The Lighthouse is the latest tale by popular Canadian Catholic novelist, iconographer and artist Michael D O’Brien, published by Ignatius Press this month. More than a dozen books, many of them best-sellers including Fr Elijah: An Apocalypse, Elijah in Jerusalem, The Father’s Tale, Sophia House, and The Fool of New York City have earned him a reputation as one of the greatest spiritual storytellers of modern times.
Michael spoke to The Catholic Weekly about The Lighthouse and some of its themes, the secrets of his own prodigious creative output and hopes for future projects.
A portrait of a soul
Q. Why did you decide to make your main character lighthouse-keeper Ethan McQuarry a naturally contemplative person yet a non-believer?
A. He is a kind of ‘everyman’, though he is living a very unusual life. I wanted to create a character who embodies in his own life what is really at the core of every person’s soul. There are extroverts and introverts and all kinds of personality types in the world. But in the heart of the soul of each person there is, acknowledged or unacknowledged, a longing for God, a longing for meaning. Now they may deny that absolutely, but we were created in the image and likeness of God.
in the heart of the soul of each person there is, acknowledged or unacknowledged, a longing for God, a longing for meaning.
Making him a sort of natural contemplative, I was hoping to draw readers with some kind of empathy for the character, to looking at the world in the way he does. He’s a man who ponders the things around him, he senses what he calls the ‘awakeness’ in existence, and he senses also a ‘listeningness’ but he doesn’t know how to describe any of this. He’s not overly-complicated, he’s a fairly simple person whose soul is awake but he just has not yet met Christ. And I think that is more and more people in the modern age.
The powerful propaganda of contemporary culture prevents many people from asking the real questions, the deep questions, and yet there are moments when these still can arise in the soul. A story like this can evoke the deepest questions that arise in every human heart whether they can articulate it or not.
Now Ethan is a quiet soul and an introvert so he has a head start on most people who tend to be saturated in noise and frantic busyness. I wanted to probe deeper into who are we really, all of us? Who are we in the heart of our soul?
Storms in the Church and the world
Q. One of the characters is directly affected by abuse at a Catholic religious-run orphanage. What are your thoughts on the way forward for the Church amid the sexual abuse crisis and its effects?
A. That is a gargantuan question and a crucial one. For context for you in Australia, most of the sexual abuse of the young has occurred in orphanages in the Atlantic provinces in Canada, in the rest of Canada it has been in residential schools, primarily for our indigenous people. In America it’s been in parish situations. But horrendous evil has occurred in many different situations and it’s a horror and a shock to all of us.
I think the instinctive reaction of anyone with a motherly or fatherly heart or anyone with a good heart is going to be anger, horror, the betrayal of trust. The danger here is that the evil that is committed on the young through this kind of abuse, enters our own hearts through a back door. Let’s call it the demon of hatred or rage. And so we go looking for scapegoats, and I’m thinking of Cardinal Pell as an example of a person who has been scapegoated.
The danger here is that the evil that is committed on the young through this kind of abuse, enters our own hearts through a back door…of hatred or rage
Leaving aside that question, how does the Church move ahead? I think it can only move ahead by pursuing justice, not kangaroo courts but actual justice for real perpetrators. And at the same time we have to be looking to our own hearts.
What is needed is a vast repentance on the part of all of us who try to follow Jesus, that we we engage the battle to avoid evil in any way in our own lives and to seek to live the Gospels wholeheartedly, to live the love and truth which Jesus has called us to.
I think the Church at this time in history is bleeding from many wounds and is horribly humiliated in the eyes of the world because of the sins of her own members, not just external enemies. But we too are Catholics, we have to bear some of this. We have to bear the shame and humiliation, but we don’t bear it on our own shoulders.
What we must do with this grief we feel over the condition of the Church and the world is to convert it into prayer and sacrifice. Prayer and fasting for the purification of the Body of Christ in our times, and her strengthening. Our role as members of the body is to pray, fast, and sacrifice for this. That I think is the only way forward.
Q. You have written previously that this also has touched your own life?
A. Yes, this isn’t just theorising on my part. I myself was a boy in a Catholic boarding school notorious for terrible abuse. I narrowly escaped sexual abuse but there was violence, and a number of my fellow students were sexual victims. I’ve had to work through in my own life rage, anger, a sense of betrayal, of abandonment. And in time coming to see that these sins against the innocent were committed by individuals betraying Christ and their own humanity. This was not the Church betraying us.
The more complex and difficult problem enters into the question of cover-up. Where sexual abuse was known and an abuser was simply moved to another parish or institution. That is a different level of evil and different level of guilt. I think that in the end, what legal justice can be applied to that is reasonable and necessary.
But ultimately only God is the judge. God on judgment day will deal with all of this. Until then we have to avoid hatred at all costs.
Prayer, family and work
Q. How long did it take you to write The Lighthouse?
A. I have to say the dear book almost wrote itself in maybe six months. Some of my books, and some of them are gargantuan in size, took much longer. One took nine years to write but this just poured out. It was a very beautiful experience of inspiration and creativity.
Q. Can you tell us about that creative ‘flow’, where does it come from?
A. I’ve always striven over nearly 45 years of writing to live in what I call the co-creative grace. It’s God’s grace working together with my human talents, you know, ‘grace builds on nature’ as St Thomas Aquinas speaks of in the Summa. God never pushes our nature aside, he doesn’t use the human person creatively as a hand in a glove, or a puppet. So Christian writers should really be praying continuously for the grace of the work they’re creating.
On a personal level, in my long experience or writing both fiction and non-fiction, when I get lazy and I slide almost without knowing it into a kind of self-reliance, praying less, the work is poorer and it is harder to do. When I’m praying the work flows, and really asking God for a grace that will give light to others through this work of art.
My wife…through radical insecurity, through poverty, raising our family, has been a tremendous support to me
My wife Sheila has been my most extraordinary supporter from the day of our marriage. She said to me, “Michael you are an artist, God doesn’t give his gifts for no purpose”. And so through radical insecurity, through poverty, raising our family, she has been a tremendous support to me, always in union with me, never complaining and was often the one person who really believed in me, especially in periods when I could not believe in myself or I was afflicted with very serious doubts about what I was doing.
For example, it was 19 years and dozens and dozens of rejection slips from publishers between the time I wrote my first novel and its publication. There were a lot of long, hard years.
Q. What is your daily routine?
A. My vocation is family life, family comes first and the art is a gift and a mission. But I’ve always had a room in the house or a shack nearby that I could go to during the day. And I realised early on that I could not accomplish much unless I really exercised self-discipline. So for more than four decades I have worked a regular work day, five days a week, six when I could get away with it.
That attentiveness to a daily routine, to labour and prayer has borne fruit. On occasion when there’s been an incredible fountain of creativity my wife is very patient with me and supported me in writing in the evening or in the middle of the night, but that is rare.
Q. Do you have any of your six children at home with you and Sheila these days?
A. We have 12 grandchildren and have six of them and our daughter and her husband living with us now and they are just an endless source of joy.
Looking to the horizon
Q. You have two new books in the pipeline after this, can you tell us about those?
A. I’ve just completed a manuscript, The Sabbatical, which my English-language publisher Ignatius Press has just contracted for publication probably next year. It’s a story of an elderly Oxford University professor who is tired and worn out, he has done what he can in the world all he’s looking forward to is some peace and quiet. But he has a sabbatical year in which very big surprises happen to him and it’s about how he deals with that.
The other book I have just begun writing is called By the Waters of Babylon and it’s an historical fiction work on the life of the young prophet Ezekiel when he is first led into captivity in Babylon, before his great visions.
Q. Why have you deleted your website Studiobrien.com which is where new and old fans could find many of your paintings, essays and interviews?
A. I have had a kind of love-hate relationship with the internet over the years. Friends encouraged me to have a studio website for my writing and paintings to be exposed but as I couldn’t afford to hire the technical help I had to learn the skills myself.
Jesus…is the true horizon and he is coming, regardless of the darkness and the intensity of the storms that we’re in, and that are approaching.
It was very time-consuming and there were endless headaches, so now I’m in my early 70s and it has come to me through prayer that I just have to accept that my time in this world is limited and my primary gift is creative work and I have to focus on that. And let the books and the paintings do their work in the world and trust that is my call.
I would love to see the propagation of my work through the internet but its cost is too high because it means less creative work for me. So I made that decision to take the site down about two years ago, and that has born greater fruitfulness in my writing. I wish I could do both but I’d have to have three lifetimes to live. It’s good to know one’s limitations!
Q. Do you have any specific concerns about your health or energy to continue your work through the next decade or so?
A. I do have early stage Parkinson’s [Disease]. I’ve lost some motor control in my hands which affects my painting, but I told my family it’s no problem as I don’t have to paint icons and fine detailed work anymore, I can become more of an impressionist! And there’s no pain, the creative faculty and the mind is clear, so all is well.
Q. What do you hope people will take away from this book, apart from an enjoyable read?
A. Without giving away the surprises at the ending I hope the readers could take away from the book a desire to look up, and to move from loneliness and isolation into the realm of love and communion with others.
And we should keep our eyes on the true horizon which is Jesus. He is the true horizon and he is coming, regardless of the darkness and the intensity of the storms that we’re in and that are approaching.
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