A Letter to Writers and Artists

An Open Letter to Fellow Artists

Michael D. O’Brien

Dear Friends

I receive a very large number of letters from young Christian painters, writers, and musicians, and ask those of you who have written to me to forgive the lack of a reply. To answer even a fraction of the letters I receive would take about half of my work days, and I must humbly admit my limitations. The Lord has called me to focus on my primary task of creating.

I would like to write to you a few thoughts about our calling. This will be a sort of Combat Journal from the Culture Wars, penned by a battle scarred veteran. I hope it will cover most of the questions I am regularly asked.  

I began to paint full-time for Christ on May 1st, 1976. Though I had been practicing as an artist since 1970, when I had my first one-man exhibition at a gallery, I had not until then made a commitment to overtly Christian themes, nor was I pursuing my art as a vocation. To a certain extent I was drifting and dabbling with the idea, but rather daunted by the seeming impossibility of it. Then I made a consecration prayer on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, 1976, quit my job, and threw myself off a cliff so to speak.

As a married man, I have always strived to put the needs of my family first. From the beginning, my wife and I have remained of one mind and heart regarding our life’s sacrifice of giving everything for the service of Our Lord and the Church. Without this unity it would have been impossible, and surely would have collapsed in the early stages and at any point along the way. In fact it was she who, shortly after we were married, first urged me to consider this way of life, and it is she who has never complained about the hardships involved, and she who has buoyed me up whenever our situation looked scary and hopeless.

By putting one’s family first I do not mean for a moment that a distinct calling from God should be rejected because the life of a Christian artist in these times probably means material insecurity. Part of accepting the call, for most people, will demand an ever-deepening trust in divine providence. While divine providence never promises us a comfortable life, it promises us all that we truly need to accomplish our missions in life.

For most of us, we can probably forget the idea of having a middle class standard of living with good pension plans. The way of Christian art as a full-time vocation demands sacrifice, and with sacrifice comes stresses and testing, which are increased when one’s family responsibilities are great. That is why it is important for married couples to discern very clearly, together, before launching with full commitment into this vocation. They must understand that their first vocation is always the sacrament of marriage, and the call to art a subsidiary vocation.

Many of you who have written to me are not married, and yet the essential task remains the same for you: to seek the will of the Father and the guidance of the Holy Spirit with your whole hearts. A life of prayer and sacraments—of union with our living savior Jesus—is absolutely essential, if we hope to bear good fruit in the world.

There is always a mystery regarding each person’s vocation in the works of the Lord. His creation is not a machine but rather a vast work of art. He is the Father-Creator. “We are God’s work of art,” says St. Paul. Growth in the vocation is usually a series of countless small steps of faith, usually blind steps, because what God wants to accomplish most in us is the increase of absolute trust in him, not so much successes, not even successful works done for his Kingdom. Of course he desires to do this also, but I believe his primary will is accomplished and is always more fruitful, to the degree that we have agreed to be very little instruments in his hands—like children, toddlers, trusting to the point of rashness in his merciful love.

He is a true Father. This means you must go step by step, hand in hand with him, even when you can’t feel his hand, asking for each day’s graces, and for the specific graces needed for each of your works. Allow him to expand your heart. Allow him to create with the material of your life. Allow him to make of you more than you think you are. This long process will contain some sufferings and numerous unexpected joys. Offer every suffering for the restoration of the Church and for the fruitfulness of your work—fruitfulness in the sense of good for other souls.

On a practical level, I can offer you no more advice than this: For more than 30 years as a Christian artist, I have lived in relative poverty, trying to raise our six children on nearly nothing. There were many dark years of testing, yet in hindsight I see how much God accomplished in my weakness. In any labors of the Lord we need to abandon ourselves into his hands, work hard, pray continuously. Anyone can do this. What is needed is not cleverness and worldly connections, but the willingness to give everything, even to the point of complete failure.

During the most difficult periods of my life God taught me to trust that he was and is doing something through and in me—even when it seemed hopeless and radically insecure (which was most of the time). In fact those are the times when he can bring about the best growth in us, if we continually renew our willingness to undergo this discipleship of trust. So, in all of this my advice for your work, and your soul, is that you ask for the grace to be perfectly docile to the Holy Spirit, and ask continually for everything you need, both spiritually and materially. Then the doors will open. Not by our will, but by His. See Philippians 4: v 12 and v.19-20.

An important leap forward in my growth as a writer and painter occurred several years ago when I came upon a passage in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, in a section on the holy angels. I’m paraphrasing it, but in essence he says that if a work of art is to glorify God and advance the Kingdom, he will send an angel of inspiration to help with the creation of the work. But we must ask God for this. He will force nothing on us.

When I conceived the idea of my first published novel, Fr. Elijah, I went to our local parish church and consecrated the “impossible, unpublishable” dream to the will of God. I prayed before the Blessed Sacrament every day during the eight months I wrote it. I asked daily for the Holy Spirit, and for an angel of inspiration. I don’t think I missed a single day during that period. Strange to say (though not so strange really) the book was the easiest thing I ever wrote. Usually, writing is a hard labor for me. Painting is too, though it’s not so complicated a medium as writing.

I never graduated from high school, never took a creative writing course in my life, never went to art school or got a degree in Fine Arts. For that reason, much of what I do is intuitive, instinctive. Interestingly, a few years ago my mother gave me my grade five report card. I was an A student in everything except . . . you guessed it . . . ART! I failed miserably in that subject.

It goes without saying that the raw impulse to create and a willingness to sacrifice are not in themselves enough. One must have natural talents which can be developed with long hard discipline, continual self-correction, the refining of one’s craftsmanship. We must be technically good with the media of our art as well as alive spiritually. It is absolutely essential that we submit ourselves to a discipline, and in this I think we can do no better than learn from the masters in all the arts who have gone before us. I am also convinced that one must not pay much attention to the current social standards in both painting and writing. Modern cultural norms are dominated by a philosophical revolution that is intent on removing the sacred and the human (I mean the whole truth about mankind) from life, and thus they cannot be trusted. I’ve written extensively on this in an article you can find on my Studio website, “Historical Imagination and the Renewal of Culture.”

Beware the current schools of criticism and norms in fiction and the other arts. Please don’t bow to them, don’t succumb to their rationale, which would bend and reshape your beautiful gift according to their subjective criteria and their blurred motives. Don’t become a victim of this colossal peer pressure. Don’t become a tool in the hands of the state, or the academy, or an art-guru, or any other dimension of the social revolution that is presently afflicting Western civilization.

Go to the very source. Go to Christ and ask for all that you need, ask for growth in skill, for the spirit of perseverance, for faith and courage and love. Ask for a spirit of discernment in order to find your way through the fog of our times. Ask for humility and faithfulness, and for the ability to incarnate Truth in beautiful forms. Be a servant of the One who is the source of all Beauty. Be his beloved. Be very little, and trust in this absolutely.

Avoid at all costs anything in your thoughts or impulses that tends in the direction of ambition (even disguised as ambition “for the sake of God’s kingdom”), self-promotion, manipulation, climbing the ladder of success. “Success” in worldly terms may or may not be what God has in mind for your life, but He surely desires that we each be blessed with the only real success, which is to bear the fruit He desires us to bear. It is not your task to make it happen in worldly terms. It is your task to respond to grace and create works of art that will enrich and bless the lives of others. He will do the rest, according to his holy will.

I beg you, I beg you, I beg you not to bow before the spirit of this world, no matter how benevolently and reasonably it presents itself to you. Over the years I have watched so many gifted young people lose their gifts when they succumbed to the false success-failure scenario. Their intentions were good, but they did not understand the nature of this struggle. Far better to study the seasoned old masters in all the arts. Learn from them, humbly, obediently, submissively (sub-missio, within the mission). Read Dostoevsky and Bloy and Flannery O’Connor; listen to Rachmaninoff and Gorecki and Bach and Eric Genuis; see the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ermanno Olmi, gaze upon the icons of Andrei Rublev and the post-Renaissance epiphanies of painters like Rembrandt and Rouault. The list is inexhaustible. Go ahead, explore! Reconnect with the holy chain of being, with the flow of time’s continuity, find your own true position in the great unfolding drama. Be a success in God’s eyes.

Many young writers have written to me asking for advice about getting published. Regarding practical advice in this regard, I regret to say I’m totally an incompetent when it comes to that. I merely sent my first manuscript to Ignatius Press in the mid nineteen-nineties, and they accepted it. Until that acceptance came, I had been writing novels for almost twenty years, and had saved a thick folder of rejection slips from publishers. The dust had to be shoveled off my manuscripts abandoned on the shelf.

I live in something of a backwater up here in Canada, and being a non-networking sort of personality, I am fairly ignorant about how to be a practical success. Any “success” that I may appear to have is purely a gift from the Lord. I didn’t make a particle of it happen. I had no connections or skills in this regard. It appeared as a great surprise a few years ago after decades of trudging blindly across the desert. The desert of this age. I still trudge. I’m still blind. The daily challenge is still to trust Him in all circumstances.

As a dear priest-friend of mine likes to say, “The Lord is a lamp unto my feet, he is not a floodlight illuminating a mile ahead.”

Step by step.

Only enough manna for one day at a time.

Trust Him. He is with you.

Michael O’Brien

PS: The patron saints of artists (especially painters) are Blessed Fra Angelico, St. Luke the Evangelist, and St. Catherine of Bologna. The latter saint (who is somewhat unknown in North America) is an astounding lady, her body incorrupt.

Another fine painter is the newly canonized St. Adam Chmielowski, whose feast day is November 12.