At Home in the Elements: John O’Donohue’s Minding of Our World.
‘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 tightly packed layers of caked earth broken and freed; then sometimes an inner mound would reveal where a huge rock lived inside the earth. They’d dig around it, and then with crowbars they’d hoist the stone up out of its lair. For days and even weeks afterwards the stone looked dazed and estranged, stranding unsheltered and alone in the severance of wind and light, a new neighbour in the world of eyes weather and emptiness….as (the rocks) slowly took on the accretions of weather and it erosive engravings, time enabled them to forget the underworld. In a sense this is the disturbance, the revelation and strange beauty that a new piece of sculpture causes in the world. Divine Beauty p135
And there is this same sense in John O’Donohue’s writing. It is as if he is coaxing or encouraging something deep within the human psyche - within each one of us - to emerge through means of the written form. He recognises that ideas surface within us and that as human beings we are materialising.
He also loves to break open the meaning of English or Irish words and find new nuances of meaning by examining their etymology. For example, a favourite of mine O’Donohue employs is ‘entwind’ which literally means ‘God unravelling.’ This sense of God streaming apart to reveal new truths, says something of our innate human longing to re-see and re-understand. So too our souls individually emerge gently and gradually in life, like these stones in his valley. And just as no two of all the stones in the valley are ever alike, so no two souls emerging on earth can ever be alike.
John O’Donohue died suddenly aged 52 years. He was the eldest of 4 children. His early education was local in the country, then he bordered at St Mary’s College in Galway. At the age of 18 he entered the novitiate at Maynooth, there completing an Arts degree in English and Philosophy, and in 1981 Theology. After being ordained for priesthood he became a curate in a Conamara 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 Turbingen in Germany, which was completed in 1990 and published in Mainz in 1993. During these years in particular, he would have been much more directly exposed to a broader European influence on his own thinking and praying. To date, I don’t believe that this thesis has been published in English. Which is a great pity.
Between 1990-95 he was a priest in a number of parishes in County Clare and also had developed a strong interest in the works of the 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart. Echoes of Memory was published in 1994. In separate essays, what became posthumously published as The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature was also released at this time. In 1995 he began to lecture in Humanities at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. O’Donohue’s breakthrough in terms of public recognition as a writer on spirituality happened with the publication of Anam Cara in 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 was published in 1998; Conamara Blues, a book of poetry, was published in 2000. At the end of that year he ‘retired from priestly life’ and bought a cottage in Conamara which became his sanctuary and writing refuge. The process of writing Divine Beauty, which was published in 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’.
I’ve always resonated with John O’Donohue’s identification that we are existential beings; we are essentially alone in the world. Though the earth has been here before us, and will be there to receive us, we are born into the world alone, and we die alone. But like the hidden stillness of mountains there is yet a hidden secret wisdom of life itself. And this is found in silence. There is a deep silence within each of us and at the heart of this inner absence of sound, is stillness and presence. Here is the space of prayer. He says: ‘Deep below the personality and outer image the soul is continually at prayer.’ Eternal Echoes p196 Prayer voices our longing and is the door to our own eternity. Prayer can’t be reduced to simply a sequence of holy words or actions. But ‘prayer issues from an eternal well within you’ Eternal Echoes p 198. We pray ‘in’ the Holy Spirit, not ‘to ’the Holy Spirit. And recognising that we are limited beings of clay, ‘deep prayer of the heart continues within you in a silence that is too deep for words to even reach.’ Eternal Echoes p 198. So we are existentially alone, but deep within us is the capacity of silence, and an awareness of a much deeper presence.
Let us bless the grace of water. ……… Let us bless the humility of water Always willing to take shape Of whatever otherness holds it….. To Bless This Space Between Us p 63-65
Water is graceful, yields, it is a ‘liquid root’, a well, ‘a river to continue belief’, is buoyant, we voyage over water, water voyages inside us, when we cry we cry in water. Water is sacred - we are blessed by holy water, baptised in water.
Water is the element I would chose to describe O’Donohue’s style of writing. All his books are works of poetry, even his prose reads like poetry. The path of his prose is not linear, not straight but circular; not rational, but not irrational. He likes to explore around ideas, come back to main perceptions, leave gaps, design ideas with threads. His work is always formed and structured, tight and well thought out, but serves to encourage the reader’s thinking to journey downwards towards deeper places within ourselves; to become more thoughtful and aware. Water he tells us prefers the lower places. The Four Elements p 47. The first forms of life were from the primeval ocean. Our source is water. The Four Elements p 4. But it’s not just our deeper inner world he attunes us to; in Anam Cara the body is a sacrament; a mirror of the soul. ‘To be sensual or sensuous is to be in the presence of your own soul,’ he writes. Anam Cara p 85. For John O’Donohue the human journey is one of continually going down - but simultaneously calling us to engage through our senses with the environment, and with others. Water surrounds islands - it links landscapes.
Fundamental to all O’Donohue’s work is this pouring out into connection. We are existentially alone but interconnected. For me, having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s it was then a threshold moment in the late 1990s to discover a spiritual writer who could reflect in a new way many authors I was very familiar with: Camus and Koestler and Laing, Kafka. O’Donohue does not refute their ideas, but somehow seems to yield and in so doing drew my eye towards a bigger framework holding the world together - our being not only held in relationship, but born and sustained there . He was able to articulate and build on in a new fresh way an understanding of human existence that when seen and lived experientially through his Celtic Christian lens, reveals the ongoing expansiveness of the world in God. In the early 1990s I had been introduced to Celtic Christianity via writers such as Esther de Waal, David Adam, Philip Newell. But here was a writer who could referentially drawer me back to the pain, the intellectual and philosophical challenges I struggled with earlier in my life and then left unresolved, to suggest new paths towards God through their writings. So John O’Donohue has been a writer enabling me as an adult to intersect back into my own young adulthood and knit in there a small piece of resolution for my soul today. I believe he had much more work and exploration to do with these existential writers and I ponder the further directions his work may have taken.
So we begin life alone but already deeply gifted in relationship; held in the watery womb of our mother. O’Donohue writes:
when you come into your solitude, you come into companionship with everything and everyone….when you patiently and silently come home to yourself you come into unity and belonging. Anam Cara p 154.
In his spiritual writing he crafted words such as ‘whoness’ and ‘whereness’ - pronouns given essence. Who-ness is that unnameable part of self, that unnameable relationship we have with God. We have a relationship with our body, with others, with the landscape. Our primary relationship begins in God. And to know real beauty in the world is to know who-ness. 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.’ Divine Beauty p241. And again and again he shows in his work that to be participatory in the ‘who question’ is to recognise that every relationship we have is personal. Our solitude and silence opens the door into place and belonging and togetherness.
Let’s look at the door itself between solitude and companionship. Let’s explore a little more this opening gap, this intersecting edge, this space, this unseen air.
Let us bless the air, Benefactor of breath; Keeper of the fragile bridge We breathe across. ……
Air along whose unseen path Presence builds its quiet procession; Sometimes in waves of sound, Voices that can persuade Every door of the heart; Often in tides of music That absolve the cut of time. To Bless this Space Between Us p 31-34
Air is a bearer of a hidden reality; ‘home for us in what we can’t see.’ And, in particular, ‘air’ takes on its own presence as the edge between the seen and the unseen, the form and no form, the concrete and the invisible to the outer eye, the in-between.
For John O’Donohue, like the early Celtic Christians, this edge is the contemplative space; it’s ‘the hidden world that waits on the edge of things’ Divine Beauty p148. It’s a space which recognises possibility