ONE of the troubles with the contemporary Church, John O’Donohue once told me, is that it has abandoned the divine call of beauty in favour of prescription and imperative. This had come home to him during a radio interview when he was describing the drama and symmetry of the eucharist. “People called in to express their amazement that nobody in the church ever talks about the beauty of the sacraments. . . They just say you can’t receive them if you’re divorced.
“The Church is: ‘You must, you shouldn’t, you can’t.’ But go back to the carpenter-poet Jesus, and it was always the experience of wonder with him, and out of that followed tranquillity, compassion, and joy.”
O’Donohue, who died on 3 January, aged 53 years, while on holiday in France, was among the most mesmerising speakers to have made the annual August Bank Holiday trip to the Greenbelt Festival. It wasn’t just that he was an original religious thinker, and a very funny storyteller, but that he had the mind of a poet. When he spoke, it was as if he had spent hours carefully framing every clause in every sentence — including the silences around them.
He had been a Roman Catholic priest for 19 years, and was an accomplished scholar. He wrote his Ph.D. on Hegel in German at Tübingen University, and for some years combined parish work with lecturing. But the 1997 publication of Anam Cara (Gaelic for “soul friend”), an elegant treatise reclaiming ancient Celtic spirituality for third-millennium man and woman, gave him a worldwide audience. Written in a distinctive meditative prose style, it became a surprise best-seller in Ireland and was soon translated into ten languages and published in 15 countries.
The pop star Ronan Keating and his wife reportedly called it their “relationship Bible”, while Mary McAleese, the then Irish President, was said to have bought a dozen copies for friends.
“The Celtic mind”, wrote O’Donohue, “was not burdened by dualism . . . which separates the visible from the invisible, time from eternity, the human from the divine. [The Celts’] sense of ontological friendship yielded a world of experience imbued with a rich texture of otherness, ambivalence, symbolism, and imagination.”
O’Donohue had the same texture and the marriage of philosophical training and poetic muse. It enabled him to reach for a new kind of language to express what he felt was the essential mystical unity of all life, to navigate the complexities of being alive, and the tantalising possibilities of faith.
It wasn’t a language that appealed to everyone. For some, it was theologically imprecise and too elusive. Others, heirs of a culture of theological “how-to” manuals, were vexed that you might have to live a while with his pages before their wisdom seeped into you.
IT WASN’T a criticism that bothered him. He spent most of his time in solitude at his remote home in Connemara in the west of Ireland, sceptical of what he called “the religion of rush”. He wrote from personal experience that “if we trust our need for silence, stillness, and solitude, we will find where we need to go.” Prayer, he said, “is the ground of eternity”.
Having discreetly left the priesthood for life as a full-time writer (“I found myself having less and less in common with the hierarchy”), he began to accept more speaking invitations, including — after a lot of persuasion — agreeing to come to Greenbelt. Persistence was necessary, as his phone was often not answered, and for many years he looked with disdain on new technology. “Why would I want email?” he used to ask. “Why would I want to return from a walk to find 70 people waiting for me in the kitchen?”
He visited the festival three times in recent years, but we would never be sure he was definitely coming until he arrived. Last August, he turned up from Oxford, where he had been giving an address on Meister Eckhart’s epistemology. As we sat an hour before his first talk, which would draw about 2000 people, he wondered wryly but with no trepidation about what he might say — the title he had provided in advance, “Imagination as the Path of the Spirit”, being characteristically enigmatic.
He asked people’s advice as they came up to greet him, commending their brilliance and scribbling it down. He needn’t have done so, for he proceeded to speak from memory, conjuring up that profound sense of attention which was characteristic of his public presence.
IT WAS just as well his inner life was so in tune with the Real Presence, because his outer life could appear to be a lovely shambles: in the car that took him to the airport he left behind three books on Plato and one on Louis MacNeice. As he left Greenbelt 07, he announced that this time he had “really got it” and would be coming back for sure. I like to think he felt Greenbelt had become one of “the great shelters of belonging” that he believed true religion should offer.
Although he had formally hung up his clerical collar, you were always aware being with him that you were in the presence of the best kind of charismatic priest — and he still hoped that the institution of the Church could itself find its true calling again.
“If your marriage is going bad, your kids are on dope, your work is unsatisfactory, you’re really unhappy, maybe the place not to go to is the pub, maybe the place to go to — even if you’ve lost all faith in the divine — is into the church, a safe spiritual space of no judgement. Just go in, and let some of that into you.”
His final collection, Benedictus, a book of blessings for 21st-century “threshold” moments, is a powerful spiritual epitaph. At moments it has the qualities of a Rumi, a Khalil Gibran, or a Rilke, suggesting the kind of inclusive and luminous religious language that can touch people far beyond the crumbling walls of institutional religion — not least when they escape it through death. He had a very Celtic understanding of death. If he was right, then he and all those in that great cloud of witnesses remain closer to us than we can imagine.
“Where John O’Donohue touched me was as an inspirational speaker. His talks held audiences spellbound, uplifted. I felt that his presence and power as a public speaker was the great gift he shared with us. His oratory moved people to places where they’d never been before, opened their minds to new and endless possibilities. The vigour of John’s performances will live on with all who heard them, and his devotion to the art of public speaking will continue to be an inspiration to others (like me) who aspire to work the same craft.”
“It was the quality of his delivery: lyrical, lilting, lullaby-like. His words had an ease about them. Yet they were always carefully chosen. His thoughts were like music, opening things up: one to the other, us to God, us to our surroundings, to nature, to our own mortality. His hours with books were tempered with hours with people, growing a wily wisdom with a twinkle in its eyes. For me it all comes back to his sense of divine beauty: his witness expanded my sense of both the divine and the beautiful. He made me love more. I thank God for him.”
“Listening to John O’Donohue at Greenbelt was just stunning: every sentence was one to savour. He seemed to be someone fully engaged with life and honest about both the weaknesses and the potential of our humanity as we go through the process of redemption. I can’t help thinking of that saying: ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive.’”
“We smoked a cigar together at every Greenbelt. We talked and shared our life purposes over a pint. He made me laugh and think and scratch the surface of my unknown. With words like flowing mercury, he encouraged me to peek through the cracks of my soul, where the light gets in. On the last night at Greenbelt, I bought him a pint and a cigar, but it feels like he has been with me so often since: on flights and underground trains I have plugged into his last talk at least ten times.”