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.”
I don’t want to make O’Donohue folksy, the way we have made Robert Frost into a rural poet. He wasn’t a tourist attraction, or a fad — when all the cycles of interest in things Celtic dies, I’ll still be listening to him. Alas, at a distance — John O’Donohue died in his sleep a few years ago. When I heard the stunning news, I wrote a piece about meeting him, Our Friend Among the Dead.]
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.” [To buy the paperback of “Anam Cara,” click here. For the Kindle download,click here.]
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.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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