The business of spirituality

19 September 2007

John O’Donohue is being hired by corporations to teach them spiritual lessons. Brian Draper asked him how this squared with his wilderness message

“I make myself nervous”: John O’Donohue speaking at the Greenbelt festival in August Photo: Andy Espin

“I make myself nervous”: John O’Donohue speaking at the Greenbelt festival in August Photo: Andy Espin

THE POET, philosopher, academic, and best-selling spiritual writer John O’Donohue needs coffee. “Whiskey happened last night,” he explains in a lilting, lyrical Irish accent over breakfast. He can make even a hangover sound sublime. “We drank a beautiful bottle of single malt that didn’t die without proper spiritual necessity.”

A former Roman Catholic priest, he may be the author of serene, numinous prose, but he is no effete guru. He is a farmer’s son from Conamara, in the wilds of western Ireland. His physical presence is strong, and immediately felt. He radiates energy, warmth, and mischief, and there is more than a hint of a glint in his eye.

“I never read spiritual books,” he says, somewhat provocatively, since he has written two of the past decade’s popular spiritual books: Anam Cara and Eternal Echoes.

“Can’t read them. The stuff on spirituality is like candyfloss,” he whispers conspiratorially. “You put a knife down through it, and you come to a spine at no point. It’s just goo. The shops are full of it, and people are consuming it.”

Paradoxically, Dr O’Donohue’s own success is due, in part at least, to the appetite we have in the West for what he calls “Big-Mac spirituality”. His books, however, include references to Hegel, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Rilke, and the like. He weaves a beguiling appreciation of Celtic spirituality with a profound understanding of our philosophical, spiritual, and artistic inheritance, and of the opportunities and challenges of a changing world.

In the United States, he says contemptuously, “they’re buying books about ‘How My Cornflakes Looked Back at Me This Morning, and the Revelation Therein’.” Beyond his scorn, however, there is a steely determination to provide a more nourishing diet for those who are spiritually hungry.

“I always believe that when you stand up to say something, you should have something to say. And that’s why this is an urgent thing that I do. It’s urgent.”

He peps himself up before giving a talk. “I make myself nervous, get stuff going,” he explains, “so I don’t go flat.”

The artistry, of the words he both writes and speaks, makes for an extraordinary experience if you see him in the flesh. “I always look on a public talk as an almost liturgical event. If the words are presented in the right way and the proper silence is created, then people become implicated in listening to themselves in a way they’ve never listened before.

“What I’m trying to do is to create a sequence of words — this is exactly it — to create a sequence of words that allow people to overhear themselves. An awful lot of us don’t listen to ourselves at all.”

Don’t we need to overhear God as well as ourselves, I ask.

“Absolutely both, I’d say. You’re not meant to live as a cog in the machine of society. You’re meant to have a bit of presence, waking up, a bit of participation, and exercise a bit of critique.”

In our culture, he acknowledges, it is hard to listen to anything worth while above all the white noise: we are too busy, he explains. He lives on his own in what he describes as the “wilderness”.

“In our times, there is such deadening, and people are so stressed out. [You’ll find that, with] seven or eight out of every ten people who turn up at the doctor’s, what’s troubling them is stress-related. “Stress is a perverted relationship to time. Time has you on the run, and it’s got you. Rather than being a subject of, and participant in, your own time, you become a target and victim of it.”

Another reason why people find themselves in trouble today, he argues, is that they are losing the vocabulary for speaking about, and discovering, the deeper, richer things of life.

“I love language: it’s an amazing presence. But we are losing the living language of the numinous. I think one of our difficulties is that the whole territory has now an overlay of spiritual pastiche language. It’s like wrapping things in cellophane. I can’t breathe inside that stuff.”

Take the word “soul”, which, Dr O’Donohue argues, is now being robbed of its impact. “According to Heraclytus, Aristotle, Eckhart, and a few of the boys of longer tradition, soul is a bloody dangerous thing to have,” he says.

“It’s the thing that makes you restless, that links you into the infinite, whether you like it or not, and won’t let you rest happily in your mediocrity and escapism. And now you look at ‘soul’ and see how it’s used by every second person. What’s happened is that the whole psychotherapy and psychology wave has got tired of its own language, and discovered the word.

“So ‘soul’ just becomes a receptacle for all the tired energies that have depleted themselves in the big projects of self-improvement before. Language is a very tricky thing.”

The Church, it seems, is failing to create a compelling alternative either to the pop spirituality he deplores or to the opponents of God in our culture, whom he also seems to deplore.

“Two of the best-selling books on God in the last year are by people who know nothing about God,” he says. “One is Richard Dawkins, who knows about science, but hasn’t a clue about God, not a notion. And then you’ve got Christopher Hitchens, who’s made a career out of I-don’t-know-what; I’ve never cared for him. What he’s doing about God is not great, but he’s also on the best-seller list everywhere.”

Where are the theologians and philosophers “who in three minutes could dismantle these guys”, he asks. “They are to be seen nowhere. It’s pathetic. In terms of the fashion industry, it’s as if a farmer who has cut peat all his life suddenly has the designer outfit for a Parisian night gala. It’s just wonky. Where are our learned ones?”

Dr O’Donohue believes that both the Church and the academic world are missing the opportunity “to hold our tradition in conversation with our hunger, and make the bridges”. We don’t need to be reinventing spirituality, he suggests, so much as rediscovering it. “I believe that everything we need is in the tradition. We don’t need to be shopping around, going to fast-food spiritual outlets for garbage that we’re consuming ravenously, and that only makes us more hungry.”

So, who, in the tradition of spiritual writers, would he actually recommend? He has no hesitation. “After 40 years of reading Meister Eckhart,” he enthuses — he is doing post-doctoral research on the 13th-century mystic — “you’d still be finding jewels under the rugs of his work. You’d buy his three volumes for around £35. It’s a lot cheaper than paying £500 for a weekend course with a guru, where you wake up on Monday morning wondering why the hole in your stomach was bigger.”

But Dr O’Donohue does in fact offer his own service to corporations that fund courses of this kind for their workers. “I’ve done a bit of stuff in the business world, and I like it,” he reflects, a little coyly.

His website says that he can be booked to speak on subjects such as “leadership: the awakening of creativity”; “without vision, the workplace works against itself”; and “the intense threshold: holding personal integrity within the system”.

His website says that he can be booked to speak on subjects such as “leadership: the awakening of creativity”; “without vision, the workplace works against itself”; and “the intense threshold: holding personal integrity within the system”.

“I like showing up in a boardroom of a big company. The thing I don’t like about it is that they are different animals from me: they’re a different species. But you are guaranteed that there is huge intelligence in the room. And if they’re open to you, you can do transforming work very fast — if they’re ready.”

He explains: “Every organisation has immense potential,” he explains. “Particularly in a postmodern society, companies are places in which huge numbers of people work as a community.”

Most who wish to hire him, both international and local companies, approach him through word of mouth. Those who do so tend to be “very substantial, critical, and creative people. “I go to listen in to the rhythm and atmosphere of the organisation — the leadership quality, and above all, the presence and ethos of the place. That’s the primary concern of the people: to have an ethos of compassion, creativity and challenge.”

He defends his involvement by stressing the human hunger for meaningful work. “I love the Eckhart thing: that the work you do, if you do it from your heart, will inevitably have beauty and creativity to it.”

Dr O’Donohue admits that his approach is not distinctively Christian. “It’s more common-denominator stuff. It raises questions of the nature, origin, structures, and above all the consequences of the work that’s being done. It’s not my duty to go in blazing spirituality.”

The results of his work, he believes, can be significant. “It depends on who you work with, but you can see amazing transformation. In a culture where nation states are gradually disappearing, and where there’s a whole culture being subsumed into economics, I think multinationals, in a way, are almost latent states. And if someone can get in there, and work with their top leadership, it’s amazing the change they can bring about.”

He warns, though, that “One needs to be careful and keep one’s vision and one’s questions clean, and ensure that one is working for the good.”There is, of course, a danger that his work will be used as just another pleasant spiritual commodity in a pick-and-mix culture, or abused by business for selfish ends — a point of which he seems only too aware.

“You have to be very careful about the language you are offering. It’s the danger of getting absorbed, you know? If you’re going to be any good, then you’re going to have to be aware that your stuff can be taken in and used very quickly for purposes that you might not exactly agree with.”

In fact, a growing realisation that his words were cropping up here, there, and everywhere prompted him to write his latest work, Benedictus: A book of blessings, which comes out in November. “A friend of mine went out to a healing centre on a mountain in Brazil, and there was a table on which they’d stapled different prayers and poems, and she found one of mine. At the bottom, it said: ‘written by an Irish nun’.”

His laughter echoes across the breakfast room, loud enough to distract anyone from the revelation in their cornflakes. “Myself as an Irish nun,” he booms — “I thought: ‘Jesus!’” (For a mystic who venerates the beauty and precision of language, it may surprise some how often he says “Jesus”.)

“‘Jesus! Everyone’s ripping me off,’ I thought; ‘so I should rip myself off.’ So, I sat down and thought I should write a book of blessings, because people are always asking me for a blessing.”

He has now written more than 80, to help people with rites of passage and milestones. “In postmodernist culture, there are no rituals to recognise, to observe, or to worthily cross the thresholds that are really important in our lives.”

But he has deliberately not mentioned the word “God” in them. “But I wrote a love poem to Jesus at the end, just to make up for it. I put my cards on the table and said: ‘Jesus is the man that I do this through.’ I tried to make each blessing a little psychic portrait of the landscape that it was presenting. But I feel blessed-out now. I think I’ve written enough spiritual stuff.”

He would, he assures me, prefer not to reflect on his own popularity. “I never think about it. I don’t rate myself as that important, that I’m a voice for anything,” he explains — shortly before reminding me to mention his website,, in this article if I can.

He must, nevertheless, be pleased that he is able to do what clearly he seems to feel called to do — to help people undergo transformation.

“I’m always surprised when someone comes up to me and says, ‘I read your book.’ I always say, ‘Jesus, did you? I hope it didn’t do you any damage.’”

The farmer’s son is still coming to terms with the fruit of his own labours. “I was raised on a farm, and always, at the end of the day, you saw a physical return for your work,” he recalls.

“A wall was built, a garden had been opened, a bog had been opened, a meadow had been cleared. But, in this kind of work, you see nothing at the end of the day. It might be in ten years that you meet someone who was at a talk you’d given; and they say: “‘Jesus! You’ve no idea what that talk did.’ And then you get a little glimmer that in some life, something is altered.

“It’s very, very special when people’s hearts get touched,” he smiles. “Some old blockage gets softened, or some feared threshold actually gets crossed. I think it’s in gentle, little nondescript ways that huge change happens. People can be truly transformed. It’s quite amazing.”

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