If, like me, you’ve lamented the state of contemporary Catholic fiction, and wondered where all the Catholic novelists and artists are these days, I have a surprising answer for you.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know there are talented and inspired people writing and creating art in other forms today, right here in the U.S. (I write fiction myself, so please excuse the hyperbole). But I’m still wondering how in the world I’ve gone as long as I have without hearing of Michael O’Brien, Catholic painter, essayist, editor, lecturer, and novelist.
A recent biography, On the Edge of Infinity: A Biography of Michael D. O’Brien, covers the seventy-one-year-old artist’s life up to present day. O’Brien’s story is as much one of calling and vocation, of the obstacles to holiness in the world, of perseverance and radical trust in God, as it is of art.
Throughout his life, O’Brien has strived above all else to serve God, and has had intense prayer experiences in discerning the Lord’s will for him in his personal and self-taught artistic life. The story of his and his wife’s courtship and marriage is so unlike typical popular romances: God is firmly rooted at the center of their relationship, and it quickly becomes clear that their family and his work are a direct result of that unwavering commitment.
At countless points throughout O’Brien’s career, it would seem to the untrained eye that he was setting himself up for failure. He felt called to study iconography and support a family off of his commissions. He spent weeks and months writing novels that, for years, it seemed no one would publish. And yet, at each step of the way, God provided for O’Brien and his family. (Those novels are now in print in multiple languages around the world!)
This story is not all rainbows and roses. Part of what I love about the book is the honesty with which it approaches the financial struggles, the many moves around Canada, and ultimately the question of how to make a life as an artist while providing for a wife and six children, who are each finding their own calling and way in Christ’s footsteps. The balance and the tension are real-life challenges with which we all have to contend.
Everything comes back to living according to God’s will and not our own. Jeff Cavins often remarks that the underlying question God asks throughout the whole of the Bible is, “Do you trust me?” For O’Brien, the answer is clearly yes.
On the Edge of Infinity is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s a celebration of art and our need for it. It’s a reminder of the serious forces at work in our world to undermine the family. It’s a compelling read that I couldn’t wait to get back to each time life required me to put it down.
I hope I am doing justice to the incredible man and his work. I’ll leave you with the artist’s own words from his website, where he offers this explanation of his life’s work:
In all my work I seek to contribute to the restoration of Christian culture. I try to express the holiness of existence and the dignity of the human person situated in an incarnational universe. Each visual image and each work of prose is an incarnation of a word, a statement of faith. At the same time, it asks the questions: What is most noble and eternal in man? Who is he? Why does he exist? And what is his eternal destiny?
Whether or not you read fiction, study art, or even like to read biographies, I urge you to pick up On the Edge of Infinity and get to know one of the greatest artists of our time. Like me, I bet you’ll wonder why you didn’t get started sooner!
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Copyright 2019 Lindsay Schlegel
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