"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 . . . " This is the opening to Anam Cara: spiritual wisdom from the Celtic world, the first book by John O'Donohue, a former Irish Catholic priest, which became an international best-seller.
Anam Cara, or "soul's friend", wooed its readers with a potent reinvention of Celtic mystery, even magic, the promise that the Divine lies nearer than our fingertips: it is the very centre of our own being and becoming. In much the same vein as Julian of Norwich with her message of God's intimate and immediate loving presence, O'Donohue beguiled his audience with a compelling invitation: "We do not need to go out to find love, rather we need to be still and let love discover us", he urged. "All the possibilities of your human destiny are asleep in your soul".
Published in 1997, Anam Cara was reprinted six times in its first year, and it brought O'Donohue to worldwide notice, even adulation, in the realm of religious books. It came at a time when Ireland was opening up to new ideas as well as enjoying an economic expansion. "There's a huge crisis of belonging in post-modern culture," he said, and his vision appealed to an audience who recognised their own spiritual hunger.
Born in 1956 to a farmer in Fermoyle, Co Clare, John O'Donohue grew up in the savage and ancient beauty of the Burren region. At the age of 12 he went to board at St Mary's College, Galway and from there to the massive seminary of Maynooth, in the flat heart of Ireland, where he was ordained.
For 19 years, he served as a parish priest in the west of Ireland, but always he felt the beguiling pull of words, as well as a mounting tension between Irish Catholicism's traditional rigours and his own liberal position. In a radio interview long after leaving the priesthood, he spoke of ministering to people in the parish: "I was trying to refine their fingers . . . so that they could undo so much of the false netting crippling their own spirits."
Towards the end of his time as a priest, he spent four years at Tübingen University in Germany studying philosophy and theology; his doctorate on Hegel earned him a summa cum laude in 1990. (He later said of his philosopher hero: "Hegel struck me as someone who put his eye to the earth at a most unusual angle and managed to glimpse the circle to which we all aspire".) Then came the head-on clash with his bishop: O'Donohue wanted to serve the Church on a part-time basis in order to write, while his superior demanded he give himself fully to his priestly work. His position became untenable. "The best decision I ever made was to become a priest and I think the second best was to resign".
After Anam Cara, O'Donohue had to manage a balancing act between writing, lecturing and touring his workshops worldwide. The stone cottage in his beloved Burren was his hideaway. But even here he was never out of reach from the demands of his ever-widening fan club. He published several further volumes including Eternal Echoes (1998), Divine Beauty (2003), the poetry collection Conamara Blue (2000), and his final work, Benedictus, published last November, a simple, moving book, almost a recipe of blessings.
I came to know John O'Donohue obliquely: he contributed a prologue to my translation of The Confession of Saint Patrick (1998). It opens:
History is an amazing presence – it is a place where vanished time gathers. While we are in the flow of time, it is difficult to glean its significance, and it is only in looking back that we can recognise the hidden dimensions at work within a particular era or epoch . . .
Words that may well be applied to O'Donohue's own influence on a modern spirituality that more and more seeks to free itself from the shackles of organised religion.
John O'Donohue, writer, poet and priest: born Fermoyle, Co Clare 1 January 1956; died 3 January 2008.
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