Irish Philosopher & Poet John O’Donohue

The imagination is not interested in two-dimensional reductionism or naively pitting one side against another, dark against light. It is interested in the place where the two sides meet, and what they give birth to when they cross-fertilize each other. That is the heart of creativity. – John O’Donohue

In memory of John O’Donohue, 1954 to 2008

I first met John O’Donohue about 20 years ago when I participated in a workshop he offered with David Whyte in Seattle on the Celtic Imagination. I had signed up because I admired David’s work. I had never heard of John. Yet from the first moment he opened his mouth and words flowed out on the music of his Irish accent, I sensed I was in the presence of someone extraordinary. Wisdom rose on his tongue, causing revelations to flood my mind. He spoke of the lack of soul in contemporary culture, calling advertising “schooling in false desire”. That phrase particularly hung in my mind while my pen scratched out pages of notes attempting to capture everything he said. I kept wondering, who is this man?

Poet and philosopher with a PhD in philosophical theology from the University of Tubingen in Germany. A Catholic priest by vocation, a role he would eventually relinquish after years of consideration because as he put it “the oxygen had become too scarce and found myself diverging from quite a few of the teachings.” Still he continued to praise the power and importance of the essence of the Christian tradition and the legacy of the great Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross and Hildegard von Bingen.

I waited for several years for the book I knew would come out of him. His first titled Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, from the Irish words for soul friend was an international bestseller. Followed by Eternal Echoes and Beauty: An Invisible Embrace. I have over the years been repeatedly drawn back to his work. His words slipping under my skin traveling I think from his soul to mine.

Rooted deep in the West of Ireland, he lived in a cottage heated with peat and spoke Irish as his everyday language. He was born in County Clare in the unique limestone region of The Burren, the part of Ireland that always pulls me back. From a grounded sense of belonging his mind rode the seas of imagination as he wrote and traveled to speak and teach to a wider world. Every May John held a a ten day rambling retreat in the West of Ireland. I had very much wanted to go one year. Not this year, I had thought but hopefully the next. And now this man who was so vibrantly alive is gone so unexpectedly at age 53, a keen reminder to me to attend to what calls to me without waiting, to ask the question every day, What do I really want to do with the time I’m given, and to show up fully for my life each day.

David Whyte in this eulogy to John said, “This is a man who could hold the broad spectrum of human experience together in a fierce, intimate and compassionate way, leavened with a humour that defies easy description and that enlivened everyone around him . . .John was a love-letter to humanity from some address in the firmament we have yet to find and locate, though we may wander many a year looking or listening for it. He has gone home to that original address and cannot be spoken with except in the quiet cradle of the imagination that he dared to visit so often himself.”

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