“The arts are languages of the soul”: An interview with Michael O’Brien

“You know the popular expression, ‘He lost himself in the story,'” remarks the prolific novelist, iconographer, and painter, “I would say it’s more accurate to say, ‘He found himself in the story.’”

Michael O'Brien is the author of several novels, including the seven-volume "Children of the Last Days" series and the recently published "The Lighthouse" (Ignatius Press, 2020). (Images: Ignatius Press)

Iconographer, painter, and writer Michael O’Brien has been a unique creative force for decades. He is the popular author of several best-selling novels, including Father ElijahElijah in JerusalemThe Father’s TaleEclipse of the SunSophia HouseTheophilosThe Fool of New York City, and Island of the World. His novels have been translated into a dozen languages and widely reviewed in both secular and religious media in North America and Europe. Peter Kreeft, Joseph Pearce, the late Thomas Howard, and many others praise him as one of the finest Catholic novelists writing today.

O’Brien has been the subject of a biography by Clemens Cavallin and several of his novels were the focus of a recent book by English professor Gregory Maillet. In 2019, Ignatius Press published a collection titled The Art of Michael O’Brien and this year saw the publication of his most recent novel, The Lighthouse.

O’Brien recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about his recent writing, his artwork, the creative life, the place of beauty, and his current projects.

CWR: If I’m not mistaken, The Lighthouse is your shortest novel, coming in at about 200 pages. Was that a conscious decision? Or is there a sense in which the story has a natural length, whether a thousand pages or 200 pages?

O’Brien: The brevity of The Lighthouse was not a conscious decision. As I wrote it, the gradual unfolding of its external form seemed to find its own pace and course. As is the case with all my novels, I write from a beginning foundation of a story’s logos, or word—in other words its essential meaning. The shortness or length of each particular novel is not predetermined; it emerges during the creative process. For a Catholic writer this is an experience of what I believe is the “co-creative” mystery, that is, grace working together with my natural talents. For me, fiction is neither entirely nature nor entirely grace. It’s neither purely rational nor purely intuitive.

CWR: The novel is about a man, Ethan McQuarry, who is a young lighthouse keeper on the north Atlantic coast. Was there a particular inspiration for the story and the central character?

O’Brien: My daughter and her husband and their six children live on a little farm on Cape Breton Island, off the east coast of Nova Scotia. While visiting them a few years ago my wife and I fell totally in love with its incredible rugged beauty and the sea. It struck me that it would be an ideal setting for the story and the themes I wanted to explore.

CWR: Can you expound a little on the themes?

O’Brien: Without giving too much away for those who might like to read the novel some day, I can say that while there are plenty of dramas in the narrative, the central theme is the nature of man—one might say, man in the sea of Being. Who are we? What is our true nature? Where are we? What is the difference between solitude and loneliness? How do we learn to see, to hear?

I believe these questions are particularly urgent in a time of history and a cultural matrix that bombards us with ceaseless noise and drives most of us into frantic activity, galloping toward some undefined end, seeking a sense of security or a well-being that ever eludes us.

CWR: Is there a supernatural character to the story?

O’Brien: The spiritual aspect of the story is more implicit than explicit. Ethan is a quiet, solitary fellow, but there is a loneliness in him too. He’s a kind of everyman whom Providence has situated on the brink of the abyss—rather, on the frontier of the infinite. He is not a believer, yet he has a kind of natural integrity, and an unacknowledged inner hunger for what he calls “the awakeness” in existence and the “listeningness.” God sends him messengers, though he cannot recognize their significance. In part, the story is about how life teaches us and leads us higher.

CWR: You’ve written novels about space travel, life in New York City, Eastern Europe, first-century Palestine: do you have a particular approach to researching the background and world of these stories? And do you have a sense of the story’s arc, if you will, as you begin, or is more open-ended, developing and “creating” as you go?

O’Brien: While I do considerable research for each of my books, it’s more a “creating-as-you go” approach, contained within the solid parameters but open to lights, inspirations, internal imagination. Grace and nature again. There are several dimensions to a novel, such as plot, characters, setting, factual details, underlying subtexts, the ring of truth in dialogue, and so forth. But only a portion of this can be controlled scientifically, so to speak. There are always plenty of surprises along the way, even for the author.

CWR: Your creative energies, going back to your youth, were originally focused on visual arts, leading eventually to the writing of icons. What are some of the relationships or parallels—in terms of content, approach, themes, and so forth—between the visual arts and the literary work?

O’Brien: Clearly the two media are quite different modes of communication, the painting focusing on a static moment, the novel on a fluid narrative. Both seek to express a variety of truths in such a way that love of the subject is evoked in a viewer of an image or a reader of a novel. You know the popular expression, “He lost himself in the story.” I would say it’s more accurate to say, “He found himself in the story.”

Perhaps that’s another way of saying that each art, in its own way, by evoking a reader’s or viewer’s understanding of himself, can make possible the growth of a proper love for himself. He may come to see his own greatness and follies, and above all, the beauty of his personhood.

CWR: We return again and again to the question of beauty. Should the writer or artist make beauty primary in what he creates, almost an absolute?

O’Brien: A certain caution must be exercised here. Beauty is a highly subjective thing. It can also be used to beguile and deceive. Keats wrote that beauty is truth and truth is beauty, and that’s all we need to know on earth. But this is a gravely flawed concept. We need to know a very great deal more than that. Beauty alone cannot save us, though it can help draw us into deeper perceptions of the mystery of existence.

However, when Truth is incarnated in beautiful forms, something far greater becomes possible. In the midst of a frantic world, this kind of beauty can bring us to a moment of quiet contemplation. This state of attentive silence before a mystery can then lead us to a sense of wonder and awe, and from there to reverence. And then, with grace, we may arrive at a condition in which we are better able to worship the source of beauty, our Father-Creator, He who is beauty itself.

CWR: In what way are your novels meant to be a form of iconography?

O’Brien: Of course, the icon is not simply an art form. It is a kind of portal or window onto the infinite, a “place”, if you will, of sacred encounter. One prays before an icon, interiorly reverencing the prototype (Christ or the saints), not the object itself. A novel functions at a fundamentally different level. However, if it is created in prayer and response to grace, it can provide for readers an encounter with realities we usually take for granted or dismiss altogether—by engaging the imagination and intellect. As the reader is thus engaged, the Holy Spirit can move in new ways in the mind, heart, and soul, illuminating, teaching, expanding our understanding of the immensity and astounding beauty of existence.

CWR: Last year, Ignatius Press published a striking collection, The Art of Michael D. O’Brien, which includes over a hundred color reproductions of your drawings and paintings. What was that process like for you as you decided which pieces to include and looked over your work from some five decades or so of drawing and painting?

O’Brien: Challenging. It was a bit like when someone asks you, “Which of your children is your favorite?” Well, they’re truly all my favorite. In selecting images for the book out of the several hundred major works I’ve painted over half a century, I tried to choose paintings that represent the main streams in my work—both stylistic and thematic streams. There is the classical Byzantine icon, for example, yet this is only a small portion of my creative life in the visual arts. There are, as well, my neo-Byzantine and expressionist reflections on scenes from the Gospels, the saints, and the truths of our Catholic faith. In addition there are the many implicitly Christian works that reflect on the nature of Man and the existential questions that arise in the heart of the soul.

CWR: If you had to summarize some of key aspects of your approach to the arts and to what you think art is and should be, what would you say?

O’Brien: I’ve written extensively on these very questions, notably in my book Arriving Where We Started and also in my preface to the book of my paintings, so it’s difficult to summarize. However, I would condense everything down to this: The arts are languages of the soul, which at their best make visible in beautiful forms the unseen realities—the interior life of man and the metaphysical. For this reason, the Christian artist has a great responsibility before God and Man. He must be dedicated to a life of prayer, as well as diligent development of his natural skills. He must be ever growing in sensitivity to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

CWR: What are you working on in 2020–and beyond?

O’Brien: I’ve recently completed a new novel titled The Sabbatical. The story is about an aging Oxford professor who would like nothing more than a quiet life; a man who feels he’s given what he can to the world. But, as you may have guessed, there’s more in store for him. I’ll soon be working with Ignatius Press on the final editing stage for the book, and, God-willing, it will be published in 2021.

Currently I’m writing a novel titled By the Rivers of Babylon, about the prophet Ezekiel, his childhood, youth and then his young manhood during the first Babylonian captivity. It’s an imaginative reflection on what elements might shape such a man, and why God would choose him to be a bearer of both warnings and consolations to his people.


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About Carl E. Olson 1145 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

4 Comments

  1. Near the beginning of the interview on “the arts as languages of the soul”, O’Brien remarks: “For a Catholic writer this [the “essential meaning”] is an experience of what I believe is the ‘co-creative’ mystery, that is, grace working together with my natural talents.” GRACE together with NATURE…

    Dante wrote a very intriguing letter about this one-line mystery as it influenced his Divine Comedy trilogy (1308-1320 A.D.). In his “Letter to Can Grande della Scala” Dante touches on what he intended by writing Paradiso. As an introduction to this narrative poem, the letter “indicated Dante’s belief that the Paradiso, like the Bible, uttered all four senses [literal, moral, allegorical, anagogical], expressing reality as God knows it.” (Jeffrey Burton Russell, A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence, Princeton University Press, 1997).

    Dante is said to have had a profound vision of his beloved and unattainable Beatrice (in 1296 A.D.), when he was studying theology and philosophy. Russell tells us that commentators “read the Divine Comedy not as Scripture, but in some way LIKE Scripture, applying the four senses of interpretation.”

    Russell says that Dante, “Knew that the Christian community recognizes only the Bible as guaranteed revelation. But this means only that no other work is in fact revealed. Christian tradition also allowed that some works, though falling short of revelation, could be INSPIRED by God. Dante may have viewed the Paradiso as LESS than revealed BUT MORE than merely inspired . . . . The Divine Comedy is about LANGUAGE, not only Dante’s language about heaven, but God’s own language. In the Comedy one cannot separate the medium from the message” (ibid.).

  2. That O’Brien inverts the adage to, he finds himself in the story opens a variety of meaning for this reader. Example, Art as language of the soul. Schopenhauer said somewhere that music is the pure expression of the soul. “Aesthetic experience comes in two main varieties for Schopenhauer, the beautiful and the sublime, and can be had through perception of both nature and art. Nearly all human beings, he holds, are capable of aesthetic experience, otherwise they would be absolutely insensitive to beauty and sublimity—in fact these words would be meaningless for them. Again, with the exception of music—whose sole aim, for Schopenhauer, is to copy the Ideas and thus for the genius to make them intuitively perceptible to others” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Ideas represent a host of human experience, thoughts, human affairs, nature, intuitive cognition. Music he says enables us to convey human experience. Haydn’s Seven last Words, Morricone’s flutist in the Mission convey besides beauty, specific meaning. As a philosopher theologian my summary is that the aesthetic speaks to that which resembles the divine in Man, in anthropology. Beauty and the sublime in a Platonic in their perfect form are found in the supreme Idea. For Aristotle [see Eudemian Ethics] and Aquinas in God. Art is Man sharing God’s creativeness.

    • Literature as art like painting can be beautiful though lacking Schopenhauer’s sublimity. A reference understood here to O’Brien’s, For a Catholic writer this is an experience of what I believe is the co-creative” mystery, that is, grace working together with my natural talents. Can an artist create fine art and be reprobate? Rarely in its history do we find more vividly beautiful art depicting native life than Gauguin’s Tahiti period. Gauguin was a notorious pederast. Similarly Oscar Wilde was openly homosexual. In that context what O’Brien believes is true. What determines art in its supreme form is conveyance of that which enhances, and reveals our humanness. Revealed exclusively in grace, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For consideration taken within the various forms of artistic expression the difference between lewdness and art of the dance. We know the former when we see it. However King David’s wife Michal was scandalized when David danced with alacrity naked before the Ark of the Lord, “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal Saul’s daughter looked through a window, and saw king David leaping and dancing before the Lord. And she despised him in her heart” (2 Samuel 6:16). Was David inspired by grace? Yes. It tells us what makes the divinity’s simple innocent beauty transparent, the joyous reality of his infinite goodness. Nature mirrors that in the wonderful dancing of newly born lambs .

  3. “I’ve recently completed a new novel titled The Sabbatical…and, God-willing, it will be published in 2021….
    Currently I’m writing a novel titled By the Rivers of Babylon, about the prophet Ezekiel, his childhood, youth and then his young manhood…” Holy cow. Could this guy be more prolific? Brings to mind the Evangelical writer J.I. Packer’s words, “Those who know God have great energy for God.” Lucky us.

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