Novelist and painter Michael O’Brien reminds us that, even in our present culture of death, ‘the darkness cannot overcome the light’

By Sue Careless
The Interim

No one, least of all Michael O’Brien, expected his novel Father Elijah to be a publishing success. O’Brien had established himself as a painter and received commissions from churches that enabled him to modestly support his wife and six children.

In 1979, O’Brien had drafted one poorly written novel. His Irish-Canadian family were great story tellers and he did it for a lark. Publishers sent a snowdrift of rejection letters, so O’Brien knuckled down to painting.

Five years ago, while praying before the Holy Sacrament, O’Brien was overcome by how the Catholic Church was being undermined in the West. He grieved, not in emotional depression, but in spiritual anguish. “This is the Bride of Christ humiliated and betrayed. This is the Church I raise my children and godchildren in and they are not being taught or fed good food.”

While he wept, there came a great infusion of peace and a prompting from the Holy Spirit which didn’t spring from his own will or imagining. He sensed he should write a story about a character groping with these issues in a climate of discouragement at the end of an era. He kept praying. It wasn’t something he really wanted to do and it seemed like an exercise in futility.

He had come to believe that there was absolutely no hope that an overtly Christian novel could be published in North America in these times. Yet in obedience to that impulse, he began to jot down the beginnings of the story and it poured out like a fountain.

He remembered that Thomas Aquinas had said if a work of art is to glorify God, He will send an angel of inspiration to help with its creation. O’Brien wrote Father Elijah in only eight months.

“I’m a creature of the senses. I tend to think grace isn’t operating unless I can feel it, see it, taste it, smell it. I learnt how powerful grace is even though you have no sensation of it. Only the fruits were there.”

Although O’Brien wrote the manuscript in obedience to a divine prompting, he felt a “pagan fatalism” about its publication. Surely not even a Catholic publisher would consider it. He couldn’t afford $10 for postage, only to receive a rejection slip. He expected his grandchildren to eventually discover the manuscript buried in the attic.

“Sadly, the Catholic reading public is plugged into the secular electronic culture, (and) where they do read, they have imbibed a lot of Protestant fiction of not-very-high literary quality.”

Meanwhile, Ignatius Press was distributing a self-published book of his Rosary paintings. Tony Ryan, the general manger, asked O’Brien what he’d been up to. “I’ve been wasting my time for eight months on a novel. Don’t bother reading it,” he replied.

But Ryan insisted, “Give us a chance. Let us make the decision.” O’Brien sent Ryan the manuscript expecting it would be returned in six months with a kind rejection slip.

“I had accepted that secularism had taken everything and had snuffed the life out of our Catholic culture, or at least ghettoized us so that it was no longer possible to be part of the mainstream. I was wrong. It was really a failure of faith on my part.”

Two months later, a contract arrived. Ignatius Press didn’t care if it didn’t sell.

Today, four years later, Catholic culture is penetrating the secular world. Father Elijah and other novels in O’Brien’s series, Children of the Last Days, are carried by Chapters bookstores across Canada and by Borders in the U.S.

“All this is so strange for me, after 25 years of accepting that to be a Christian artist means accepting poverty.” In 1975, O’Brien and his wife Sheila had come to a mutual oneness of mind and heart that they would accept a life of poverty while trying to make a dent in the secular culture. “We had no strong conviction that we would succeed, only that we must at least be willing to try.”

For 22 of those years, it was very hard going. “These kinds of odds would totally have demoralized us if we hadn’t learned to live totally on grace, especially the sacraments and the Rosary.”

Father Elijah was an unexpected surprise at the end of a long, arduous journey. O’Brien was tempted to paint popular works. He was told by a figure in the Canadian literature world that his manuscripts were rejected because of their “too-Catholic view.”

“All Christians suffer this exclusion from the mainstream of society, but Catholics are the monster in their eyes,” he says.

God never let his family be without food, shelter or clothing. They drove old wrecks. And most of their friends were also poor Catholic families with lots of children and a strong faith. Six months would pass without one painting being sold. Then, in an exhibit, 20 paintings would sell, enough to live on for a year. Some years there would be few commissions. Then they would boldly pray, “We need food. We need to pay the rent. We ask you to sell a painting.” Within the hour, the phone would ring, and a stranger would come to buy a painting.

“The greatest treasure of those years was seeing how faithful God was.”

Today, the O’Briens are by no means rich. They own a house with a huge mortgage in Combermere, Ont. They pay college tuition for some of their children, who now range from 8 to 23. The car still breaks down. “We mustn’t fall into the trap of becoming joy-denying, but find the joy in the poverty, not in bitter resignation. Our Lord spoke to me early on, ‘Be willing at every moment to lose everything, for I will supply everything you truly need.'”

While O’Brien questioned his gift for writing, he never doubted his calling to be an artist. He was greatly encouraged in both his art and his faith by the great William Kurelek. Mutual friends introduced them in the summer of 1977.

Neither of them knew Kurelek would be dead within three months. The day of his funeral was the day of O’Brien’s first exhibit of Christian art. The front page of the Ottawa Citizen carried the story of Kurelek’s death, while on the back page was a lengthy review of O’Brien’s art exhibit. It was uncanny.

“We must never assume that the spirit of the world has won, no matter how powerful it seems. God is more powerful. He can open doors and is full of surprises. In my tales, especially in the later ones, I try to show the surprises of God, that even though darkness appears to be overwhelming, it cannot overcome the light. But if we do not face the darkness in our own hearts, we will be personally overcome.”

At 21, O’Brien was nearly overcome by darkness. He had been raised in a Catholic home, but was unprepared for the social revolution of the 1960s.

Although he never attended university, O’Brien voraciously read the existential philosophy and literature of nihilism recommended by his college friends. He became saturated with Sartre and Camus who inhabited what O’Brien later called “a decapitated universe, a universe without God, a spiritual flatland.” He said that a “great darkness grew in my mind and a lostness that was mindnumbing. ”

“Sartre’s existential disgust and metaphysical nausea seemed exotic. Really, they were the putrid darkness of the soul that turns away from the light. They sought to decapitate the universe and sever man from his past, from himself, all in the name of man.”

O’Brien experienced five years of prayerlessness and unbelief. One night in a dark room, the darkness increased until it was a very great presence, a force that wanted to devour his soul.

“A spontaneous cry erupted from my soul, ‘O God, save me!’ A few more seconds and I would have been insane or under the power of the Evil One. The astonishing thing was, the moment I cried out I was totally and instantly suffused with supernatural peace.” It was a stark contrast to the past five years, in which he had not thought of God or felt any peace.

With that peace came total knowledge that everything that was in the Gospels was real and true and everything his Church had taught him as a child was real and true. “I had to get back to it as fast as I could.” He went to Confession, received the sacraments, went to daily Mass and prayed.

“My Lord reconstructed my life and my heart. One of the first things He did was take me as a volunteer into an institution for the mentally handicapped in Smith Falls, Ont. It was very healing and evoked love from my heart. Sometimes our world has to fall apart in order for us to find reality.

O’Brien explores this theme in depth in Eclipse of the Sun and Plague Journal. “The heart has to be broken in order for the deeper, truer heart to emerge in us.”

In their suffering, many of O’Brien’s characters, like Anne Delaney in Strangers and Sojourners, learn they cannot save themselves. “God tries to engage us wherever we will open our hearts to him. Where we’ve been most hurt, He asks us to forgive.”

For O’Brien, writing and painting are two very different languages which inform each other. O’Brien is not able to do both at the same time. He shifts back and forth, devoting a few months to each.

“After painting, I return to writing with a fresh consciousness, a greater sensitivity to the senses. After writing, I return to my painting wondering how a concept needs to be clarified. A human scene may open up the deep mystery of existence and speak to the viewer’s heart rather than his intellect.

“Even so, as a Christian artist, I have to be very careful that even when I am painting or writing intuitively I never violate the moral order of the universe. It is a much, much larger universe than most modernist writers deal with. It is far more exhilarating but a bigger task and a bigger canvas.”

Most of O’Brien’s religious art is figurative. It is informed by the training he had in Byzantine iconography and he tries to practise some of the spiritual disciplines of the iconographer, praying and fasting as he works. But O’Brien’s art is also influenced by Western tradition. “It has a strong natural element, a strong incarnational element whereas the art of the Eastern Church has a heavy emphasis on the transcendent, on the sacred.”

O’Brien feels called to integrate the richness of the creative language of the Renaissance while avoiding its humanistic tendencies. He tries to blend what is good in Western art with what is timelessly invaluable in the Eastern tradition.

“On every level of society, there is a desacrilization of existence. Obviously, abortion is the most gross example, the denial of the sacredness of being. Either we want to escape life and not deal with the issues or we’re blinded to the holiness of the world God has made. Central to my writing, painting and life is the Catholic vision of existence – the transfiguration of all creation, the restoration of all things in Christ, to the Father.

“Matter is not to be denied, feared or loathed but to be baptised, restored, transfigured to what it was intended by God to be. A sacramental view of reality works towards the restoration. Puritanism and Jansenism tend to want to escape reality rather than transfigure it through divine order.

“Art is a living word that is grounded and conceived in grace. It is formed in objective truth that is faithful to the Gospels and the teaching of the Church which is part of how Christ speaks to me. Art has to express somehow that the darkness cannot overcome the light. It doesn’t have to have God written all over it or be a dramatic rescue operation. Life itself has grace pouring through it. Even in the darkest of situations, the presence of God comes to us. Through others and through the events of life, He speaks to us.

“The novelist has to be faithful to reality, to real characters and situations. Don’t trot a cardboard character through a mystery play or write explicit messages. Powerful Christian fiction is faithful to reality and enlarges the reader’s concept of the mystery, the beauty, and even sometimes the horror (as in Flannery O’Connor) of the great drama of existence. You don’t have to be telling a Gospel tale in order to enlarge the reader’s understanding that the universe is far greater and more significant than imagined. You just have to open the perceptions. That is a major accomplishment.”

O’Brien’s novels are more didactic than is acceptable in the current climate. Many reviewers claim his work is preachy and academic, that he’s writing ideas not fiction.

“Many critics are the products of secular universities or secularized Catholic universities. They believe that anything that proclaims and enfleshes a world view based on moral absolutes is invasive and oppressive and betrays the principles of fiction. I don’t agree. Of course, a writer can overdo it and defeat his own gift of fiction.”

O’Brien is an avid reader of the classics. Among the 20th century novelists he admires are Mark Helprin, author of A Soldier of the Great War. Helprin still believes in the power of a story to enlarge our understanding of reality.

“Most fiction has become character-oriented, self-obsessed. Narrative has declined steadily throughout this century, so that now our great novels are characters investigating their own psyche. The drama is greatly impoverished.”

Readers tell O’Brien, “I’m not a believer but I really liked the story.” There have been many conversions through his novels. Believers hand his books to non-believers, especiallyStrangers and Sojourners, which is his most implicitly Christian work. “The narrative makes it accessible to a lot of people who haven’t developed the habit of reflecting deeply on matters. The narrative prompts them to reflect.”

Some of the most positive reviews for O’Brien’s fiction have come from evangelical journals such as ChristianWeek. Yet Protestants often wonder why O’Brien doesn’t write more about them. O’Brien notes that Eclipse of the Sun is “loaded with Protestants who are truly Christ-like.” He admires that Protestants have “a very strong sense of the Word of God as a living reality.”

Still, he admits, “I’m writing basically for my own house which has been devastated. I know Protestants love Jesus and we agree on every point of the Nicene creed. Yet we have real doctrinal differences that may only be resolved through the extraordinary grace of God, and perhaps not until the return of the Lord.”

O’Brien is concerned, especially in the Plague Journal, with the danger of democracy degenerating into totalitarianism. “The assault upon man’s dignity and eternal value in the West has been as relentless as the more brutal forms of the attack in the East.” O’Brien is troubled by the question Pope John Paul II raises in Centesimus Annus (1991) – Which is the more dangerous state to live in: that where evil is unmasked and reveals itself for what it is in brutal forms of dictatorship, or in the masked evil of materialism?

“Materialism in any form denies the whole truth about man,” O’Brien concludes. “We in the West live under a form of materialism that may in the long run bring about a more comprehensive destruction of man’s soul.”

O’Brien writes apocalyptic or end-times literature. “I’m engaged in a reflection on the times in which we live. We don’t know that they’re the end times. We don’t know when the Son of Man will return. Christ shows us the essential stance: ‘Stay awake and watch for you know not the hour.’ Our task is not to know. Our task is to be awake. My novels are not trying to predict what will happen. They are saying, ‘Dear people, are we awake? Is the Church awake? Is the Bride ready for the return of her Bridegroom?” O’Brien thinks we are in a dreadful state of unpreparedness.

Some critics lump O’Brien into a class of apocalyptic writers whom they dismiss as hysterics. “Such reviewers are not really reflecting on the questions my novels are raising. In a time of radical insecurity, there is a tendency to cope with the confusion with either denial or hysteria. Hysteria is not healthy at all; it is not the mind of Christ but neither is denial the mind of Christ.”

O’Brien rejects both denial and hysteria. “I hope to enflesh in my fiction the Timeless One. What is the mind of Christ in a time of radical social insecurity?

“When we give in to fear, we close off avenues of grace. Fear tells us we are abandoned in our universe. We live in a glorious universe. Dangerous yes, invaded to a degree. Yet, we are a child of the Father. We should pray, ‘I am very little with no power. I have wounds, sins, discouragements. Jesus, Saviour of the world, I trust in You.’ He will not disappoint you. He is who He says He is.”

Manchild in the Crib

My conversion at 21 was instantaneous and total, like St Paul’s. It left me quite shocked. It took a while to reconstruct my life by grace. A year later, in 1971, God led me to volunteer in a massive institution with miles of wards. Many of the 5,000 patients were mentally handicapped children. I was sent one day to a ward where there were only 12 stainless steel cribs. It was painfully sterile with no pictures or toys. The director stopped by one crib and said, ‘Why don’t you meet Jimmy?’

There lay a boy of 23, suffering from spina bifida. His skull was extraordinarily large, twice the normal size, and his body small, unexercised. I saw his eyes, a little person staring back at me, back from his little universe. It was startling. There was a soul looking through those eyes. Two souls were regarding each other between whom there seemed to be no common language. Yet the language of the heart is the most powerful. There were no social conventions to make us uncomfortable. For me, it was heartbreaking but moving. I was in anguish, confusion, darkness, yet here was a human, a little prisoner, and joy was shining out of his eyes. He, who was utterly poor, was rich. He endured crushing suffering and I, who had everything, was the poor man.

For the first time I viewed the tangible power of the soul to give life. This child, abandoned, useless according to the world, was bestowing on me a gift no one can purchase. He was simply loving me. Moreover, he opened his mouth and smiled and said in a high, childish voice, ‘I love you’ – those three radioactive words! Here’s the value of a human soul broken open, reduced to its greatness. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The value of a single human soul far outweighs the value of the entire material universe.”

Children of the Last Days, Michael O’Brien’s series of six novels, can each be read independently, but the first three would be better read in the order below:

Strangers and Sojourners

Plague Journal

Eclipse of the Sun

Father Elijah

Sophia House *

A Cry of Stone *

(* yet to be published)

To view some of Michael O’Brien’s icons visit:

• Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Cornwall, Ont (large mural)

• St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ont. (a triptych)

• St. Mark’s Chapel, Phornloe Anglican College, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ont.

• St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Woodbridge, Ont. (a mural and Stations of the Cross)

• St. Anne’s Catholic Church, Abbotsford, B.C.

• St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Burnaby, B.C.

• St. Luke’s Catholic Church, Maple Ridge, B.C. (large collection)