‘To be holy is to be natural; to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.’
An edited version of this essay appears in The Melbourne Anglican December 2017.
John O'Donohue is interested in the work of the soul. If the human soul is to be known at all it must understand itself in relationship. Ultimately it rests in mystery.
This, however, this is not O’Donohue’s starting point. His premise is existential. Words like aloneness, nothingness, emptiness are used frequently in his works. His is a vocabulary of anxiety and isolation that touches on so many of our modern day preoccupations. But into that lexis he pours ancient wisdom, the language of early Celtic Christians, and the astute insight of contemporary thinkers. Beginning with the philosophical notion that the human self can experience itself existing as a separate identity in an otherwise random universe, he delights in taking the reader on a bridge over an abyss, to show us the contours of a different landscape. We now see the world, as William Blake said, with an eye that ‘alters all.’
John O’Donohue’s work doesn’t just come out of nowhere. In the preface he tells us that he has embarked on an inner conversation with the Celtic imagination, but it’s more than this. His works are set upon a foundation of reflections by many theologians, poets, philosophers, and mystics. His quotes are variously sourced and seem endless. Just by having lengthy Suggested Further Reading lists at the end of his works he emphasizes the importance of building on the ideas of others. We all exist in relationship.
We each have our own voice and sensibility. O’Donohue’s voice is lyrical and poetic. He synthesises the ideas of many contemporary and historical poets into his own distinctive voice. Its utterance attempts to evoke in language his own living relationship with the Divine. This personal and unique relationship with God is what he wants to help foster in us. O’Donohue is primarily writing from an experiential way of living in the world. He wants the reader to move out of our heads and into the heart, to take all our ideas and concepts deeper into the heart’s region and move in our lives from this space.
When I discovered John O’Donohue in the 1990s I was helped to articulate more clearly how a self that senses itself to be dislocated in the world and trapped in fragmentation, can be shaped into wholeness. He used, for me, a very familiar vocabulary - the language of the outsider, the misfit. The language of someone who longs to belong, but knows that any belonging on a human level - to a social set or country or religious group - is fraught. I’ve never felt that I truly belong anywhere, nor do I think that’s an uncommon experience. I’ve come to realise it as gift, because if this longing can’t be met on a human level, it must sought in the Divine. Then there’s the discovery that faith asks us to risk the belief that our longing to belong in God is met by God’s longing for us to belong in Him (or Her). This becomes a risk worth taking. For John O’Donohue, when the ‘I’ dies spiritually into this universe of relationship, the self becomes not only more authentic, bigger, but also realises its own very deep connection in the whole of creation. The self finds her soul and finds that the soul’s home belongs in God.
John O’Donohue was born in County Clare, Ireland, 1956. His brother writes in the forward to Four Elements, ‘We were born into a farming family and our first lessons were learnt through the medium of nature.’ The valley in which John was born and raised formed the casting of his soul. He referred to it as ‘my private sky.’ The eldest of four children, his early education was local, then he boarded at St Mary’s College in Galway. At 18 he entered the novitiate at Maynooth, completing degrees in Arts, English, Philosophy, and Theology. After being ordained for priesthood he became a curate in a Connemara parish. In 1986 he worked on a PhD on the dialectic between the individual and society in Hegel’s phenomenology of spirit, entitled ‘The Person as Mediator’ at the University of Tubingen in Germany. During these years he was much more directly exposed to broader European influences on his own thinking and praying. I don’t believe that this thesis has been published in English, which is a great pity.
In the 1990s he was a priest in County Clare. He developed a strong interest in the works of the 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart. Echoes of Memory and The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature were published during this time. He lectured in Humanities before his breakthrough came, in terms of public recognition as a writer on spirituality, with the publication of Anam Cara (1997). Later, after applying for a year’s leave from the university, which was refused, he resigned and began to lecture and teach around Europe and America. He became a full time writer. Eternal Echoes followed, then Conamara Blues, his second book of poetry, in 2000. At the end of that year he ‘retired from priestly life’ and bought a cottage in Connemara which became his sanctuary and writing refuge. The process of writing Divine Beauty (2003) absorbed his thoughts and feelings so intensely that afterwards he would enjoy recounting his mother’s words: ‘Ah, poor John, Beauty has killed him’. Benedictus: Book of Blessings was published a few months before his sudden death in 2008.
John O’Donohue wrote through the period in Ireland known as the Celtic Tiger, a time of great cultural renewal and economic prosperity. For the first time in decades, more people were coming into Ireland to work and live, than were leaving. With this startling economic growth came a new optimism, confidence, and re-assessment and appreciation of Ireland’s own cultural identity. The nation’s own church structures were opened up for accountability and renewal. Coincidentally many spiritual writers in England, Scotland and Wales, were beginning to re-discover the Celtic roots of their Christian faith at this time, amongst them Esther DeWaal, Ian Bradley, and Mary Low. Philip Newell was writing about Iona. In 1994 a new edition of The Carmina Gadelica was published. David Adam was translating and writing his own range of Celtic prayers which are now also set into the Church Calendar. Celtic Daily Prayer: A Northumbrian Office was published in 1994. It’s into this mix that John O’Donohue wove his own fresh, unique voice.