time, as St Paul wrote, when “the whole household of Israel will come into the faith” — total faith in Jesus the Messiah, Jesus as God and Man. The novel takes place at a time of history when this fullness of faith has not yet come for most Jews, and the fictional dialogue between a Jew and a Christian explores ways in which the fuller revelation may come— through love, through mutual respect, through coming to understand each other, and through shared suffering.
Pawel Tarnowski says that Truth and Love are one. Today the common mentality is to see those two words as distant and in conflict too: the reasons of mind and the reasons of heart. How to heal such a contrast?
O’Brien: The supposed conflict between Truth and Love is a false one. Without Truth, love too easily becomes sentiment and it does not stand the test of time. Nor is truth without love really life-giving. This central problem in modern man is at the core of many crises in the world and the Church itself. It is a negative consequence of the grave errors of the Enlightenment and its deformed humanism, which fractures man within himself. The roots are older still, in the Protestant revolt, especially its non-sacramental and dualistic elements. Both of these revolutions created wounds in the interior life of the human person, false splits between Faith and Reason, between Truth and Love, between Law and Spirit.
I believe that these blows to the thinking and perceptions of man in our times will be healed by a return to the ultimate truth about reality itself. The complete healing comes only through union with Jesus as a person. Rational assent to the Faith is excellent and urgently needed, yet it is not enough. When both the heart and mind are in union with Christ, the wounds are gradually healed. This union begins when we accept that we are small and beloved creatures, when we submit completely to the authority of God and the Church he has given to the world. It is a “narrow gate” but it opens into a vast and beautiful kingdom. But first one must take the step in faith, entering the gate, even though one does not yet see the fullness of the kingdom.
Your novel is rich of fairy-tales, images, visions and also dreams: what personal experience or interest drew you to the Catholic-Polish culture and to the orthodox Jewish spirituality? From what resource did you draw the images, the tales and the symbolic animals ( the one-eyed bear, the dragon-lizard….) that we find in your story?
O’Brien: I know many Polish people, and have close friendships with some survivors of the Nazi invasion, and one a survivor of Auschwitz. I have always been moved by the particular moral character of Poles, a character forged by their unique history and the particular kind of suffering embedded in their national experience. Geographically situated between the two worlds of Eastern and Western Christendom, their sufferings have demanded constant courage and wisdom, for the sake of survival as a nation and as a culture. Their faith in Christ and fidelity to his Church have made this possible, and it has created a distinct character.
The symbols used in the novel are, of course, partly from sacred scripture. Others, such as the one-eyed bear, simply arose in my imagination without warning. I have also studied the fairy stories of Europe for many years, and I think these also created a deep inner sense of the spiritual realities represented by these fantasy tales.
The reality of Evil is represented in Il Nemico (Father Elijah) by the Antichrist. What form does it take in Il Libraio (Sophia House), beyond the Nazi occupation and the persecution of the Jews: what form does evil take in the souls of the main characters and in their spiritual conflicts?
O’Brien: The Nazi and Soviet tyrannies are prefigurements of the ultimate trial that will come upon the Church toward the end of time, as prophesied by Jesus himself, and the prophet Daniel and in St. John’s Apocalypse. We are now living in a non-violent totalitarianism that is becoming world-wide, what Pope Benedict called “the dictatorship of moral relativism.” Both he and John Paul II repeatedly warned that democracies are not immune from degenerating into tyrannies, and that they are most vulnerable to this corruption when they embrace a secular concept of the human person and banish from their governments the higher authority of God’s laws.
Through the story of Pawel’s temptations, I try to show how a person reacts in situations of extreme stress, when all securities have failed, He is plunged into an epic crisis, and called to respond with heroic courage, even though this comes to him only little by little. Pawel experiences extreme weakness, and in this condition he discovers an unexpected grace and moral strength that is given from above. In his battle against what seems to be “small” sin, with no consequences that he can foresee, in fact his choices shift the balance of the world. In the end he resist successfully, and for himself this means new freedom to love and sacrifice. And for the world it means that David Schaffer, who later becomes Fr. Elijah in Il Nemico, is freed to become Christ’s servant and to confront the Antichrist fifty years later. My point is that there are no “small” sins, since every sin has negative consequences. Yet in Christ there is boundless mercy.
Only by becoming sons can we became fathers: What is the meaning of the figure of Pawel who breaks the chain of sin and saves David? In his wound from the lack of paternity in his life is there a critique of the actual religious crisis? What’s the possibility of and solution for this in your novel?
O’Brien: Until Pawel learns to forgive—and to forgive everything—he cannot become free. Hatred of those who have hurt him locks him into a cycle of unforgiveness, and then the unforgiveness locks him into another spiral of hatred. Until this pattern is broken, he sinks deeper into despair. It is broken by a combination of providential circumstance and Pawel’s willingness to accept the graces offered to him. This is his personal “narrow gate”, or as Jesus also called it, “the eye of the needle.” In facing the extreme poverty in his personhood, and accepting this in the eyes of the loving God our Father, his prison walls collapse and he begins to believe in the reality of love. From this comes the next step of growth, which is to learn to love in divine order.
You have a large family and you were editor of a Catholic family magazine in your country: why in our society is the relationship between man and woman so fragile and the family in crisis?
O’Brien: This topic is an immense one, demanding a longer answer than is possible here. But briefly we must admit that man-woman relationships have been under attack with extreme severity for more than a century, riddled with ideological agendas, and bringing about horrendous demographic self-destruction. We are all suffering the effects of this radical social revolution that rejects God’s natural and supernatural laws, as it attempts to redefine man and woman. Our Creator has made of us of equal value, but man and woman are not the same. Our natures are complementary, giving a richness and depth to the human social milieu. Without strong family life, societies swiftly degenerate and then collapse into anarchy followed by tyranny.
This social philosophy of sameness, this unisex cosmos, has come very close to destroying the traditional family, and it has done it in the name of “freedom.” Destruction as liberation is a classic lie that has eroded many peoples and cultures in the past, and now it has come upon us. Christian family life, when it is lived in the fullness of faithfulness and grace, is the means through which God pours out life into the world, new eternal souls, new love, new expressions of truth, new solutions for mankind’s problems, a cultural richness for the human community—a true humanism. But it is all founded on sacrifice. To give life means to die to oneself so that others may live. In this present age, the truth about love and responsible sacrifice is being denied at every turn, particularly through powerful cultural forces that redefine the meaning of human life, the most massive propaganda campaign in history. It should be remembered that all tyrants–even the “soft” tyrants of modern Materialism—present themselves as liberators. Their true nature, however, can be assessed according to their fruits.
You are a visual artist and an icon painter too. What is the value of images in Christian faith? When Pawel has to sell the icons he feels both the walls of his room and his existence as empty: What is an icon then?
O’Brien: In the broadest definition of the word, “icon” simply means image. But a sacred image is like a window onto the infinite, a portal before which a person can pray, and a sign-post in his psychological cosmos. The world is an incarnational universe, radiant with signs and symbols of our Father-Creator. Man is made in His image and likeness and thus he is a creature of symbols. Symbols in our minds exercise a certain power over us (often subconsciously), and this is especially so in the minds of the young during their formative years. Symbols are keystones in the architecture of thought, indeed in our perceptions of the structure of reality itself. They quietly but powerfully form psychological consciousness and as a result they have a crucial role in shaping our moral conscience. If we lose symbolism, we lose your 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.
The bookseller tells David that in life there are burdens, even great ones, which help man’s journey, and burdens that, if taken away, will crush him. What are you speaking of here?
O’Brien: In speaking this paradox in the form of an epithet, I tried to express the fundamental truth about our human nature: We grow under adversity and we become lax and selfish when we are without struggles or crosses to bear. The hardest trials put us to the test, but they also offer us an opportunity to develop new levels of maturity, and of union with Christ—if we do not lose heart, if we do not succumb to the temptation of discouragement or despair or to flee into the realm of false consolations. In other words we would lose our life in the wrong way if we throw off the responsibility of our human nature, that is if we refuse to bear burdens in love for the sake of others. If we seek comfort and security at all costs, we cannot learn to truly love. We may feel for a time the sensations of love but these cannot last by themselves alone, and we never discover the deep waters of full love. By contrast, if we accept our human destiny, with all its glories and all its trials, in this way we are ennobled and become more conformed to the image of Christ the Son.
In the bathroom-scene at the end of the novel Pawel sees all the people who have hurt him during his life, asking his forgiveness. The secret of love is then forgiveness? Must we forgive even ourselves?
O’Brien: Yes, the secret of sustaining love is forgiveness, because no one loves perfectly or has been loved perfectly by others. The discipleship of love always asks us to forgive in the interior places where we have been most hurt. And to forgive continually, seventy-times-seven (70 X 7). In human terms alone this seems impossible. But with the grace of Jesus it is very possible. In fact, it is the only way to break the cycle of sin and damage that began with Adam and Eve’s sin and is passed down generation to generation. In Christ we are no longer slaves to the cycle. We can choose to love. And it is definitely a choice. Later, there comes the freedom from negative or enslaving emotions. When we truly accept Christ’s forgiveness of our own sins, then we can truly begin to understand the human condition and the infinite goodness of God’s love. Then it becomes possible to forgive ourselves too.
The face of Our Lady of Czestochowa speaks to Pawel with tenderness, and her icon is in his room and his many rosary to her are a consolation in the cold nights of the bookseller. What’s the role of Holy Mary in the drama?
O’Brien: The story of Sophia House occurs in a war zone—a vicious and most evil war. As such it is a metaphor of the war that will last until the end of time. In this cosmic war, the battle waged over each of our souls and for mankind as a whole, God has chosen to give us a “New Eve”, the Woman clothed with the Sun, our Mother. She too suffered as one of us. She is intimately close to us until the end. Her role in assisting the children of God in their pilgrimage toward Paradise is a unique one. In the mysterious plans of divine providence she has been entrusted with graces to give to her children, especially the particular graces we most need at this time of history. But Heaven never forces anything upon us. Love never forces; it invites. The Holy Trinity and all the saints are yearning to pour out for us everything we need, but we must ask. We must ask with child-like hearts. And in this way alone can we truly receive what they desire to give us.
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“IL LIBRAIO”, IL NUOVO ROMANZO DI MICHAEL D. O’BRIEN
IL SEGRETO DELL’AMORE
Varsavia, 1942: un giovane ebreo fugge dal ghetto, inseguito dai nazisti. A salvarlo da morte sicura è un libraio solitario, che così riscatta una vita di dolore.
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