Michael D. O’Brien on the Role of Catholic Writer in Restoring Culture (Part 1)
an interview with Zenit international news agency
Novelist Stresses Importance of Transmitting the Christian Message
COMBERMERE, Ontario, SEPT. 23, 2003 (Zenit.org) An artist who depends on daily Mass for sustenance while writing thinks that modern Catholic literature is stuck in a cultural ghetto.
To break out of that scenario, Michael D. O’Brien, a painter and author of the seven-volume series of novels, “Children of the Last Days,” hopes that Christian writers respond to the new evangelization by assuming their role in restoring culture.
O’Brien, whose latest novel, A Cry of Stone, has just been published by Ignatius Press shared with ZENIT his experience as an artist trying to implicitly and explicitly spread the Gospel.
Q: How does your Catholic faith influence your writing?
O’Brien: My Catholic faith is my life. Any artist, if he is to be faithful to how he perceives the world and to the nature of his creative gifts, cannot divorce the two. To create is to love. To love is to create.
This is true for all of us, regardless of our vocation, in whatever forms the human person seeks to give life; either in the private life of “Nazareth” — where most people live — or the public life of a more visible role in the shaping of society. Love cannot long survive without truth. Nor is truth really truth unless it is integrated with love.
During the 30 years I have been a painter and writer, I have noted a distinct pattern in myself: Whenever my prayer and sacramental life grow lax, the work suffers. It may continue to be clever and even dazzling to the eye, yet it becomes more and more shallow.
Here is the vine and the branches that Jesus speaks of with a certain urgency. If creators of Christian culture hope to produce work that will bear good fruit, we must draw our life from the true source — our living Savior. He is real. He is present. But all too often we reduce him to an abstraction, giving him intellectual assent, but not our hearts.
This dichotomy, so endemic to the modern age, has negative consequences. The solution is simple: Abandon yourself with full confidence to Jesus, live the totality of the Catholic faith without compromise, and he will do the rest.
Q: What makes a good Catholic novel?
O’Brien: It goes without saying that a good Catholic novel should be good craftsmanship, good writing skills. The creative person must always be engaged in the long labor of perfecting the tools of his art. Yet the work itself need not be explicitly evangelical in its themes and plots.
There is certainly a role to be played in the restoration of culture by implicitly Christian fiction, by which I mean a certain perceptual fidelity to reality. If a writer is faithful to truth and love, he can examine the full scope of human experience and illumine it for the reader. This need not be didactic fiction, which is usually unsuccessful as art.
On the other hand, there is a striking disequilibrium in contemporary culture between the explicit and implicit. In a healthy culture there is surely a place for well-crafted, gripping dramatic tales that are overtly Catholic. Presently, there is a marked absence, or near absence, of such work in the mainstream of Western culture.
Q: Why is there a lack of such Catholic works?
O’Brien: In part, it is due to a deliberate ghettoization of authentic Catholic culture. It is also due to the dwindling number of gifted Catholics willing to undertake a very difficult vocation. I would say that lack of courage is a fundamental problem in mobilizing the new evangelization.
We must once again find our confidence in the power of the Gospel, and the grace that God has given the world by giving us the Catholic Church. We must move out into the world with love, with trust that Christ is within us as we penetrate the darkness.
Q: Are you referring primarily to overtly Catholic cultural material?
O’Brien: To both overt and implicit. However, I would add that our preoccupation with implicitness may be more a symptom of fear of “offending” nonbelievers in a pluralistic age.
The Holy Father is a sure guide in this, for he continuously speaks the truth with love, never violates the dignity of others in the way he says it, yet doesn’t hold back the content of what he wants to teach. As a result, he has shifted the balance of the world.
Q: How can literature be used to transmit the Christian message?
O’Brien: By restoring men and women to an understanding of their eternal value, and at the same time restoring in them a sense of wonder and consciousness of the splendor of existence. We are all involved in a great drama, the Great Story. Yet the nature of the new democratized cosmos fundamentally distorts how we understand the shape of reality.
The truth is, we live in a hierarchical creation that is involved in a vast and complex war that will last until the end of time. Born into this war zone, we are profound mysteries to ourselves, inherently glorious and potentially tragic. Yet by and large, modern culture has destroyed this sense of mystery.
Q: Has the sense of mystery been completely lost in our world?
O’Brien: I wouldn’t say lost, not lost irrevocably. In each generation it can be regained. It can be found within the wellsprings of the human heart and creative intuition.
But present literary culture is dominated by what one might call a “writer’s workshop” mentality, political correctness and colossal peer pressure, which has largely stripped out of modern fiction any real sense of the transcendent. As a result, Western consciousness increasingly perceives reality as horizontal and linear. Brilliant, but flat.
Michael D. O’Brien on the Role of Catholic Writers in Restoring Culture (Part 2)
Novelist Stresses Integration of Mind, Heart, Body and Spirit in Artists
COMBERMERE, Ontario, SEPT. 24, 2003 (Zenit.org) Christian artists need to rediscover humility and proper proportion in order to invigorate body and soul — and do their part in reviving culture.
So says Michael D. O’Brien, a painter and author of the seven-volume series of novels “Children of the Last Days” (Ignatius Press) Here he discusses the need for artists to integrate the intellectual and spiritual life when trying to transmit Christianity in their work.
Q: What are the challenges of conveying a Christian message to our secular world?
O’Brien: First and foremost Catholic thinkers and artists need to rediscover the light that comes from humility — a light that invigorates the mind as well as the soul. There is an urgent need to return to a proper integration of intellectual and spiritual life, an understanding of how mind, heart, body and spirit work most fruitfully in the human person.
It seems to me that disproportion rules practically everything at the moment, and that few Catholic intellectuals are listening to John Paul II and the wisdom of the universal Church. A stringent self-examination of conscience is desperately needed in this regard.
I suggest, also, a careful and prayerful reading of the Holy Father’s extensive writings on the arts and on culture.
Catholics can infuse truth into New World trends — the emerging powerful forces that are deforming the human community, a deformation that is being accomplished largely through cultural redefinitions of the meaning of man.
How are we to do this? I do not have systemic pragmatic solutions. I believe that the building of the civilization of love begins on the personalist level. Each of us must return to the fundamental “architecture” of reality.
We must ask ourselves these questions in every situation: What is the human person? What is the purpose of his existence? What is his place and value in the social order? What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility? What is God’s will in the mission of my life? And above all, who is the true Lord of this world and source of wisdom?
Moreover, I believe that neither Catholic activism — even with the highest motives — nor brilliant Catholic rhetoric are going to change the situation for the better unless profound prayer and fasting are the foundation of our words and acts. When we rediscover humility and proper proportion, then the solutions to the myriad sociopolitical problems will come.
Q: How do you write a novel?
O’Brien: The process is similar to how I make paintings. I always increase my prayer before I begin any work. I try to fast also. And I keep praying throughout its creation.
First a grace comes — the grace to see a “form” interiorly. Usually it’s not a very specific visual form in my imagination. It’s more the core “word” of the work, its “logos.”
As I paint or write, this word slowly begins to manifest itself in a form that others can see. If it’s a written work, characters just seem to arrive in the imagination and sometimes they almost write themselves.
A more accurate description of the process is what Catholic theology calls “co-creation,” grace building upon nature. It’s grace or inspiration working with my human talents, making something together with me, through me.
The artist is not an autonomous genius pulling masterpieces out of his supposedly divine self. But neither is he an empty shell that the Holy Spirit just uses like a tool. It’s really more an act of love. That is the essence of co-creation in marriage and in any kind of healthy cultural work.
Q: What inspired you to start your book series, “Children of the Last Days”?
O’Brien: One day in the mid-’90s I was praying at our local parish about the state of the world. I was very burdened trying to raise a large family in the midst of an increasingly anti-life society. I was grieving over it and begging God to strengthen the Church in my land.
As I was praying that morning a vivid story suddenly flashed into my mind. I was astonished by this unexpected phenomenon. It was accompanied by an extraordinary peace, and also by an understanding that I must write this tale. It was not anything I wanted to do, or felt capable of doing well. And I surely had no confidence that it would ever be published.
Yet the prompting was clear and firm: The story would be about a person very much in my situation, trying to do good and resist evil in a climate of confusion. The central character would be a priest. And the plot would examine apocalyptic themes. This was the seed of my first published novel, Father Elijah.
During the next eight months as I wrote it, the story just poured out. I prayed before the Blessed Sacrament each morning, asking the Holy Spirit for the necessary graces for that day’s writing, and I also asked for a holy angel of inspiration.
To my surprise, though I had been writing for more than 20 years, I never wrote anything so easily. Other books followed. Seven volumes have been written, and the fifth in the series, A Cry of Stone, has just been published.
Q: Why are there apocalyptic themes in some of your books?
O’Brien: I should point out that only some of these novels are explicitly “apocalyptic.” First let me say, considering the widespread nervousness that greets any contemporary examination of the Apocalypse, that I simply do not know if these are the times to which Christ and St. John were referring. We do not know the day or the hour when Our Lord will return.
However, I believe that each generation of Christians must do as he asks us: to “stay awake and watch.” That is the spirit in which all my books are written. They in no way attempt to predict the future.
Their purpose is to raise the questions that must be asked by every generation. Are we awake? Are we reflecting soberly on the nature of our times? Are we in fit condition to meet the crises that will unfold if these are indeed the “end times”?
Q: Do you think these are the end times?
O’Brien: Most of the apocalyptic fiction I’ve read is precisely the kind of speculation in which Christians should not indulge. All too often it is a “baptized” fortune-telling or sensationalism. This, I believe, can gravely undermine a genuine Catholic understanding of the end of history.
Our times are unique in many ways, including aspects of the struggle between good and evil that exhibit unprecedented apocalyptic elements. At the very least this should prompt some reflection on the subject. I am endlessly surprised by commentators who simply see this as symptomatic of “hysteria,” when it should be a normal aspect of every Christian’s meditation on life in Christ.
We do not know if the “end of the End” is near or far. St. John says that since the first coming of Christ we have lived in the “last days.” How, then, should a Christian view the times in which he lives? I am convinced that we must avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of alarmism on one hand and denial on the other.
We need, perhaps as at no other time since the first centuries of the Church, a Christian realism founded on confidence in the ultimate victory of Christ. Until that complete restoration of the world is accomplished, we are all called to a spirit of vigilance.