A Catholic artist and writer, noted for his apocalyptic fiction, reflects on the crisis of
Western culture and the challenges that our society and our Church must confront.
by Larry Montali
Canadian writer and artist Michael D. O’Brien is probably best known for his novel Father Elijah: An Apocalypse. Published by Ignatius Press in 1996, Father Elijah, the story of a Carmelite priest in the throes of the end times, was embraced by critics and readers alike. The book sold more than 40,000 hardback copies: a startling success for a “Catholic” novel. His follow-up books—Strangers and Sojourners and Eclipse of the Sun—have also been popular with Catholic readers. The fourth in the series of six novels, Plague Journal, was released in March 1999. O’Brien, 51, is also an artist whose unique paintings have graced the covers of his books and are visible in churches and museums across North America. The self-educated O’Brien has written and lectured widely on faith and culture. He spoke with Catholic World Report shortly after returning from a three-week trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia, to research a future novel. O’Brien and his wife Sheila, have six children; they live in rural Combermere, Ontario.
You just returned from a research trip to Russia for your new novel. Did you find what you expected?
Michael O’Brien: No. I was overwhelmed by the realization that we in the West have a very limited understanding of the dynamics of what is happening in the former Soviet Union. That applies especially to the spiritual aspect of the emerging society in the Russian federation.
Could you elaborate?
O’Brien: I had gone there with a certain Western concept of post-Soviet society: a society in crisis, organized crime rising, political instability, starving people. These are definitely elements of the situation, but what most Western analysts discount is the element of grace, the fact that Russia is consecrated to the Mother of God. Russia belongs to Our Lady and she is an instrument of grace for the rebirth of the Church there. I realized that the rebirth of the faith of Catholics and Russian Orthodox is complex and cannot be reduced to simple theorems, to political and economic factors. It is a spiritual war zone, one which confuses our normal categories of analysis.
O’Brien: The Russian Orthodox Church is experiencing a widespread rebirth. But because of Russia’s long history of suffering, including the official Orthodox Church’s compromise with the state under the Soviets, the rebirth is sadly resuming its traditional nationalism. It is hostile to the West. It is especially hostile to the Roman Catholic Church. But it is important to understand the reasons why. The Orthodox are very much concerned about a return to the tradition in the liturgy and spirituality which was their glory for 1000 years. So they see developments in the West—the almost wholesale capitulation in the Western World to materialism—as a great danger. They also see the widespread liberalism of the particular churches in the Catholic West as a danger. Now, I think their suspicions are not without grounds, yet the problem with their approach to the West is a tendency to be closed to the genuine operation of grace, the genuine presence of Christ in the Roman Catholic Church.
Can you give an illustration?
O’Brien: I met with Russian Orthodox Christians of profound faith. They told me that Orthodox priests who are open to the West, who will pray with and initiate dialogue with Roman Catholics, are often suspended by the hierarchy or transferred to remote areas where they are no longer effective. It has become a politicized Church again, but in a new form.
The danger of nationalistic churches, whether under Communists, Fascists, or New Capitalists, is that they place political strategies above Gospel values. Having said that, it is important to note the Lord is at work very powerfully in individual Russians, in certain parishes, in small movements. All of this points to a new spring-time of faith in Russia. Still there are very complex problems that must be overcome before we see a widespread return to the Gospel.
Did you observe a different approach to faith among the people there than what you typically see in the West?
O’Brien: I met the humiliated Christ in Russia, the crucified Christ, and it struck me that we in the West have yet to be put to the test the way this people has. We speak endlessly about resurrection, with only a superficial understanding of the meaning of crucifixion.
Of course, we must not romanticize the Russian experience, but their long history of suffering has much to teach us. Russia and the Russian people are steeped in Orthodoxy and much of their return to the life of the Church is a genuine search for Christ. However, friends of mine in Russia cautioned me that there is an element of cultural nostalgia in the restoration of the official Church, entangled with a yearning back to the culture of late 19th century Russia—a period in which the Church was riddled with grave weaknesses, notably nationalism and an emphasis on exterior forms.
When Orthodoxy is lived, infused with the Holy Spirit, it can be glorious. There is an emphasis on mystical theology, something that has been largely eclipsed in the Western Church. There is an emphasis on beauty in worship and on the transcendent. On the other hand, orthodox Catholicism in the West has gifts the East is in need of: our more precise theology, our emphasis on doctrine, on catechesis, and on formation. The Holy Father has written on this issue of East and West a number of times. He speaks about the Church’s need to breathe with its “two lungs.”
What book were you researching while you were there?
O’Brien: My novel, The Father’s Tale. It’s a modern retelling of two parables combined: the Prodigal Son and the Good Shepherd. The central character is a humble father of two sons who lives in Canada. The younger son disappears while studying in England. His trail leads into Russia and the father goes there seeking him. My trip was an opportunity to do background research for place and character. God willing, the book will be published within a couple of years.
Were there any other interesting observations you made while in Russia?
O’Brien: I was overwhelmed by the sense that these are a people of the heart. All their passions, whether positive or negative, are part of their whole cultural condition. Their passion is potentially destructive or potentially redemptive. Meanwhile, it seems that we in the West have degenerated from rationalism to utilitarianism. We have lost contact with our hearts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us (368), “the spiritual tradition of the Church also emphasizes the heart, in the biblical sense of depths of one’s being, where the person decides for or against God.” So, I don’t mean emotionalism, but the deeper heart. Everywhere I went in Russia, I found great suffering in the faces of the people, but I also found great humanity. Returning to the West, everything is efficient, neat, expensive. Yet there’s a certain chill to the soul when you return here after having seen what is there. If I could boil it down to a single idea, I would say that the attempt to destroy man’s identity and dignity in the East through very brutal methods has been achieved in the West by seemingly benign methods. Man’s dignity and ultimate value is denied as relentlessly in the West as it is in the East.
As an observer and critic of Western culture, what are your thoughts on the factors that give rise to tragedies like the Littleton, Colorado school massacre? People cite violence in the media and in video games, parental detachment, broken families, lax gun laws, and so forth. What do you say?
O’Brien: Obviously, the immediate sources are in the culture: television, movies, videos that push the child’s imagination in the direction of visceral and violent emotions, conquest, combat, the thrill of danger, power. All of these are very attractive to children whose families are broken. They feel powerless, directionless, and simply no longer know who they are. Grave thinking has to be done about the sources of culture in the West, especially the entertainment industry.
But the problem is far deeper than this. We can run around the landscape fixing these things ad nauseam and they will just pop up elsewhere. The problem will remain until modern man goes through a radical illumination and examination of conscience, until he begins asking the real questions again: “Who am I? What am I for? Where am I on the spiritual map of creation?”
Children who slaughter others have totally lost any sense of the meaning of life and the meaning of their own life. They are living only on the level of sensation. Why? Because they were born and raised in a materialistic culture that has flattened all values. No amount of rhetoric from Tipper Gore about cleaning up the culture, no amount of pious editorializing about evil guns and evil video games will touch the root of the problem. Until we turn again to the fundamental questions about the purpose of human life, until we turn to God, this culture will continue to produce more and more horrific events no matter what the state does to repress it.
You have noted that no matter how damaged our culture is, we tend to perceive our own times as normal. When we are born and raised in a particular time and place we are blind, at least partially, to its defects.
O’Brien: As the times become increasingly abnormal or unreal, the temptation increases to leap for hasty solutions on one hand or to bury oneself in denial on the other. People pursue a sense of normality and security with a certain “quiet desperation.” The thing that disturbs me most is that even people of strong faith, at a subconscious level, really do put the values of mammon above the values of God. To some degree most of us have become practical materialists. The Scriptures say we simply cannot serve both God and mammon. At some point, we will all be put to the test in this regard: whether we’ll betray a principle in order to maintain our lifestyle. It is difficult to sacrifice when we have spent a lifetime pursuing comfort, not being put to the test as have the persecuted churches. What will happen to us when we are put to the test? The trip to Russia drove this question directly home to me in a way that had before been only theoretical. I saw people in extreme poverty. I had meals with them. I experienced their extraordinary generosity and hospitality—they who had nothing. In the West, we are willing to do a lot of heroic things as long as it does not really hurt. We are, generally speaking, an idealistic people, but we are blind to the nature of our own particular blindness. We live comfortably with blanked out zones of reality, unaware that we are only partly alive. A materialistic world tends to shut down aspects of our humanity. But in the West it does it comfortably, and that is a far more dangerous state to be in than those who are suffering direct persecution.
You’ve written about what you call the New Totalitarianism. What exactly do you mean by that?
O’Brien: I mean a society that speaks endlessly about democracy and freedom, but which in fact elevates the state and usurps the rights and responsibilities of the family. In totalitarianism, the state’s control of society becomes total. In the case of a brutal dictatorship, that control is obvious to everyone because it violates the principle of freedom and responsibility in each human person in a painful way. But the New Totalitarianism exhibits none of the brutal exterior forms of the tyrannies that we’ve become familiar with this century. If the totalitarianisms of the East—Communism, Fascism, etc.—were a kind of Orwellian 1984, the New Totalitarianism of the West is closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The state is benign, but it controls everything.
And do you think we are heading in that direction?
O’Brien: There are degrees of totalitarianism. What happens to a people when the whole social configuration is moving from personal responsibility to a statism, in which the state takes over all those difficult and unpleasant responsibilities and only asks you for a little softening of your rights? What happens when the state says, “Oh my dear citizens, you are no longer capable of exercising your rights the way we think you should. Let us lift this great burden from you.” That can be done without any physical pain, without concentration camps, without knocks on the door in the middle of the night. It can be done simply through an all-pervasive bureaucracy, through social coercion, through unfair taxation, and other measures that punish traditional families. It can be done in all kinds of ways that simply reshape the nature of human life. The governments of the West are indeed doing that. In order to awake to the reality of our present situation, Catholics need to return to the Church’s wise teaching about the family and government interaction with the family.
Are you pessimistic about turning back the tide?
O’Brien: No, I don’t feel pessimistic, but neither do I feel superficially optimistic. I try to stay with the mind of the Church, of Christ, and of Christ’s vicar on earth. The Pope has offered a penetrating analysis on these issues for 20 years. He has asked us to think about the situation with the tools of discernment, of which he has given us many. In a number of public talks and encyclicals he warns that we should not presume that simply because overtly totalitarian states are in decline, man will now correct himself, and we will all live a glorious new freedom. He points out that materialism takes many forms which are not malign or brutal on the surface, but which may in the long run bring about a more thorough destruction of man’s sense of identity and God’s purpose for him. One way or another, materialism tries to eradicate what the Holy Father calls the “whole truth about man.” A telling symptom of the real dynamics of what is happening in our materialistic society are these massacres in high schools. They are the fruit of a profoundly sick and misled society.
You are obviously a great supporter of John Paul II. What stands out for you as the most memorable mark of his pontificate?
O’Brien: His defense of the dignity and ultimate purpose of man’s existence. That is the thing that has especially moved me about his work. We could talk about his travels around the world, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, his role in the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the encyclicals: The Splendor of Truth, The Gospel of Life, and Centesimus Annus, for example. All of these are extraordinary achievements, but for me the greatest thing is his teaching on the meaning of man’s existence.
In other words, you are particularly struck by his addressing the essential question, which you say we have lost sight of in our materialistic society.
O’Brien: Yes. I believe that we have not yet been put to the test, not been forced to have confidence in God in a way that penetrates to our hearts. We have not been stripped, we have not been persecuted, we have not had to go to the cross very much yet—just a little. But in these times, and even more so should the times become increasingly difficult, we will have to learn absolute confidence in God. We must learn to cast fear out of our hearts. If we have always lived with our confidence in money, real estate, possessions, power, skills, and intelligence, we are going to be in a state of terror should these securities collapse. We need to start learning now to develop trust, absolute trust in God. To my mind, this is a major area where the Church needs to be focusing right now. Trust in God and his mercy: that is certainly an abiding theme running through the Holy Father’s teaching.
I’d like to ask you about your work as an artist and novelist. Where do you work?
O’Brien: I have a large room that is part of our home.
What background do you bring to your work?
O’Brien: Well, no formal training. I never made it past high school. All my writing and painting is self-taught. I write intuitively, from the heart, although I have read widely, and I hope that in my art the mind and the heart work together. But I am not the kind of Christian artist who works in some kind of recipe or academically correct method, though there’s a certain discipline involved.
Do you write mostly from your imagination and experience or do you tend to do a lot of research?
O’Brien: Some of it is the fruit of years of reading. A lot of it is research. For example the Italian and Polish sections of my first novel, Father Elijah, took a great deal of research. We have several European friends with collections of books and their own stories. I have been able to draw on their experiences and my own.
In March, Ignatius Press released your latest novel, Plague Journal. Would you tell us a little about it?
O’Brien: It’s part of a series of six novels I’m writing called Children of the Last Days. The series examines some of the moral, political, and social crises of the Western world and what these crises are doing to modern man’s understanding of who he is and where he is going. Plague Journal presents a scenario in which some of these errors in the modern world start to work out their negative consequences. It is set in the near future, in which a totalitarian state, a kind of police state, has arisen in North America and is beginning to repress civil rights. The story is about a Catholic family that finds itself in the path of this juggernaut and what happens to them when the government moves in the direction of total control. It is an action-packed novel and sometimes a scary novel. I do not want to give away too much of the plot, but let me at least say that it is ultimately about the meaning of Christian hope during a difficult time of history.
Apocalyptic themes seem to play a central role in your fiction. What is behind your attraction to that subject matter?
O’Brien: I am attracted to it because the genre of apocalyptic reflection, a perfectly Christian exercise, has by and large been captured by inflammatory thinking. Much of it is far from the spirit of the Gospel. What concerns me is that the hysterical approach to apocalyptic questions stimulates an overreaction, especially among Catholic intellectuals. We are so worried about hysteria that we end up dispensing with the question all together. Yet in every generation, the Church, in obedience to the Gospels, calls us to vigilance, to the spiritual discernment which should be alive and awake in every generation.
In the Gospels, the Lord says in a very stern admonition, “Stay awake and watch, for you do not know the hour when the Son of Man will return.” He warns that there will be great trials and tribulations preceding his return. He also warns that most people on earth will not know or understand the nature of what is happening when it does happen. My concern as a Christian writer is to remind our generation to stay awake and watch. I’m not saying absolutely that we are in the midst of the Apocalypse; I’m just writing stories that ask the question: “What if it were to happen in our time? Are we prepared? Are we spiritually ready or have we been lulled to sleep?”
Speculation about the Y2K computer bug has led some people to anticipate fearful scenarios of civil unrest, shortages of food and water, and other chaos. There seems to be a kind of survivalist movement taking shape among some Catholics. Some people are stockpiling food and water, some are talking of moving to rural areas and building survival shelters. What are your thoughts on that?
O’Brien: We simply don’t know how bad the effects of the Y2K computer problem will be. It could be anything from mild discomfort to quite dire chain reactions within the infrastructure of the economy and politics.
The fundamental question here is: What is the mind of Christ on this matter. Surely the Lord would ask us to discern between panic and prudence. Panic would have us digging caves in the mountains and filling them with tons of food, buying a gun, and waiting till the disaster is over. I do not believe that is Christian prudence. I believe prudence would say there is a possibility of times ahead when it may be difficult to provide food and basic needs for my family during a period of social crisis. Charity demands I at least prudentially prepare a little. Christian prudence is not survivalism, but neither is it denial, pretending that all is well when it isn’t. Look at the precedent of Joseph, the patriarch, who prepared during the seven fat years for the seven lean years, and in doing so saved Egypt and Israel. Joseph’s motivation was not survivalism. It was obedience to God and charity toward man.
Some seem to have crossed the line into survivalism. That strikes me as a move away from our Christian mission.
O’Brien: You have to be careful of the “either/or” trap—either totally following the culture or becoming a paranoid survivalist—which are both unrealistic constructs of the real problem. The real question is: Are we living in the charity and the prudence of Christ? It may be quite within the wisdom of God for us to prepare for a time of economic difficulty. At the same time, I as a Christian must be willing to share my food and my home with the hungry and the homeless who come to my door. I think Charity is the highest law here: the law of love.
You count Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor among the writers you most admire. What impresses you about their work?
O’Brien: Percy is not a Catholic novelist I would urge on anyone who is not a mature adult. Both he and O’Connor are orthodox American Catholics who examine Original Sin. They go down into the darkness with the eyes of faith, they look at the condition of modern man, and they tell stories about why man does what he does, why he chooses untruth and unlove. They dig deep into the nature of sin, but only to show that grace is more powerful. O’Connor especially illustrates the gentle but powerful operation of grace at work in nature, grace at work in the human story, redeeming us even in the midst of our darkness.
Generally speaking, their work is more implicitly Catholic, while yours is more explicit. Would you talk about that?
O’Brien: I believe the explicit approach is my particular calling. I do not think every Catholic writer needs to do that. However, I do believe that in a culture of life, there should be a vital diversity that permits overt Christian works to surface. Twenty years ago there was very little Catholic fiction being published. That seemed a rather bizarre state of affairs, considering that there are 60 million Catholics on this [North American] continent. Unfortunately, most Catholics are wired into the secular culture and are indifferent to their own need for genuine culture springing from authentic spiritual sources. I felt called to help begin to create Christian culture again and to do it overtly.
Some of your work could be described as didactic. You’re trying to teach something in a very overt way. Do you think that damages your novels as works of fiction?
O’Brien: “Damage” is rather a strong word. I think it is more accurate to say that a didactic element in fiction makes it less attractive to a certain kind of reader who already knows the material of faith. But most contemporary Catholics are victims of “religious illiteracy.” They are poorly formed and often unevangelized, and for that reason many readers who are drawn to the dramatic narrative of my novels would find some of the themes totally impenetrable without the teaching woven into the tale.
I try not to overdo it. It is important to remember, also, that no work of art is an act of pure creation. Every work or art, by enfleshing some aspect of reality, is didactic. All art teaches at some level. I do it more obviously than some other writers. If I were to enflesh the issues in a narrative without articulating them, I would reach some people. But by asking the questions overtly, I believe I reach more people. Flannery O’Connor said, “For the near blind, one must write big characters.”
I enjoy reading Christian novelists such as Wendell Berry and others whose work is implicitly Christian. I believe their task is important. Their work is concerned with pre-evangelization, calling man to truth—natural law truth—to an understanding about the nature of life itself. So their audience is potentially very broad. My role, on the other hand, is not so much to reach out to the unchurched as to generate the timeless questions in our own Catholic people who have largely fallen asleep.
So you made a conscious decision to be explicit in presenting orthodox Catholic belief in your work?
O’Brien: Yes. It is not my style of choice, I must say. I highly value the “show, don’t tell” principle. It is what I would rather do. But I believe the “show and tell” approach is the one God has asked of me. Having said that, I should mention that the novel I am writing now, The Father’s Tale, is not apocalyptic and does not deal with ecclesial issues. It is more about the deep issues of the heart: of love, of family. It is probably my least didactic novel. I sense I am going through a growth pattern in my writing and I think the key factor here is grace. I am praying every day that this novel comes to life so that it will be a good instrument in the Lord’s hands, that it will do its work implicitly rather than explicitly.
Has that new Catholic culture you refer to taken root at all?
O’Brien: I see many young Christian writers and artists, in all fields in the life of the Church, demonstrating a radical trust in God’s grace and embracing difficult, even impossible, lifestyles for the sake of the Gospel. Perhaps it is not as small a number as we think. I believe the Holy Spirit is doing this. I also think it is the fruit of the magnificent Pope we have had for the last 20 years—his consistent, persistent teachings, his willingness to promote a civilization of love in the face of the culture of death.
Your faith seems extremely strong. Do you ever pass through any “dark nights of the soul?”
O’Brien: Like most Christians, I have moments of trial and desolation—those sudden thoughts, vague horrifying moments when you say, “what if I’m the biggest chump on the planet?” St. Paul touches on that in one of his epistles, where he says, “if we are deluded, than we are the most wretched creatures in the world.” There was a time of unbelief in my adolescence, for about five years, when I did not believe anything. My return to faith was a St. Paul-type conversion. It was so sudden, so totally unexpected, and the presence of God so powerful, I can honestly say I haven’t doubted during the thirty years since then. The questioning that comes up is basically part of our human faculty to try and see farther, to understand better. It is faith seeking understanding, as St. Augustine says. Sometimes the little moments of doubt are actually moments of growth to a larger understanding of God.
So for you there are no real dark nights of the soul?
O’Brien: No. Occasional sadness, bad days, yes; we all have those; we’re talking about basic human material here. More and more I see that the key to everything is trust—not trust that I am going to be a psychologically well-integrated person (I will never be that); not trust in my own powers; not trust that I am some kind of master of sanctity (I will never be that either); but rather trust, trust, trust in the mercy and power of God, and living under that mercy. As long as we as a secularized Catholic people keep trying to serve both God and Mammon, we are not going to be living totally in divine mercy. The restoration of Christian culture depends very much on a return to the genuine sources of life, and that restoration begins with honesty and humility.
What’s next for you?
O’Brien: I have at least two years of writing ahead of me to finish the Children of the Last Days series and The Father’s Tale. At the same time, I’m trying to complete a series of paintings with a view to a book of my visual art.
Can you offer us any final thoughts on your life and work as a Christian artist?
O’Brien: The cross that a Christian artist has to carry is not only that the world is probably not going to give him success or comfort. There is also an inner cross of knowing that his own imperfections as a craftsmen, his limitations of vision, and the degree to which he fails to open up to grace in the creation of a work of art will have effects on how well the work affects others. The Christian artist must be prepared to enter into the mystery of spiritual poverty if he hopes not to lose heart and to keep going. If he stands firm, if he persists, he will find that within this poverty is hidden a great secret, a great joy.
Larry Montali, the former editor of the National Catholic Register, is a freelance writer based in Miami, Florida.