Ignatius Insight Interview – Part 1

Ignatius Insight: Your most recent novel, A Cry of Stone, is the fifth book in the Children of the Last Days series. What was the inspiration and idea behind this series of novels?

O’Brien: It began one day in the mid-1990’s, when I was visiting the Blessed Sacrament in my local parish. I was praying for the Church. Suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of how many particular Catholic churches in the Western world have been seduced by materialism and have slid into grave sin and error, I was stricken with a deep grief. Though I am not an especially emotional person by nature, I began to weep….a profound weeping and groaning that was more spiritual than emotional. I begged God to purify and strengthen the Church in my land, in all the Americas and Western Europe.

Without warning or explanation, into my mind there flashed the image of a priest struggling to make sense of his times, confronted by several layers of struggle, both in his interior life and the exterior situation of compromise.

 With this powerful image came a peaceful, though compelling, understanding that I was to tell a story about this man, a fictional character who would embody the dilemma of the modern Catholic striving to see the truth and remain faithful in the midst of a spreading apostasy and other evils growing in the world around him.

At the same time there came to my mind a passage in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa, in which he says that if a work of art is to glorify God, the Lord will send an angel to assist in its creation. During the eight months when I wrote the novel, I went to the Blessed Sacrament every day and asked God for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and an angel of inspiration. Though I have written many books and articles over the years, Father Elijah was the easiest thing I ever wrote. It flowed out almost fully formed, literary problems solved themselves effortlessly, scenes and dialogue appeared in my imagination as if I was watching a film. The whole process still amazes me. It taught me that grace is odorless, tasteless, soundless….yet very powerful.

Ignatius Insight: Your latest novel, A Cry of Stone is partially based on the lives of native North Americans you have known. How did your knowledge and interaction with certain Native Americans inspire or shape the novel?

O’Brien: My claim to speak for native North Americans borders on presumption, of course. However, I lived in the Canadian Arctic for several years during my adolescence, in small Inuit villages where my friends were children who spoke little or no English. In our mutual efforts to learn each other’s languages, especially the language that needs no words, we were given a priceless experience. For ten months of each year I lived in a residential school in the western Arctic where I was the only “white” boy in a dormitory of native and part-native boys: the Inuit, the Na-Dené, and the Métis.

Other fragmentary influences: My wife, who has worked as a teacher among the Nisga of northern British Columbia, was formally adopted by that people. One of our nieces is a Carrier Indian. A Salish man named Louie, a great artist but unknown and severely damaged by his alcoholism, once surprised me with the gift of a magnificent easel that he had made for me. One winter a man named Joseph, a Dené from the Northwest Territories, appeared on our doorstep and lived with us for a while. A carpenter by trade, he helped me to make a large mural-crucifix. He was in great physical pain at the time, but insisted on doing most of the work and refused all payment. In these and other experiences, I was humbled before the face of an incarnate humility and love.

I think also of a little native boy named Louis Jack, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, raised by a dear friend of ours who loved him as a mother until his death at an early age. He was a “small” person according to the world’s standards, but one who embodied presence and compassion to an unusual degree. I think also of the troubled lives of other native artists I have known, people gifted with great creative powers and sensitivity. Perhaps from the perspective of eternity we will see that their heroic, often unsuccessful, struggles to overcome their trials are more meritorious in the eyes of God than our easy successes. Of course, it’s simplistic to reduce a race to a caricature. But the sufferings of native people in general, especially those with deep faith in Christ, bring them very close to the living Beatitudes. In these times, poverty of spirit is one of the most neglected and misunderstood aspects of life in Christ. Our Lord’s beloved “little ones” have much to teach us in this regard.

Ignatius Insight: In addition to being a novelist, you are an accomplished painter and iconographer. What differences and similarities exist between painting and writing? How does your work in one medium affect your work in another?

O’Brien: For many years I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon of language. I suspect that having two artistic “languages”, so to speak, has enhanced my awareness that “words” take many forms. Beginning in the ground of essential being itself, in a kind of silence that is pure presence, meaning flows through a rich hierarchy of communication. All language is ultimately about the end of man, that is eternal communion in the Love of the Holy Trinity. All genuine communication, by which I mean the truth spoken in love, is simultaneously a yearning forward and a movement toward Paradise. Whenever we violate language we move ourselves and our listeners farther from our true destination.

Painting engages the visual and emotional senses directly through color and mood; the marriage of content and style is immediate and dramatic. In fiction this relationship between content and style is subtler. I think that the dominance of the visual in my painting has informed my novels with a stronger sense of imagery, prompting the reader’s imagination without inflaming it. By the same token, my writing has helped me to be more conscious of form in painting. The form of a work is as important as content and style, something I’ve learned only gradually over thirty years of painting and twenty-five years of writing fiction. But painting was my first teacher, my greatest teacher.

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