Out of desolation, fruitfulness
An author and artist’s life
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Canadian author and painter Michael O’Brien, 72, wrote Father Elijah and six other novels in a “Children of the Last Days” series. Seven other novels include Theophilos (set in Gospel times), Voyage to Alpha Centauri (sci-fi), and the magnificent (with occasional violence) Island of the World. O’Brien leaned toward atheism as a teenager and became a Catholic at age 21. For years he struggled to make a living as a painter, mostly on religious subjects in a neo-Byzantine style. He became a published author in his late 40s, after many rejections. Here are edited excerpts of our July conversation.
You went to a miserable boarding school? Yes, at age 13 I encountered a brutal tyrant and learned invaluable lessons. Control, violence, and isolation, all characteristic of totalitarianism, were the three building blocks of our life there.
What helped you survive? During my waking hours it felt as if suffering would never end. It went on for a very long time—yet of course it did end. Grace, plus small, secret acts of empathy from my fellow students, strengthened me, but we were all pretty brutalized.
Several years later you take the SAT and you’re in the top 1 percent. How did that influence your sense of what you could do? That statistic, though I noted it and my parents were proud of it, meant nothing to me. I was ignorant of who I was. Later, the gift of art was given me, and the gift of writing. I didn’t know whether I could survive in this world as a Christian painter or writer, but I knew that’s what I was called to be. It was a gift from above, not a self-actualization decision.
School is about being a generalist, but careers are about being good at one or two things through God’s grace. Yes. Young people need to be praying very much for God to give them light on the path ahead: Who am I, Lord? What do you want me to be in this world for You, Father? The tendency to process people educationally, as in a great educational factory farm, devastates the community.
Theologically, you had a transformation in 1969 at age 21. I would say from early childhood onward I loved Jesus, but after encountering spiritual darkness in my teens, doubts entered, and in the mid to late 1960s a social revolution pulled the foundations out of practically everything. I fell away from my faith for about five years, thinking I was in the vanguard of a brave new humanitarian world, leaving the Christian myth behind. This is our human nature: How easily we forget the blessings, presence, goodness, and fatherhood of God. We rebel, thinking we are becoming our own free person. After my reconversion, new dimensions of relationship with Jesus Christ opened up for me with great power and beauty.
In 1975 you entered into marriage with fear and trembling (as I entered into my marriage in 1976). I begged God to please tell me what He desired for my life—and 45 years later, life has been an amazing period of surprises, miracles, marvels.
How specifically did you discern what God desired? Three days of deep prayer and truly pleading for His will. I heard a voice interiorly speak simply and with authority. I opened sacred Scripture and read five passages about marriage. Do not be afraid to take a good and wise woman as your wife, and on and on it went. It was the living Word to me, penetrating my soul. Another important dimension of discerning whether it was the authentic word of God or not: There was a supernatural peace beyond anything I had experienced until then in my life. And the rest of my life began.
God gives you six children. By 1983 you are busy with art, but you also have a lot of financial insecurity. How did you deal with that? There were two decades of radical insecurity. How did we get through these years? A grace given to both my wife and myself that I was called to paint the things of God, to paint Christian art, and later to write the things of God in Christian fiction: He was calling me to this specific work against all odds, against all likelihood of success in our time. My wife and I had unity that this was the path God desired for us, although it would not be easy and there would be times of tribulation.
Often you thought it was all coming to nothing? A lot of slammed doors in our faces. We survived by being caretakers in a number of little rectories in country parishes that didn’t have a resident pastor. People helped us out financially. Once in a long while, I would sell a painting. But I also was flooded with inspiration to write novels, which I wrote, and they too received tons of letters of rejection from publishers. It was 19 years from the writing of my first novel to the publication of my first novel. I amassed a thick collection of rejection letters.
Did you ever count them? No, but painfully a lot. One year I traveled all over western Canada meeting with gallery owners, trying to interest them in my religious art. Again and again I heard, “We love your style, but the art-buying public is no longer interested in this subject matter.” Mainline publishers said the same thing about my novels, which were overtly Christian.
Some galleries were interested? Two. One small gallery, and I arrived in that city in western Canada with my truckload of paintings only to find the curator of the gallery had a nervous breakdown: She and her family had decided to close the gallery with no show. Two months later I had another gallery show scheduled at a very prestigious Ontario gallery that was taking a big risk to show Christian art. The gallery burned down just before I was to get in the truck to drive east with my paintings. It never reopened.
You keep trying? I had little shows in church basements or church halls. On occasion a painting would sell. We’d keep going a little longer. Keep moving, keep creating, and above all keep praying. We had made a basic decision knowing it would not be easy to be a Christian artist and writer. We had to accept material insecurity and discomfort. We would not have a comfortable life. We had each other, we had our six beautiful children, we had art. We had the living Lord who every now and then would just reach down and show us, “I’m here, don’t be afraid, keep going, don’t look back to Egypt, the Promised Land is ahead.”
Times of discouragement? Darkness, temptation. After desolation always came consolation, a leap forward. I’ve seen now over nearly half a century of painting and writing a consistent pattern: Wherever there will be a great leap or development in my art there’s a barrage of trials on every level. If we do not lose heart and turn to our own devices for self-preservation, the Lord always comes. He comes, He brings us through, and then comes consolation. He has never, ever failed us—as long as we don’t run away.
On running away: Your 2001 painting of Jonah shows him looking very much like a baby in the womb. Yes, very much.
This is Jonah’s time of being born again: Were you consciously making him look like a womb baby? I came to that insight only after I had painted the image. It was perhaps a subconscious cry of pain regarding innocent blood. As in the day of Jonah, judgment is coming upon the earth. God will not permit evil to go on indefinitely, infinitely. That would neither be just nor merciful. But Nineveh repents, and it is not too late for the Western world to remember its Christian roots, to return to our Savior, and to repent of the sins we have committed.
Your 1986 painting, A Place Where We All Could Live, shows a small community—houses, a church—with vast mountains in the background. So it’s neither a cozy little thing nor a Hudson River School worship of nature. A lot of Canadian snow, of course, but adults and children are walking on a plowed road, not hunkered down. Does that reflect your awareness of God’s majesty but also your confidence in His imminence? Exactly. It expressed a yearning my wife and I had to find a place in this world with children as the treasure of the community and the church as the heart of the community. I said, “Honey, I don’t know if we’ll ever find a place like this—earth is not paradise—but I’ll paint you one.”
Your breakthrough book was Father Elijah, published in 1996. What was your thinking at that time? I hadn’t really thought of writing apocalyptic novels. I had so many rejections of my first novel that I had given up the idea of being a published writer. Then I saw governments, provincial and federal, increasingly invading the rights of the family. Abortion on demand, paid for by taxation. Every one of us is complicit in the unjust taking of the human life. The government has made it so. It is a schizophrenic democracy in decline. One day I was in our local church and pleading with our Lord: “Do You not see what is happening here? Please purify and strengthen Your churches. Have mercy upon me, a sinner. How am I going to get my family through these times, which are assaulting especially our young people on so many levels?”
How long were you pleading? I was weeping, praying in this grieving mode for quite some time: “The enemy, it looks like he’s winning, so where are You, Lord?” I heard an interior gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit: Take and read, take and read. So, I got up and went up to the lectern on the altar and opened the sacred Scriptures. Now the last words in my prayer had been: “Do You not see, Lord, we are in a place of total desolation?” I got up, went to the lectern, opened the Scriptures, and the first line my eye lighted on was “in this desolation I will give fruitfulness.” I was flooded with a supernatural peace so powerful it brought me to my knees. Then to my total surprise, there flooded into my mind, very close to visually, the entire story of what eventually became the novel Father Elijah. I knelt there, watching it for an hour. Finally it was back to normal. I told my wife what had happened: She said, “You have to write it down.” So, for the next eight months I wrote it down, put it on the shelf with my other abandoned manuscripts, and said, “There, I obeyed the prompting, I’ve done what I could. It’ll go nowhere.” A few months later, a publisher in the United States contacted me because he’d stumbled across a little book of mine, painting the mysteries of Christ’s life, that I had self-published.
Then what happened? The publisher asked me if I had written anything else. I said, “Yes, but you wouldn’t be interested in it.” That was fatalism on my part. He said, “We might be. Send it to us.” He’s in San Francisco, I’m in Northern Ontario, so I said, “I don’t have $10 to send you a manuscript that you’re simply going to reject after you take a look at it. I just can’t waste $10.” He said, “If you send us the manuscript, we’ll send you the $10.” The book was published within the year.
Did he send the $10 back? Many years later.
Your novels warn of the development of a totalitarian government. Are we heading in that direction? My nation, Canada, is far worse than yours, but apart from a massive turning back to God, there will be further degeneration. Totalitarian systems have three things in common: the rejection of binding moral absolutes established by God, the minimizing of the absolute value of human life, and the elevation of the state to be the final arbiter of good and evil.
What signs of the times should we be particularly looking for? A crucial symptom is the violation of personal conscience, where your government commands you to do immoral things and presents evil as good. That’s the way Satan works. We need to awaken to something that Christians have known of for 2,000 years: spiritual combat. We need to ask our Father in heaven for the grace to discern good and evil, and the grace of hope. Hope is not optimism. It’s a supernatural gift.
Abortion is one evil to which leaders demand complicity. To what else should we be paying attention? Murder and falsehood are of the realm of Satan, and to the degree that as a nation or in our own lives we make active murder part of policy, we are cooperating with the realm of evil spirits. Murder is the unjust taking of life: Abortion and euthanasia are acts of murder that cannot prevail in a society without bringing down the justice of God. Punishment by the state of those who do not comply is a symptom we must look out for. Parents especially are under great burdens in our times, and all too easily the state can parachute in and relieve us of some of our responsibilities: Be extremely careful because freedom cannot continue to be freedom without responsibility and hard labor. Life costs. To raise a family costs. Sometimes it costs a great deal, sometimes everything. So, what then do we believe in? Are we willing to give our lives that life and light may prevail?
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