The Italian newspaper Avvenire published the following interview with Michael O’Brien in its July 15 2008 edition, appearing in conjunction with the publication of his novel Sophia House in translation, under the title Il Libraio (the bookseller), Edizioni San Paolo, Milan, translated by Dr. Edoardo Rialti.
The interviewer is Fabrizio Rossi.
The heart of your novel is the quest for a father. You have said again and again that “the icon of the father in late Western man is damaged”. In your opinion, is our post-1968 civilization going througha crisis of fatherhood? Who is the father?
Michael O’Brien: Yes, the crisis of fatherhood, in its many forms, is at the root of most disorders in this late stage of Western civilization. And the root is intimately connected to the loss of our consciousness of the hierarchical nature of the created order. Large numbers of people not only seem unable to believe in God, but also cannot conceptualize Him in their thoughts and their hearts. The icon in the heart—the icon of fatherhood—is either damaged or absent entirely. Sin and error have contributed to this, and also two major world wars and the loss of millions of good men on all sides, as well as the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960’s onwards, and the rise of powerful modern media as the principle shaper of both consciousness and conscience—as Pope Benedict has called it, the “dictatorship of moral relativism.” Man has placed himself in the role of master and creator of his world, in his personal life and his societies, without reference to the actual moral order of the real universe. There is a radical disconnect not only in his thinking but in his perceptions of reality itself. This creates an interior void which becomes evident in his psychology, his emotional life, his intellect, his spirituality, his cultural expressions. The consequences are more than “mere” abstractions, because all of these dimensions of the human person express themselves in acts.
The development of an authentic civilization of love will begin when man turns again toward the truth that the cosmos, in descending order from the angelic dimension through humanity and down into the subatomic level, is a hierarchy, over which reigns the Holy Trinity. If we would learn again how to be true fathers, then we must turn to God the Father and ask him for this desperately needed grace, for he is the source of all subsidiary fatherhood manifested in human life, including fatherhood in family, in priestly ministry, and also in other forms of spiritual fatherhood.
Young Pawel, looking for a master in Paris of ’30s, meets on his way many artists, including Picasso and Rouault. Which radically different views of art and life do they embody? In your opinion, has modern art lost the human icon?
Michael O’Brien: The lives of Rouault and Picasso are representative of the problems I have just mentioned. Both men were creative geniuses, yet Picasso moved in the direction of the autonomous Self, embodying and advancing the false vision of the artist as a protean being who extracts masterpieces from his supposedly divine ego disconnected from the true source. Rouault, on the other hand, was a man of profound Christian faith, a contemplative layman, a husband and father of a family to whom he was devoted. All his life he was “on pilgrimage”, often a difficult and lonely one in which he poured out his entire being for others through his art. While it is true that both men were significant figures in the general shift toward abstraction in modern art, the main point of difference between the two is found in their presentation of the value of the human person.
Rouault’s paintings and etchings express a beautiful mysterious humanity even in their abstract qualities. They radiate love for Christ and for mankind, even when the painting’s subject matter is the fallen human condition. His work is ultimately full of reverence. It is brilliant and warm. Picasso’s work did not radiate love, but rather cleverness, power, ego, and the self as god. It is brilliant and cold. The image of man in his work is fragmented, sometimes torn to bits and reassembled in distorted forms. By contrast, the image of man in Rouault’s work evokes compassion, respect, pity and deep empathy.
I am highly conscious of the power of culture—as in the case of cultural totems like Picasso——to shift the psychology of a society in the wrong direction, that is, to the realm of the insatiable materialism of self-worship. Cultural forces have been especially instrumental in distorting human consciousness by redefining man to himself. The myriad false definitions it now promotes are producing catastrophic effects.
Your novel is set in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Why did you want to link your story to so complex a historical period?
Michael O’Brien: The Second World War was more than historical tragedy of epic proportions or geopolitical shifts in the balance of powers in this world. It was a major quantum leap in the spiritual war between good and evil. The 20th century introduced a new phenomenon of unprecedented evil, conceived and enacted coldly, dispassionately, ideologically, and engineered by human reason. The perennial problem of evil, which has been with us since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, moved to a new level, and mankind has not yet recovered from it. It dealt an unprecedented blow to our basic human trust and our hope.
In terms of numbers of people murdered by totalitarianism, the Soviet and other Marxist regimes did far worse than the Nazis. Yet Nazism first struck at the very heart of western Christendom, and opened the gate for another kind of beast to strike. Both Hitler and Stalin reshaped the nature of life in European societies, and let me say again that the negative effects of this are far from resolved. I situated my novel Sophia House [Il Libraio in the Italian language] in the city of Warsaw during the occupation because Poland was in a sense “ground zero” for every aspect of the spiritual war. Poland represents all such crucified peoples and nations, and in their national and personal dramas one finds everything——tyranny, victimhood, martyrdom, holiness and depravity, betrayal and heroism, the autonomous self and the sacrificial self. And out of all that darkness, God brought two great lights for the world, first John Paul II and then Benedict XVI.
Talking with Haftmann, Pawel Tarnowski says that Nazism and Communism are both forerunners of AntiChrist. What do these false ideologies have in common? What face does this falsehood have today?
Michael O’Brien: Your excellent question would need a book-length answer, but in brief we should understand that all totalitarian regimes reduce the absolute and eternal value of human life—each and every human life—to the level of objects. We become clever talking things, but still things, components in a social organism, and are thus ultimately disposable. Both Nazism and Marxism were political forms of such Materialism, yet as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have repeatedly taught, there are other forms of Materialism that can have worse long-range effects on the human community, such as the transformation of man into a consumer without conscience, propagandized softly and relentlessly without overt violence. The Popes have taught us that even democracies can degenerate into tyrannies, and are most vulnerable when they let themselves become ruled by materialist social philosophies. A telling symptom of the new totalitarianism is its de facto reduction of the absolute sacredness of the human person. This truth is now nearly universally denied or is neutralized by relativism in supposedly democratic nations. I am thinking here of certain initiatives of the European Union and the United Nations organization, but it manifests itself throughout the world in various disguises.
In a talk he gave in the year 2000 in Palermo, then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger said that Marxism and Fascism prefigured the “the beast of the Book of Revelation” and are a warning to our generation (and those to come), about what would happen if man continues to live as if he is no more than “a cog in an enormous machine” and “no more than a function.” The end result of turning man into numbers, with the consequent loss of identity and name, will be the apocalypse, the global reign of evil.
The film Andrei Rublev says that “We arrive at the meaning of things only naming them by their real name”. Totalitarian regimes always try to manipulate language to distort reality. How we can today, in a world bursting with communication and media, come to use the real name of things?
Michael O’Brien: Silence—true silence, not merely the absence of noise—is the ocean from which all true language arises. Language is intimately connected to truth. Word have power—both true and false words, the small and the great words. Whenever language ceases to draw its life from the deep waters of truth, it becomes a weapon of manipulation and other forms of dehumanization. In order to recognize truth and to use it wisely, we must be grounded in humility—and this is a daily challenge for us all. Every genuine communication is a foretaste and a help along the path to the eternal communion of Paradise. Our every word will be weighed on Judgement Day. But how can we learn to speak words that give life unless we first learn to listen to the “still small voice” of God that spoke to the prophet Elijah? How can we listen if we do not permit ourselves to experience silence? How can we enter the Kingdom of God if we reject child-like open-heartedness in his Presence? How can we let him be our Father, if we refuse his authority over us and continue to live as if he did not exist?
About media, now more than ever we need intelligent, creatively gifted people of strong Catholic faith to enter those spheres of influence. But they must enter in prayer, and without presuming that their personal strengths alone can change things. Christ living in them can bring about good, but they must understand they are like Daniel in the lion’s den as well as St. Paul in the Areopagus of Athens. The lions and sophists of our times are deadly—and subtle.
A priest says to Pawel that the biggest temptation of our century is hopelessness, to be convinced that we’re alone and that our pains are meaningless. What shape does despair assume in your novel? Do you think that all the tragedies of XXth century have a meaning? What hope do menneed today?
Michael O’Brien: The novel explores several dimensions of hopelessness, even to the brink of absolute despair. All of these states of mind and soul have been caused by various manifestations of evil. In this story, the central drama (beneath the dramas of the narrative) is the failure of authentic masculinity. Genuine masculinity is loving, strong, sacrificial, and does not need to use raw power or force. It guides and protects and becomes a living role model for true manhood. But when this is lacking, as I demonstrate through a number of the fictional characters, the resulting damage takes many directions. Homosexuality, for example, is only one of the more obvious manifestations of the profound spiritual hunger in contemporary man. I would go so far as to say that this lack of spiritual fathers is the source of a great deal of man’s present hopelessness. Cardinal Josef Ratzinger said this emphatically in Palermo eight years ago.
You ask what hope men most need in our times. I urge you to meditate on the Holy Father’s profound encyclical on Love and also his encyclical on Hope. In my own simpler words: Man needs at the core of his being to know that he is loved—loved absolutely. He needs to know that he cannot be replaced by any other human being who existed before or who will exist after. His identity and mission in life is unique. He is not a number, he is not a mechanism. He is created to know truth and to love, and as his ultimate goal to live in the eternal communion. He is known and has a name that is his own. He is beloved of God.
Yet much depends on man’s freedom of choice. Will he accept fully this love offered to him? Or will he demand that God first prove himself before he will trust Him? Will he try to turn it to his own ends, using it like a “spiritual” resource to serve the false self? Will he take the easy and pleasurable portions of the Father’s nourishment and reject the difficult portions? Or will be become as a child in the heart and allow love to heal and transform him? If he would have the whole kingdom of Christ’s love within him, then he must seek the wholeTruth. He must accept that there is no love without submission to Truth.
In August, you’ll be coming to speak at the Communion and Liberation meeting in Rimini, which this year has the theme: “Either Protagonists or Nobodies.” The protagonist in your novel is a failed man in the world’s eyes. But with his little choices he moves the balance of the world. In your opinion, what is the real protagonist in the history of the Church?
Michael O’Brien: Of course it is Jesus. He is the Lord of history, reigning over a providential universe. Our little corner of the universe is suffering some damage but it is not destroyed, and indeed it is on a pilgrimage into eternity, where all things will be restored in Christ. Our ancestral enemy Satan works hard in a multitude of ways to deny this, to deceive us and violate us, and he seems to be having some unusual success in these times. But his time is short. The real Protagonist of history is God the Son entering into our world to suffer and die as one of us. And to rise again as the Firstborn of the new creation.
We also are the protagonists to the degree that we are united with him. Several fictional characters in my novels represent countless real people who embrace the Cross and live one or more dimensions of it in union with Jesus, thus participating in the salvation of other souls. They are strong, because they are weak with the “weakness” of Jesus Christ. Most of them, maybe all but a few of them, are completely unknown. But you can be sure that they are very well known in Heaven.These are the people I write about in my books. These are the people who, in fact, change the balance of the world.