In the last few weeks, our world has largely been forced to slow down. If we had an on-the-go lifestyle last month, that’s no longer the case. As we travel less, spend more (much more) time at home, and reflect on the reality of this turn of events happening during Lent, it seems clear that we have an opportunity right now to lean on God and to learn something new about Him and ourselves.
Though I’m trying to spend minimal time on social media, I have been encouraged by others who are choosing to see this time, in part at least, as a gift. We are being called to make sacrifices that we didn’t ask for. We are hopeful, as an Easter people, that this time will bear much fruit.
Artist, author, and essayist Michael D. O’Brien is well versed in the fruits of bearing our crosses, and I see it as no coincidence that my interview with him ended up being posted during this surreal time. I’m also so happy to share news of a new book of O’Brien’s work, The Art of Michael D. O’Brien, a volume that will be enjoyed by my family for years to come — especially by my daughter, who, at age five, wants to be an artist.
I was privileged to hear Mr. O’Brien speak at last year’s Sisters of Life Gala in New York City, and shortly thereafter reviewed his biography, On the Edge of Infinity for CatholicMom.com.
The book is a stunning collection of just some of the pieces created during O’Brien’s decades-long career. In pursuing a career as an artist for Christ, the obstacles he’s faced have been plentiful. But the depth of wisdom and peace that have come from the battles he’s confronted are a witness to the trust we can put in the Lord, even in these uncertain times.
It was a gift to ask Mr. O’Brien some questions about his work and life as an artist. I’m grateful to share our interview in full here.
Lindsay Schlegel: You’ve been creating art to honor Christ for more than forty years, and this book showcases only a portion of that work. As an artist, how would you describe the experience of pulling together a portfolio after four decades of creating?
Michael O’Brien: The long years of my life as a Christian artist have been full of blessings and joys, but also of constant struggle and at times extreme trials. In the beginning, when my wife and I committed our lives in service of Christ and his Church, it felt to us like an impossible mission. But we have learned that the Lord is the master of the impossible. Now that I am holding this published collection of paintings in my hands, it feels like an impossible miracle “made flesh.” It’s a great joy.
LS: The paintings that spoke most clearly to me are those of Christ’s Passion and those of His private life before His ministry began. What inspired you to paint those two eras in particular?
MO: I have always been so moved by the humility and poverty of the Incarnation, especially the mysterious “hidden years of Nazareth” before Jesus’ public ministry began. This period of His life on earth has so much to teach us about the holiness of family life, about courage under trials, the sanctity of work, the sacramental nature of marriage, and much more. Here we see poverty of spirit lived out day by day for thirty years, culminating in the Passion and Death of Jesus, where His poverty becomes absolute. In the mystery of suffering and death, God Himself shares in our humanity in total weakness, and in doing so He saves the world.
LS: Your decision to focus on sacred art, through many years of trial and tribulation, has borne such fruit for those who interact with your work. What is your hope for artists just getting started on their work?
MO: I would say this to young artists of faith, or to those considering the vocation of sacred art: You should build upon a foundation of trust. Trust does not come naturally to us, so you must always be asking for the grace of confidence in God’s fatherly care and His guidance of your life through divine providence. You should be a person of constant prayer and sacrifice, willing to die to your own ambitions or hankering for a comfortable life — and in the process allow the Lord to bring forth from your life the fruit that He desires, the fruit that will last. Let Him shape you as the potter shapes the clay. It won’t be an easy life, but it will be a great life in the perspective of eternity, a beautiful life. St. Maximilian Kolbe once wrote that “Only love creates.” To be a Christian artist means to always be growing as a person of love and truth. In this way, your art will give life to others.
LS: As an artist, essayist, and author, you have answered the call to express yourself and your faith in a variety of ways. How would you describe that call from the Lord, and what advice would you offer to parents looking to help guide their children to their own callings and vocations?
MO: I think in this regard of the “still, small voice of the Holy Spirit” who spoke to the prophet Elijah, not in thunder and fire and storm, but in gentle quietness. To hear the call demands a setting apart of one’s time to listen to that voice. To wait for it, to ask for it.Parents of children who have creative gifts should regularly pray to the Holy Spirit to keep speaking and planting His promptings in their children’s hearts. It is important to pray to their guardian angels as well, and to teach children to pray in this way as well. Eucharistic adoration is also a very great encounter with grace. Not all answers will come at once; the question about one’s life vocation is usually answered slowly, revealed over time. Primarily, the sign of a possible vocation to art, and especially sacred art, will be a desire arising in their hearts to make beautiful things, and this should be encouraged. Over time it will develop and mature, if prayer and the attitude of total offering of the self continues.
Thank you to Mr. O’Brien for your powerful witness and your moving work!
Visit our Book Notes archive.
Copyright 2020 Lindsay Schlegel