John O'Donohue

The death took place in France last week of John O’Donohue, writer of many well received books on spirituality. John spent a number of years in the priesthood. He worked in Ros A’Mhil, Salthill and Moycullen. He taught for 2 years in Heritage and theology in GMIT in the early 90’s While his writing was appealing, it wasn’t always easy to understand as each sentence had a philosophical underpinning. It requires slow and reflective reading which often pays off.

Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe recently launched his book of blessings: Benedictus, a beautiful and easy to read book on a wide variety of themes including one on the death of a loved one. (at bottom of page)

John's writing, study and lectures often reminded me of a stone wall builder. He'd take the old one apart. Not to scatter them into oblivion. He'd spread his words out like stones and then choose each one with precision to fit in the right places. His structure was like a stone wall across Galway Bay on Inis óirr. These walls have spaces for the wind and air to flow through them.
 John's words leaves us the same freedom to explore and sift through them like the wind.
He provided new wine in new vessels.
Re-creations from the creator's raw material.
Nourishment for those of us willing to abide in the Father's love.

The following piece written in 1998 in An Irishman's Diary ( The Irish Times) by BRENDAN O CATHAOIR, paints a side to John that many knew and admired.

John O'Donohue is a sage of the Burren and author of a deservedly best-selling book, Anam Chara, in which he applies imagination and learning in his search for "spiritual wisdom from the Celtic world".A poet, scholar and priest, trained in the philosophy of Hegel, Dr O'Donohue was born in a limestone valley, Caherbeanna, near Blackhead, Co. Clare
"The light of modern consciousness is not gentle or reverent; it lacks graciousness in the presence of mystery; it wants to unriddle and control the unknown. Modern consciousness is similar to the harsh and brilliant white light of a hospital operating theatre. This neon light is too direct and clear to befriend the shadowed world of the soul."Celtic mysticism, devoid of aggression, recognises that we should let the soul find us. Christ is the secret anam chara of every individual, O'Donohue asserts. Each person has a unique destiny "to express the special gift you bring to the world. Sometimes this gift may involve suffering and pain that can neither be accounted for nor explained . . . It is in the depths of your life that you will discover the invisible necessity which brought you here. When you begin to decipher this, your gift and giftedness come alive. Your heart quickens and the urgency of living rekindles your creativity."Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote in his classic work Man's Search for Meaning that suffering can be creative.Silence, Meister Eckhart, the German mystic about whom O'Donohue is writing a book, said there is nothing in the world that resembles God so much as silence. Yet silence is one of the great victims of modern culture. People are suffering from stress, he contends, because they allow so little time for silence. Silence and solitude are essential for spiritual development. Solitude, not to be confused with loneliness, is one of the most precious things in the human spirit. "When you acknowledge the integrity of your solitude, and settle into its mystery, your relationships with others take on a new warmth, adventure and wonder."Anam Chara assures us that the phrase "do not be afraid", occurs 366 times in the Bible. "There is a welcome for you at the heart of your solitude. When you realise this, most of the fear that governs your life falls away. The moment your fear transfigures, you come into rhythm with your own self."One falls out of rhythm when one reneges on one's potential and settles for the mediocre. "Respectability and security are subtle traps on life's journey."Moreover, "one of the greatest conflicts in life is the conflict between the ego and the soul. The ego is threatened, competitive and stressed, whereas the soul is drawn more towards surprise, spontaneity, the new and the fresh. Real soul presence has humour and irony and no obsessive self-seriousness . . . To learn to love your adversaries is to earn a freedom that is beyond resentment and threat."It is startling how desperately we hold on to what makes us miserable, O'Donohue observes. "When you begin to let go, it is amazing how enriched your life becomes."This compendium of wisdom cites Rilke: difficulty can be one of the greatest friends of the soul; Stanislavsky: "The longest and most exciting journey is the journey inwards"; and Pascal: many of our major problems derive from our inability to sit still in a room. O'Donohue does not mention President McAleese's guru, the Christian meditation teacher John Main, but he is in tune with him.My father used to say that no one ever came back to tell us what the next world is like. O'Donohue has a good shot at it. He believes the dead are all around us (in a higher state of being); and that eternal life means "a life where all that we seek, goodness, unity, beauty, truth and love, are no longer distant from us but are now completely present with us".

On the death of the Beloved
Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts,
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.
Your love was like the dawn
Brightening over our lives
Awakening beneath the dark
A further adventure of colour.
The sound of your voice
Found for us
A new music
That brightened everything.
Whatever you enfolded in your gaze
Quickened in the joy of its being;
You placed smiles like flowers
On the altar of the heart.
Your mind always sparkled
With wonder at things.
Though your days here were brief,
Your spirit was live, awake, complete.
We look towards each other no longer
From the old distance of our names;
Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,
As close to us as we are to ourselves.
Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,
We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face,
Smiling back at us from within everything
To which we bring our best refinement.
Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.
When orchids brighten the earth,
Darkest winter has turned to spring;
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.
May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
and where we will never lose you again.
- John O’Donohue
De Facto
Liamy MacNally in THE MAYO NEWS
It is fitting that his latest book is entitled Benedictus – A Book of Blessings. The fresh ripples of its words have still not reached the shore and he is gone. John O’Donohue is dead. Cruel death has torn the son from his mother, Josie. A brother has been stolen from two men and a woman. A godfather of souls has been wrenched from among the people.
He would have enjoyed the descriptions at his passing. “The well-known writer and poet…the philosopher…the author…the scholar.” They are but mere words to let us know that he was loved and he loved. My Midwest Radio colleague, Gerry Glennon, made no apology about always describing John O’Donohue as ‘a national treasure’. Gerry had the honour of introducing John O’Donohue to a Westport audience some years ago and spoke at length without notes, from the heart about a kindred spirit.
“Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.”
John O’Donohue was a native of Clare and lived in Conamara. He is best known as the author of Anam Cara, a book on Celtic spirituality. He was due to travel to America later this month for engagements to coincide with the launch of the American edition of Benedictus. He was a sought-after speaker at conferences on spirituality and leadership. He was highly intellectual and at ease with philosophical concepts. He thought and taught outside the box, yet he brought people back to their roots, ever the radical. When such a highly gifted spirit is endowed to the Church the only requirements are time and space. Ordained, he was more a Christ man than priested. His book of poetry, Conamara Blues, should be on every spiritual syllabus, if only for the meditations on the Rosary. Many decades will have arisen for his eternal repose since his untimely death. One can only pray for him from the title poem, that he will be
“…in buoyant ease
Between the fill and fall
Of waves Of Hail Marys.”
He had his faults, some he acknowledged and some he preferred not to talk about, like the rest of us. He liked company and enjoyed good food and good drink. He was funny and charming, yet very private. He loved language and had a great grá for the national tongue in which he was a fluent speaker. He was earthy and academic. He knew about the ‘living history’ of the stone walls in the west of Ireland, yet wrote in German about Hegel. His father was a stone mason. He knew the life lines carved into stone walls.When those ‘walls’ were threatened he became involved with the Burren Action Group campaigning against the Interpretative Centre at Mullaghmore in his native Clare. His colleague, Ms Lelia Doolan described him as a ‘glorious friend and one of life’s great spirits’.
He appeared to some people to be a mass of contradictions but he was simply a rooted intellectual. ‘The long fellow’ was gifted in having his feet on the ground even when his head was in the clouds. He was forever the pilgrim soul, always on the journey home and forever enjoying the scenery on the detour.

One of his great legacies is his voice. We are blessed in that John O’Donohue’s recordings are available. His topics are many, centring on various themes of Celtic spirituality and the great sense of Being that is God, from Divine Beauty to Eternal Echoes. His voice has a resonance that is hard to find. It is reminiscent of the power of the ‘creative breath’ – ruah in Hebrew. Every sentence has been carefully crafted. Every word has a meaning and every letter has a place. He is enjoyable listening. He commands attention by the tone of his voice, not out of any sense of fear but rather that one is afraid one might miss something important.
His insights are more One-derful than wonderful. His sense of the Divine Imagination is immense. He can link up thoughts and ideas and keep us tuned in to who we are, where we came from and where we are going. He is like the signpost on life’s journey. It is hard to believe that he is gone.
The Catholic prayers of commendation spring to mind – ‘May the angels lead you into Paradise; May the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the Holy City, the new and eternal Jerusalem; May the choirs of angels welcome you and lead to the bosom of Abraham where Lazarus is poor no longer; May you find eternal rest.’

Fr. Kevin Hegarty wrote the following piece some days Before John’s death…(again in The Mayo News)
“All his books are distinguished by their philosophical underlay, his perception of human nature, his awesome awareness of the power of landscape, his poetic intensity and his profound integrity”

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

I knew John O’Donohue before he became a spiritual superstar. I am not referring to the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann, now becalmed in the chair after a feisty career on the floor of the house. I am referring to the author of ‘Anam Cara’, which became a best-seller throughout the English-speaking world.
John and I went to Maynooth College in the same year. We studied together for seven years. Even then he was an impressive intellectual figure. Most of us as first years were daunted by the hallowed portals of the college, its long and high cloisters decorated by big oil paintings of grim-faced nineteenth century clerics.
John found his natural habitat in the lecture halls and the library. I must confess I did not always understand him. The range of his thought and the intricacy of its expression sometimes baffled me. Wryly I comforted myself with Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that ‘to be intelligible is to be found out’.
But John was no killjoy, wrapped in an ivory tower, looking askance at the preoccupations of ordinary mortals. He often touched down in our everyday world. He had a capacity for fun and the grace of being able to laugh at himself. He once took part with a group of friends in the Maynooth Song Contest. One of my abiding memories of my time in college is of John, already in thrall to the rigorous charms of the German philosopher Heidegger, belting out with gusto Dolly Parton’s hymn to cosy easy living, ‘Blanket on the Ground’.
I know that it sounds like a scene from ‘Fr Ted’. Many clerics think that the ‘Fr Ted’ series was outrageous, exaggerated and disrespectful. I don’t agree with them. I have met Fr Teds, Fr Jacks, Fr Dougals and Fr Stones. However, wild horses (and the laws of libel) will not drag their names from me in this column.
After ordination, John honed his intellect in the strict atmosphere of a German university. On his return to Ireland he combined lecturing with some parish work. For people jaded by the blandness of conventional Irish Catholicism, he opened up new vistas of exploration and experience.
His ecclesiastical superiors became suspicious of his growing reputation. They sought to clip his wings by imprisoning him in a busy curacy where they hoped he would have less time for flights of fancy. They may have hoped that his imagination would wilt somewhat under the sodden weight of careful clerical conversation in the presbytery. It was as if Crossmolina GAA confined the contribution of Ciarán McDonald to carrying the jerseys for their third string team.
John took the brave decision to leave the comfortable clerical zone and strike out on his own. From this decision has flowed a career of sparkling lectures and thought-provoking books. He has an audience that spans a huge range of human experience from ageing nuns to exuberant eco-warriors. His first book, ‘Anam Cara’ – his take on the spiritual wisdom of the Celtic world – burst on the tired religious publishing world like an array of daffodils on a dark end of winter landscape. All his books are distinguished by their philosophical underlay, his acute perception of the light and darkness of human nature, his awesome awareness of the power of landscape, his poetic intensity and his profound integrity. He has devoted himself to minting a new language for contemporary spiritual experience.
His latest book, ‘Benedictus’, is a wonderful book of blessings for a diversity of human experiences. One of them, ‘A New Year Blessing’, is apt for the week that’s in it.

A New Year Blessing

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

— John O’Donohue


Anonymous said…
Hi Tom, thanks for this tribute to John O'Donohue.

I have been trawling the internet searching for other souls who are mourning the passing of great writer and thinker in order to make some sense of my grief for someone I never met and yet feel was a friend. I have often turned to his writing and recordings for solace and guidance through some difficult times in the last few years and had hoped to go on retreat with him in Connamara this May. It feels difficult to seek comfort from them now when he has died so suddenly and after a relatively short life. If I am feeling bereft then how much more so must his family and friends?

I have been thinking it would be lovely to establish a dedicated website for people to exchange experiences and writing inspired by his work. It wouldn't be a fan club or cult but a forum for sharing the ideas that he made so accessible. I have emailed the JO'D website to see if they would wish to host it or if such a forum would have their blessing. I would be interested to know what you(and others) think.
Unknown said…
Thank you...better to leave such things to John;s website,

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