StudiO’Brien: the contemporary Catholic artist


Killian Beeler, Contributing Writer


St. Luke is here portrayed as evangelist, physician, and artist. He holds the Scriptures and carries a doctor's case. –Photo courtesy of
St. Luke is here portrayed as evangelist, physician, and artist. He holds the Scriptures and carries a doctor’s case.
–Photo courtesy of

The first part of this article’s title is the clever name of the self-taught Canadian-Catholic writer and artist Michael D. O’Brien’s website. Students might be familiar with some of his spectacularly well-written and thrilling novels, such as the apocalyptic “Father Elijah” (1996), which centers on a Jewish Holocaust survivor turned Carmelite priest and his call to convert the supposed Anti-Christ; the trilogy of “Strangers and Sojourners” (1997); “Plague Journal” (1998); “Eclipse of The Sun” (1999), a story that tells the tale of a family of exiles in a Canada taken over by a dystopian police state; and the more recent “A Father’s Tale” (2011), a wonderful story about a small-town Canadian father’s journey, attempting to rescue his son and traveling through Europe, Russia, and China. This last book is perfect for anyone experiencing Rome-sickness. Peter Kreeft, acclaimed Catholic philosopher and professor at Boston College, had this to say about the book: “This is a magnum opus … All of O’Brien’s large and human soul is in this book … father, Catholic, Russophile, Canadian, personalist, artist, storyteller, romantic. There is not one boring or superfluous page. When you finish “The Father’s Tale” you will say of it what Tolkien said of “The Lord of the Rings”: it has one fault: it is too short. A thousand pages of Michael O’Brien is like a thousand sunrises: who’s complaining?”

O’Brien’s books are perfect for the UD student seeking a break from the intensity of the epics, plays and novels of the Lit Trad sequence. The author’s novels read with the simplicity of a potboiler, but the substance of writers like Melville and Dostoevsky. They are phenomenal stories that will strike deep into your spiritual core. They are Catholic novels and he  makes no attempt to hide it, but rarely does one feel that O’Brien is pushing that agenda upon the book. As Chesterton noted, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” I honestly believe, whether you are Catholic or Protestant, religious or nonreligious, that the search for truth that drew you to UD (whether you realized it or not), will also draw you to O’Brien’s books to find the truth in his stories’ heroes.

The Divine Mercy of Jesus, as portrayed in O'Brien's unique style. –Photo courtesy of
The Divine Mercy of Jesus, as portrayed in O’Brien’s unique style.
–Photo courtesy of

Although he became famous for his novels, O’Brien was actually a painter long before he became a successful writer. He received a rather poor grade in his high-school art class, but later, in his early 20s, he began to “doodle” a bit and realized he had a gift. In 1970, at the age of 22, he put on his first exhibit at a major gallery in Ottawa. Since then he has put on over 40 exhibits across North America. In 1976, he decided to focus exclusively on religious artwork. Rejected by the mainstream Canadian art world, O’Brien took his work to exhibits in church basements across Canada. He and his large Catholic family survived for many years onthe income of a dirt-poor artist. His attempts to publish his written work were repeatedly crushed by Canadian publishers, who were only willing to publish if he agreed to take out the Catholicity in his works, a demand with which he refused to comply. It was not until Ignatius Press published “Father Elijah,” a work that O’Brien began nearly 20 years ago after receiving inspiration from Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, that this all changed. “Father Elijah” became a bestseller, and O’Brien came to the forefront of the North American Catholic world.

No doubt, he is better known for his writing, but even still, his artwork should not be pushed aside. Personally, I have never encountered any contemporary artist, religious or otherwise, so innovative, unique and creative and yet so true to the tradition of Western civilization. He does not paint in the “spirit of Vatican II.” Yet neither is he a “raddy traddy” obsessed with restoring the glorious Catholic liturgy and art of the “good old days” instead of attempting to create new beauty for our Lord. Why shouldn’t we have our own art for the Lord that is distinctively “us,” that calls upon the traditions of the dead, while speaking to those yet to be born? O’Brien takes the icon tradition of Christianity and beautifully applies it to our own time, pushing the artistic creativity of the pilgrim Church forward. I suppose that his art could be described as Neo-Byzantine with a style distinctively modern, but that doesn’t really do it justice. It is so much more. I suggest taking a closer look at it at his site,

Professor Emeritus Dr. Sommerfeldt, our great medieval historian, once said that UD “is not just a liberal arts university. It is the liberal arts university.” Similarly, Michael D. O’Brien is not just a contemporary Catholic artist. He is the contemporary Catholic artist — and, for that matter, novelist. I leave the reader with these words from him:

“Prayer and self-discipline are the foundation of everything I do. Most often, the origins of a novel or a painting will appear during prayer, sometimes while I’m praying before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. I ponder it in the heart, listening interiorly, thinking about it too. Then if there is a strong peace and an inner sense of ‘rightness,’ I begin giving a form to the essential ‘word’ or logos that came with the light or grace. One can call it inspiration or the muses. But it is, I believe, the phenomenon of co-creation, grace and nature working together to bring into the world something that hasn’t been seen before. God-willing, it will be a work of truth and beauty. Thus the need to be constantly praying and at the same time working hard to develop the skills of writing and painting — all within the understanding that it is a vocation, a gift, not my personal possession.”


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