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Taking 'the curved path' with John O'Donohue

‘To be holy is to be natural; to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.’

Anam Cara.

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.

No matter what life affirming vision his family upbringing brought him, I think many of the teachers and priests that John O’Donohue grew up with would have been very different from the sort of teacher, priest and writer he became. My own Dublin Catholic parents in the 1960s very much reflected the Catholic sensibility of a 19th and early 20th century Ireland. God was patriarchal and compassion was earned by supplication and propitiation. The face of God was like that of the British Imperialist: a parochial and petty dictator. He threatened the power to bend your back and make you starve. ‘I’ll put the fear of God into you’ was a familiar phrase from my elders. However, O’Donohue’s more instinctive, intuitive faith showed him a very different face of God. He recognised more and more that we find God in the present moment, in the self, in place and memory. In blessing and beauty. This understanding and experience of faith as relationship, grounded primarily on Love, was expressed by a much earlier group of Christians: the early Irish Celtic Christians. Theirs was a faith that had a lot to teach him.

John O’Donohue makes it clear that our ‘modern connection with Celtic tradition must be critical and reflective.’ He distances himself from New Age Celtic paraphernalia of commercialism or supernatural rituals. His concern is with the hidden life of the soul; with having the courage to acquire self-knowledge through opening yourself into relationship with divine love. God is Love who seeks real intimacy, vulnerability, openness. God asks us to risk all, to trust in a reality that we cannot see, but is working with us for our psychological, spiritual and physical wholeness. Quoting St Bonaventure: ‘Enter yourself, therefore, and observe that your soul loves itself most fervently.’ Importantly, this is a love that does not end in itself. Once this relationship with the Divine has been entered, unlike the relationship of Echo and Narcissus, it ‘should then liberate us from the traps of falsity and obsession, and enable us to enter the circle of friendship at the heart of creation.’ Eternal Echoes (1998) was published at the height of the Celtic Tiger, a work I believe in which O’Donohue is warning the Irish not to get trapped into the falsity of self-love only, not to be imprisoned by substituting spiritual fulfilment for economic prosperity. He reminds the Irish, and all his readers and students, that our souls hunger for something much more than economics; it longs to become connected with a wider circle of love through whose generosity of giving we are all encircled.

I have always resonated with John O’Donohue’s call in his writing to stay open, with his capacity to know God via imagination. He urges us to break open our inner landscape - unpack what we know. He pares back to the bone: memories, thoughts, even language itself is scrutinised. He loves the root meaning of a word: eg, desire comes from desiderare, meaning to cease to see. He delights in digging up arcane words: Entwind, meaning God un-becomes. Like Irish poet Seamus Heaney, he loves ‘digging.’ And by breaking open in this way we begin to see the world anew. With psychological astuteness he shows that by clearing out our own inner field, we allow primordial longings to rise up so our vision can be enlarged. Our capacity for wonder is increased. But so too in this process, those people we are most intimate and familiar with suddenly seem strangers. A stranger may bring danger, but also can bring blessing. Our human task becomes to break open the familiar so we can once more see it afresh. This then, is the heart of prayer, to ‘liberate the Divine’ which means to ‘liberate the self.’ If you lose the capacity to do this, you ‘remain unaware of your freedom to change how you think. When your thinking is locked in false certainty or negativity, it puts so many interesting and vital areas of life out of your reach. You live impoverished and hungry in the midst of your own abundance.’ Ultimately O’Donohue’s purpose in breaking open is not to analyse or accrue knowledge, but to remove the ‘wall you have put between the light and yourself.’ It is for renewal, replenishment, refreshment, not clever know-how or destruction.

Openness also means a preparedness to let go of predictive or linear thinking. Many people who have visited Ireland comment later, with a mixture of amusement and frustration, about their experience in asking for directions. To ask an Irish person for directions is to risk being sent on a journey charted with many strange coils and turnings. O’Donohue’s own prose style is a little like this. He is much more comfortable with the circular forms of thought patterns. Each of his prose works has its own broad theme. Around this main idea, smaller themes cluster like the intricate loops of a Celtic knot. However, always is the same vision: God is Good, God is Love. As Trinity, God encircles our life individually, our life communally, creation itself.

This looping prose style movement exemplifies how we experience the movement of a deeper self in the world. This is because ‘…the imagination has a particular rhythm of vision which never sees directly in a linear way. The eye of the imagination follows the rhythm of the circle. If your vision is confined to linear purpose, you may miss out on the secret destiny that a form of activity can bring you.’ It isn’t via the logical or rational that one’s deeper longings are fulfilled. He goes on to say ‘…the linear mind, despite its sincerity and commitment, can totally miss the gift. The imagination in its loyalty to possibility often takes the curved path rather than the linear way. Such risk and openness inherits the harvest of creativity, beauty and spirit.’

Though a philosopher, John O’Donohue’s prose won’t bear the scrutiny of reason. He is not interested in reason, but contemplation. It’s only via our imagination that the reader can be moved into a contemplative space. Sometimes his prose reads like a series of non-sequiturs, like a series of epithets, beautiful statements or series of quotes, but lacking an obvious unifying thread of reason. But what it works to do is gently push your mind to think in another way, to enter another space. So you read a few lines, and then look away from the page and reflect. This is the invisible space of prayer. The journey is down, not along. In Anam Cara he writes: ‘When time is reduced to linear progress it is emptied of presence…. If there were a spiritual journey it would only be a ¼ inch long, though many miles deep. It would be a swerve into rhythm with your deeper nature and presence…..You do not have to go away outside yourself to come into real conversation with your soul and with the mysteries of the spiritual world. The eternal is at home - within you.’

To move into the contemplative space is to journey toward ‘the hidden world that waits on the edge of things’. It recognises possibility, delights in taking you to the spaces in between - ‘the imagination works on the threshold that runs between light and dark, visible and invisible, quest and question, possibility and fact.’ So not only is it a movement down, paradoxically it also takes us to the edge. It is into this liminal space, the world of the invisible, the ‘ab esse’ (to be elsewhere), that we are each called to go. For here, ‘absence seems to hold the intimacy of some fractured presence’. Like the early Celtic Christians, he recognised that this realm of the invisible is ‘a huge region of our life.’ Anam Cara is the only book I know whereby the author in the prologue confesses to a ‘silent hidden 7th chapter which embraces the ancient namelessness at the heart of the human self.’ After the 6th chapter which is on Death, there is no chapter 7 because it is silent and hidden within ourselves. We come from a place that is silent and hidden, and thus, ‘our longing for the invisible is never stilled’. Likewise, we cannot see our own or others beliefs or thoughts, but they are great determinants of our tangible being in the world. ‘The invisible remains the great background which invests your every gesture and action with possibility and pathos.’

The importance of absence, of the invisible, is an ongoing theme in all O’Donohue’s works. It is this space that we inhabit when we enter church, ‘The house of God is a frontier region, an intense threshold where the visible world meets the ultimate but subtle structures of the invisible. We enter this silence and stillness in order to decipher the creative depths of the divine imagination that dreams our lives.’ The church is the place of prayer, ‘even though the body may kneel or words may be said or changed, the heart of prayer activity is invisible. Prayer is an invisible world.’

These explorations help O’Donohue realise that to know real beauty in the world is to know what he calls who-ness. Who-ness is that unnameable part of self, also that unnameable relationship we have with God. O’Donohue says: ‘The who question is the most numinous and mysterious of questions … Who has no map. When we claim that God is beauty, we are claiming for beauty all the adventure, mystery, infinity and autonomy of divine who-ness’.

But who-ness, though dwelling in mystery and unnameable, still has to manifest itself. O’Donohue encourages us to trust our body, our physical senses. It is via the body that we experience our sense of place and belonging in the world. He writes, ‘the human body is the house of belonging; it is where we live while we are here.’ A large section of Anam Cara is devoted to a discussion of each of the five senses. The importance of the physical body, the nature of matter in our geographical landscape and our vital link with the world’s ecology, is never lost sight of. Because of who-ness we see more clearly what is right before our very eyes.

Just before he died, John O’Donohue completed his work Benedictus. (2007) It’s a book of blessings. Blessing, he says, is invocation, ‘a calling forth’. The word ‘may’ occurs often throughout the work because it is a word of benediction, ‘the spring through which the Holy Spirit is invoked to surge into presence and effect…’. By blessing we call forth change, transformation, a new fresh atmosphere, even in the deepest suffering. He writes ‘Whenever you give a blessing, a blessing returns to enfold you.’

When John O’Donohue came to Melbourne in 2001 he blessed many of us by his words and stories and wisdom. There was no bookseller at the event I attended but he was quite happy to sign copies of his work that people had brought along. I’d brought a ton of his books for sale in the Bookroom. When my turn came, lugging a mountain of Anam Cara and Eternal Echoes, he saw right through my ruse, my embarrassment. And he laughed as he signed away, saying, ‘Gosh, you must really love my books.’ I felt blessed.