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“Endings seem to lie in wait,” John O’Donohue wrote. His certainly did. He died in his sleep, January 4, 2008, on vacation near Avignon. He was just 53.
Ten years! And twenty since I met John O’Donohue. I read “Anam Cara,” 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.
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.”
You get the idea: a man of great learning — he had Ph.D. in philosophical theology from the University of Tubingen, and became known as an expert on Hegel and, later, Meister Eckhart — and impressive gifts as a writer who didn’t get caught in the web of the the mind. His real wisdom came from the heart. Like this…
It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone. Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world. Through the opening of the mouth, we bring out sounds from the mountain beneath the soul. These sounds are words. The world is full of words. There are so many talking all the time, loudly, in rooms, on streets, on television, on radio, in the paper, in books. The noise of words keeps what we call the world there for us. We take each other’s sounds and make patterns, predictions, benedictions, and blasphemies. Each day, our tribe of language holds what we call the world together. Yet the uttering of the word reveals how each of us relentlessly creates. Everyone is an artist. Each person brings sound out of silence and coaxes the invisible to become visible.
I find that paragraph — the opening passage from “Anam Cara” — to be an utterly beautiful blend of thought and style. But it’s even more beautiful if you can imagine the author’s voice. Try saying “the mountain beneath the soul” and “our tribe of language” and “Everyone is an artist” in an accent straight from an Irish valley. Then add real authenticity. And you have John O’Donohue, a gifted student of German philosophy, a sometime priest, and, most of all, an Irishman whose feet are firmly rooted in his Celtic “clay” — or, as he would say, “klee.” [To buy the paperback of “Anam Cara,” click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]
I cherish O’Donohue because he was completely fixated on Important Things. Forget his dazzling metaphors (if you can). Look only at what he has to say. And there, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself underlining sentence after sentence, nodding and thinking “Yes, yes, I’ve thought this — I didn’t believe anyone else did.”
What’s the O’Donohue message?
As I get it, it’s that the world is magical and that we are the expressions of its magic. We’re part heaven, part clay. And the first thing we need to do is integrate our duality by going inside and listening to ourselves. That means turning away from the world. It means listening carefully to our inner voices. He quotes Pasternak: “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.”
O’Donohue suggests that the way to sharpen your spiritual senses is through “Anam Cara,” or soul friendship. That means forging affinities with those who are open to deep soul sharing. It’s friendship without boundaries: “The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other.” You need a friend who can handle a friendship that intimate, O’Donohue says. And, of course, you need to have that friendship with yourself. In his words:
In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.
A quick test of your condition: a mirror. “The human face is the subtle yet visual autobiography of each person,” O’Donohue writes. “Regardless of how concealed or hidden the inner story of your life is, you can never successfully hide from the world while you have a face.”
What to look at and how to look are what “Anam Cara” is ultimately about. O’Donohue quotes a Scottish poet who says “unless you see a thing in the light of love you do not see it at all.” He’s big on love — of others, of self, of the landscape, of what’s unseen but ever present. As a result, this book is gentle but rigorous, sweet but challenging.
Will it change your life? No. That is not O’Donohue’s aim. But it will deepen your life and make you more aware of your magnificence — it will send you deeper into you. And, who knows, you may find yourself spouting O’Donohue-like thoughts, like “To live in a valley is to enjoy a private sky,” he says.
Self-help books and “spirituality” manuals are a dime a dozen. This one is in another league. Satisfaction guaranteed. All you need is a quiet room, a heart willing to open — and a pen. Because if you do not madly underline, this book isn’t for you.
Diane Covington-Carter’s interviews with John O’Donohue, “The Voyage of the Question” and “Trusting the Rhythm of Your Own Becoming” can be ordered at John O’Donohue.com.
To buy “To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings” from Amazon, click here.
To buy “Conamara Blues” from Amazon, click here.
To buy the audio CD of “Wisdom from the Celtic World” from Amazon, click here.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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