Tribute to John O’Donohue

To See with Eyes of the Soul

A tribute to John O’Donohue


To be a poet was once considered a sacred and powerful vocation. The poets and bards of ancient cultures were rightfully seen as the wisdom-keepers of their people, because they had the ability to weave a magical tapestry between the past, present and future. Words had the power to enchant, to define and ultimately to create the world.  In the mythic history of Ireland, Amergin (or Amhairghin) was a druid/poet of the Milesians who battled the Tuatha de Danaan (Faery Clan) for possession of Ireland. He is said to have spontaneously voiced a poem/invocation which calmed the storms and proclaimed mystical union with the elements and land itself, thus securing victory for the Milesians.

When inspired words are used in the service of an eye that sees deeply, they are indeed magical and have the power to awaken latent forces, as well as human hearts.  The tradition of the seer/poet has been largely lost in modern Western culture. It is startling to come across someone who has that long-forgotten gift, as if they are a messenger from another time. It is in the light of this sacred capacity for deep sight and inspired word that I can’t help but remember the late John O’Donohue (1956-2008).

 John was an Irish poet, philosopher, former Catholic priest and some would say, a mystic. He grew up and continued to live on the west coast of Ireland, in a cottage by the sea in Connemara. He was only just beginning to become well-known for his poetic, deeply felt explorations of beauty, friendship, belonging, and spiritual truth. He was also a scholar and philosopher, who had received acclaim from the prestigious Review of Metaphysics for his reinterpretation of Hegel and his advances in thinking about consciousness and the notion of Personhood. Probably his most widely-read book was Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Spiritual Wisdom. This was followed by Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on our Yearning to Belong; Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, a book of poetry called Connemara Blues, and finally his last work, published after his death, called To Bless the Space Between Us (called Benedictus in Europe), a book of blessings he composed for the “threshold” moments of life. With a gift such as his, he might have been more famous and commercially successful, but he was a contemplative by nature. He often remarked that he could only do a few speaking engagements per year, because he would begin to miss his home, the familiar land and farmers he knew so well, the wild sea, and most of all, the solitude that nurtured his illuminated seeing.  

I grew to love John O’Donohue’s written works many years ago. There was a special quality to his writing that I had never experienced before—a rhapsodic prose, coupled with an exhilarating depth of seeing. In his reflections on life, the soul and the complexities of being human, one can sense the layers of introspection that have taken place over time, a long ripened insight, full of feeling, which is always the mark of a true poet.  I can not help but think that John O’Donohue was a poet in the same spiritual lineage as Kahlil Gibran or Rabindranath Tagore, beloved by the people long after their death because of the simplicity but timeless wisdom of their words. I imagine Gibran and Tagore would have aroused the same inspiration and passion that John O’Donohue did when he spoke in public.  And truly, to appreciate John O’Donohue for who he was, one would have had to hear him speak.

It was a wonderous discovery for me that the exquisite prose in his books is only the written form of his spontaneous stream of thoughts. He had a rare, captivating facility with language and ideas, and my impression was that poetry simply streamed from his mouth. His talks were funny as well as profound… he would often get sidetracked and tell a joke or a drinking story in his thick Irish accent. He would wander into a reverie about some unrelated topic, and then weave it all back together seamlessly. The quality I would best use to describe his presence was alive. Indeed, I thought he was the most living person I had ever met. He was a big hulk of a man, at least 6 foot 4, and broad, with a beard and eyes that would twinkle mischievously, then suddenly look soft and faraway. His voice was deep and warm, highly articulate yet musical and lilting in that uniquely Irish way. He was full of wit, and sparkled with humanity and self-deprecating humor.  Most significantly, he seemed to be genuinely interested in people and the world around him, not as a neutral observer or analyst, but as a lover of this world and its beings.  One could feel the presence of the priest, the confessor and comforter, sitting at someone’s deathbed, attending the sick and the lonely. Listening to John, I was often reminded of lines by Rilke, another lover of the world of created things:

And the world that is looked at so deeply wants to be looked at in love.…

 The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.  (Wendung/Turning Point trans. by Stephen Mitchell)

Who else but someone who had not only a great love of humanity, but a personal love of human beings, would include book sections with such titles as: The Beauty of the Flaw; The Affection of the Earth for Us; In the House of Eternal Belonging Birth and Death are One (from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace).

Many writers fear being marked as sentimental, and avoid using such soul-infused language. But John O’Donohue was undeniably a poet of the soul’s hidden language. His was a style that is too often derided in mainstream intellectual culture, known for its detachment and cynicism.  His devoted readers would continually remark that they felt he had given voice to the private language of their own souls, a language they had sensed and longed for but never articulated.

This was indeed my experience when I first went to a seminar and heard John speak. An emotion like wonder started to dawn in me, followed by an almost boundless excitement. It felt as if an inner fire had been kindled, an energy of joy and creativity, a feeling of my own soul. I wasn’t alone in that feeling. I had seen John speak to groups of people many times, and each time, I could feel the energy in the room build and then crash like a wave among the several hundred audience members.  It would begin quite subdued and by the end of the first half-hour, people would be radiating smiles, exclaiming and laughing, or softly weeping.  At a conference of psychotherapists that I attended, with 5,000 people in the lecture hall for John’s keynote address, he brought the entire room to their feet with shouts and applause. Even though he often spoke of the error of modern psychotherapy, which unintentionally guides people to pick at a wound which would be better left to heal on its own, the therapists were moved and inspired by his words. It didn’t seem to matter what group of people he was talking to, whether business people or teachers or therapists, John helped people to not only remember, but feel their souls. Of course not everyone would say that this is what they were feeling… it would probably more often be expressed that they felt lighter, passionate, more alive.  John himself would be the first to admit that the soul is ineffable, hidden to the eye, and approached best with reverence and subtlety.

It was a great shock to learn of John O’Donohue’s sudden death, on January 3, 2008, at the age of 52.  It felt achingly unfair that the most living person I had ever known was now gone. Although I barely knew him, I thought of him as a friend and as a spiritual teacher. I think everyone who knew him did. John O’Donohue will always be remembered and loved for his unique capacity to be human and yet to be fully aware of the divine beauty within.  His last book, published posthumously, was called To Bless the Space Between Us. In it he wrote a blessing called “On the Death of the Beloved”. It was poignant and bittersweet that this blessing has been invoked by his friends and followers the world over as a memorial tribute to the man himself. Although his life and writing career were relatively brief, like the poet/seer Amergin, he left a song in his wake that has great power in it. It is the song of the soul aware of itself, seeing the world from that lofty place and expressing its rapture through language. 

On the death of the Beloved

By John O’Donohue

Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts,
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.

Your love was like the dawn
Brightening over our lives
Awakening beneath the dark
A further adventure of colour.

The sound of your voice
Found for us
A new music
That brightened everything.

Whatever you enfolded in your gaze
Quickened in the joy of its being;
You placed smiles like flowers
On the altar of the heart.
Your mind always sparkled
With wonder at things.

Though your days here were brief,
Your spirit was live, awake, complete.

We look towards each other no longer
From the old distance of our names;
Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,
As close to us as we are to ourselves.

Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,
We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face,
Smiling back at us from within everything
To which we bring our best refinement.

Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.

When orchids brighten the earth,
Darkest winter has turned to spring;
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.

May you continue to inspire us:

To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.