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?