The artist who shows the cost of Christian discipleship

Icon of St Joseph by Michael D O'Brien

I have just been reading On the Edge of Infinity, the recent biography of the Canadian icon painter and novelist, Michael D O’Brien, by Clemens Cavallini (Ignatius Press). What impresses me most forcefully about this book is not so much O’Brien’s creative output, which deserves separate critical assessment, but the evidence of a heroic Christian life, built on radical faith whatever the human cost. Born in 1948 and undergoing a profound religious experience when he was aged 21, which turned him from a doubtful Catholic drawn to New Age practices into a man of profound faith, O’Brien married Sheila in 1975 and has six adult children. The book is the story of their joint determination to live a life of material simplicity alongside the difficulties of earning enough money from his creative work to sustain their growing household.

The decision to train as a religious icon painter in a modern Canadian secular milieu was courageous and counter-cultural. Still, commissions from churches, abbeys and convents have come, keeping the family precariously afloat during the early years. The novels, a later creative development that explore man’s search for meaning in a fallen world, languished for years in O’Brien’s desk, until published in recent years by Ignatius – thus generating much-needed royalties.

Nonetheless, to follow a vocation as a Christian artist meant much material hardship. Over the years the O’Briens have moved around the vast distances of Canada, pulled from west to east and back again, by the yearning to live in a cabin on a smallholding in a remote part of British Columbia (in the early years they sometimes lacked plumbing and electricity) and the realisation that to become known and patronised as an icon painter meant living within society and in a city rather than in a rural retreat..

The O’Briens have also been acutely aware of “the onset of the collapse of the traditional Catholic world in the west”, as Michael puts it. This led them to decide to home-school their children at times, latterly in conjunction with other like-minded families centred on the Madonna House Family Apostolate in Combermere, Ontario. For several years in the 1990s Michael edited the beautifully produced and highly influential Nazareth Journal, a combination of individual family stories, art-work, homilies from orthodox priests and the teachings on family life of the late St John Paul II. The Journal, aided by modern technology, helped to bring the renewal of authentic Catholic family life to a wide public, far beyond the original cluster of families in Combermere.

As an artist and contemplative, constantly meditating on the ways God has been calling him, Michael has also experienced many interior visions, dreams and locutions over the years. Recognising that these flow from his artistic imagination as well as his faith, he has allowed them to guide him in his discernment process at times when he has been dogged by ill-health, poverty and rejection of his work.<

Cavallini’s biography reminds all Catholics that there is a cost to Christian discipleship – a cost that this Canadian artist has not hesitated to pay.