The Role of Art in Transforming Culture in the Modern World
Interview with Michael O’Brien
by Catherine Wood
How does your faith influence your writing and artwork?
O’Brien: My Catholic faith is absolutely fundamental to my being and my whole way of life. My faith is the source of all that I do; it is the spring that I drink from, it is what infuses whatever I do with any kind of authenticity. My work flows from my faith.
In your opinion, what role does an artist have in “creating”?
O’Brien: The role of an artist is one of a co-creator. In the same way that a married couple brings a new human life into the world by using the gift that God has implanted in their nature and by being infused with divine grace, so too is each work of art a new created being. It is not an eternal being or a living being, but it expands our consciousness of the richness and beauty of God. All works of beauty and truth point back to the one who is “perfect beauty” as St. Thomas Aquinas says, to the very Person who is the source of truth, love, and beauty. As an artist, I go to the source of beauty; I get down on my knees. I always paint and write praying. I begin every day praying. As I begin a new project, I am very conscious that the work materializing through my eyes, hands, and heart is going to affect other people’s lives. Therefore it must be a work that helps them move closer to Paradise.
How does art shape culture, and what role does the artist have in influencing culture?
O’Brien: What John Paul II has been speaking about with great urgency—and also the popes before him such as Pius XII and Paul VI—that art is one of the most significant dimensions of evangelization. Without culture, faith often doesn’t reach the very people we want to evangelize. Pope John Paul II has written extensively on this. Faith and culture must work together if we are going to be effective. If you look at the last generation, culture has become the major battleground where we are losing most of our battles and many souls as well. So it is all the more urgent that Christian artists create works of culture from sources within the heart of the soul, linked with the true eternal source.
How can the lay person help respond to the Pope’s call to cultivate and restore Christian culture? By displaying Christian artwork in our homes? By teaching our children what good art and literature is?
O’Brien: Yes, all of this is necessary. The creation of art is about communication leading towards ultimate communion. Those who are not artists, those who are not involved in some sort of cultural work, are nonetheless important to the artist, not only personally, but in the shaping of the broader context of culture. Presently, our Catholic people are consuming secular culture in huge quantities and paying large amounts of money to consume what really does not feed them, or does not feed them well, and at the same time are ignoring the phenomenal new springtime of Christian culture being reborn all around us.
Everywhere I go I meet incredibly gifted young people in all the arts, yet the overwhelming majority of them feel that they have no hope for realizing their talents. This is a colossal tragedy and loss for the Church and the world. We are not producing a culture of life because we are not willing to pay the price. And therein lies our problem. Catholic people want God and Mammon. This is our crisis and this is our test. By and large, Catholics and Christians as a whole are failing their test.
There are consequences to this failure. Each generation has less and less genuine culture, each coming generation feeds more and more on false culture, or at least on corrupt or greatly flawed culture, and thus each generation becomes less able to recognize truth and understand the nature of love. It’s a two-fold problem. Gifted people must be willing to respond to God’s call to engage, sacrifice, and commit their lives to creating no matter what the cost, and to entrust their lives and their vocations to God. Parallel with this, our people (the non-artists) must understand that unless we support genuine Christian culture, the next generation is going to be starved at some fundamental level.
In this battle for culture I see a spiritual war—a struggle of profound significance and intensity. Yet so few people realize what is going on, nor do they understand that if we do not encourage and nourish genuine culture, we will have participated in the “auto-destruction” of our own identity.
How has the rupture between faith and reason in the modern world affected art?
O’Brien: By creating a compartmentalization of consciousness, which seems to be almost as widespread among Catholics as it is among non-believers. I am particularly worried about an interesting phenomenon in orthodox Catholic circles. What we generally consider to be “orthodox Catholic culture” tends to be dominated by academics and academic commentary. Beneath this phenomenon is often a limited mindset, a way of viewing the world according to categories of thought divorced from what one might call the phenomenological sense of Man-as-creator, within the proper proportion of the hierarchy of creation. For instance, when a film such as the recent Thérèse of Lisieux was released, it was surprising to observe the shark feeding-frenzy that resulted in some Catholic media. I’m not talking about liberals and secularists, I’m talking about some of the orthodox who are doctrinally faithful, but have a big emotional investment in being considered au courant with secular aesthetic standards. Perhaps they are afraid of losing their academic credentials as critical erudite people. There is pride at work wherever we divorce reason from faith, or reason from spiritual discernment. Pride almost always disguises itself, and never more subtly than when it is intellectual pride, and never more dangerously than when it is spiritual pride. I have been shocked throughout this past decade to watch how it is our own household of faith that has been most vicious and destructive of the new buds of culture that arise. If we are hoping for a restoration of Christian culture, we must pray for a stringent examination of conscience among Catholic intellectuals and academicians. We must rediscover the absolute urgency of a return to radical humility. By and large, Catholic intellectual life at present is not a paragon of radical humility.
What is the role of an artist in communicating truth?
O’Brien: I see my role as a Catholic artist as a bearer of messages, yet not in the sense of delivering a “dead letter”, even a true dead letter. But rather the more challenging mission of incarnating a living word. A Christian artist cannot be satisfied merely with talking about truth, he must impart the truth in forms that are beautiful—forms that stir the heart, soul, and mind.
The main character in your latest novel, A Cry of Stone, is an artist. Why?
O’Brien: A Cry of a Stone is a multi-dimensional tale. It’s the story of a person who is given very little in terms of natural resources. She’s not beautiful, she has a physical deformity, she’s not highly intelligent, but she is given a great heart and a gift to paint, to reveal hidden mysteries through her art. These paintings seem to penetrate and open the minds of those who gaze at them. Her gift is grounded in radical, physical poverty in a number of ways. But she loves. And the only thing that sustains her through her life is grace. Hers is a faith of simplicity. As she comes to understand spiritual things, and grows in the spiritual life, she is helped along the way by people the Lord brings into her life to teach her and help form her. She cannot do it on her own. She is a suffering servant; she brings forth good fruit in her life from the cross which she embraces totally. She doesn’t always understand it, she sometimes struggles against it, but she remains faithful.
What was your inspiration for this novel and how did you choose the title?
O’Brien: “A cry of stone” is a reference to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, where the Pharisees are trying to silence all those who are welcoming him. Jesus says that if you silence these, the very stones will cry out. The title of the book is a reference to the fact that, by and large, the voices of truth and of love which should be erupting from the hearts of Christians in many fields, including cultural fields, have been silenced. What was silenced in Eastern Europe by generations of brutal suppression has been silenced in the West (with a few exceptions) by no overt signs of violence which would have alerted us to our danger. In the West the spiritual oxygen is simply removed from the atmosphere. The Holy Father has continuously pointed out in his talks and encyclicals that the materialism of the West may in the long run bring about a far more comprehensive destruction of souls than the brutal materialism of the overt tyrannies.
It is a warning that has been shoved aside by Catholic thinkers who find it a bit extreme, because it threatens our materialist way of life. We are not ready to give up what we think is the source of security in our life. My character Rose is a poor person, she cries out in a language which is her own, she does the task which God has given to her. Her role is very small, yet she changes many people whom she meets along the way.
How does A Cry of Stone restore our understanding of the dignity of the human person?
O’Brien: It’s my hope that the reader would have an enhanced sense of the sacredness of every human life, even those that generally would be considered to have little significance. Rose is an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, she is physically handicapped, she lives in a remote native reserve in northern Ontario, she has no material resources or influences on this planet. She is one of the despised and rejected. She receives a lot of contempt and rejection as she goes through life. Her role really is an embodiment of the human greatness reduced to its fundamentals. The “smallest” person, the least significant person, is worth more than the entire weight of the material universe. St. Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica that one human soul has greater value than the entire value of the material universe. Have we lost sight of that in the West? Rose is a person in whom all that is most beautiful about mankind flowers in the desert of the modern age. She is not depicted as a sentimental character—she has her tough sides, she has a heart, yet it is not a sweet or pretty story. It is my hope, however, that it is a beautiful story.
You depict such a depth of insight and penetration into your main characters, with Rose in A Cry of Stone in particular, that some critics have compared you to the Russian author Dostoevsky. Is your concentration with the inner state of your characters deliberate?
O’Brien: It is deliberate in the sense that it is a chosen focus. Of course in all of my novels, some more than others, there is an exterior dramatic narrative. But my primary concern of course is the interior life of my characters. I see this as part of the whole context of what I do as an artist—to be a sign of contradiction to the spirit of our times which would reduce man’s life to exterior action. Though we do permit some thought, we live in an overwhelmingly activist age. There are very few contemplative dimensions in modern life, a condition caused largely by the astonishing levels of consumption to which we all seem to be committed, but also the killing pace at which we live—cramming it all in, galloping towards some undefined end. What for? In my work I seek to evoke a more human pace of life, both the interior and exterior aspects of human life, and to see the marvels that are there waiting for us.
Of all the novels that you have written, which is your favorite?
O’Brien: My favorite is one that I hope will be published within a couple of years from now. It’s called The Fathers Tale. It’s an integration of the interior drama that you see in Strangers and Sojourners and A Cry of Stone, and the exterior drama which you see in Father Elijah and Eclipse of the Sun.
Father Elijah is undoubtedly your most popular book in the Children of the Last Days series. What was your inspiration and idea behind the creation of this apocalyptic novel?
O’Brien: I never made a conscious choice to sit down and write Father Elijah, as if to say, “Aha, I must write a Catholic novel!” It was the result of prayer and a particular grace. In the mid 1990s I was overwhelmed at one point trying to survive as a Christian painter and writer, and really getting nowhere decade after decade. Also, the condition of the Church in my country was growing progressively worse. I had become quite disheartened trying to raise a large family—my wife and I have six children—in a climate that is increasingly hostile to the Faith. Our government here in Canada is one of the most aggressively social revolutionary ones in the world in terms of the destruction of the moral order of society. Normal traditional families pay a very heavy price in this country.
One day I prayed to the Lord about all of this in an unprecedented way. I was alone in our parish church—weeping, groaning, begging God for help—pleading for the restoration of the Church in our land and in our world. A kind of cosmic grief that was pouring out of me. I was kneeling in front of the cross and kissing the cross and crying, “Come, Lord, restore this Church, bring it back to life, wake your people up!” Instantaneously, an incredible peace flooded me, and a desire to open Scripture. I opened at random to a passage in which the Lord says, “In this place of desolation I will bring fruitfulness.” With that Scripture passage there came an unexpected grace, a panoramic novel sprang up in my mind as I was kneeling there. I had no hope or light just a moment before, and now it was as if I was watching a film in my mind. The whole concept for Father Elijah was suddenly born, and I simply watched it unfold. I also knew at that moment that the Holy Spirit was asking me to write it—even if it was never read, at least the word would be spoken. So in a spirit of obedience I resolved to write it down. Every day I went to the Blessed Sacrament and asked the Lord for that day’s grace of writing and for a holy angel of inspiration. Never before or never since has a book poured so easily from my pen.
Do you consider Father Elijah to be a prophetic book?
O’Brien: I don’t consider the book prophecy in the sense of foretelling, but I think it is a prophetic book in the broader sense of the prophetic calling of all baptized believers to be signs of contradiction to the spirit of the world in every generation. The book is not an attempt to predict exactly how things will go, but it does seek to ask certain questions of the reader such as: Am I awake? Is the spirit of vigilance at work in my heart, thoughts, and reflection on the world as it must be in every generation? Am I awake and watching? Am I asking God for light on these matters in the global milieu unfolding around me? Is my soul in a state of readiness to meet Him if these are indeed the times in which he will return? We don’t know if these are the definitive moments of history—no man knows the day or the hour—but we need to know the answer to these questions: Are we awake? Are we ready? This is no less than what Our Lord commands all of us to do until the end of the world.
Do you deliberately create paintings that convey God’s love for us through creation?
O’Brien: This what I hope to accomplish. For example, in my painting Mother and Child Reading the Word, the child holds an open book in his hand. Neither the mother nor the child are reading the book; both are reading the word incarnate on each other’s faces. God is speaking words to us all the time – through the Scripture, the Sacraments, the presence of the Holy Spirit, through natural creation, and through His presence in others, especially in those who have loved us rightly. In a sense, each of us are words to each other. We are certainly not the entire or end word, but we are part of a large, vast epic or mural work that God is creating.
Freedom is another painting that I am very fond of; it’s one of my more recent ones. In this image, a man reaches up, gazes up, expressing the human desire for transcendence. He is a prisoner within the enclosed space of the frame. In his hands there is a small white bird, and though he holds it tenderly, he does not seize it as a possession. This painting is not an overtly religious image, yet it is a visual metaphor of man’s longing for what is eternal. Freedom is absolutely essential to this rising. We are all prisoners in a sense, and yet if we keep true freedom within our hearts we are the freest people on the planet, even in our chains. But freedom must be guarded very carefully. We cannot abuse it without losing some aspect of our humanity.
Toy Bird is my favorite painting that you have done. The look of wonder on the child’s face as he gazes at the gift that he has received from his father is striking. This painting made me pause and take a moment to marvel over the miraculous nature of the ordinary. Was this your intention in creating this painting?
O’Brien: The painting is the fruit of my own role as a father. I have often made things for my children and with them sometimes. In this painting, the father has carved a little toy bird for his son. He is holding the child in his arms, and the child is holding the little bird he has been given. He is totally absorbed in the gift, oblivious to the arms of the father around him, securing, protecting, and providing for him so that he may have this moment of focus on the gift. The father’s act of love is to give without the child’s conscious thanks or the child’s attention. To give life is the fulfillment and the reward, and by implication to nurture this life as well.
This brings us back to what is the central word of all my work, writing, painting, etc.—I try to speak about the urgency of our rediscovery of spiritual fatherhood in the modern era. It is this lost sense of spiritual fatherhood, and even spiritual manhood, that is the cause of so much disaster, both in the world, our society, and in the Church itself. It is a tragic result of our losing sight of the hierarchal universe—our connections to God the Father. In my stories and paintings, I try to make these reconnections, to show the places in human experience where the connections are so often cut—how people who are bleeding inwardly can be healed. The restoration of the Church in the modern world will come about when Christian fatherhood is rediscovered—both in the sacrament of marriage and the spiritual fatherhood of priests and bishops.
The Crucifixion and Temptations in the Desert are both liturgical works. What are the similarities and differences between these paintings?
O’Brien: I painted The Crucifixion for a chapel in a religious community; it is a liturgical and explicitly Christian piece—it’s part of the worship of that community. Temptations in the Desert is a more primitive and less traditional style, yet the meaning is clear. It’s a depiction of the Gospel scene, the temptation of Christ in the desert. Satan is offering the three dimensions of reward if Jesus will abandon the will of the Father. I’ve portrayed Jesus in a state of poverty, hunger, and weakness, and yet he is raising his hand up to say “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The will of the Father is our life, not these illusory powers and resources that Satan offers. Christ in his obedience, by standing still in his poverty in the desert, does bring about every good that Satan offered, such as the multiplication of bread, but he does so not for false reasons but in obedience to God the Father.
The Creation of the Birds is not a liturgical work, but is it still a religious reflection?
O’Brien: Yes. Although it is not an overtly religious work, and could even be perceived as non-religious, The Creation of the Birds is based upon a startling passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “everything has been created by, through, and for Christ.” Paul is referring to Christ in the Holy Trinity before the beginning of time. I’ve painted here an imaginary scene in which things are being created through Christ. Christ is shown here with a wound in his chest, from which creation flows. This is not meant literally but is intended to symbolize an ultimate truth. The Holy Trinity is beyond time, all things are immediately present to the Three-in-One. So the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is seen eternally before the creation of the world. The Father knows there will be a cost to this act of creation, that it will demand the sacrifice of the Son. The world has been created for the ultimate glorification of God, but it must pass through the sufferings of Christ. All of creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth, but it will be through the crucifixion of Christ that it will occur.
How would you describe the style of your paintings?
O’Brien: I suppose you might call the main stream of my work a combination of neo-Byzantine and post-Renaissance realism. During my first seven years as an artist I painted only icons, so they continue to be a strong influence on my style. Perhaps you could call me a primitive neo-Byzantine expressionist. But I think none of these terms are quite accurate.
If there was just one thing that you could convey through your writing and artwork, what would it be?
O’Brien: God is our Father. He is all that He says He is. God is perfect love. Love never violates freedom. Love invites. All that is needed is our awakening and our response.
The one theme that I see threaded through your responses to all of my questions is that it’s up to Catholics to restore culture. God is inviting us, and we must be ready to respond to his call.
O’Brien: We are blessed with the resources of heaven and earth. The restoration of culture will depend greatly upon how much our gifted young people respond to the call to make works of truth and beauty, which is really a call to heroic love in the desert of the modern era. At the same time our Catholic people must choose between God and Mammon. In this place of desolation, God will bring fruitfulness if we respond with the total offering of our lives, and willingness to give everything for Christ. Heaven waits on our choice.