Blessings for now from another time

by
11 January 2011

The poet and philosopher John O’Donohue died three years ago. This interview with Martin Wroe has never before been published

“IT IS amazing how quickly things can change in a life,” John O’Donohue explained. “For in­stance, you could be there of an evening up to your neck with things to do, and the phone rings and you are told that someone really close to you is suddenly at the door of death.

“It takes three seconds to convey this information to you, and you put the phone back down, and you are already standing in a different world. That’s all it takes for everything to change.”

A few weeks after this con­versation with Dr O’Donohue — poet, best-selling author, and discreetly retired Roman Catholic priest — I found myself sitting inside the story he had conjured up. A phone call, out of the blue, told me that he had died suddenly, aged 52, while on holiday in France with his partner, Kristine Fleck.

Suddenly, here was that different world. We had met just a few weeks before to talk about his new collection Benedictus: A book of blessings, after the global success of earlier titles such as Anam Cara, and Eternal Echoes. Like them, the new work was fearless in embracing the presence of death, and contained a series of beauti-fully composed prayers that would serve to accompany his own passing, including “On The Death of the Beloved”, which invites the departed to continue to inspire those left behind:

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.

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.

THIS month, to mark the third anniversary of Dr O’Donohue’s death, a new collection is being published, The Four Elements, a series of essays on nature, rooted in the love of the west-of-Ireland landscape where he was born, raised as a farmer’s son, and lived as a priest, poet, and finally itinerant speaker and retreat leader.

The writing has a timeless quality, an expansive melding of thinkers and ideas, forged into a down-to-earth, Celtic spirituality.

“Meditations” may more accurately describe the work than “essays”; for, while Dr O’Donohue was an academic, with degrees in both English and Philosophy, and a Ph.D. on Hegel (completed in German at the University of Tübingen), he was most himself as a poet.

His sentences are carefully carved, drawing on what his friend and fellow-poet David Whyte called a “bird-of-paradise vocabulary . . . that made the listener realise that, until then, they had never listened at all”.

An opening reflection on air, for instance, effortlessly jinks between Stanislavski, Wittgenstein, and Beckett — musing on ballet and gravity to wonder if air is “the breath of God”. “Dance”, he writes, “is kinetic sculpturing of space.” Or, riffing on materialism, he cites the “epidemic of moving statues we had in Ireland a few years back” to illustrate popular impatience with the invisibility of the divine.

“All materialism — be it for money, power, possession, or people — has to do with an epistemology of quantity . . . the mistaken belief that, through an accumulation of quantity, you can settle the task of your own identity.”

Like earlier collections, The Four Elements is located in a beguiling intersection between philosophy, poetry, and theology, where Dr O’Donohue intuited an audience increasingly exiled by what he called “the frightened functionaries of institutional religion”. He was interested in helping people awaken dormant spiritual lives, within or without the Church.

In “Breath as Prayer”, for example, he remarks on how sacraments such as the laying on of hands have ended up in the hands only of the ordained: “It would be an impoverishment to restrict this gift merely to them . . . there is a lot of power-play involved in the segregation of spiritual power or ordained people; we are all implicitly priests.”

He underlined this theme in our conversation before his death, promoting the democratisation of the act of blessing. A bishop had recently lamented that “we clergy have taken over the power of blessing, and it is as if no one else can bless.” But the last thing a blessing should become is élitist, Dr O’Donohue insisted.

“Everyone has the power to bless, and it puts you in a different relationship to someone when they ask for your blessing. I often ask for someone’s blessing, if I see they have a connection to the old invisible world, and I’d love them to say something over me. People often ask me for my blessing, and I always try to attune the blessing to what I sense of their hunger and their longing.”

I remember escorting him through a sea of people after a talk he gave at the Greenbelt Festival, when someone walked up to him and asked for his blessing. It could have been a surreal, performance-art kind of moment, Dr O’Donohue cast as a kind of Gandalfian version of Jesus, but he took it all in his very long stride, looked the candidate in the eye, and began publicly praying over him with purpose and lyricism. He cited the linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin’s notion of “perform­ative utterance” to explain the act of blessing. Thoughts, prayers, and blessings can be this kind of “speech-act”, he explained.

“It is not shilly-shallying: it is focused language, like illumination — as if from a distant place in the darkened room of their suffering, you, through the power of your heart and mind, can light a candle in that room.”

Having returned from Tübingen to his family home in the west of Ireland and to his work as a parish priest, things changed with the 1997 publication of Anam Cara (Gaelic for “soul-friend”). Against expectations, the book became a best-seller, first in Ireland and then in a dozen other countries, introducing his poetic and mystic spirituality to an audience that had mistakenly assumed it was post-God.

“The Celtic mind”, he wrote, “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.”

SALES accelerated as pop stars, politicians, and movie moguls talked of its influence, and sought his counsel. The composer John Barry wrote an album based on the follow-up, Eternal Echoes. Quietly, and without fuss, 19 years after ordination, Dr O’Donohue hung up his cassock and collar for the last time.

His concerns about the intransigence and lack of imagination in the ecclesiastical hierarchy were matched by institutional knee-knocking at the rising interest in his maverick approach.

When I met him on assignment for The Observer, he asked me not to mention this departure, in order not to create embarrassment for priestly colleagues who found it hard to accept. But he was sure that beyond the institution there was more opportunity to articulate a Christian spirituality for all comers — not just those who had given up on, or had been mistreated by, the Church, but those who had shown no desire to penetrate its mysteries in the first place.

This direction is charted in the blessings composed for Benedictus. As well as expected threshold themes (albeit composed in unexpected ways), the book contains a wealth of prayers for often unspoken or brushed-under-the-carpet life-moments. Blessings for “Your birthday”, for “A mother-to-be”, or for death sit alongside those for “The parents of one who has committed crime”, for “An addict”, for “A prisoner”, or for “The break-up of a relationship”. Blessings for “One who holds power”, and for “A leader” line up with those for “A nurse” and “A farmer”.

THE tradition of blessing, he explained, was perfectly placed to help the Church reconnect with its audience. “It might sound old-fashioned, but the blessing might be the coolest thing of all. It has a democracy and equality in it, a sense of intention and well-wishing that is concerned more with the destiny of someone rather than their destination.”

But was there a whiff of anachronism — something of the magical olde-worlde, which put this at odds with our materialist, evidence-based era?

“It does come at an oblique angle to the culture: it sounds almost nostalgic in some way; and yet it is an amazingly potent and current idea. In every life, there are key milestones — threshold times, when you leave one area and cross over to another.”

Traditionally, religion has been good at marking these moments with rich symbols, but, at a time when such an accessible, liturgical act could be more relevant than ever, the religious hierarchy has tamed and disempowered it.

And not only the art of blessing. “It amazes me, the way the Church has lost the art of tuning into the rhythm of history. Confession, for example, was huge in the [Roman] Catholic Church, and now it’s barely used by people. There is a great irony that they no longer go near this incredible sacrament, when we live in this most confessional time in Western culture; when, instead, we go on the radio, or go to therapists.”

And he feels that an institution that used to cherish fasting to prepare for significant events has lost a valuable element: “That has all gone now, and yet all the diet stuff is huge: it’s all about fasting.”

One blessing that is lingering longer is that of giving thanks before food. “Yes, that is the one that hangs around, and it does alter a meal when you do that. It does make it then a true participation in each other’s presence, and an opening through to something else.”

IT IS striking that in a book so profoundly concerned with the presence of the numinous in the everyday, the power of the spiritual to transform the apparently mundane, Dr O’Donohue rarely uses the word “God”.

“I’ve been very careful not to mention God in these blessings — hardly at all — and the reason I excluded God is that the word is too big, too heavy.” But God, he added, “is omnipresent in the whole thing”.

“I think a person who has no belief in God but has some belief in the goodness of creation could pick this up, and really find that it would augment and encourage their key encounters with people, and their key disposition and undertakings.”

In retrospect, Dr O’Donohue was creating fragments of a liturgical narrative written from the perspective of the “ordinary” person in his or her everyday experience. Both contemporary and lyrical, these appear to be more “user-friendly” than liturgies that look down on us from sequences in the grand narrative of a faith tradition.

“I’ve tried to make each blessing a kind of psychogram of a situation,” he explained. “So the blessing for the family and friends of a suicide [see panel] — I’ve experience of that, and I tried to address all the things that are going on in that situation. In a sense, the actual form of the blessing is the bridge: it is not just a blessing for a bridge you are going through, but that when you are blessed like this you are actually engaging in the journey as well.”

People had wept on first reading the blessing “For the parents of one who has committed a crime”. It was all about perspective, he said.

“The criminal who has done something wrong takes on all the darkness in a scapegoat kind of way, and the full force of accusation is upon them, and yet when you see the parents, they don’t see their child like that at all. They see something completely different.

“So the blessing tries to see that event from the perspective of the loving parent, and what they could do, and the way the memory is there behind it. Everybody sees the person through the dark lens of the crime they have committed, but the parents won’t see it like that: they will see it through the memory, and through longing; through awful disappointment that this has happened; through terrible sorrow for whoever was damaged by it.”

With his inclusive attitude and luminous language, Dr O’Donohue set out to touch people far beyond the crumbling walls of institutional religion. Even those who never shook his hand were shaken by his imagination — they sensed in his words a sign of grace, something he defined as “the permanent climate of divine kindness”.

Although he was in demand as a speaker and writer, he always cherished long periods of quiet and solitude at his home in Ireland. He chose not to fill his diary with all the invitations he received, believing that while “calendar time is racing ahead all the time, blessings give you access to another kind of time, and it places what is happening in another kind of time. . .

“A blessing is a red light that stops you, says ‘No, don’t do it yet, take time, have another look.’ It allows presence to become clear. For our rhythm to be restored, we need some kind of stillness, and a blessing offers this chance, a window of wonder on to what is happening.”

The Four Elements: Reflections on nature (Transworld, £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-1-842-7090-9).

Benedictus: A book of blessing (Transworld, £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-0-593-05862-6).

For the family and friends of a suicide

For the family and friends of a suicide

As you huddle around the torn silence,
Each by this lonely deed exiled
To a solitary confinement of soul,
May some small glow from what has been lost
Return like the kindness of candlelight.
As your eyes strain to sift
This sudden wall of dark
And no one can say why
In such a forsaken, secret way,
This death was sent for…
May one of the lovely hours
Of memory return
Like a field of ease
Among these gravelled days.
May the Angel of Wisdom
Enter this ruin of absence
And guide your minds
To receive this bitter chalice
So that you do not damage yourselves
By attending only at the hungry altar
Of regret and anger and guilt.
May you be given some inkling
That there could be something else at work
And that what to you now seems
Dark, destructive, and forlorn,
Might be a destiny that looks different
From inside the eternal script.
May vision be granted to you
To see this with the eyes of providence.
May your loss become a sanctuary
Where new presence will dwell
To refine and enrich
The rest of your life
With courage and compassion.
And may your lost loved one
Enter into the beauty of eternal tranquillity,
In that place where there is no more sorrow
Or separation or mourning or tears.

As you huddle around the torn silence,
Each by this lonely deed exiled
To a solitary confinement of soul,
May some small glow from what has been lost
Return like the kindness of candlelight.
As your eyes strain to sift
This sudden wall of dark
And no one can say why
In such a forsaken, secret way,
This death was sent for…
May one of the lovely hours
Of memory return
Like a field of ease
Among these gravelled days.
May the Angel of Wisdom
Enter this ruin of absence
And guide your minds
To receive this bitter chalice
So that you do not damage yourselves
By attending only at the hungry altar
Of regret and anger and guilt.
May you be given some inkling
That there could be something else at work
And that what to you now seems
Dark, destructive, and forlorn,
Might be a destiny that looks different
From inside the eternal script.
May vision be granted to you
To see this with the eyes of providence.
May your loss become a sanctuary
Where new presence will dwell
To refine and enrich
The rest of your life
With courage and compassion.
And may your lost loved one
Enter into the beauty of eternal tranquillity,
In that place where there is no more sorrow
Or separation or mourning or tears.

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