- so begins the introduction to the film ‘Celtic Pilgrimage’ which shares much of John O’Donohue’s life and work. And, in a way, like many of his sayings, those gorgeously fashioned few words alone might really be enough for us to ponder tonight. For the heart of much of his insight and encouragement to live is contained in them: the vitality of creation and the landscape; the call to imagination and to enter into the dreams of our life; and the centrality of beauty and of wonder. John O’Donohue’s life and work was an invitation and example of how to attend to such presence and to travel as adventurous pilgrims into them…
Now, of course, his biographical details do matter, yet in another way. This might be best expressed in his beautiful short poem Fluent, where he wrote that:
I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.
That, for me, is a deeply Celtic aspiration, though not confined of course to the Celtic world. For it reflects a view of being that is about flow, in deep communion with the natural world, open to fresh discovery, unencumbered by an insistence on straight lines and narrowly imposed ‘order’. In John O’Donohue’s case, it indeed fits well with his deep embodiment in the west of Ireland, where he was born in 1956. It is also profoundly in tune with his doctoral and post-doctoral studies into Hegel and Meister Eckhart. And it is an expression of his deep Christian, indeed Catholic priestly, spirituality, as well as an expression of his other vocations: as a poet, and as an ‘anam cara’ a soul-friend. Yet it also points us beyond, to new thresholds of presence, where each of us may cross into deeper meaning and relationship.
What do we seek to find in him I wonder? I hope it is not merely a set of words and images to inspire, brilliant though they typically are. Even less, I hope we do not seek some distillation of Celtic Wisdom. In my view, John O’Donohue offers a rich and particular combination of Irish life, inclusive spirituality and incisive reflection which leaves most other expressions of Celtic faith in its wake. Yet his real achievement was the painstaking and joyful hewing of this from the depths of his own experience, as an invitation to our own faith and lives, not as a monument for Celtic spiritual fetishism. Inspired by his exploration and expression of spirit, the question is: what will we do with our own?
John O’Donohue put it this way:
‘I feel ‘that there are two ways that you must always keep together in approaching the God thing. One is, and this is what I like about the Christian tradition — and this is where I diverge a little from the Buddhist tradition even though I love Buddhism as a methodology to clean up the mind and get you into purity of presence. What I love is that at the heart of Christianity, you have this idea of intimacy, which is true belonging, being seen, the ultimate home of individuation, the ultimate source of it and the homecoming.’ That, he said, ‘is what I call spirituality, the art of homecoming. So it’s St. Augustine’s phrase, “Deus intimior intimo meo” — “God is more intimate to me than I am to myself.” Then you go to Meister Eckhart, and you get the other side of it, which you must always keep together with it, where in Middle High German, he says, “Gott wirt und Gott entwirt” — that means, “God becomes and God un-becomes,” or translated it means that God is only our name for it, and the closer we get to it the more it ceases to be God. So then you are on a real safari with the wildness and danger and otherness of God. And I think when you begin to get a sense of the depth that is there, then your whole heart wakens up. I mean, I love Irenaeus’ thing from the second century, which said… “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” And I think in our culture that one of the things that we are missing is that these thresholds where we can encounter this, and where we move into new change in our lives, there are no rituals to help us to recognise them or to cross them worthily.’
Let me, briefly, offer three pathways in which John O’Donohue helped us cross over worthily: three pathways which help me, and which may entwine with others you see; three ways beginning with c.
Firstly, John O’Donohue helps us to contemplate. This, for him, was grounded in the elemental, such a missing part of so much of modern life, including churches. As he put it:
‘I think it makes a hue difference when you leave your house: whether you think you are walking into location, which is simply dead space which you are crossing so that you can get to where you need to go; or whether you believe you are walking into a living universe. If you believe the second, then your walk becomes a different thing.’
There are many aspects of this we could explore, not least the deeper spiritual linkages this might give many of us with Australian Indigenous people, who, like the ancient Celtic tradition, see spirit alive and embodied in the landscape, full of mystery places and spaces. Each one of us, even in a city, John O’Donohue suggested, needs at least one special place where we can go to come home to this presence. For, as he teased out, such a contemplative approach helps us see time, colour and other taken-for-granted features of our world afresh. It helps us prevent 'the laying down of tarmacadam in our minds for the ‘motorway of fundamentalism’. It is a work of silence and solitude, birthing wonder.
Secondly, John O’Donohue helps us to connect. For dualism was simply not an option for him. Just as we isolate the visible and invisible worlds at our peril, so secular and sacred, pagan and Christian, masculine and feminine, the heaviness of our earthly clay and the ethereal whispiness of spirit are not separate, but one. He embodied this wonderfully in his own life, where he was just at ease in himself, with others and his surroundings, when he was sharing fun, song, dance and whisky, as when he was at prayer, pondering a line of poetry or alone on a mountain top. For to him, our external and internal landscapes inform one another, and, most profoundly of all, birth and death belong together. Indeed, John himself died at the comparatively early age of 52, having written extensively about how death can be viewed as a gift and as a new birth for those who have travelled well: something he learned, as a priest, from attending others on their deathbed. In death, as in life, the human task was to come home to the presence in which we already live, to the love which knows and loves us before, through, and beyond everything.
Making these kind of connections has of course been part of religion’s role down the ages, which makes its diminution in the modern western world a great loss. For John O’Donohue, this was partly because the ‘frightened functionaries’ of organised religion had allowed religion to become so boring and restrictive. The tragedy of child abuse in the Irish Catholic Church was for him also a further shattering. For the Irish Catholic Church had of course been the sacred container of meaning and identity when all was taken from its people by centuries of colonisation: language, land and all the rest. Such communion however rests on a trust which cannot be manufactured, or at all easily restored when it is gone. So, in such circumstances, how then does the western world reconnect with presence today? It is not an easy question to answer. Yet, in word and deed, perhaps John O’Donohue is a prophet for us here too. There is, he said, still much genuine striving for, and manifestation of holiness in churches. However this is not enough. Rather we need to reconnect the vocation of priestliness as the vocation of every human being. Indeed, the best thing he ever did, he said, was to become a priest, and the second best thing was to leave the public Catholic priesthood, when his bishop gave him and ultimatum to choose between writing and another full-time pastoral charge. He saw the arts, especially, and engagement with people in their places of work, as paths forward, together with active environmental and social justice action. To those who have been given much, he used to say, much is expected: for ‘the duty of privilege is absolute integrity.’
Which leads me, thirdly, and finally to the outflowing of John O’Donohue’s fluency, his encouragement to us to create. For faith, he affirmed, was really a ‘helpless attraction to the divine’. Sadly however, he said, in the western world we have placed such emphasis on the mind and the intellect of God, and particularly, the will of God, that ‘we have devastatingly neglected the imagination of God – the divine imagination – because that is the true source of all beauty.’ For the truth is, ‘if you look as God as an artist, then it totally alters what you think about God.’
So can we each be artists, who create, out of the connections we make, through our contemplative being? This is the continuing challenge John O’Donohue with which leaves us. Our calling is not the protection of our individual woundedness, but to enter more deeply into our own lives, and, with others, cultivate and re-express the danger and wildness of God. As he put it:
‘Either we are in the universe to inhabit the eternity of our souls and grow real, or else we might as well dedicate our days to shopping and kill time watching talk-shows… Let's not let our days fall away like empty shells and miss all the treasure… Each day is a secret story woven around the radiant heart of wonder. The sacred duty of being an individual is to gradually learn how to live so as to awaken the eternal within you.’
Perhaps this was again best summed up for him by his experience of attending the dying, where he often saw great transformation in the course of a short hour or so. What was truly sad was when people came to their death having hardly lived, having remained trapped by their fears or by conforming to social expectations. Yet others came to their death as they had lived their lives: full of courage, flow and the openness to fresh surprise. So, how has your life been?, John asked one particular rogue as he prepared to slip away, with great expectation for the next, quite unknown stage, to come. ‘By Jesus’, the man said, ‘I knocked one hell of a squeeze out of it!’ Perhaps that should be part of John O’Donohue’s own epitaph: someone who was variously a farmer’s son, a priest, a poet, a philosophe, a mystic, a great friend and enjoyer of fun - full of insight, compassion and laughter - who got a hell of a squeeze out of life, and spirituality and all that is bound up in it; and a friend who calls us too to enjoy that same squeeze too. May we become more fully part of God’s blessing.
Let me then conclude, as he often did himself, with one of John O’Donohue’s best loved blessings, “Beannacht,” (pronounced ‘bannock’) which is the Gaelic word for blessing:
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 gray window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to 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 curragh 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.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Jo Inkpin, for the ‘Debate the Preacher’ series, Sunday 2 April 2017 (St.John’s Cathedral, Brisbane)