Book Review

New Biography of Michael O’Brien and Some Novelties of Summer

If you’ve ever read any of Michael O’Brien’s books, chances are you’ve wondered, just who in the blazes is this man who writes so well?  As soon as I discovered that his biography, On the Edge of Infinity, was for sale, I bought it and was not disappointed.

I couldn’t put it down.

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You need this book written by Clemens Cavallin.

Not only do I consider Michael O’Brien the greatest Catholic novelist since J.R.R. Tolkien, but I also wonder about this man’s sainthood.  He’s got an amazing conversion story, going from such things as Ouija boards and seances to being attacked by malevolent spirits and spontaneously reciting Psalm 23.

This book is not boring.  And the neat thing is, as one suspects from reading O’Brien’s fiction, many of his stories come straight from his own life.  For example, has anyone ever read O’Brien’s A Cry of Stone?  This book features the story of Tchibi, a boy who experiences abuse from his headmaster at his private school.  O’Brien modeled this boy on his own experience of abuse at Grollier Hall in Canada.  It’s excruciating to read.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Back to On the Edge of Infinity.  Clemens Cavallin begins this biography of Michael O’Brien (born in 1948) with stories from Michael’s parents and grandparents.  Then Cavallin moves into detailing O’Brien’s childhood in the Canadian arctic and then chronicles the turbulent years following the Second Vatican Council wherein suddenly altars were stripped and destroyed, statues of saints disappeared, and families were discouraged from praying the rosary.  O’Brien’s family was deeply affected by these radical changes.

Naturally the book goes on to relate Michael’s conversion, his meeting of Sheila, their marriage, and his momentous decision in 1976 to devote himself wholly to God and to art – specifically icon painting.  (Writing fiction would come later.)

Probably what fascinated me the most in reading Cavallin’s biography, however, was Michael and his wife Sheila’s utter trust in God, to the point of downright poverty.  Seriously, at one point, Michael and his eldest son had to push the wheelbarrow to the local convent, because they didn’t have a working vehicle, to get the leftover vegetables from the sisters, just to eat for the week.

The other thing that I greatly appreciated about this book was its focus on art and beauty.  I’ll never get tired of this subject, because in our culture it is of extreme importance that we get it.  Art ought to be beautiful because it’s a reflection of the Divine.  Beauty matters!

Finally, if any of you have children and homeschool them, you will probably enjoy hearing about the trials and experiences of the O’Brien family.  Michael and Sheila homeschooled their 6 children.  And it wasn’t easy.

The Novelties of Summer

  1. I hope you’re all enjoying summer.  We are.  Normally the children start a little Summer School by now, but we haven’t yet.  For we’ve had this to contend with:
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This is our backyard.  We’re in the process of planting grass, trees, bushes, and a garden.  Oh, the work!

2.  We have had time for ice cream, however.

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3.  And we did just recently make a little pilgrimage to a beautiful rural church in Strasburg, North Dakota, named Sts. Peter and Paul.

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Here are the children on the front steps.

Even though this church is in the middle of nowhere, people still go to see it.  Why?  Because beauty is attractive.  The following is what one sees when walking in.  I apologize for the lack of lighting.  We didn’t know how to turn all the lights on.

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Check out those sweet confessionals flanking the sanctuary.

Of course you can see the high altar behind that newly inserted wooden table altar from the 1970s.  Here’s a closer look of both altars:

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And an even closer look of the high altar:

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Just look at that detail.

Question of the day:  Which altar speaks to the greatness of God?

 

Call Me Catholic

A Wedding at Assumption Abbey, Westworks, & a High Altar

My family and I had the privilege of attending a wedding this last weekend at a most beautiful church in the middle of nowhere.

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Assumption Abbey, Richardton, ND, Middle of Nowhere.

This was a treat for us for many obvious reasons, but I’d like to specifically point out one:  This church is beautiful.  Just look at that westwork!

Don’t know what a westwork is?  It’s the grand entrance of a church flanked by two towers, that should face the west, as one always entered in from the west, to worship toward the east, the Rising Son.  (This was back in the day when everyone faced the same direction during Mass, with the priest leading everyone towards the East, the Rising Son – Ad Orientem.)

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Here’s another westwork in Europe.  Notice that the two towers are different.  It’s because they were built in different time periods.  Quiz.  What famous cathedral is this?*

Of course, not every church could always be built facing the west, which is how we get terms such as, “Liturgical East.”

Back to Assumption Abbey.  This particular church in Richardton, ND, faces the south.

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Here’s an interior shot of Assumption Abbey.  Note those glorious rose windows and flying angels!

If you look closely at the above photo, you’ll notice that the baldachin or baldacchino and high altar are still in place, even though they’re not being used.  The high altar is right underneath the baldachin, but is difficult to see, as it is not lit up.

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Check out this baldachin.  It’s Bernini’s in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Now that’s how you do a canopy and a high altar!

Because the high altar in Assumption Abbey is not in use, there was a little confusion among all the wedding-goers.  Where was one to genuflect?  I noticed that most people genuflected anyway to the (beautiful) empty Tabernacle in the high altar, but the rest of us had to look around.  Just where was Jesus?

We found him.  He was off to the side, in an obscure-looking wooden structure, with no visible tabernacle lamp.

I’d love to see Him restored to His former place of glory – up front and center.  But alas, nobody’s asking me!

The Wedding

The wedding Mass was beautiful.  Fr. Josh Waltz delivered a fiery homily, such as I haven’t heard in awhile.  He’d point to the crucifix and say, “You think you know what marriage is about?  It’s about that.  (Pointing to the crucifix.)  Suffering and sacrifice!”  Then he specifically addressed any husbands out there and commanded, “Men, do you think that’s weak?  No.  It’s hard.  Learn to die to yourselves!  That’s what real men do.”

I’m pretty sure I saw some wives kicking their husbands under the pews.

But not me, because I had to stand in the back with a crabby baby.

In all, it was a great afternoon.  May God bless that newly married couple!

Parting Humiliation

Well, I’ve been humbled.

You see, as we were frantically scrambling to get out of the house that day, our 5-year-old could not find her church shoes.  She couldn’t find any shoes, except her dirty, old flip flops.  What was I to do?  There was no time to stop and buy a new pair.  She couldn’t wear her 11-year-old sister’s shoes.  And she certainly couldn’t fit into her 2-year-old sister’s shoes.

I thought about letting her go barefoot, like a discalced nun.  Then I thought maybe just give her a pair of clean socks?

In the end, she wore the dirty, old flip flops to the wedding.  Sigh.  Hopefully no one noticed!

 

 

*Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France.  By the way, it’s westwork really does face the west.