Heroes of the Faith

December 2017: John O'Donohue: breaking ourselves open to the divine light

A spiritual journey should only be a quarter inch long, but many miles deep, Irish author John O'Donohue suggested. Carol O'Connor explores his insights, and the Celtic influence that led him to believe in "the hidden world that waits on the edge of things".

By Carol O'Connor

December 10 2017To be holy is to be natural; to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you,” says John O’Donohue is his book Anam Cara. He 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.

Mystery, however, 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 insights 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 has said, with an eye that “alters all”.

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 us as readers to move out of our heads and into the heart, to take all our ideas and concepts deeper into the heart’s region and live out 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, in 1956. His brother writes in the foreword 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 the priesthood he became a curate in a Connemara parish.

At the end of 2000 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.

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.

He quotes 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 time of great cultural renewal and economic prosperity in Ireland. This is 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 the soul hungers 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 break open our inner landscape, and unpack what we know. This includes scrutinising language itself. He loves the root meaning of a word: for example, desire comes from desiderare, meaning to cease to see. 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 can also 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.

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 imagination that the reader can be moved into a contemplative space.

Sometimes his prose reads like a series of non-sequiturs, or series of epithets, or beautiful statements and 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”. After the sixth chapter of Anam Cara, which is on Death, there is no chapter seven 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”.

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 unnamable part of self, and also the unnamable 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 unnamable, 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: a Book of Blessings (2007). Blessing, he says, is invocation, “a calling forth”. It is “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 certainly blessed many of us by his words and stories and wisdom.


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Carol O’Connor is a Melbourne writer and teacher, and manages St Peter’s Bookroom. She has a passion for poetry and early Celtic Christianity.