The Blessings of John O’Donohue

“As high over the mountains the eagle spreads its wings, may your perspective be larger than the view from the foothills. When the way is flat and dull in times of gray endurance,
may your imagination continue to evoke horizons.” #This blessing, read at a pre-inauguration event in Baltimore was from To Bless the Space Between Us, by my late friend John O’Donohue, the Irish poet, philosopher and spiritual writer, who died a year ago. This dramatic week I’ve returned to John’s writings to get myself centered, steep myself in his blessings, and dig deeper contemplative roots.
John O’Donohue was one of the most talented writers, thinkers and lecturers of our time, a kind of modern-day Meister Eckhart, the Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton of Europe. An original Irish voice, John reclaimed Celtic spirituality to invite us back to the contemplative basics of our humanity–life, creation, solitude, friendship, community, even death. His blessing rose above the inaugural hoopla and set me thinking again about his wisdom.
Born in 1956 on the rugged west coast of Ireland to a stone mason father, John became a priest, served in several parishes, studied Hegelian philosophy, and in 1990 received his doctorate from Tubingen. For most of the 1990s, he lived in silence and solitude on the rocky coast of County Clare.
He left the priesthood around the time he published his enormous best-seller on Celtic spirituality, Anam Cara, (the Gaelic phrase for “Soul Friend”). His other best-selling books included Eternal Echoes, Beauty, and Conamara Blues.
I met John through a mutual friend in 1997 when I lived in Derry, Northern Ireland.
A true environmentalist, he spent his life not just studying Celtic spirituality, but embodying it. He loved beauty, creation, wisdom, and “the invisible world.” His writings and lectures sprang from the profound solitude of his life and from the spectacular landscape of the West’s barren rocks.
At first I thought his writings were too easy. And I urged him to unpack the political implications of his vision for a new world without war, poverty, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction.
I look back now and realize I was naïve. My criticism revealed my inability to grasp his deep wisdom. He spent little ink telling us what was wrong with us. Rather he pointed out a direction, a way toward our deepest humanity, toward God. I’m still struggling to grasp his message. His books require slow study. Maybe now as I grow older–I’ll be fifty this summer–I’m finally able to hear it.
“Either we are in the universe to inhabit the eternity of our souls and grow real, or else we might as well dedicate our days to shopping and kill time watching talk-shows,” he wrote. Let’s not “let our days fall away like empty shells and miss all the treasure… Each day is a secret story woven around the radiant heart of wonder. The sacred duty of being an individual is to gradually learn how to live so as to awaken the eternal within you.”
In Anam Cara, John writes about “the mystery of friendship,” about “a spirituality of the senses,” about solitude being “luminous,” about “work as growth,” “aging as an inner harvest” and death as “the horizon in the well.”
“If you have a trust in and an expectation of your own solitude,” he wrote, “everything that you need to know will be revealed to you.”
We need to return to the solitude within, to find again the dream that lies at the hearth of the soul. We need to feel the dream with the wonder of a child approaching a threshold of discovery. When we rediscover our childlike nature, we enter into a world of gentle possibility. Consequently, we will find ourselves more frequently at the place of ease, delight and celebration. The false burdens fall away. We come into rhythm with ourselves. Our clay shape gradually learns to walk beautifully on this magnificent earth.
At the time of his death, The Guardian called him “a genuinely original religious mind who, almost accidentally, became a bestselling writer and public speaker.” He was read and sought after by ordinary people across Europe, as well as presidents, rock stars and Hollywood’s glitterati. He invited people to reconsider the spiritual life in a radically human and deeply intellectual way. I never knew anyone with such an amazing command of language.
Recently, a friend said to me that as far as God and heaven are concerned, the current practice of organized religion is at the kindergarten level. John O’Donohue tried to help us beyond our “childish” ways toward a more mature spirituality of truth, life, unity and peace. He wanted us to reclaim our soul, that long-forgotten item.
John wrote: “If you live in this world with kindness, if you do not add to other people’s burdens, but if you try to serve love, when the time comes for you to make the journey [of death], you will receive a serenity, peace and a welcoming freedom that will enable you to go to the other world with great elegance, grace and acceptance.”
A year ago, he set out on vacation to the South of France, with his mother and girl friend, resting up before a long world tour for his new book, To Bless the Space Between Us. On January 3, 2008, he enjoyed a wonderful dinner, went to bed, and never woke up. He probably suffered a massive aneurysm. He was 52. A tremendous shock, especially since he had written so poignantly about grief, death and growing old.
So as we enter this new day, recharge our activism, and carry on our work for justice and peace, I offer a typical blessing from John O’Donohue. May it remind us of the “things unseen,” evoke “new horizons,” help us dig our contemplative roots and unleash lasting springs of hope.
Let us bless the imagination of the Earth.
That knew early the patience to harness the mind of time,
Waited for the seas to warm, ready to welcome the emergence
Of things dreaming of voyaging among the stillness of land…
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.
The wonder of a garden trusting the first warmth of spring…
The humility of the Earth that transfigures all that has fallen of outlived growth.
The kindness of the Earth, opening to receive
our worn forms into the final stillness.
Let us ask forgiveness of the Earth
For all our sins against her:
for our violence and poisonings of her beauty.
Let us remember within us the ancient clay, holding the memory of seasons,
The passion of the wind, the fluency of water, the warmth of fire,
The quiver-touch of the sun and shadowed sureness of the moon.
That we may awaken to live to the full the dream of the Earth
Who chose us to emerge and incarnate its hidden night in mind, spirit and light.