Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 29, 2004
Artist abandoned himself to God
Michael O'Brien found peace once he wrote and painted Christian themes and subjects
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Success in worldly terms, a published book, an art show, these are meaningless unless they are fruitful for other souls, unless one is totally abandoned to Christ," says novelist and painter Michael O'Brien.
"The key point is that this abandonment to divine providence is not negative, is not a void: it is in fact a love affair with God."
The author of Cry of Stone, and the Children of the Last Days series, which includes the best-selling Father Elijah, said in an interview that his love affair with God began when he was 21 years old and had departed from his Catholic upbringing.
At the time, he'd been reading existentialist writers and experienced "an assault of total darkness, of total lostness," an attack he believes had a satanic, spiritual dimension.
O God save me
At the time he hadn't prayed or thought about God for more than five years, but he cried out, "O God save me!" and the hellish state was replaced with a "sudden, instantaneous and total" sense of the Lord's presence and peace.
"I knew I had to return to the Church, to the sacraments and that everything the Church had taught me was absolutely true," he said.
Since then, O'Brien has kept to his faith and followed what he perceives as a call to produce explicitly Christian art. He says he has two artistic languages, writing and painting, but painting is his first language and primary one.
Despite that, he's been prolific as a novelist and essayist. He has written seven novels, five of which are now published, and Ignatius Press will bring out two more in the next couple of years. O'Brien says he's "written out", though "one never knows" if the Holy Spirit might impress another story upon him.
In November, O'Brien exhibited 30 of his works and gave a public lecture in Ottawa as Augustine College's 2004-05 artist-in-residence. Augustine College offers a one-year program grounding students in the philosophical, religious, scientific and artistic achievments of western civilization.
"To bring a living word of truth in a beautiful form into our society has a cost," O'Brien says. "It's a calling to be a sign of contradiction to the spirit of this age. The spirit of this age is dominated by falsehood and murder."
The cost for O'Brien, his wife and six children has been years of relative poverty and material deprivation. Even with the success of Father Elijah and that of his essays on popular culture in this 1998 Landscape of Dragons, he says he has never made enough to live on, and that his family has never had a "splinter" of security, no matter how simply they lived.
Yes to secular, no to Christian
In 1970, O'Brien's first art show at a major eastern Ontario gallery was nearly sold out, and various industry experts told him his success as an artist was assured. When he went back to this same gallery a few years later with explicitly Christian subject matter, the curator told him the work "would be offensive to a large number of our clientele."
At first he thought the gallery's refusal was an aberration, but he discovered as he trekked from gallery to gallery that the subject matter - not his skill as an artist - was the problem. Yet, he believed God was calling him to this explicit Christian art.
Until he commited to paint Christian subject matter, he was profoundly restless. Once the choice was made, he experienced profound peace.
This choice meant suffering. He says that countless times he felt like he couldn't possibly continue, that there was no hope. But then miracles would happen, both in terms of material provision and spiritual consolation. And underlying any emotional turmoil or anguish he has experienced, he says it was only on the surface, that a deep inner peace has remained. Not only that, his wife has also shown extraordinary faith and support in the abandonment to divine providence.
O'Brien started writing his novels in the 1970s, but didn't see any of them published until the mid 1990s. Baylor University English Professor David Lyle Jeffrey, author of People of the Book describes O'Brien as a novelist of "penetrating insight and prophetic clarity." Author, columnist and television host Michael Coren says, "The sweet, lyrical and faithful voice of Michael O'Brien is perhaps the truest and finest in contemporary fiction."
"He (God) didn't promise me success," O'Brien says, "But he did promise me the means to accomplish my mission in life."
That's true of any vocation, he says, whether you are rich or poor. "Bear the cross in whatever form it comes," O'Brien says. "If we are faithful, the resurrection comes, but that means going through the darkness of the cross. This is abandonment, abandonment into the heart of the Father. From this kind of abandonment, this kind of radical trust, comes fruitfulness." O'Brien's essays and paintings can be viewed on his website www.studiobrien.com and affordable prints of his art can also be ordered through the site.
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