A Wounding Beauty—Traces


This interview for Traces, the Italian language journal of the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, appears in its July 2007 edition. The interviewer is Dr. Edoardo Rialti, a professor of literature in Florence, Italy, and translator of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Howard and others.

Rialti: During his most recent Spiritual Exercises, Don Carron, our spiritual father after the death of Don Giussani (the founder of CL), constantly reminded us of our dependence on the Mystery of God. He told us that every man has a “direct, exclusive relationship with God, and the reverberation of this is our “being poor beggars”. You on more than one occasion have asserted that “the most terrible wound inflicted on modern man is the loss of spiritual fatherhood”. What in your life has helped you discover yourself as God’s son, “poor beggar” of the Mystery of God? What does it mean to you?

O’Brien: This seeming contradiction, that we are both sons and beggars, is not in fact a contradiction. We are beloved in the eyes of God our Father, yet the image and likeness of God in us has been damaged. We are like beggars because we are profoundly poor in our being, our intellect darkened and our will weakened by the fall of man, and we remain capable of much evil. Yet our Father loves the image of the son within us. He sees who we truly are in Him, how we were intended to be “from the beginning,” as sacred Scripture says. Like the Prodigal Son who returns begging to his father, we do not claim any rights for ourselves. We open our hands and hearts in trust. And he pours forth what we need—most importantly he gives us our identity as true sons. If we are “beggars,” it is as beloved beggars. Christ has lived with us and died with us in our poverty. And he desires to take us with him back into the palace as full inheritors of the Kingdom.

In my own life, many powerful graces have come when I pray in a condition of weakness, without any merits of my own, when I have nothing to offer the Lord except my little bit of trust in his promises. The older and older I become, the more I realize that we must grow younger and younger in the heart, and become as little children. In this regard I must say that poverty is my only riches. And, strangely, it has been the source of much joy. When we are this poor, then we can allow our Papà to give to us.

Rialti: What happens to man when he forgets or rejects this relationship?

O’Brien: Unless we mature in Christ (that is, until we become as little children) we are like troubled adolescents who want to be “independent”, who reject authority and restraints of any kind, thinking this makes them more “free.” In the worst case it becomes a way of life that leads to ever-deeper blindness and grave malformations of one’s perceptions and one’s acts. The modern person without faith is, in a sense, adrift in a cosmos without orientation. He lives in a flattened world, though it is filled with powerful stimuli and much noise.

He does not know himself, and thus he seeks to fill his hunger for identity through the immediacy of the physical senses, or through power and manipulative control over others, or the drug of social-revolutionary ideology, or false “spiritualities” to fill the void that opens within himself, or by making idols of various things. As a result, regardless of how relentlessly he seeks love, if he does not develop the genuine responsibility of love, he becomes less able to authentically offer the gift of himself as a unique person. I know this dynamic very well, since this was my life during part of my youth. I was extremely blind—and worse, for I did not know I was blind and believed that my blindness was superior vision.

Rialti: Very often the Holy Father has repeated that the encounter with Christ is the encounter with the Supreme Beauty, and that beauty opens a wound in man’s heart. Man is wounded by the beauty of Christ. Can you help us — as an artist — to understand more how a “piercing beauty” can help man’s journey?

O’Brien: The beauty in creation is an expression of the beauty of the One who created it. It is language—incarnate words from our Father in Heaven, given and redeemed through the Son, by the sweet fire of the Holy Spirit. Much awareness of this begins in us before we know its true meaning, for God has written it into our nature. If there are things in material creation, or in the arts, or in human experience that bring us to our knees in reverence and awe, how much more will be our encounter with the hidden face of God in the light of eternity!

Plato says that philosophy is born of “wonder”, which is a reverent awe before a mystery—a mystery which somehow speaks to our souls, telling us that this, here, now, is a moment of discovery, an unveiling in supra-rational modes of the true meaning of my life. Poetry also is born of wonder. Love, too, is born of wonder before the miraculous being of the beloved. Through such encounters we come to realize that we are subsumed in the Great Story, the great and mysterious work of art that is a living masterpiece-in-process, not a dead cultural artifact, still less a mechanism. The arts are, in fact, languages of the human spirit. At their best, they are co-creations, the human spirit and the Holy Spirit working together to bring new beauty into the world.

But within this wonder there is the parallel awareness that we have not yet arrived at the full restoration of all things in Christ, that the world around us and our own interior life still suffer the terrible damage caused by the fall of man. When one grows quiet inside, in a state of attention, listening deeply and silently before a work of art or another human soul or a phenomenon of the natural world (the sea diatom, the song of the lark, the masterful symmetry of the pine-cone, or the immensity of stellar constellations) we can feel simultaneous joy and sorrow. We may feel an absence, such as the pain a lover feels when separated from the beloved. We feel a yearning, like the profound emotions we experience when we are stirred by certain kinds of music.

Why do people sometimes weep during symphonies, and cannot explain why they are weeping? Why do some people weep at certain passages in Dante’s Divine Comedy and cannot explain it? These are healing, consoling tears, yet they also contain sadness. But why the sadness? It is because they have heard in the depths of their souls an incarnated living “word,” and in this way have encountered the Spirit who speaks through the artist. They are in some way liberated by the work of art, and they sense this “wounding” as a sweet one. Through it they come to know a little better who we are, our eternal value, the whole truth about man—his glory and his failure. And so there is the simultaneous joy of discovery and also a sorrow over how blind we have been and how far we have yet to go,

Rialti: In your novel Father Elijah the main character finds the ultimate relief and help on discovering himself always loved by the sacrifice by someone else: his parents, Pawel, Don Matteo, Anna, the Holy Father… through all those loving faces he finds himself reached by Christ Himself, who attracted them “into the dynamic of His self-donation” (cf. Pope Benedict XVI, “Deus Charitas Est”): the Holy Sacrament, the pinnacle of that dynamic. Is this what is forgotten and rejected by the high priests and intellectuals who in your novel succumb to the lies of evil power? Do you agree with Don Giussani who said that the grave fault of some members of the Church was, and still is, “being ashamed of Christ”?

O’Brien: Yes, absolutely. Love shows us who we are as persons. But who is perfect love? It is Jesus in the Holy Trinity, on the Cross, in the Holy Eucharist. In human relationships would we be ashamed of the person with whom we are in love? Would we fear to introduce him or her to others? Would we be ashamed of our spouses and children? Would we hide them away and not mention them because it might make difficulties or tensions with people who do not understand what marriage and family is? If so, then we really do not know our beloveds, and we certainly do not love them. So why would we do this to our divine Beloved?

This failure is usually rationalized by the argument of “strategic considerations”. I do not mean prudence or wisdom; I mean rather the basic human tendency to rely on our own skills and knowledge to bring about a perceived good or to avoid difficulties. Many people of good will in our times succumb to a false interpretation of the “lesser evil” argument. It is a very dangerous thing to become a “strategist for Christ.” Too easily, human thinking replaces the Mind of Christ. Too easily, a subconscious neo-gnosticism can infect the discernment process, and then the exercise of spiritual gifts weakens and grows dormant. Too easily do we lose sight of Our Lord’s call to be “signs of contradiction”, if I may use the prophetic words of Simeon in the second chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel.

Is this not the test that comes to each of us, the “great” and the “small” alike? Upon such tests a person risks his whole identity, often without realizing it. In these choices, we come closer to Jesus or move farther away from him. In a word, it is the mystery of the Cross.

Rialti: You are a father, an artist, a journalist: do you agree that we are facing an “educational emergency” in Western Civilization? What risks and challenges do the Church and the Western culture now face in the education of the forthcoming generations?

O’Brien: We are facing an entire re-configuration of civilization, a manipulated social revolution of unprecedented proportions. On every level, it is fundamentally a crisis of truth (and therefore also a crisis of love). Certainly, the specific field of Education is greatly in need of a revitalization of the formative and evangelical dimensions, if we hope to give the full riches of our Catholic faith to the coming generations. St. Paul reminds us in one of his epistles that teachers will be judged on the Last Day with a particular stringency because of their great responsibility. I would say, moreover, that all of the cultural life of man is education in its broadest sense—and so the responsibility is also very great for those who write and speak and preach and create in any form. For all of us, it is never enough just to impart “dead letters”, not even true dead letters. We are all called to impart true living words. In order to do this we must plunge deep into prayer, sacrifice, humility—and courage.

Rialti: You are a great admirer of Tolkien and Lewis’ works. At the same time you have often warned about the peril of “a corruption of the imagination” at work in many recent fantasy novels for young readers. What do you think is the main difference between a great and valid work of imagination and a false one?

O’Brien: This question requires a book-length answer. But a few simple concepts may be helpful to an understanding of the matter:

Man is a being of symbols, and his symbols play a crucial role in the architecture of his consciousness, and in the formation of his moral conscience. Conscience influences our perceptions, and hence our actions. If we lose symbolism, we lose our way of knowing things. If we destroy symbols, we destroy concepts. There is another danger: If we corrupt symbols, concepts are corrupted, and then we lose the ability to understand things as they are, making us vulnerable to malformation of our perceptions and our actions. For example, many contemporary fantasy books employ the symbology of witchcraft and sorcery as metaphors or plot dynamics, presenting them to young readers as morally neutral and sometimes as positive goods. Clearly, this is corruption of the moral order of the cosmos. Tolkien wisely pointed out in his essay on fantasy that no matter how wildly the author departs from the physical order of the universe, he must take care to be faithful to the moral order of the real universe.

Healthy fantasy — the “baptized imagination” or the “incarnational imagination” — draws us to a sense of wonder, and wonder in turn moves man’s interior awareness to a sense of the transcendent, the Wonder in which we live and move and have our being. By contrast, corrupt fantasy moves the reader into a world of visceral stimuli, thrills, the ego, the false self. It may weave a few “values” and traditional aspects of fantasy into its mesh, but it will also exhibit internal contradictions. At the very least this is moral confusion for the young reader; it can also generate powerful negative role models.

Rialti: Can you tell us some of the works, the writers, the artists who have wounded your heart with beauty?

O’Brien: A few samples, then—those which have made me weep as I felt joy, and could not explain it to myself:

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. It is the longing for God’s love hidden within the longing for human love. In this sense, it is the story of each and every person’s life.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs, a film by Ermanno Olmi. Andrei Rublev, a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, and Ostrov (The Island) a phenomenal new Russian film by Pavel Lungin.

Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. Rouault’s Crucifixion from the Miserere series, also some of his scriptural landscapes. Many of Mark Chagall’s paintings. Cimabue’s Crucifixion at Arezzo. Duccio’s scenes of the life of Christ, at Siena. Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity. The sculpture Warrior of the Spirit by Ernst Barlach. Christ Pantocrator, at St. Catherine’s monastery, Sinai. El Greco’s Toledo. . . .

The list is becoming too long to continue! And so I must end it here.


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