Oct 1: “John O’Donohue: Poet, Philosopher, Anam Cara (‘Soul Friend’)” (Denise Wilson)

Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue was a native Irish speaker, a former priest, and author of many books that continue to offer spiritual sustenance for believers and non-believers alike. He was a brilliant original thinker who, almost accidentally, became a bestselling writer and public speaker.


I've really been looking forward for a while to sharing somehow my enthusiasm for John O'Donoghue and when I really started, once the date was on the calendar and I had to think about it in more particulars, and started re-reading some of the books that I have of his I couldn't imagine trying to squeeze this into about twenty minutes. That'd be like talking on Martin Luther King, or the Buddha, or Jesus, or at least for me and before I start just sort of telling you about him, I wanted to start with some of his own words. And so just give you a sense for the poetry in the way he chooses words, puts them together. This is from the book called To Bless the Space Between Us. And the title is For A New Beginning. In out of the way places of the heart where your thoughts never think to wander, this beginning has been quietly forming. Waiting until you were ready to emerge. For a long time it has watched your desire feeling the emptiness growing inside you. Noticing how you willed yourself on, still unable to leave what you had outgrown. It wants to play with the seduction of safety and the gray promises that sameness whispered. Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent. Wondered would you always live like this. Then the delight when your courage kindled and out you stepped onto new ground. Your eyes young again with energy and dream, a path of plenitude opening before you. Though your destination is not yet clear you can trust the promise of this opening. Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning that is at one with your life's desire. Awaken your spirit to adventure, hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk. Soon you will be home in a new rhythm. For your soul senses the world that waits.

This sermon is sort of in the form of some questions and the first is who is John Donahue? He is best known as a poet and philosopher, a man with a brilliant mind who almost accidentally became a best selling writer and public speaker. He was also a former priest and a lover of his homeland on the western coast of Ireland. His fluency in the native Gaelic language rooted him deeply in ancient Celtic tradition and wisdom. Taken as a whole has writings serve as a kind of spiritual handbook something to refer to when we are lost, confused, in despair or merely exhausted. His words help us to free ourselves from the mental prisons guilt and self punishment. To move past rigid beliefs, to stretch beyond the comfortable sameness of our days and to awaken to beauty in all its forms.
In short to experience more joy and meaning in our lives.
I wanted to read one more. It is very hard to select what to read because so many wonderful things but this is called at the end of the day, a mirror of questions.
What dreams did I create last night? Where did my eyes linger today? Where was I heard without anyone noticing? What did I learn today what did I read? What new thoughts visited me? What differences that I notice in those closest to me? Whom did I Neglect? Where did I neglect myself? What did I begin today that might endure? How were my conversations? What did I do today for the poor and the excluded? Did I remember the dead today? Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different? Where did I allow myself to receive love?
Who saw me today? What reached me? How deep did it imprint? What did I avoid today? From the evidence, Why was I given this day? And again that's a mirror of questions at the end of the day.

John O'Donahue was born on a farm the son of a stone Mason. He was the oldest of four children and learned early to work alongside his parents tending livestock, raising crops, and carving peat for fuel. He lived close to the land and he also developed a kinship with the nearby waters of Galway Bay. It is hard for most of us to imagine the deep and powerful way John's surroundings impacted his life and writings. The land and sea, the wind and rain, The wildness and stark beauty of the barren region where you lived. He drank it all in and felt himself a part of it all. Concerning this feeling of unity John explained that the Celtic imagination did not separate visible from invisible, human from the divine, time from eternity. Rather an inner friendship embraced nature divinity, the underworld of the earth, and the human world as one. Although his family wasn't particularly religious in the conventional sense there was a great sense of spirituality in the house along with the family ethic of non-judgmental kindness. His mother was humorous and often irreverent while his father, Paddy O'Donahue, seems to have been something of a mystic himself. The definition of a mystic is someone who seeks to experience unity with the divine through contemplation or someone who tries to gain spiritual knowledge through prayer or deep thought. Or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truth or insight into mysteries that are beyond the intellect, the mind. This word described both John Donahue and his father. In various interviews John described his father as the holiest man he ever knew. In his words my father was more in the presence of god and anyone I've ever met. He could be great fun was very attentive, but his spirit was tuned into the divine his mind and heart lingering there. Being with him according to John, his presence was like a doorway opening to the divine. Growing up with the father was not religious but was a very holy man had a lasting impact on John's distinctive sense of spirituality. When it came time for college John studied English literature philosophy and theology. In nineteen eighty two he was ordained into the priesthod about the same time that he completed a master's degree. Four years later he traveled to Germany for his doctoral studies where he earned a PhD and philosophical theology. Then he returned to Ireland where he served as a parish priest in County Clare. He worked as a priest for about ten years from nineteen ninety to the year two thousand. However throughout this time he continued a life of deep contemplation and writing. In nineteen ninety seven John's first book was published. The title was Anam Cara, spiritual wisdom from the Celtic world. John wrote the book to service nourishment for the spiritual hunger that is so prevalent in our modern world. It drew from his long years of studying philosophy and theology but it was more than that. The book was a powerful expression of John's knowledge and love of ancient Celtic teachings, stories and wisdom. And mixed in with it all was the Celtic landscape itself. The stones the water and the earrh was for him alive and holy. Anam Cara became an international bestseller and John was more surprised than anyone to find himself a world celebrity. He found it amusing that pop stars and presidents had his book at their bedside and that Hollywood directors and famous people sought his counsel. The world's response to Anam Cara and the very liberating spiritual views contained in the book, intensified a strain that already existed between John and the Catholic Church. His ecclesiastical superiors were suspicious of his personal charisma and John found it increasingly difficult to work within the dogmatic confines of the church. He was disappointed by church leaders that seem to him as "frightened functionaries of institutional religion." In an article from the online magazine psychotherapy network the author Mary Wiley described John Sears as a priest. She says while John O'Donahue was never exactly a docile parish priest, he never thundered his rebellion against what he disliked.
Instead he staged a quiet, determined, persistent campaign in opposition to what he felt were some of the church's most egregious failings including its rigid hierarchy, its fear of the feminine, and its hostility to sexuality. John believed that sexual morality was people's own business, not the church's, and never believed in the demonization of the body. He said the most honest thing in human presence is a body. More honest than the mind which can be twisted.

I think it would be accurate to say that the Catholic Church had placed God in too small a box for John O'Donohue. John place high value on a mystical mysterious connection to the divine, something he witnessed in his father. That kind of spiritual relationship did not depend on rules, religious laws, or harsh judgments. In Anam Cara he wrote sometimes our spiritual programs take as far away from our inner belonging. We've become addicted to the methods and programs of psychology and religion. We've become so desperate to learn how to be that our lives pass, and we regulate the practice, of simpy being. He continues by saying that too often such spiritual programs can divide and separate from what is most intimately ours. In his words you do not have to go away outside yourself to come into real conversation with your soul and with the mysteries of the spiritual world. The eternal is at home within you. In the year two thousand John quit the priesthood and devoted himself to writing, public speaking, and advocating for social justice. Yet he's still spent much time in solitude at his remote college in Connemara.
Stillness and solitude fed his soul. It was as necessary as air or water. This helped him stay centered as his reputation grew as an internationally renowned author speaker and workshop leader. Those who knew him during those years said that he grew into a kind of spiritual bard, a priestly troubadour, speaking one day at Oxford college the next at a rock concert.

TheSecond question I posed to myself why would I choose to celebrate John in this worship service? He inspires me. He has brought so much wisdom and understanding. He helps me touch what I consider holy. The land, beauty in all its forms, my loving connection to others, the comfort I find an ordinary things. A faith that means no name, and a connection to mystery, to what we can't see. He referred to it as mist on a mountain in the morning. You couldn't see the top of the mountain, but you knew it was there, shrouded in mist.

I've never been one to follow the teachings of any single religion, but I rejoice when I stumble on anything that enriches my knowing of what is true, what is worthy, what is holy. When I encounter anything that brings a new understanding of myself, my relationship to others or the world. I imagine that a new thread of understanding. I see that thread as a brightly colored ribbon. And each ribbon is an unexpected treasure, a gift that somehow seems to find me, often when I need it the most. I place each of these spiritual ribbons in an imaginary basket which I hold under my arm. The contents of the basket are what some might call my religion. My basket serves as both the bedrock and a compass for my life. The reason I chose to speak of John O'Donohue today is because he is the source for a great number of the ribbons in my basket. In his writings he describes the spiritual landscape that resonates with me, that sounds true. Though he speaks with the authority of a rare, wise soul, he is also incredibly down to earth. Someone rough and rugged. Quick to laugh and according to his friends, a mesmerizing storyteller. Though he traveled the world speaking and teaching he always made time for silence and solitude, something I've learned that is essential in my own life, and he enjoyed connecting with friends over a pint or a glass of whiskey at one of the local clubs. I was at a local pub last night enjoying a glass of wine and playing Celtic music. Another place of resonating, I guess.

For me and for many people O'Donohue offers a kind of spiritual understanding feels like home. He invites us to make our lives a pilgramage of discovery. In his words, there should always be a healthy tension between the life we have settled for, and the desires that still call us. In this sense our desires are the messengers of our unlived life, calling us to attention and action while we still have time here to explore fields where the treasure dwells. To help us in this exploration, John provides road maps in the form of poems, blessings and prose. In the approximately ten years between nineteen ninety seven, when Anam Cara was published, and his death in two thousand eight he published fine other books and two of them were poetry. I Have another quote that I really love of his I want to share. It says, He says it remains the dream of every life to realize itself, to reach out and lift oneself to greater heights. A life that continues to remain on the safe side of its own habits and repetitions, that never engages with the risk of its own possibility remains an unlived life. There is within each heart a hidden voice that calls out for freedom and creativity. We often linger for years and spaces that are too small and shabby for the grandeur of our spirit. Yet experience always remains faithful to us. If lived truthfully and generously it will always guide us toward the real pastures. That also came from probably my favorite book to bless the space between us.
It is the whole book of blessings and John described the blessing as a circle with a light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen. Concerning the nearly lost art of blessing, John said it would be lovely if we would rediscover our power to bless one another. When the blessing is invoked it changes the atmosphere.
In the light and reverence of a blessing, a person or situation becomes illuminated in a completely new way. The very act of blessing gives rise to something being called into the space between us. Perhaps hope, courage, peaceful serenity, or healing.

In this book John looks at life's significant thresholds. Some that are obvious, like getting married and having children, starting a new job, facing old age. And he offers sage advice and encouragement in the form of these blessings. In the introduction he says the word blessing invokes a sense of warmth and protection. It suggests that no life is alone or unreachable. Each life is clothed in raiment of spirit that secretly links that everything else. Some of the other things he addresses are much more complicated thresholds. There are things, there's a blessing for a traveller for for one who has suffered. For a parent whose child has committed a crime. For an addict. For loneliness. For one who is exhausted. For an exile. I've tried to imagine John sitting at his desk, deep in thought and in prayer in an attempt to select just the right words that would offer comfort, courage, and understanding. It took him several years to write the book and he described it as a daunting undertaking. To bless the space between us was the last book he would write. He died unexpectedly in his sleep while on vacation Avignon, France in January two thousand and eight at the age of fifty two.

He was with his beloved partner Christine Fleck. They had only met each other five months earlier. And for Christine and the rest of us, he left much too soon. Fortunately his family is committed to curating John's writings and preparing them for future publication. A book called walking in wonder: eternal wisdom for a modern world, will be released here in the U. S. sometime this November. I'm looking forward to that. Though John no longer walks with the living he seems very much present in many ways. Through his books and poetry, his podcasts and audio books and spiritual teachings, he continues to inspire us to offer spiritual nourishment for many who hunger for connection, meaning and peace.

I want to close with the words of a close friend of his. This man is named doctor Dan Siegel and he is a clinical professor at UCLA school of medicine. He'd been not only a friend also a co-teacher with John. And I think so often it is easy to separate lives of spirit and then the rest of our "real lives," or spirit and mystery from intellect and science. John brought those all together in the words of his friend doctor Siegel really show that to be true.

John's insights into the nature of the invisible world, what he would call the mystical, resonated powerfully in new ways with the emerging science on the deep nature of reality. Of our brains, our bodies, our minds, and our relationships with people and the planet.
John's work was grounded in contemplative and scholarly study and we discovered it to be consistent with rigorous cutting edge research. His insights continue to inspire and each day as they may do for so many old and new to his life's work. Thank you John for being with us still.

Thank you for being here this morning. May we bless and be blessed.

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