Saving Lives—Saving Souls, A Spiritual Strategy for the Third Millennium


Transcript of a talk by Michael D. O’Brien at the National Prolife Convention,
Save the Planet’s People Conference,
Toronto, November 25-27, 1999

Introduction by Dr. David Dooley, professor of Literature at St. Michael’s College, Toronto.

Dr. David Dooley: It is my pleasure to introduce Michael O’Brien. If I were to ask you, if we had a blackboard here and I asked you who your favorite Canadian novelists were, excluding of course Michael O’Brien, I would easily get a list of ten people like Margaret Atwood and Margaret Lawrence and so forth, but what would be interesting about the list would be that there would be no Catholics, and probably very few Christians in it. I can think of a couple of Catholic novelists in Canada: Morley Callaghan wrote a number of novels in the early 1930s which were very good, but ambiguous in their conclusions very often. Late in his life he wrote a couple of novels which were not Catholic at all. One is titled A Passion in Rome. There is lots of passion in it but there is no Catholicism. He wrote another novel which was entitled A Time for Judas, which was rather strange.

Michael O’Brien, who is a Catholic novelist, is a rarity in Canada. He wrote a book called Strangers and Sojourners and could get no Canadian publisher to publish it. Eventually somebody at Ignatius Press in San Francisco wrote and asked him whether he had anything to submit, and he submitted Father Elijah, which, of course, has been a bestseller since then.

What Michael has done is to bring Catholicism into the novel in a way that Canadian publishers would not expect and would not accept. He was told by a friend in the literary world that no Canadian publisher would be interested in a novel which was explicitly Catholic. Now somehow or other, Father Elijah has taken off and has been a great success, and this is only part of a series.

He is a marvelous speaker, and he is a marvelous inspirational speaker as well. But I call your attention to the fact that what he has done is written a whole series of novels dealing with Canada, especially with a British Columbia background, starting at the first year of the present century, and coming right to the end of the century. Some of his critics consider that he has been a little bit too tough on our century and a little bit nearly despondent. But he is not despondent; he is minatory. In other words he is warning. There have been a lot of warnings here the last few days about what we ought to do, and what we have not been doing well. Michael is able to give us a very convincing picture in a marvelous story. All the novels are easy to read and they read very, very well.

The other day in his first talk at this conference, he gave us a very moving account of his own experience of faith, his own conversion really, and I look forward to him elaborating on that today. So I give you Michael O’Brien.

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Michael O’Brien: Thank you.

Would you please join me for a brief moment of prayer.

O Most Holy Trinity, we adore you, we worship you Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We thank you and praise you for pouring out your truth and your love upon the world; for creating us in your image. We thank you for your infinite mercy, and we thank you for your justice. We thank you that you are Lord of the universe; you are King of our world. We ask you for light and strength to walk through these times. We ask you for clarity, for peace, and especially for the grace of absolute trust in you. We ask this of the Father, in the name of Jesus our Savior. Amen

Dr. Dooley promised eloquence but I’m afraid I have the flu and I also have laryngitis, and my brain is very foggy, so I am going to just rely totally on the Holy Spirit today as much as I can, and on the mercy of God, and upon your prayers. I think one could fill up an hour very easily with critiques of the modern world. The evidence lies all around us. From morning to night we are immersed in signs and propaganda of the culture of death. And yet our great prophets, the prophets of these times, drawing upon the authority of the Living Word of God in the scriptures, and on the Tradition of the Church, two thousand years of the Body of Christ on this planet, are ever calling upon us to help establish the Kingdom of God in what is, in fact, a war zone.

I would like to read to you a passage from Ephesians in which St. Paul speaks about an essential understanding that we must have if we are to be effective servants of God in this war zone. It’s Ephesians 6, well known to you all, I am sure, but let us hear what the Lord is saying to us today in this Living Word which he speaks to every generation, to every heart that turns to him. These are things that we need to know. Impelled by the Holy Spirit St. Paul writes:

“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for we are not contending against flesh and blood but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness; against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the Gospel of peace; above all (interesting that he says ‘above all’) taking the shield of faith with which you can quench the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit with all prayer and supplication.”

We live in an age that is activist, filled with endless noise. I wouldn’t call this age so much “the nuclear age” or “the computer age” as I would call it “the age of noise”. We live under a constant bombardment of the mind, and of the very cells of our flesh, by all the sources of noise in our world. In the history of mankind, the human brain, our flesh, and our emotions, have never been so bombarded, so pummeled—pulverized really. And in order to protect itself the mind withdraws, the mind tends to function in such a milieu on auto-pilot. We start screening a lot of things out. We start abstracting a lot of things. There is simply too much stimuli and information pouring in all the time.

T. S. Eliot once wrote, “Where will the word be heard? Not here. There is not enough silence.”

There is not enough silence in our own hearts. We are busy about many urgently needed tasks: heroic tasks, holy tasks, often prophetic tasks. The harvest is great; the laborers are few. And so the temptation or the tendency grows, to become busier and busier, to do more, and more, and more, and it comes from an impulse in the heart to do good, to resist evil, to speak the truth into a culture that at every turn speaks lies to us.

This is a good impulse, but it is the raw material. It is so often unmediated by prudence, by wisdom. Certainly in my own life is has been. I have left a trail of verbiage behind me, much of which I regret. Not that I spoke untruth, but have babbled so much. Our Lord says in the Gospels that we will be held accountable on Judgement Day for every word we have spoken. Why does he tell us this thing? Why does he say this thing to us? Every word?

Words have power. Words have the power to give life, or to give death. Think of that radioactive sentence, “I love you.” Think of that counter-sentence, “I hate you.” Very few of us are invulnerable to the power of these words. Is anyone invulnerable?

Continuous streams of meaning are pouring in and out of us. In order to deal with it properly, we need to be rooted in a hierarchical universe with our Father Creator, our King, our Savior reigning at the head of this universe. Yet we find ourselves living, by and large, in what I called “Flatland” in my first talk. Christian philosophers have also spoken of our age as “the decapitated universe”.

Secularized man has attempted to make a great gap, an abyss, between God and man. This cannot succeed, though it may spread darkness, and sometimes very deep darkness, throughout the world for a time. But the darkness cannot overcome the light. We as Christians, and if there are pro-life non-Christians here, we as people who know that the truth leads to life must live with a kind of depth perception which modern man does not have. Modern man lives in a tragically stunted universe. He has filled this universe with a great deal of stimuli, entertainment and passion, but he is living in severely reduced dimensions. We have the advantage of living in a very immense universe, a very deep universe in which God has done something so miraculous, so astounding that our minds can scarcely look at it, can hardly see it. We look but we do not see; we listen but we do not hear. We have become blind to the beauty of being, the mysterious beauty of being, including the value of life.

There are several people here who were not at my first talk, so I would like to repeat a saying of St. Thomas Aquinas regarding the value of the human soul. St. Thomas writes that the value of one human soul far outweighs the entire value of the material universe. And this is true of each and every human soul from the very moment of conception onward into eternity.

We live in a culture which attempts to negate the meaning of that fundamental miracle God has created in existence. But how are we to come against the culture of death? How are we to speak into its catastrophic, colossal lie? The human heart instinctively reacts to a deadly falsehood with horror, naturally enough. We react with outrage, naturally enough. We react with anger, naturally enough. What fatherly heart, what motherly heart, what human heart would not instantly rise up in anger when we see the violation of innocence? It’s a perfectly natural and beautifully human reaction. But we must never stop there.

St. John of Damascus, one of the early Church Fathers, once wrote that when Adam sinned, man lost the likeness of God, but he did not lose the image of God. And with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, it now becomes possible for us to live no longer as slaves; the likeness and the image are in the process of being restored. In paradise (if we reach paradise) we will discover the image and likeness restored to what we were intended to be from the beginning, and what we are yet to become has not yet been revealed to us.

We must always walk through life with our eyes on eternity, and our feet firmly fixed in this universe, the incarnational universe. It is good. God created it good. We cannot deny it; we cannot hate it; we cannot seek the many kinds of escape hatches which we are prone to—Beam me up, Lord—No! He has planted us here to restore all things in Christ.

How on earth are we to do that? Simply put: we cannot do it on our own. The degree to which we can restore a portion of the world, beginning with ourselves and our families, our communities, our nations, and our planet, will depend largely on the degree to which each of us opens our hearts to grace. In fifty years of living I have puzzled a great deal over this mysterious thing called grace. You can’t smell it; you can’t taste it; you can’t touch it, but powerful stuff it is! If you step outside the realm of grace, you feel what’s missing. Dwell in the fountain of grace pouring from the heart of Christ, and suddenly you are living in a larger universe.

But even we Christians are easily confused. We so easily fall in and out of the will of the Father. Most of you are very deeply committed Christians. Most of you are in the process, as we will all be until the end of our lives, of maturing in faith. I would like to touch on, first of all, our vulnerabilities, those areas where we so often make our mistakes even in the holiest of labors. Then in conclusion, I would like to discuss specific graces which God is pouring out on our times to help us in our work as we work to spread the Kingdom of God.

First, our areas of vulnerability:

A tendency to hyperactivity. The need is so great. It’s immense. The tendency to burn ourselves out. We do too many things poorly rather than a few things with precision and effectiveness.

Noise. Overloaded minds. We have, by and large, accepted the false notion that knowledge will save us. There is always a tendency in human nature to Gnosticism, to gnosis, in many forms. And there is a great upwelling of neo-Gnosticism in our own times. It infects most of the universities. It infects the places of power in our world. What has been forgotten is that knowledge can never be an end in itself. When knowledge is in submission to holy wisdom it becomes a humble servant, fostering the triumph of truth in our world.

We need to quiet our minds. We need to go deeper, and deeper, and ever deeper into silence, and learn to wait on God. Please do not mistake me. I am not advocating quietism here; I am not talking about lying down and waiting for God to do it all. We are called to a co-creative work, God and man working together to restore all things in Christ. This means we are indeed called to the world of action. But we must engage in the world of action only after having drunk deeply from the well of grace, of stillness, and thus reorienting ourselves in the divine order.

I try and go most days of the week to our local parish church. Often I sit in the Blessed Sacrament chapel and I pray, I plead with God for the infinite number of things that need help in our life and our community, and in our world. More and more I have become aware my internal noise, this froth of thoughts and distractions that are ever pulling the mind in a thousand directions—often good directions, but not always.

How rarely do we get to that point where we become so completely a child in the hands of our Father that we simply rest deeply in him?

My tendency, being a father of six and living a very busy life, is to want to speed into the chapel, get tanked up like a pit-stop, and race back out again into the world of action: “do, do, do, do” — “accomplish , accomplish, accomplish”! It’s all great stuff these things I want to do! Often in recent years Our Lord has been telling me: Slow down, Michael! You are living at the world’s pace, and when you live at that pace, no matter how many things you get right in your head, you are not thinking with the mind of Christ.

St. Paul says, “Put on the mind of Christ.”  There are other translations which I think are slightly better. The mind of Christ is not something you put on, like a technique or a Christian thinking-cap, or a new method of being religious. The mind of Christ should dwell in us.

We are creatures. We are very, very little creatures, but we are very beloved creatures. Yet even though we believe we are beloved children of the Father, we so often function as if we are alone here in this war zone, in this place of desolation. We are abandoned, the emotions tell us, as we see defeat after defeat in the world. We take heart from the occasional victories (and there are indeed many signs of hope), but on the whole we do not live on the level that Jesus shows us is his way to the Father. We are not living in perfect confidence, perfect trust in our Father’s care.

Somewhere in the letters of St. Paul he writes: “If you would be conformed to the resurrection of Christ, you must be conformed to the crucifixion of Christ.” What is he telling us here? How do we become conformed to the crucifixion of Christ? Me? A guy who just can’t stand pain! How do I do that?

Well, over a long trial and error discipleship, Our Lord has been showing me my heart—how I believe with my head, but I do not actually live with my heart resting in his heart, and his heart resting in my heart. Who can explain this mystery? We can’t understand it with our minds, but this is precisely what he wants: the conversion of the heart, and the union of the heart and the mind.

How does that happen? How do we get there? Instinctively we want to find a good book of technique that will show us how to get the mind and the heart nicely integrated and working so that we can do really great stuff for God. We say to ourselves, “Yes! Once I get the knowledge of how to do that, I will go forth and do it.” That is not the way Our Lord works. Knowledge can be useful and helpful, but what God does is something deeper. He so often transforms us by taking us through a discipleship in which the pain of human existence, and the unspeakable beauty of human existence begin to teach us at a very deep level. And usually during such periods we experience a loss of our sense of sureness, our concepts of what is happening. Our knowledge fails us. This is a very great blessing—one which we try to evade at all costs.

Whenever this happens we must look to the Gospels to throw light on what God is doing in us. We also must look to the tradition of the Church, two thousand years’ worth, to tell us what is happening. We should also look to the saints whose lives the Lord has confirmed with miracles of great fruitfulness. And what are they telling us? If I had to reduce it to a rather simple characterization of the infinite wealth of life in Christ, I would say: To love is to accept that we are going to suffer.

To love is to give life. To give life has a cost. It always has a cost, and sometimes a very great cost. The parents in the room know that to bring a child into this world costs a great deal. To raise the child costs a great deal more. To raise in him in wisdom, truth, and love costs a very great deal more than that. But along with the trials and endless deaths to self-love that are necessary for true parenting, there are many joys.

Sometimes, however, the cost of a sacrificial way of life is exhaustion. My wife and I have six children, and five of them had baby colic during the first few months of their lives. They always seemed to choose their six-to-eight hour screaming period precisely at the moment when we needed to fall exhausted into bed and get some rest. So for weeks and weeks, and months and months, sleep deprivation pushed us ever close to the abyss of psychosis! [laughter] Under that kind of pressure you can become isolated and fall into discouragement, especially in a world which has shattered the extended family to the degree that ours has. My wife and I have lived in several places where we were far from our extended family, and were often alone raising a large family on very limited resources and poor health. As a result there were many dark moments. I am not a depressed person, but in those early years I can remember periods of discouragement.

It would be all too easy to give you an upbeat talk here today, but instead I want to truly speak from the heart as a father. I am not a “Hi! How are ya! Have a great day!” sort of person, but I have deep joy in life. I delight in life. And perhaps it needs to be said that our world promotes a superficial cheeriness while it is floating on a sea of innocent blood, a deep reservoir crying out for justice beneath the surface placidity and prosperity of our culture.

Anyone who tries to raise a large family in this schizophrenic milieu—schizophrenic is a kind word for what it is—diabolic milieu—must feel the wound of this. There are times when I have wept, crying out to God, “Why is evil spreading? Why don’t we have enough strength? Why are we so weak? Why are we so poor?” My wife and I have a good marriage; we love each other very much; we have wonderful children. But spouses are not God! No spouse, after the honeymoon, can fill that need at the core of every heart for God himself, the space inside us that was created to know, love, and serve God as our Beloved, and we as his beloved. And so there are times when you weep because you feel yourself to be a failure on every level of your humanity. We men especially struggle with the concept of failure. If I am successful in my work, or on other levels, then I feel that I am a success as a man, a husband, a father. I am fulfilling my responsibilities.

For many years, because I was a continuous failure as a Christian artist and writer, I was always bumping into the limits of my human resources. In the darkness where no one could see me being weak, I would weep and groan, crying out to God. I found much consolation in the Blessed Sacrament, and also in the Psalms where I found that others cried out to him in this manner.

The human heart grieves. It is a healthy thing to grieve over a grievous situation, and we are indeed living in the midst of a most grievous situation. The condition of our churches in the Western world is especially grievous, because the overcoming of the culture of death by the civilization of love depends in an absolute way on the purification and strengthening of the Household of the Faith. If we weep over it, we also invoke the mercy of God upon it and are willing to offer our lives for it. This is not depression; this is not a “negative attitude”; this is not pessimism, for our grief is not over a thing that has died but over a thing that is gravely ill and can yet return to health. Such grief comes from loving something so much that you grieve when it is corrupted or betrayed.

The restoration of the Household of the Faith will demand much sacrifice, much courage. Are we willing to sacrifice everything? Are we willing to persevere to the point—and beyond the point—when all appears to be lost, when all our sacrifices appear to have come to nothing? To persevere in a state of weakness and trust regardless of the circumstances? Unless we are, I think we are going to jump to some hasty solutions, reach for hasty techniques and strategies in the pro-life cause. It goes without saying that we need action on the level of government, education, economics, the restoration of family life, the restoration of our own hearts and souls. Yes, all of this is needed, but at every moment we must live with our eyes on Jesus. We must walk through this world doing all that we can, drawing on the fountain of grace that he pours out on us, and through us, and in us. Yet we must never base the value of what we do on success.

I have learned over and over in my life a scandalous message. I even tremble to say it to you! It is this: I believe that Our Lord often draws more good fruit from what we perceive to be failures than from our superficial successes. Because the more we are conformed to the suffering Christ, the more the resurrected and glorious Christ can live in us, and bear fruit in us. A good deal of this fruit may be hidden from our eyes.

Again I want to emphasize: the things that you have been doing for thirty years must continue—they must—but we need to go deeper than we have until now, because we are entering a new phase of the war.

I do not know whether we are approaching an era of incremental victories for the Kingdom, or a time of increasing crucifixion for disciples of Christ. I simply don’t know. I think there is a purification coming. I think there are justly deserved chastisements coming unless man repents. Whatever happens, we need to be rooted in Christ as very little children—very little children—trusting in our Father’s care. Hold onto his hand, hold onto the hem of his garment when you confront evil. Get smaller and smaller inside. Be very poor.

Common sense tells us that if we have enough money and enough power we will lick this thing, this killer-monster that afflicts the modern world. But St. Paul reminds us that common sense is not neccesarily wisdom. He exhorts us to keep in mind always that we are not fighting against earthly powers. We are fighting against diabolic forces, we are in combat against the father of lies, our arch-enemy from the very beginning, the primeval killer, Satan.

We will not resist him or overcome him by becoming strong in human terms. We will overcome  to the degree that we are strong in Christ, (“put on the strength of Christ” St. Paul says). We will become strong in Christ the more we abandon ourselves to him, the more we become little children in his arms. The more childlike we are, the more he can live in us and fight through us. He who is within us is more powerful than the adversary that is in the world seeking to corrupt the world! But because we are trained in activism from birth—action without its sources in the wellsprings of the heart—we so often forget this.

Man was created for worship. Before we speak, before we act, before we react to the events that come to us, we must worship God. What, really, is worship? Is not worship to love with one’s whole being? And in the worship of God, we love with our whole being the One who made us—he whom we cannot see with our eyes. One day we will see him. But at the moment we must see with the eyes of faith, and so in our struggles with the principalities and powers, we need to develop this interior spiritual faculty of seeing with the eyes of faith. For example, whenever we meet a person who is engaged in evil in a powerful way, or people such as pro-abortion politicians and media figures who are agents of evil concepts, we must pray for the grace to see through the locked doors of their minds and their hearts—to see through the keyhole, if you will—to recognize the child of God locked inside, and then to speak to that heart, to invoke God’s mercy on that heart, to pray for the unlocking of the cell which encloses it.

For thirty years I have been praying for an end to the culture of death, but in recent years my Lord has been showing me that, although I can be pretty good with words, religiously interesting and impressive words (today excepted!), all too often I have put my confidence in words alone—far, far too often! I have presumed that if I just explained things clearly enough pro-abortionists would finally understand and become pro-life. I forgot that the culture of death has not arisen from lack of information. Indeed there is a trend in pro-abortion movements to admit the humanity of the unborn child and then to dismiss the fact as irrelevant. Knowledge has not dislodged them from their positions.

Words of truth must be spoken. But I have not prayed nearly enough from the heart, nor have I have fasted, although for thirty years I have talked well about how important fasting is! But my concept of fasting until recent years has been, well, I don’t eat meat on Friday; I am Catholic. I fast rigorously two days a year, in obedience. Generally, however, in extraordinary situations I will have three cookies instead of six, and offer it up! [Laughter] Or I will have one bowl of ice cream instead of two and think I am making spiritual progress! Everything in me quails from the denial of the flesh. Ugh! No thank you! I mean, couldn’t we just explain the situation and fix everything? No, Our Lord asks us to give more. He invites us to unite our sufferings, even our little token sufferings, to him on the cross. And so in recent years, through no merit of mine—believe me, it’s not my natural state—through a special grace and through the challenge of difficult situations in our life, my wife and I have begun to fast two days a week on bread. Well, to be honest, my wife fasts on bread. She is a holy woman and not present here today, so I can say this to you: she fasts on bread and water. I fast on bread and coffee. I mean, there are limits!!!

But with my tiny widower’s mite, my little token united to the cross, we are seeing extraordinary answers to prayers.

The Lord asks us to join him on the cross. Hidden within the cross is a great secret, a great joy. Don’t be afraid of the cross. It is the narrow gate; it is the eye of the needle; in whatever form the cross comes to us (and it comes to us all) we must learn to accept it. Learn to say: “Thank you and praise You, Father, for allowing me to participate in your cross.”

St. Paul says that we make up in our flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ on the cross.

Is he saying here that Jesus did not do enough? No, of course he’s not. He is saying that God in his great generosity, because he loves us, because we are truly living parts of his Son’s body, invites us to participate in the salvation of the world which is entirely through the merits of the Son.

I find for myself that fasting and humiliations are excellent sacrifices: Humiliations especially are so good for us! So good for us! They just whack you right in the core of your pride, your self-image. And if you get a little name in the world, if you get a book published, you get a public persona as well! All public personas are lies, and humiliations are a great gift to remind you that you are a little creature. Even so, whether you are known or unknown it makes no difference. You are all beloved in the eyes of God. Whatever reduces us to the state of a child—not childishness—but the condition of a trusting child, is a great gift.

Praise him and thank him in all circumstances, and praise him and thank him most of all in those situations which seem darkest.

Are we entering a period of increased darkness? I do not know. If we are, we must accept it with patience and love. What we will suffer is a great gift from him, for in this way we will participate in the salvation of the world.

Thank you and God bless you.

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