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‘The Donkey Dialogues’

An international friendship forged by faith and family

By Jason Godin

Distance and cultural differences haven’t stopped Canadian Michael O’Brien and Croatian Maté Krajina from exchanging letters over the years. Their private correspondence from May 2012 to February 2014 – recently published by Justin Press as The Donkey Dialogues (2014) – finds two friends focusing increasingly on issues of marriage and fatherhood through the eyes of their shared Catholic faith.

O’Brien, 66, is the bestselling author of novels such Father Elijah (1996), Island of the World (2007) and A Father’s Tale (2013), all published by Ignatius Press. He and his wife of 39 years, Sheila, have six adult children and eight grandchildren. Krajina, 50, is editor of the Croatian Catholic magazine MI. He has four children with his wife of 25 years, Renata. Both men corresponded recently via email with Fathers for Good’s Jason Godin about The Donkey Dialogues.

Fathers for Good: Aside from the connection with the title, what reasons led to the selection of the book’s cover image?

Michael O'Brien: William Kurelek, a Catholic artist, was a mentor to me in my youth when I had made a commitment to painting only Christian works. In “Donkey Carrying God,” Kurelek presents the donkey carrying a tabernacle on its back as it crosses the desert, with the Holy Eucharist illuminating the ground ahead. Because it was made as a Christmas gift in the 1970s, it likely portrays symbolically the journey of the Holy Family to Bethlehem or the flight into Egypt. It struck us that in the mystery of married life in Christ, the Lord is within our sacrament and in our hearts, and his presence is the light for the journey ahead as a family. In another sense, too, each child is a kind of Christ given to us by God, to be carried with love and faith. For these reasons, along with its themes, the image was a natural choice for the book cover.

Mate Krajina: Michael selected the cover, yet it is exactly the scene one might have easily come across in Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina well into the late 19th century. Missionaries, most frequently Franciscans and Dominicans, used donkeys as their means of transportations for all sacred objects – folding altars, monstrances and the like – as they traveled throughout the mountainous regions. Another dimension is a spiritual message: Continue suffering in silence; God knows why man’s life has to be such penance (and what its fruit will be).

FFG: Your letters make reference at times to the family as “the heart of Nazareth.” How does this phrase deepen our understanding of the family as the “domestic church,” particularly in the role of fathers?

O’Brien: The thirty years when Jesus lived the “hidden life” in Nazareth was composed of thousands of ordinary things. God dwelling among us, with Mary and Joseph, lived with humble attention to simple tasks and duties. As a result he sanctified everything, showing us that nothing is really ordinary. Every small act of love in family life is, in fact, great, a path to holiness, demanding everything from us, especially the challenge to overcome our innate selfishness. This is the way for most of mankind – to give life by sacrificial dying to oneself.

Krajina: You’ll come across the phrase immediately, at the beginning of our correspondence in the book. I was very deeply touched by it; it has given me a new understanding my own family life. I long for the atmosphere of Nazareth, inevitably associated with the Holy Family. It stands for quiet work and prayer, love and mutual respect; actually, for everything that needs to be accentuated in our spirituality.

FFG: What – or who – most influenced the both of you to see fatherhood as a universal fraternity defined by heroic courage, total trust, sacrificial giving to the point of shedding and sharing tears?

O’Brien: Much of my own coming to this understanding was a gradual education in family life at the ground level – the Great School of Love, St. John Paul II called it. His writings on family have been very influential on me. The example of St. Joseph also especially taught me learning to listen for the quiet promptings of God in my heart and soul, obedience to the Lord and the teachings of the Church, risking the loss of everything for the sake of following God's will.

Krajina: To me, it came more or less naturally, through Catholic teaching and God’s Word. It seems to me that it has been instilled into the soul of husbands and fathers since the beginning of time. Eventually, facing one’s cross in everyday life — especially when it comes to problems with rearing children — makes you admit that you are weak and helpless without God. Sacrifice then ceases to be something hard; it rather becomes Christian, almost the joy of chivalry, for “a knight must never complain about his wounds from spiritual battle since his King was crucified on the Cross!”

FFG: What makes The Donkey Dialogues the “End (of the Prologue)” (p. 182)?

O’Brien: Maté and I have been writing letters to each other for many years, but it seemed to us that our recent letters were examining crucial issues with a new urgency – issues that might concern all Catholic fathers. Maté suggested that we consider making our exchange better known, so that other fathers of families might take heart and know that their struggles were not unique and that they were not carrying heavy burdens in isolation. Ending The Donkey Dialogues as a “Prologue” was a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that our personal communications would continue, many adventures lie ahead, new understandings and graces will come, and that fathers everywhere will be experiencing the same if they always turn to Jesus Christ for light, strength and consolation.

Learn more about The Donkey Dialogues at Justin Press.

Jason Godin is associate editor of Fathers for Good.