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Louisa Calio

John O’ Donohue: The Celtic Soul

When I learned that poet/writer/philosopher/public speaker John O’ Donohue had died unexpectedly in Avignon at the age of 52, just before he was to marry, I was profoundly touched and saddened. His voice had moved me so. His first book, Anam Cara, in Gaelic translates as soul friend. It embodies his collected ideas on the search for soul in our time. He generously gives us his reflections on Love, an ancient recognition, on the soul’s nature, on intimacy with the sacred. These are just a few examples of the numerous topics he examines profoundly. John was indeed a soul friend. His works acknowledge the pagan roots within the old ways of Ireland and are written from a place of love, tenderness, and reflective spaciousness, a place he long inhabited, while contemplating matters of the heart within a silent landscape.

Born in County Clare, he lived on a secluded farm in Conamara, which gave him a profound appreciation of both nature and solitude or perhaps “soulitdue” says it better. An advocate of silence, especially in our very noisy, consumer-oriented world, a world he felt was stealing our very essence, especially from the young. If that sounds religious, it was and political as well. John was certainly of both. A former Catholic priest, who left the priesthood to become a scholar and a man committed to the Arts and concerns of laborers, he felt he followed in his father’s footsteps. His father was a farmer and stonemason. Though O’ Donohue is a poet, prophet, philosopher, and mystic, he preferred to call himself, “peasant of this valley.” He had a grand sense of humor to which his friends loved to attest and enjoyed food and drink and hours of conversation. Much of his work calls for a reunion with nature, our inner nature, as well as the land.

I can still hear his deliciously lyrical Celtic lilt when he read aloud from his work, much of which is still available free on the web. Larger than life, Dr. O'Donohue was over six feet tall and had studied at NUI, Maynooth. He held degrees in philosophy and English literature. In 1990, he was awarded a Ph.D. in philosophical theology from the University of Tübingen. His dissertation sought to develop a new concept of person through a re-interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel.

Yet in spite of his erudite credentials, he most often reminded me of my Italian grandfather, an artist and lover of nature who often spoke for the collective. As a community activist, speaker and avid arts supporter in Ireland, he was described as an ambassador of his culture, a culture many fear is dying. He is ultimately a soul, a soul on a journey.

Whether in Benedictus, which draws upon the heritage of the Celtic imagination, Beauty that speaks to the aliveness of all things or Eternal Echoes, which explores the restless place within the human heart that calls the pilgrim to seek and discover the true self, all give full expression to John’s soulful territory. He captures our longing for beauty in a body of work that is a gift for all time. His musings on beauty are vast and deep, yet accessible, and adeptly woven with references from great poetry, art and music. Each vignette, each chapter offers a fresh expansion of the idea of Beauty uniquely viewed by John.

Reading John O’ Donohue is an immersion into the most sacred texts, a magical lake of warmth, camaraderie, tenderness and love that cleanses us of city soot to find the waters of our soul restored. If you are unfamiliar with his books, I recommend starting with Anam Cara, a great introduction, then any of his CD’s and readings on the web.

Selected Bibliography – John O’Donohue:

Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.
Benedictus: A Book of Blessings. London: Transworld Publishers, 2007.
Echoes of Memory. Dublin: Salmon Publishers, 1994.
Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Yearning to Belong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000.
To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings. New York: Doubleday, 2008.