An Advent Gift: An Interview with Michael O’Brien

Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien

Perhaps the most prolific living Catholic author in the English language, Michael O’Brien has been thrilling us with theologically rich and emotionally poignant works of fiction for over twenty years. He recently returned to finish one of his most popular tales – Fr. Elijah – with the sequel, Fr. Elijah in Jerusalem. The short (by O’Brien standards) tale picks up the thread of the Fr. Elijah story, following the priest and his trusted companion into a pre-apocalyptic Jerusalem. Fr. Elijah knows that he must confront the mysterious “President” – that “man of sin” who may or may not be the anti-Christ – though he does not understand God’s purpose and meaning until the moment of the climactic encounter. Fr. Elijah in Jerusalem is ultimately a moving work which once again presents us with O’Brien’s ability to weave deep spiritual insight into a work of fiction. Doing just what fictional literature is meant to do, O’Brien spins a riveting tale while building a profound spiritual retreat into the tale. Fans of the work will enjoy this loving postscript to this story, while new readers should start with the original Fr. Elijah, after which they will certainly reach for the sequel.

I had the distinct pleasure of being able to recently interview Mr. O’Brien. We spoke of everything from his career to aesthetics to the apocalyptic imagery in his books, with the author gracing us with profound and detailed answers. Whether or not you are a fan of O’Brien’s work, he is a Catholic author and artist who has built a career and survived it personally, despite the remarkably hostile culture opposed to Catholic art along with the limited means by which to make a living. As such, O’Brien’s wise words can only be published as “an Advent Gift.”


MN: At what point in your career did you decide to become an explicitly Catholic artist and author? Was this always your intended path, or did God bring you to a different perspective on your creative vocation?

O’Brien: After my conversion (rather, reversion) to the Catholic faith at age 21, I began to draw and paint. It was a gift that sprang up within me unexpectedly, without training or yearning for it. As the trickle became of flood of creativity, I soon had some success in the art world, with exhibits of my images of nature and human scenes. However, I gradually came to desire something more. I asked why it seemed so impossible to be a Christian artist painting the explicit themes of our Faith. In 1976, after much prayer and discernment, my wife and I made the decision to give our lives to serve Christ and his Church through overtly Christian art. We hoped for the impossible to happen, and expected we would survive maybe a year at the most. However, against all odds, and through much trial and tribulation, the vocation steadily grew and grew, and now almost forty years later, I continue in this “impossible” calling. Prayer and sacrifice have been at the foundation….without these it would have ended a long time ago.

MN: One of the themes I’ve caught in numerous of your works seems to be a commentary on aesthetic health (or lack-there-of), and how this can positively or negatively effect the life of the spirit. Do you see a positive (or potentially positive) link between tradition, good Catholic art, and the New Evangelization?

O’Brien: Images give visible form to aspects of reality, including our Faith, that are invisible. Moreover, if an artist is steadily growing in skill united to God’s grace, then new visual “words” speak to contemporary man. If these are also beautiful, then truths are evoked in the human heart—sometimes truths that we have been deprived of by the global social revolution that has robbed man of his own true Story, his identity and eternal value. Music, for example, if it is true and beautiful, even when it is without lyrics, can evoke within the soul an understanding that we are far more than merely bio-mechanisms or clever talking beasts. This in turn can open the path to a person asking the fundamental questions of existence: Who am I?, Why am I?, Where am I going? What is my value? Works that are implicitly religious can be very fruitful in this regard. However there is as great a need for overtly Christian works that help reveal the glory of creation and the immensity of the Good News of revelation. In a historical era that denies the sacredness of life at every turn, that decapitates creation, so to speak, and that gives us a false sense of the meaning of our lives, authentic art can point the way to a true restoration. I do not think the New Evangelization will be fruitful through words alone. Grace and Beauty are also needed to make visible and attractive the realm of our living Saviour and his Kingdom.

MN: The end of Fr. Elijah was very beautiful, and given how it melted from modern prose into a more biblical style of writing, I was surprised that you wrote and released a sequel. Elijah in Jerusalem is a short work by your standards, and by my estimation reads like a loving postscript for your fans. Can you speak to your motivation when it came to writing this book?

O’Brien: Though the possibility of a sequel was often suggested to me by readers, I rejected the idea for many years. I wanted readers of Fr. Elijah to return to the world with refreshed eyes, and with renewed hunger for the living Word of God in Scripture. However, during the past few years powerful images and scenes for the continuing story kept arising in my imagination, begging to be set down on paper. So I prayed and waited. Then came a moment when it was clear that I should write Elijah in Jerusalem, and that the time was now—20 years after writing Fr. Elijah. Even so, the sequel also ends in a kind of suspense, pointing the way onward to Scripture and the actual unfolding of salvation history.

MN: I was struck by Fr. Elijah’s celebrating the TLM in your latest book, a detail I do not recall from the previous volume. Seeing as the post-Motu Proprio Church has witnessed a resurgence in beautiful liturgy (and in relation to it, authentic Catholic art and vocations), can you comment about how you see this movement within the Church?

O’Brien: I see it as an essential part (though not an exclusive one) of a larger restoration. In essence, this restoration is redirecting people of faith to our primary duty as God’s creatures, that is to worship Him in spirit and in truth. I would add, to worship him in beauty integrated with spirit and truth. In all the rites in which the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered (I believe there are at least 18 liturgical rites within the Catholic Church), the crucial question is: who is being worshiped? Clearly, anthropocentric or sociological liturgies are a tragically stunted version of worship, and sometimes verge on sacrilege. If the Mass is truly Christocentric and faithful to the liturgical norms, then God is worshipped in our Eucharistic Saviour Jesus, and we are drawn into deeper union with him. Another way of putting it is: the languages of love are many, but we must take care that it is authentic love—which is always reverent, never trivializing the sacred.

MN: You seem to go out of your way to expose your readers to other great Catholic writers and artists. For my part, I discovered GM Hopkins through your work; reading Hopkins at the same time as your deeply moving Island of the World broke something in me that lead to my own first violin concerto, Fragments. (The third movement is in fact titled “When Kingfishers Catch Fire.”) I also recall a moment from Island of the World where you described the depth of innocent childish joy, and when I saw my own little boy express such joy at the sound of beautiful wind chimes (whose sound, in turn, was written into the introduction of my concerto.) I share these personal events because I suspect an intentional artistic synergy in your work, a conscious attempt to shirk the alienation of modern academia and bring modern Catholic artists and their admirers back under the same tent. Can you speak more to this?

O’Brien: I’m delighted you know Hopkins’ “Kingfishers Catch Fire”, a powerful, stirring poem, and that you’ve interpreted it musically. In my novels I like to weave into the stories and characterizations moments of the ineffable, where man encounters the mysteriously beautiful. Moments of wonder in the presence of beauty in the world can open the eyes of the heart in the way that the purely rational cannot. We may study philosophy with dedication and become doctors of the subject, and yet fail to reach a point where we become lovers of wisdom. Plato says that philosophy is born of wonder. So too is poetry. So too is love. We are more than we think we are. Created in the image and likeness of God, we have need of moments when we sense in the depths of our being that we are involved in something phenomenal, something miraculous really. While an academic approach to culture can surely offer us certain tools of rational assessment of phenomena, it can never give us what might be called “depth perception.” The man with one eye may see a thing well and articulate what he sees brilliantly; but the man with two eyes sees the same thing with depth. Needless to say, I am not for a moment denying the value of the pursuit of learning. However, I am concerned by the way much of the intellectual and cultural life of our people is dominated by the academic mind. In short, culture is not knowledge alone. In a healthy society, reason, intuition, and creativity work in a complementary, integrated way. When young people who want to become artists ask me if they should obtain Fine Arts degrees, I urge them not to pursue that path. I encourage them to look at the world with wonder, to labor hard to develop their skills, to paint and draw and sculpt with love. And to persevere under all circumstances.

MN: You are also a painter and iconographer, and delineate the “restoration of Christian culture” as part of your personal mission statement. Beyond the central pursuit of sainthood, is there anything cultural that you think Catholics can do in order to hasten such a restoration?

O’Brien: Catholics in general need to “un-plug” from the nearly universal dominance of commercial entertainment culture, by which I mean electronic culture. If we were to do so, we would no longer fear silence, and we would experience a new richness of life as we move away from the psychological cosmos of frantic consumerism. We would also grow in gratitude, reverence, and attentiveness to the holy, which is all around us. But we first have to recognize that we’ve been drugged—yes we believers, no less than unbelievers. If we hope for a true new renaissance, we will have to first of all deal with our addiction to mediocrity, and at the same time keep our eyes open for those creative buds of new life that rise up, against all odds, in the midst of the soul-killing tsunami of contemporary culture. We must encourage this new life wherever it appears. We must give the coming generation the courage to believe in the impossible.

MN: Who would be some of your favorite modern Catholic creatives? Does Michael O’Brien have his own favorite artists who help him to tap in to his own creative faculties?

O’Brien: Strange to say, I rarely read contemporary fiction, so my answer probably would exclude some very fine writers. For me, Solzhenitsyn has been a light, especially his novel Cancer Ward. Also Dostoevsky, particularly his novel The Idiot. And then there’s Tolkien, who has breathed a bracing sense of the ultimate real into the modern age with his sub-created “fantasy” The Lord of the Rings. In the visual arts, a wide range of painters have deeply moved me, notably Georges Rouault, mainly for his fidelity as a Catholic, and to art as a vocation. One of my main inspirations has been the life and work of William Kurelek, a Canadian Catholic painter who died in 1977, and whose biography I wrote (William Kurelek: Painter and Prophet, Justin Press, Ottawa, 2013). He gave me much good counsel when I was a young painter just beginning my work. I am also very fond of the works of El Greco and Marc Chagall. Well, hundreds of others as well.

MN: We’ve spoken of the aesthetic life of the average Catholic, but this is often influenced by the patronage and formation of the Church proper. By your experience and estimation, how well is the relationship between the Church proper and her artists going? Is there room for improvement?

O’Brien: I’ve painted many church commissions over the years, for which I’m very grateful. However, in general, liturgical art is not in good condition. It’s largely dominated by “religious” factory art, which is overwhelmingly superficial, saccharine, and soulless. Alternatively, it’s meaningless abstraction, which is the product of artists succumbing to the diktats of the reigning theories of art history—academic manifestos, peer pressure, ambition, the desire to be in tune with the zeitgeist. Even so, profound creative intuition does sometimes peek above the surface of the snow, like spring flowers appearing in the midst of winter. Art is ever springing up, just when the theoreticians pronounce it dead.

MN: So much of your work involves apocalyptic imagery and storytelling. Do you think that we are living in or near such times? 

O’Brien: I think so, though I would be happy to be wrong about this. In our times, unprecedented apocalyptic signs are emerging all around us. Certainly, there have been lesser apocalypses throughout our history, but none with the magnitude and character we are now facing. I keep always in mind the Lord’s warning that we must “stay awake and watch at all times,” a warning which applies to every generation. We know that at some point there will be a generation that will be put to the test in a radical, absolute way, a global persecution of all those who follow Jesus. The generation which is least awake, which has been lulled to sleep by sin and error, drugged by pleasures and by deceptions, will be the very one that the Antichrist will dominate. My purpose in writing fiction that examines apocalyptic questions is to ask my own generation, “Are we awake?” and equally important, “Are we spiritually prepared, if these are the times foretold by the prophets and by Jesus himself?”

The entire post-Resurrection era is the Last Days, and there remains only a final, ultimate battle to be completed. “Little children, it is the final hour,” says St. John (I John: 2:18), and in an alternative English translation, “Children, it is the last days.” Yet the time of Antichrist and his False Prophet is not the end of the End, not the end of the world. According to sacred Scripture, there will be granted to the world an era of peace after the time of Antichrist—“a thousand years of peace.” (see Revelation, chapters 19 and 20). But we must not mistake this period as a literal millennium. In Biblical language it represents a prolonged period of time. I would also recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 675-677, to your readers.

MN: For every creative artist, there is a different story as to how their works take shape. Some artists begin with a strict formal plan, while others (Tolkien comes to mind) sets off on the adventure and sees where it may lead him. The Father’s Tale was a book I read as I was just beginning my own journey of fatherhood, and – like many of your books – it has left a lasting mark in this particular area of my life. When you set out to write such a work, do you have such a direct formative goal in mind (in this case, to inspire fathers), or do the books emerge in a less direct or even surprising way?

O’Brien: Usually my novels begin with an interior sense of the core meaning of the work, its logos. As I write, the narrative and characterizations begin to flow—setting off on the adventure, as you put it so well. The story almost writes itself, the form gradually coming into focus, along with plot and details. At every step of the way I am praying daily for the co-creative grace—inspiration working together with my natural imagination, which Tolkien called the “baptized imagination.”  I just let the story pour out, and then when a first draft is completed I work through the book again and again with a more analytical eye, editing as I go.

MN: Your fans are hoping for at least a dozen more novels. Can you speak of what you may be working on or planning at the moment?

O’Brien: My publisher Ignatius Press and I are presently working on the editing stage of my next novel, which is titled The Fool of New York City, scheduled for publication in 2016. It’s a kind of fairy-tale for grownups—somewhat of a departure from my other novels, but I suppose all my books are departures, each in its own way.


Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a musical composer, writer, and the Curator of Music for the Foundation for Sacred Arts in Chicago. He blogs at 

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