National Catholic Register

Inperson

‘We No LongerThink With the Mind of Christ’

Michael O'Brien, artist and writer, on living and creating in a materialistic culture

BY Michael O'Brien

November 30-December 6, 1997 Issue | Posted 11/30/97 at 2:00 PM

 

The success of Michael O'Brien's book Father Elijah: An Apocalypse hasn't changed the Canadian author's perspective about his work. “I tend not to dwell on the accolades of the present,” he says. Register correspondent Tracy Moran recently spoke with O'Brien about his writing, his painting, and his struggles as a Christian artist in a secular world:

Moran: Why did you begin painting?

O'Brien: It wasn't a conscious decision. I had never been an artist. I reconverted to Catholicism at age 21, following a period of unbelief during adolescence. I was walking in the woods, praying, wondering what my life was all about. I came upon a heap of stones, and growing out of it was a little sapling. It moved me very much but I didn't know why. Suddenly it struck me that it was a metaphor for my life.

Although I was used to writing down my thoughts about aspects of the faith, I felt unable to express this scene in words. I decided to draw the sapling and the rocks in order to remember it better. I was shocked by how strong the drawing was, and that day and in the ensuing weeks I began to draw many things. The drawing was like a little tap that gradually opened and I began to understand that art could be a language to express the inexpressible.

Is your artistic ability a charism?

I believe it is a gift. I believe God pours out a multitude of talents in human nature. But I believe that when we give our assent to grace and consecrate the talent, it becomes a charism. Equally important, it becomes a vocation.

How does one give that assent?

By living fully the life of the Church. By accepting everything that God desires to give to us. By obedience-a very difficult word in these times.

How would describe that idea of obedience in reference to your calling to be a painter?

In 1976, I was a young newly married husband and father-to-be. We were expecting our first child within two weeks. It suddenly struck me that I was not developing the talent that the Lord had given me. Although I'd had some success in secular art galleries in the years following my conversion, my art at that time was not overtly religious, even though I was a Christian. My wife and I decided to offer my work as a Christian artist to the service of God and his Church.

Does an artist have to paint or write overtly spiritual works to have it imbued with spirituality?

Not necessarily. I believe strongly that a Christian artist, if he is pursuing beauty and truth, is doing a work of the Holy Spirit. That work can be implicitly religious or explicitly religious.

However, I must say that I believe the greatest, the most urgent need right now is for Christian artists to respond to the call to paint explicitly religious work. This is by far the more difficult task. This also applies to writing. The same dynamic is at work there.

Father Elijah was an explicitly Catholic book. How would you describe Strangers and Sojourners, your most recently published book?

It's closer to being an implicitly religious work. There certainly are Catholic themes and Catholic characters. It's about the conversion of the soul, but it examines the interior workings of a woman struggling with alienation and unbelief. It's the story of a life more than the story of theology.

Are you comfortable going back and forth between implicit and explicit books?

Yes. All my books have an explicitly Catholic dimension. Sometimes the emphasis is stronger. I feel a great urgency to help in the rebirth of a genuinely, explicitly Catholic literature.

Do you see that rebirth occurring?

I see a ground swell of gifted writers producing works of fiction in a spirit of great faith. They know full well how difficult it will be to find a response in a culture dominated by materialism and pragmatism. The Lord is inspiring it, but everything waits upon the response of our Catholic people.

How would people support this type of work?

Seek out good Catholic literature at bookstores.

But it's not that simple for painters.

It's a far more difficult thing. Logistically speaking, its more cumbersome. A book may cost $10, but a single picture may take weeks to paint and therefore be more expensive. It's far more difficult to exhibit it and transport it. People of strong faith in these times rarely have the money to pay the laborer his hire. But perhaps people of means could see the sponsoring of religious art as a much-needed apostolate in the restoration of Christian culture.

Are people willing to offerthat kind of help?

For 20 years now, I've jotted down on paper every time someone has given a gift of $5, $10, and it has added up to a considerable sum over the years. Without it we could not have continued. We pray for them. We live very poorly. We rent an old, broken down house in a rural area about two hours west of Ottawa, we drive an old, second-hand car. It has been survival at a simple level.

We have embraced the spirit of poverty, and the Lord has been able to work with us. He has always provided our basic, simplest needs, but we've never had what North Americans think of as the good life. What we have had is great joy and peace in Christ-treasures of a much higher order. My work is bearing fruit, my family is happy. In learning to be content with little we have become wealthy in the things that last.

With the publication of Father Elijah, you've become one of those “overnight sensations” who toiled for years and years. How has the success of that book affected you?

We work hard at preserving the privacy of our family life. Strangely enough, I feel rather detached from the whole mystique of “success.” The real success is to love the Lord and to do his will.

Because I am deeply involved in completing several more novels and also some painting projects, my mind is always directed toward the future. I tend not to dwell on the accolades of the present. Public images are always false.

In John Saward's book The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, he speaks of the iconoclasm occurring in the eighth, ninth, and 16th centuries, and again in our own time. Was that part of the reform of the liturgy that saw churches stripped of their art?

That was part of the larger phenomenon. The modern world is becoming anti-incarnational. We strip our churches bare and kill our children in the womb. The mystery and majesty of the hierarchical cosmos are reduced to a spiritual flatland. Even Christians reduce the work of God to the lowest level of the meaning of word.

The problem is that we are reading the Scriptures as a dead letter. We need to understand it is living, it is fire, it is life, and that it's also connected to all the other ways in which God speaks to us. We are a word-oriented, image-bombarded culture. However, we rarely see deeper or look up into infinity.

The Word of God made flesh is a multi-dimensional work. It's not just letters on a page. Our God is an incarnational God. For that reason, every aspect of our humanity is to be transfigured in Christ. This is crucial of an understanding of the crisis. John Saward spends a whole book on the problem.

We've reduced the work of God to something linear, sociological. As a result we-Western cultures-have cut off all kinds of avenues of grace. Tragically, the cultures of Western materialism has invaded the particular churches in many places. These are hard words, but I believe this is the crux of the problem.

Do you ever struggle with writer's block?

No, I think writer's block may be a symptom of mental exhaustion. Trying to produce works of art fully from your own resources breeds exhaustion. That exhaustion produces writer's block. When the Christian artist submits himself to grace, many of these problems evaporate.

Is it the same with painting?

Painting is a much more difficult process. I have to pray more when I paint. Art in any form is hard work, but if the artist is living the full sacramental life of the Church and is praying, the work takes wings.

Who are the artists and saints who have influenced your work?

I'm very inspired by Blessed Fra Angelico, the patron saint of artists, as a model of the vocation of artist. Also the great French Catholic painter Georges Rouault and the Canadian Catholic painter William Kurelek. As far as writers, Flannery O'Connor, the American Catholic, and also a wonderful American writer, a devout Christian, the novelist Wendell Berry.

The saints? St. Francis de Sales, the patron of writers, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St. Joseph. The first day of my consecrating my work to the Lord was May 1, 1976, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Over the years, many blessings have come on his feast day. I've entrusted my work to his care and intercession. He's very quiet; he's hidden as he was in Nazareth, but he's very powerful.

Do you have any particular themes that you feel called to paint?

Although some of my work focuses on resurrection themes and themes that evoke joy, I'm personally called to paint the cross. Christ Jesus' suffering and redemption of man is absolutely essential to our understanding of the whole work of God in salvation history. It's precisely the cross that is in danger of being misunderstood and displaced in a particular Church that has fallen prey to materialism.

Sometimes that displacement is physical as well as spiritual.

When the spirituality of the cross, which is at the heart of the Church's mission, is rejected or neutralized, there are grave consequences. Man soon no longer knows how to deal with his human condition. At the same time, he no longer is able to see the face of God properly or to hear what he is saying to us. This works itself out in bad liturgy. Disobedient liturgy and man-centered liturgy is a symptom of profound spiritual sickness.

How do you hope your books and paintings affect people?

I hope to draw people back to an awareness of the awesome mystery of God's beauty and love. I also want to remind them that until the end of time, we are involved in the spiritual battle between the powers of darkness and the kingdom of God.

Do you ever feel weighed down by that battle?

There are times when I've been discouraged by the conflicts and the spreading sickness in the churches of the affluent West. We're no longer thinking with the mind of Christ. All too often, we are thinking of budgets, programs, public relations, instead of evangelical principles.

Pope John Paul II has addressed that danger.

The Holy Father has said this and many of the great spiritual teachers of our time have said the same thing: The materialistic culture is very, very dangerous. In Centesimus Annus, the Holy Father warns us that, despite the collapse of the Marxist tyranny, materialism takes many faces- and the materialism in the West may, in the long run, bring about a more extensive destruction of souls. I'm paraphrasing here, but he says to us, beware of your great danger. If you stop thinking with the mind of Christ, you will be imbued with the spiritus mundi, the spirit of the world.

How do you deal with your discouragement?

When I see these things happening, I recall the Gospel of Luke, chapter 21, verse 28. In this passage, Jesus has just given the most horrendous description of what will happen at the end of times and he says, “When you see all these things happening, stand erect and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near at hand.”

Things may be dark, they may even get darker. This is an invitation for Christians to grow more deeply in the virtue of evangelical hope. Christ has already conquered the world. We must keep this in mind always.

Do you have any upcoming exhibits?

I've been writing so much, I don't have many paintings. I'm presently completing a series of six novels. Ignatius Press is publishing the next two novels of the series next year: Eclipse of the Sun and Plague Journal. Also next year, they're republishing my Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind in a revised, expanded edition.

What's it about?

It's an analysis of the pagan invasion of children's culture. It will also include a long list of book titles recommended for children. The book critiques the hideous paganization of novels and videos for young people, which is really a major battlefront in the culture war. So many of our Catholic families are being indoctrinated into the pagan worldview through the entertainment industry and do not realize it.

— Tracy Moran