‘I was born in a limestone valley. To live in a valley is to enjoy a private sky.’
Anam Cara p107
The valley that John O’Donohue grew up in was situated in the Burren, County Clare, West Coast of Ireland. He was a poet, philosopher, priest, mystic but always described himself as a ‘peasant of the valley.’ He was born here in 1956 and is now buried.
At John O’Donohue’s funeral in 2008, his brother Pat described him as: ‘a big, beautiful and gentle presence in the world, also a protective presence. When you were with him you felt minded.’ Irish Times, 14th Jan 2008. When I heard him speak in Melbourne in 2001, I felt something of that same presence and mindedness in him. I’d brought along a stack of copies of his works, Anam Cara and Eternal Echoes, for him to sign for St Peter’s Bookroom. At the end of the session I joined a queue of fellow devotees and when I sheepishly presented him with my dozen or so books on his table to sign, he looked at me and smiled, saying - ‘sure, you must love my books awfully to have so many copies.’
Since my first encounter with the writings of John O’Donohue in the 1990s I’ve always resonated with a sense of something very ‘elemental’ in his work: his spiritual wisdom is founded on an understanding of life that is premised on the concrete, the visceral, on what we can directly apprehend with our five senses. Sections of Anam Cara are devoted to our human senses. Philosophically he’s not a fundamentalist, but neither is he a relativist or overly abstracted. His writing gives credence to God’s mystery, but directs us toward what we can trust: the senses and the elements. The images of earth, water, air and fire ripple through all his books. The Four Elements, was first published as a single volume on the 3rd anniversary after O’Donohue’s death in 2011. But the individual blessings themselves contained in this book, first appeared in To Bless This Space Between Us: A Collection of Invocations and Blessings. This was the last work written and recorded by him, before his death.
For O’Donohue each element has its own particularity, but is never independent from the other three. In the poem In Praise of Earth, the element of earth is an ‘ancient clay / holding the memory of seasons’ - and holding too memory of ‘The passion of wind / fluency of water / warmth of the fire.’ To Bless This Space Between Us p 70-73. Creation happens because of the combined efforts of the elements. They co-exist with one another. We also have our own human capacity in them; we are made of clay and air and water. The spark of life itself is in us.
And John O’Donohue shaped his own vision and way of being in the world through a deep attunement to the images of fire, air, wind and water. The Celtic vision of life, the stories and poetry and song he grew up with and later read about, gave him a framework for his own writing and teaching. For him, having faith in God was not to ascribe to a system of beliefs, but to risk living experientially inside the felt presence of God in our world. His voice was resonant with early Celtic Christians. And he talked about this journey through life in terms of becoming ‘enfaithed.’
So elements have their own shape, their own science, but they like us, have been formed by a Creator - God who, as Trinity, continually participates and delights in creation and invites us to participate in the dance of this delight. But John O’Donohue recognised we are also asked to have custodianship and responsibility for the nurture and health of our elements. And he will sometimes ask our forgiveness from the elements for our human acts of despoiling and pollution, as in this blessing of the earth:
Let us ask forgiveness of the Earth
For all our sins against her;
For our violence and poisonings
Of her beauty.
To Bless This Space Between Us p 73
For John O’Donohue life is a constant flow of emergence. The earth takes on her own persona, and having been nursed by light at the beginning of time, then holding hope in her heart, became ‘ready to welcome the emergence’ of life:
Let us thank the Earth
That offers ground for home
And holds our feet firm
To walk in space open
To infinite galaxies.
Let us salute the silence
And certainty of mountains:
Their sublime stillness,
Their dream-filled hearts.
To Bless This Space Between Us p 72
O’Donohue’s father was a stonemason and there’s a memorable passage in Divine Beauty where he remembers childhood moments when land needed to be cleared. When his
uncle and father (levelled) a field, the ground would be opened, the tig