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John O'Donohue (1954-2008): Our New Friend on the Other Side

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"Endings seem to lie in wait," John O'Donohue wrote. His certainly did. He died in his sleep, January 3, 2008, on vacation near Avignon. He was just 53.

I knew John O'Donohue very slightly. I had read Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, the 1997 book that made him deservedly famous. "Read" is wrong. At 100 words a minute, I had, over weeks, absorbed enough of this deceptively simple exploration of "soul friendship" to grasp that here was an original thinker, a gifted poet and, most astonishing of all, a philosopher who had forged a way of looking at the world that was painfully aware of human frailty but insistent on the triumphal power of divine love. And he wrote beautifully.

A book this exciting, you have to talk about it. I mentioned O'Donohue to Sarah Ban Breathnach, the author of the Oprah-annointed Simple Abundance. As luck would have it, she and O'Donohue were friends. And when he came through New York, Sarah generously arranged a dinner.

That was the night I learned to drink single malt. And was there ever a better teacher in the art of sipping than an Irish philosopher and mystic who had worn the collar for 19 years? I don't recall what we talked about, and neither can my wife, who does not drink; all I remember is the cascades of laughter, the unbuckled happiness of people who are thrilled to be alive, and together, and sharing good fellowship with sympathetic souls in a nice restaurant on a rainy New York night.

An evening like that is so rare I think of it as a religious experience. John O'Donohue, a holy man if ever there was one, had a lot of nights like that. A recent interviewer wrote, in memoriam, about a morning when O'Donohue came to breakfast with a hangover, having polished off an entire bottle of single malt with friends the night before. "The bottle didn't die," he announced, "without spiritual necessity."

That offhand remark was quintessential O'Donohue. He never failed to connect the worldly with the sacred --- and see it all as holy. As a writer and a man, he reminded me of the priest who was a friend of Proust's. Yes, he believed there was a Hell. But he didn't believe anyone went there.

Where do our deepest beliefs come from? Generally from childhood, and then not from what our parents and teachers say, but from what they do and who they are. In John O'Donohue's case, his mother was a loving rock. His father was a stonemason and farmer --- and, O'Donohue thought, the "holiest man I ever met, priests included." Sometimes the boy would bring tea to his father as he worked the fields. Often, he heard him --- praying --- before he saw him.

O'Donohue had a superlative education, earned a Ph.D. in philosophical theology from the University of Tubingen, became known as an expert on Hegel and, later, Meister Eckhart. As a priest, he loved the Church's sacramental structure and its mystical and intellectual traditions. He also loved writing. Eventually, an officious bishop made him choose. "The best decision I ever made was to become a priest," O'Donohue would say, years later, "and I think the second best decision was to resign from public priestly ministry."

In fact, he had his issues with Catholicism, especially its views on sex and women. The Church, he said, "is not trustable in the area of Eros at all." And it "has a pathological fear of the feminine --- it would sooner allow priests to marry than it would allow women to become priests."

He was just as hard on other denominations. Religious fundamentalists, he said, "only want to lead you back, driven by nostalgia for a past that never existed, to manipulate and control you.... [Their] God tends to be a monolith and an emperor of the blandest singularity." New Age spirituality, he felt, was a smorgasbord, and undisciplined. Not that he found any comfort in secular life. He scorned the mall, feared for the spiritual health of the young, and had a special dislike for media folk, who he described as "non-elected custodians of sensationalism."

His bedrocks were his faith and "the Celtic imagination," which, he said, "represents a vision of the divine where no one or nothing is excluded." The blend he created was pure joy: "I think the divine is like a huge smile that breaks somewhere in the sea within you, and gradually comes up again."

O'Donohue was no Pollyanna. He was deeply troubled by bad things happening to good people. But he also saw that "a lot of suffering is just getting rid of dross in yourself, and lingering and hanging in the darkness is often --- I say this against myself --- a failure of imagination, to imagine the door into the light."

So it makes sense that O'Donohue's last book, To Bless the Space Between Us, would be nothing but invocations and blessings --- a simple, how-to book that, in effect, takes him back to his father praying in the fields. By the fact that we live, we are blessed; by the light that shines in our hearts, we have the power to bless others and be blessed by them. Is there a purer, more elementary form of the divine in action?

He asks: What is a blessing? His first answer is formal, and expected: "A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen." But then the poetry enters: "It is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart." And then there's the magical factor: "When a blessing is invoked, a window opens in eternal time."

We need to impact one another's lives in this spiritual way, he writes, because the process of living in a post-industrial, media-drenched world moves us further and further from our innate wholeness. Only direct action can breach the distance. Happily, it takes no special training to bless one another. It's just a matter of gathering yourself --- and finding the words.

In "To Bless the Space Between Us," the poet in O'Donohue seeks to break the shackles of dead language. He offers fresh blessings, and on topics the Church might overlook --- not just for a new home, marriage and child, but for the parents of a criminal, for parents who have lost a child, for those experiencing exile, solitude and failure.

These blessings look hardship in the face, but only as a challenge. In our souls, and, especially, in our hearts, O'Donohue believed, we are all home. We never left, we never will. How hard it is to hold that thought. And yet, when we take the care of others into our hearts, something happens.....

You may not have a problem with the plainspoken language of O'Donohue's blessings. I do. Maybe it's just a writer's discomfort with another writer's words. But the invocations that dot the book -- my God, could this man write! Just one example:

"Our longing for the eternal kindles our imagination to bless. Regardless of how we configure the eternal, the human heart continues to dream of a state of wholeness, that place where everything comes together, where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of life's journey will enjoy a homecoming. To invoke a blessing is to call some of that wholeness upon a person now.

Death was nothing to John O'Donohue --- a silent friend who walks beside us all our days. And on the other side? "I believe that our friends among the dead really mind us and look out for us," he wrote. "Often there might be a big boulder of misery over your path about to fall on you, but your friends among the dead hold it back until you have passed by."

Let it be.

Republished from HeadButler.com

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