Monday, February 25, 2013

In Praise of Michael O’Brien

I have been guilty of faint praise for Canadian Catholic novelist Michael O’Brien. The cause is not envy entirely.

I was thrilled by his Island of the World, about a Balkan refugee, and moved by Theophilus, about St. Luke’s pen pal, who in the novel follows the evangelist’s traces through Israel and Judea.

But I was so-so about the novel O’Brien seems proudest of, The Father’s Tale. For my taste it was overlong by half and had a split personality: a father’s quest for his prodigal son becomes (appropriately) a spiritual journey and then (inappropriately) a spy thriller.

I take it all back.

Thanks to the recommendation of a Goodreads friend, I have just finished a collection of essays and interviews by/with O’Brien titled Arriving Where We Started: Faith and Culture in the Postmodernist Age. Every writer, artist—heck, every blogger—who calls himself Catholic should read this short book from the Canadian publisher Justin Press. Whatever missteps O’Brien may have made in his career should be overlooked for the courage of his journey and the insights he has gathered along the way.

The nationality of the publisher is of interest because until recently no Canadian publisher would touch O’Brien’s work. The writer/artist’s back story, as told in Arriving, is inspirational.

I made a consecration prayer on the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, 1976, quit my job, and threw myself off a cliff, so to speak. . . . 

For nearly 30 years as a Christian artist [he wrote in 2005], I have lived in relative poverty, trying to raise our six children on nearly nothing. There were many dark years of testing, yet, in hindsight, I see how much God accomplished in my weakness. In any labours of the Lord, we need to abandon ourselves into His hands, work hard, pray continuously. Anyone can do this. What is needed is not cleverness and worldly connections, but the willingness to give everything, even to the point of complete failure. 

Anyone can do this. . . . 

In 1996 the U.S. Catholic publisher Ignatius Press agreed to publish Father Elijah, an apocalyptic novel which, like his Strangers and Sojourners, I have tried and found heavy going. Since then, Ignatius has published nine O’Brien novels, including six in a series entitled “Children of the Last Days.”

Arriving Where We Started shows that O’Brien’s years in the wilderness were not spent in vain. To cull only the books about cultural history he cites is to create the reading list of a couple years. He is a man who has immersed himself in culture, Catholic and otherwise. An interviewer asks for some examples of works that “have wounded your heart with beauty.” He answers:

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Dante’s Divine Comedy. Passages in the comedies and tragedies of Shakespeare. Passages in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poetry of Robert Frost. Eugenio Corti’s The Red Horse, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

The piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninoff, especially the second and third concertos. Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony, Pachelbel’s Chorale, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Many arias from operas—though I have never been to the opera: Dvorak’s Hymn to the Moon, Puccini’s Un bel di and O mio babbino caro. I do not understand the words of these arias, but I hear the cry of the human heart in them. . . . 

Of the three films O’Brien adds to the list, two are among my life favorites: The Tree of Wooden Clogs by Ermanno Olmi and The Island by Pavel Lungin.

O’Brien has dipped deep in the well of culture and drawn important lessons about the decline of Christian art and the hopes that exist for its resurgence. Arriving Where We Started has encouraged me to continue my own efforts to write about my experience from a Catholic perspective. Doing so, O’Brien notes, requires the balancing of freedom and responsibility, an awareness that the artist creates work for a community, not for his own personal aggrandizement, and an understanding of the fundamental Catholic principle of subsidiarity.

There is a lot to chew on here, and in only 181 pages. Dig in.

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