John O'Donohue (1 January 1956 – 4 January 2008) was an Irish poet, author, environmental activist, Hegelian philosopher and a Christian mystic.
Born in the West of Ireland, he was a native Irish speaker. O'Donohue was also for some time a Catholic priest, however, he left the priesthood in 2000. He often spent his time in meditation and solitude. But those who talked with him found him a “gregarious, fun-loving companion, and mesmerising storyteller “
Just two days after his 52nd birthday and two months after the publication of his final complete work, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings, O'Donohue died suddenly in his sleep on 4 January 2008 while on holiday near Avignon, France.
Life and priesthood
John O'Donohue was the eldest of four siblings. Born in a limestone valley, Caherbeanna, near Blackhead, County Clare, he was the son of a stonemason, Patrick O'Donohue, who, John used to say, "was in that realm of the mystically sacred".
Father evidently passed on the mystical baton to son. His mother Josie O'Donohue was a housewife.
O'Donohue became a novice at Maynooth, in north County Kildare, at the age of 18; here he earned degrees in English, Philosophy, and Theology at St Patrick's College in County Kildare. He was ordained as a Catholic priest on 6th June 1979.
O'Donohue moved to Tübingen, Germany in 1986, and completed his dissertation, in 1990, on German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel for his PhD in philosophical theology from the University of Tübingen. In 1990, he returned to Ireland to continue his priestly duties, and began his post-doctoral work on the 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart.
But John found himself having "less and less in common with the Catholic hierarchy". Much of what he believed, was seemingly at odds with the dogma the church wished – then – to promote. His ecclesiastical superiors were suspicious as much of his personal charisma as of his inclusive theology. In turn he was sceptical of religious leaders who ignored the essential mystical flame of faith in favour of what he called "manufactured coherence".
John O'Donohue By Jesse Kornbluth, 01/09/2008 updateed November 17, 2011 HuffPost Contributor
John had his issues with Catholicism, especially its views on sex and women. The Church, he said, "is not trustable in the area of Eros at all." And it "has a pathological fear of the feminine --- it would sooner allow priests to marry than it would allow women to become priests."
He was just as hard on other denominations. Religious fundamentalists, he said, "only want to lead you back, driven by nostalgia for a past that never existed, to manipulate and control you.... [Their] God tends to be a monolith and an emperor of the blandest singularity."
New Age spirituality, he felt, was a smorgasbord, and undisciplined. Not that he found any comfort in secular life. He scorned the mall, feared for the spiritual health of the young, and had a special dislike for media folk, who he described as "non-elected custodians of sensationalism."
John believed that it is within our power to transform our fear of death so that we need fear little else this life brings. Furthermore, he believed there was a mixture of the spiritual, the beauty of landscape directly experienced, metaphysical philosophy, and poetry which might provide those people increasingly exiled by what he called "the frightening functionaries of institutional religion" with the relief from suffering that they sought. And as an accomplished poet, he had the lovely lilting vocabulary to speak a language that persuaded you he was right.
His books are written in a kind of long-form, prayer style which is impossible to read quickly and this style is very deliberate. They force you to slow down, to use them like a chant.
O'Donohue suggested that the highly strung character of western life was explained by the absence of silence. "When you acknowledge the integrity of your solitude, and settle into its mystery, your relationships with others take on a new warmth, adventure and wonder."
These days there is much talk of ‘sustainability’. It has become all too obvious as the months have dragged on, that sustainability simply means keeping the planet on a form of life support system, in order that there are ‘resources’ for us for the future.
So we only plant a tree so we can harvest a tree, we only save on oil now in order to make sure we can plunder oil in the future.
Razing great tracts of rainforest to grow soy, or palm oil is classified as 'sustainable' just as long as we don’t remove so much that the climate changes irreversibly.
Those who support sustainability don’t see a beautiful landscape or a pristine unspoilt wilderness, they see resources that need to be ‘managed’. I think it goes without saying that when John O'Donohue devoted his energies to environmental activism, he was solely interested in preservation of what was beautiful, uplifting and soulful and that ‘sustainability’ didn’t even figure on his radar. Preservation guarantees sustainability anyway.
He is credited, for example, with helping spearhead the Burren Action Group, which opposed government development plans and ultimately preserved the area of Mullaghmore and the Burren, a karst landscape in County Clare. And part of the campaign for preservation revolved around the people whose livelihoods and land were threatened by the development .
"Part of understanding the notion of Justice is to recognize the disproportions among which we live...it takes an awful lot of living with the powerless to really understand what it is like to be powerless, to have your voice, thoughts, ideas and concerns count for very little. We, who have been given much, whose voices can be heard, have a great duty and responsibility to make our voices heard with absolute integrity for those who are powerless."
He will be greatly missed.
Just two days after his 52nd birthday O'Donohue died in his sleep on 4 January 2008. He was survived by his partner Kristine Fleck, his mother Josephine (Josie) O'Donohue, his brothers, Patrick (Pat) and Peter (PJ) O'Donohue, and his sister, Mary O'Donohue.
A Book of Blessings
Our longing for the eternal kindles our imagination to bless. Regardless of how we configure the eternal, the human heart continues to dream of a state of wholeness, that place where everything comes together, where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of life's journey will enjoy a homecoming. To invoke a blessing is to call some of that wholeness upon a person now.
John grew into a kind of spiritual bard, speaking one day at an Oxford college, the next at a rock festival.
Not long after he had decided to leave the priesthood, his 1997 book on Celtic spirituality, Anam Cara, became a word-of-mouth hit, racing up the bestseller lists
- Anam Cara - As an author John was best known for popularising Celtic spirituality. O'Donohue's first published work, Anam cara (1997), means "soul friend" in the Irish language. It catapulted him into a more public life as a speaker and teacher, particularly in the United States.
Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World (1997)
When you cease to fear your solitude, a new creativity awakens in you. Your forgotten or neglected wealth begins to reveal itself. You come home to yourself and learn to rest within. Thoughts are our inner senses. Infused with silence and solitude, they bring out the mystery of inner landscape.
His other works include
- Eternal Echoes (1998) – made reference to Augustine and Baudrillard, Dostoevsky and Sartre, and explored postmodern isolation and "our yearning to belong". It so impressed the film composer John Barry that he wrote and named an album after it
- Conamara Blues: Poems (2000) – his poetry collections captured his love for his native landscape, and he was central to a successful environmental action against development on the Burren
- Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (2003) - took classical, medieval, and Celtic traditions to argue that we might be alive for reasons other than productivity or consumption. "When we hear some beautiful piece of Mozart or admire a wonderful building we suddenly become present in ourselves," he said. "That's unusual nowadays because dishevelment and distraction have become an art form."
- Benedictus: A Book of Blessings (2007) – is a collection of "blessings" composed ‘for defining moments in a post-ritual world’, its carefully crafted lines are intended to help those living with loss. ‘O'Donohue's lasting epitaph may be the discovery of his writings at a growing number of funerals, offering people of all faith stories and none a means to express their feelings in a new kind of language.’
Posthumous publications include
- The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature (2010) - a book of essays
- Echoes of Memory (2011) - an early work of poetry, originally collected in 1994
- Walking on the Pastures of Wonder (2015) - In March 2015, a series of radio conversations he had recorded with close friend and former RTÉ broadcaster John Quinn was collated and published as Walking on the Pastures of Wonder.
There are also a number of videos of him leading tours round the west of Ireland on youtube and these are particularly nice as you can hear the attractiveness of his voice and the wonderful turns of phrase he used. We have included links to them as observations below.
A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen
It is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart.
When a blessing is invoked, a window opens in eternal time.
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.