in need of beannacht, i found my way back to an old friend, the irish poet of infinite blessing…
in search of profound goodness this week, i found my way back to the saint of a gentle soul, a poet with whom i once shared a st. patrick’s day, and who would remain a kindred spirit and friend, with warm and occasional phone calls until 2008, when he died in his sleep on january 3, a day that happens to be my birthday, and two days after his own 52nd birthday.
john o’donohue was a priest and a poet on the day in 1999 when i (a newspaper scribe at the time) pulled up to his hotel in my little brown toyota corolla and spirited him away to one of those ridiculous faux irish pubs that line chicago’s more touristy streets. we landed there, amid faux celtic ruins and an endless loop of tin pipes and ditties, with more than a touch of irony. we talked till the sky beyond us went dark, and the city streetlights turned on. it was one of those newspaper interviews that wound its way into something that never ended. we were there in the wake of his best-selling anam cara‘s american publication (and marking the occasion of what would become his second best-seller, eternal echoes), and we found our own soul friendship. he was and is a rare blessing to me. his mind was voluminous. his heart and his soul even more so.
i found my way back to john, against the drumbeat of this unrelenting savagery in ukraine, because i was looking for words that might comfort. i was trying to be hopeful in hard times (per howard zinn down below, sent to me this week by a beloved friend of the chair.) i’d been collecting a litany of small wondrous moments of human kindness and utter goodness arising from the brokenness in kyiv and kharkiv and mariupol, when i decided to search for words that capture this moment of brokenness, of enormity distilled into poetries, well-chosen words that give us a way in to whatever is true, and beyond our worldly comprehension.
i found john’s beannacht or blessing, a blessing with a tinge of goodbye, “goodbye and God bless,” and whenever i read john’s words, i think of the day — and the story that came of it — back in march of 1999. as i started to read the story under my byline, a story that ran in the chicago tribune on st. patrick’s day of that year, i decided i’d bring my friend here to the table, for all of us. we could all use some comfort. we could all use some john o’donohue.
THE GOOD GREEN POET
By Barbara Mahany
Mar 17, 1999
The poet-philosopher, who lives in solitude in the west of Ireland, leapt the curb and strode into a North Clark Street saloon purporting to be an authentic Irish pub — about a block away from another place purporting to be a rain forest.
The poet-philosopher has experienced the real thing plenty — pubs, that is — and when he looked up and saw, beside the tavern door, faux stone slabs pretending to be ancient Celtic ruins, he jolted up a bit and mumbled something about the Flintstones.
But not wanting to sound impolite, he muffled most of the rest of what he had to say, here in a place in downtown Chicago where the accents on the waiters were so thick he couldn’t believe they came from the country he has called his own for all of his 43 years.
John O’Donohue, a giant of a thinker, and a pretty tall guy, too, folded his 6-foot-3-inch frame onto a carved-wood bench, and did what any self-respecting Irishman would do, caught in such a circumstance. He ordered a pint of Guinness, and a bit of Irish stew to wash it down.
Then, his feet occasionally breaking into an under-the-table tap, in tune with some fine accordion blaring over the speakers, he settled into a long afternoon of conversation — the great art he alternately refers to as “an old blast of ideas” or “the source of luminosity in the Western tradition, going back to Plato’s dialogues.”
Oh, how he laments that discourse is dying, one of the great casualties of postmodern culture. What passes for it these days, he says, is really “just intersecting monologues.”
For a man who spends most of his days hearing only his own thinking, living alone as he does in the wilds of Connemara, O’Donohue–a Catholic scholar, priest and, of late, a best-selling author–is spilling with much to say about everything from how odd it is to refer to coffee as regular, “as distinct from coffee that misbehaves,” to how we should cross the threshold of the millennium in two days of silence, “with a liturgical solemnity in some way.”
He cracks Steven Wright jokes –“I went into a restaurant. It said, `Breakfast Any Time.’ I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” He croons with Sinead O’Connor. He drops the names of philosophers from practically every century dating to ancient Greece. He sprinkles blessings on everything from the car he had just bumped around in, to the table where the afternoon’s conversation unspooled.
And the world is very much starting to listen–even if it’s only to him talking to himself, as he puts it.
In fact, of his pair of best-selling books, both spiritual works laced with Irish lyricism–“Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom,” the No. 1 best seller in Ireland for 18 months until it was bumped from that spot by his new book, “Eternal Echoes,” now shifting between No. 1 and 2 in the country that, after 800 years of colonization, has built an empire of words–he says: “All I’m doing with these two books is allowing, maybe, others to overhear some of my own internal conversations. I’m not sure I’m right at all.”
And some conversations they are.
“He is the finest English-language-speaking spiritual writer of our time,” says Rev. Andrew Greeley, the Irish-Catholic priest and best-selling author of 42 novels, including his newest, “Irish Mist,” in bookstores for St. Patrick’s Day.
“When I started his first book, I said, `Oh, I’ll sit down and read the whole thing.’ Well, I soon realized I’d only read a chapter a day. It got down to a paragraph, at most a page, a day. I’m using the new book for spiritual reading, and the section I’m on now, it’s about a sentence a day.”
It’s not that it’s drudgery. “It’s rich,” says Greeley, who has the heroine of his new book quoting O’Donohue, a sure sign that he’s seeping into popular culture.
No less than Deepak Chopra, the best-selling author, physician and spiritualist, is a fan. He says O’Donohue’s work is “a rare synthesis of philosophy, poetry and spirituality.” He calls it “life-transforming for those who read it.”
And how is it that the boy who grew up on a sod farm, whose vision of hell to this day is an endless prairie of turnips that need thinning, who lives an ascetic’s life alone in a cottage with walls held up by books, the nearest human a mile away, how is it that such a lad grew up to be “well on his way to becoming one of the master practitioners of the trade,” in the words of Greeley, the trade being the saving of souls through spiritual writing?
“I was born on a farm in the west of Ireland, and I’m so glad of that because I think one of the finest places to begin acquaintance with the universe is on the land,” says O’Donohue. “The landscape at home is exceptionally dramatic, the Burren region of County Clare, the amazing stonescapes, you know.”
You mean sort of like the stones standing near the door?
“No, not at all,” he says, barely glancing away from his Guinness.
“It was an intimate landscape. Every field had its name. It was a folk world, a world of folk culture. Also, through working the land –cows and cattle, sheep and fowl, sowing crops, cutting hay and turf, it was a full farming life–it meant that you became acquainted with the landscape.”
His favorite chore: Cutting turf in the bog, slicing half-foot slabs of earth, boring deeper and deeper with every slice. The bog, he explains, “is where there was a forest and where it collapsed, and where all the past life is congealed underneath the surface in a fallen way.”
And so, “in a sense, cutting turf is a place where you enter the hidden time of a landscape, where its memory is interred.”
It is those poetic riffs, infused with a passion for the natural world, that are the underpinning of O’Donohue’s vision. It is his Celtic soul oozing out–in conversation or in his books.
He was blessed with a father “with a lovely mind for a farmer. He always had the ability to think. He could go to the horizon with the thoughts.”
And always, turning the hay, cutting the turf, there was conversation.
“At night, too, around the fire at home, the experience of the day is sifted. With all kinds of silence, loads of silence looking into the fire. A lot of old time for integrating experience, digesting, mulling over things.
“It was a lovely way for a young man to grow up. James Hillman (the Jungian analyst) said, `Women relate face to face, but men relate shoulder to shoulder.’ “
It wasn’t long before O’Donohue went off to university, where he studied philosophy and English literature, and where his mind, he says, “really woke up.”
“I always think that thoughts are the most intimate part of humans,” he says. “The way you think is the way you are. Meister Eckehart (a 13th Century German mystic) says our thoughts are our inner senses. Polish them and refine them; the edge of your thinking will determine who you hold yourself to be, what you hold the meaning of life to be and how you will live with yourself in the world.
“I think one of the things that really holds us back and atrophies us and condemns us to live such forsaken lives is the deadness of our thinking, and how we swallow like fast food the public cliches that are given to us, and how we dedicate so much of our precious inner time of the mind to listening to garbage that has nothing to do with anything.”
O’Donohue, in his own humble way, wouldn’t mind turning that around. He doesn’t much like the trappings of celebrity, though. He quips as his picture is being taken, “Rilke says, `Fame is the sum total of misunderstandings that gather around a new name.’ “
He never set out to be the writer of books that have made him a household name back in the old country. And lately he has been crisscrossing America where people line up, sometimes in the hundreds, waiting for a word, and his scrawl on the books they buy, often four or five at a time.
“One of the things that consoles me about all this is that I didn’t go out looking for it at all,” he says.
He was quite satisfied with having completed his PhD in philosophical theology with a dissertation on the philosopher Georg Hegel that won him a summa cum laude in 1990 from the University of Tubingen, near the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. That dissertation, written in German, draws rave reviews — one as recent as last summer in The Review of Metaphysics, a scholarly journal. He’s thinking he should have it published in English.
But back to the, er, more accessible road his writing career has taken.
It just kind of took off on its own, it seems.
Having written poetry since he was 21 and along the way becoming a priest, although not tied to any parish or particular order, O’Donohue had been invited several years ago to share his meditations at a conference in California. Someone made tapes of his talks that were later heard by an agent in New York. The agent got them tucked between covers as “Anam Cara,” which sold like hot cross buns from Dublin to Donegal. In America, sales topped 50,000 in hardcover and 60,000 in paperback, not too shabby for a first book of its ilk.
“I’ve been totally blown away, really amazed, so humbled, by the resonance these books have found,” says O’Donohue, who for long hours every morning sits with a fountain pen in a little room with an open fire, writing a sentence, throwing it out, writing another, tossing it too. “After three hours, you have four miserable sentences,” he says. “For every one of them, you’ve thrown out 100.”
But in the end, when all the sentences add up to a finished work, he whispers one last benediction as he seals the envelope to his publisher. “Always when I’m launching a book,” he confides, “the last line I always say is, `May this book find its way to those who need it.’ “
and here is the beannacht that started my way back to my old poet friend….
written for his mother, Josie; beannacht, in Gaelic, is a word with more nuance than mere blessing, it’s “goodbye and God bless,” so here is a beannacht for the those we have lost, in ireland, in ukraine, here on our very own sod…
On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.
~ John O’Donohue ~
(Echoes of Memory)
if you’d like surround-sound comfort, you can listen to him — and hear that beautiful lilt — here, talking with krista tippett about beauty….
and here is the wonderful wisdom from howard zinn that had me looking for hope….(with huge thanks to PJT, my holy light in D.C.)
where did you find comfort — and hope — this week?
Oh, my…how I’ve needed all of this. Have been so 💔, as all the chairs here. Struggling for the least bit of hope. You broke through. I finally felt something — besides terror and sadness. Thank you, Lovey. Sharing this and printing so I can save forever. ❤️❤️🩹
He did bring me a bluster of joy reading him again; the capacity to be playful. It lives in us, buried under the rubble….
When I was struggling and submerged after losing first my mother and then my sister, I chanced to discover John O’Donohue— but I know it wasn’t chance. He was, and always will be, a miracle to me. That you were blessed to spend time with him, that you had a friendship with him, is a wonderment to me… Thank you for sharing his light, and yours. I love this Howard Zinn quote as well. xoxo
ah, dear amy, that you found comfort in the wide embrace of JO’D brings ME comfort now, all these years later. i can only wonder if he knew the depth others found in him, in his sacred vessel of language and thought. i know that the limelight wasn’t welcome to him. in the last months of his life he was seeking to turn out that light, to retreat into the solitude and sanctity of a more silent life. he was returning the Burren from whence he came, to the Burren whose mysterious ways evoked the sacred in little-understood ways. that he was eclipsed from that is one of the great sadnesses of his too early death. he lives on in every page, and in his inimitable spirit that cannot be quelled. just this morning i bought myself a collection of his The Elements. so much of his Celtic wisdom is alive in me now. i wish i could send him a copy of my newest book. it is born of the holy essence that so moved him….the poetry of all creation. a deeply Celtic poetry…..
Thank you, Bam, for sharing both O’Donaghue and Zinn with us this morning. Reading both of them helped me to see some light in the past few horrendous weeks. I continue to pray for peace as I’m sure everyone here does, too.
Dear Barbara, You will never know how wonderful it is to read your article from the Tribune with John O’Donohoe. Anam Cara sits on my bookshelf above the computer but joins me often. As it is today, hearing of a dear friends farewell, he passed on St. Patrick’s Day to “join his good friend, Jesus”. Thank you so much.
oh, dear gracious, so lovely to find you here, pulling up a chair. i love that J O’D hovers above your computer. a good place to hover. thank YOU for dropping by and leaving a lovely note. ❤
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
These words take my breath away. Thank you for introducing your kindred spirit and friend to those of us who were unaware and for keeping his eternal flame burning bright.
These days I find hope in slipping unsigned onto the Facebook page of the Kyiv Zoo, where 50 staff members and their families have moved in to care for and protect the war-stressed animals around the clock. The Washington Post ran a story on these other frontline heroes. Zookeepers’ posts about the animals every few days are heartening. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria is fundraising to continue to meet the needs of the animals and their caregivers in Kyiv and at other Ukrainian zoos. To slightly reword a 1960s button, war is not healthy for any living thing.
oh, blessed karen, caretaker of wonder…….i’ve heard a little about the zoo, but now i am going to follow your lead and go read more and more. i am melting that families have moved in……bless you for turning our attention to all the living things…….squeezing your hand here this morning. xoxoxoxo bless you so much.
beautiful friends, i just found this glorious letter from Kate DiCamillo, the author of my boys’ favorite children’s books, to another writer. krista tippett posted it this morning in the OnBeing site. and i am going to try to paste the whole thing here. it’s so beautiful. it might add a spark of light to your morning, your day, or whenever you wander by the chair….
from kate DiCamillo:
Here’s a question for you: Have you ever asked an auditorium full of kids if they know and love Charlotte’s Web? In my experience, almost all of the hands go up. And if you ask them how many of them cried when they read it, most of those hands unabashedly stay aloft.
My childhood best friend read Charlotte’s Web over and over again as a kid. She would read the last page, turn the book over, and begin again. A few years ago, I asked her why.
“What was it that made you read and reread that book?” I asked her. “Did you think that if you read it again, things would turn out differently, better? That Charlotte wouldn’t die?”
“No,” she said. “It wasn’t that. I kept reading it not because I wanted it to turn out differently or thought that it would turn out differently, but because I knew for a fact that it wasn’t going to turn out differently. I knew that a terrible thing was going to happen, and I also knew that it was going to be okay somehow. I thought that I couldn’t bear it, but then when I read it again, it was all so beautiful. And I found out that I could bear it.
That was what the story told me. That was what I needed to hear. That I could bear it somehow.”
So that’s the question, I guess, for you and for me and for all of us trying to do this sacred task of telling stories for the young: How do we tell the truth and make that truth bearable?
When I talk to kids in schools, I tell them about how I became a writer. I talk about myself as a child and how my father left the family when I was very young. Four years ago, I was in South Dakota, in this massive auditorium, talking to 900 kids, and I did what I always do: I told them about being sick all the time as a kid and about my father leaving. And then I talked to them about wanting to write. I talked to them about persisting.
During the Q&A, a boy asked me if I thought I would have been a writer if I hadn’t been sick all the time as a kid and if my father hadn’t left. And I said something along the lines of “I think there is a very good chance that I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today if those things hadn’t happened to me.” Later, a girl raised her hand and said, “It turns out that in the end you were stronger than you thought you were.”
When the kids left the auditorium, I stood at the door and talked with them as they walked past. One boy — skinny-legged and blond-haired — grabbed my hand and said, “I’m here in South Dakota and my dad is in California.” He flung his free hand out in the direction of California. He said, “He’s there and I’m here with my mom. And I thought I might not be okay. But you said today that you’re okay. And so I think that I will be okay, too.”
What could I do?
I tried not to cry. I kept hold of his hand.
I looked him in the eye.
I said, “You will be okay. You are okay. It’s just like that other kid said: you’re stronger than you know.”
I felt so connected to that child.
I think we both felt seen.
My favorite lines of Charlotte’s Web, the lines that always make me cry, are toward the end of the book. They go like this: “These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…”
I have tried for a long time to figure out how E. B. White did what he did, how he told the truth and made it bearable.
And I think that you, with your beautiful book about love, won’t be surprised to learn that the only answer I could come up with was love. E. B. White loved the world. And in loving the world, he told the truth about it — its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we were not alone.
I think our job is to trust our readers.
I think our job is to see and to let ourselves be seen.
I think our job is to love the world.
As is often the case, my mind and my heart awaken from a heavy sadness here as I sit in my chair at the table. Like antique silver that’s being polished slowly and carefully, the words that you share softly, gently, revitalize my soul and make life’s calamities bearable. Thank you, Barbie. Our rekindled friendship has come along just when I’ve needed it most. ❤️
dear KI, that’s a lovely metaphor, the antique silver. all i know is that we are all groping toward the light. it comes in and out of shadow. praying for shafts today. xoxox
I was listening to Krista Tibet’s interview with John O’Donohue this morning. I turned the page and there you were! So grateful to have found you and your wonderful sharing.
I love serendipities! Welcome. And thank you for stopping by….