John O’Donohue: in memoriam

“To enter into the gentleness of your own soul changes the tone and quality of your life… you learn to see how wonderfully precious this one life is. You begin to see through the enchanting veils of illusion that you had taken for reality. You no longer squander yourself on things and situations that deplete your essence” ( 78 )

I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking about John O’Donohue. It is unlike me to care so excessively about the loss of someone I’ve never met, and of a sort of “celebrity”-like status. However, I can feel the loss of his presence on this earth, and it saddens me on a very selfish level that I was never able to meet him, to shake his hand, to tell him how profoundly he has affected me.

I know that it’s a beautiful thing that he has returned to the earth that he has always cherished so dearly, but as I said, selfishly I was looking forward to many years of him bestowing his wisdom to the world, and to me. I also anticipated joining him for one of his week-long retreats in Ireland, and it is hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that this can now never happen.

As a (small) tribute to him, I want to take the time to type up a few excerpts from my favorite of his books, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. This is a publication which has absolutely changed my life. I mentioned it briefly in my earlier post, saying it is a book of which I have been unable to read past the first 100 pages; its effect on me is that profound and brilliant. I hope you take the time to read some of this, even if only because I took the laborious (:P) effort of typing it out. Ignore the fact that I type 75+ wpm, and humor me. 😛

“The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere – in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion, and in ourselves. When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are of beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of the soul… In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act… Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.” (2)

If you notice, this passage can be located on page TWO of his book, and it is just a small glimpse into the genius that is his piece of art. I remember the day I found this book – I was with my Aunt Gin, and we were in Tatnuck Bookseller in Worcester, MA (now out of business) and I wandered over to the Spiritual section. The title caught my eye, and as soon as I opened the book and read a passage, I thought I was dreaming. I turned to another page, found myself transported again, and could barely believe my heart. Here were words that perfectly reflected the secret thoughts and dreams of my Soul. Here was a man who was unafraid to write about the great Truths and Beauty of this world. And after that glimpse, I was never the same. For a while, I would read a page or two a day, but after a bit even that became too intense for me. Now, I usually read a couple pages a month, and that is enough to carry me through, to transport and inspire me.

“Beauty is mostly forgotten and made to seem naive and romantic. (3) Sadly, whether from resentment, fear or blindness, beauty is often refused, repudiated or cut down to the size of our timid perceptions.” (4)

This following passage calls forth ideas that I am currently considering for a book of my own:

“There are secret sources of courage inside every human heart; yet courage needs to be awakened in us. The encounter with the Beautiful can bring such awakening. Courage is a spark taht can become the flame of hope, lighting new and exciting pathways in what seemed to be dead, dark landscapes.” (6)

“When we awaken to the call of beauty, we become aware of new ways of being in the world. We were created to be creators. At its deepest heart, creativity is meant to serve and evoke beauty… The wonder of the Beautiful is its ability to surprise us. With swift, sheer grace, it is like a divine breath that blows the heart open.” (7)

“Our deepest self-knowledge unfolds as we are embraced by Beauty.” (8)

A section of his book that really started to unfold secret parts of my heart was a section called ‘In Difficult Times to Keep Something Beautiful in Your Heart’. It begins like this:

“There are times when life seems little more than a matter of struggle and endurance, when difficulty and disappointment form a crust around the heart. Because it can be deeply hurt, the heart hardens. There are corners in every heart which are utterly devoid of illusion, places where we know and remember the nature of devastation. Yet though the music of the heart may grow faint, there is in each of us an unprotected place that beauty can always reach out and touch.” (16-17)

Honestly, this is taking a lot out of me to even glance back at the passages in his book which I have marked up and starred- words that have completely altered my paradigms and encouraged my soul to breathe again. I wonder if without the seeds of hope and beauty Mr. O’Donohue has planted in my heart with his words, if I would ever be where I am now – on this incredible journey. Dreaming dreams long forgotten.

John O’Donohue writes about how a single thought can alter a person’s entire life-world, and that concept has always held so true with me. He writes that “a person can dwell inside a thought. Sometimes a thought is the most intimate and sacred temple, a place where the silence of the earth is wed to the fire of heaven.” (43)

“It is everywhere, and everything has beauty; it is merely a matter of discovering it.” (49)

Oh gosh, I will stop this now. Partly because I don’t want to go on too long, and lose your attention, and partly because I may burst. I guess all I’m trying to convey is the profound effect this man and his words have had on me, and how he will continue to inspire me on my own journey to touch the world and people with my thoughts and words. We have lost a great man, but the world beyond has reclaimed something pure and beautiful, which always belonged to another dimension. I will attempt to gracefully accept that, but damn it!

Damn it.

“True poetic beauty emerges when the poet is absolutely faithful to the uniqueness of her own voice… the depth of that exposure seems to call beauty.” (81)


  1. deanjbaker said,

    June 20, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Good to see this – thanks

  2. Kelly said,

    June 26, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Wow, Kara. Absolutely touching tribute to Mr. O’Donohue. I’m sure he’s smiling down and saying, ” I can’t wait to meet her when she gets here…”
    I can see how this book has effected you, and impacted your life to the degree that you take in the day for all it is, and live it to it’s fullest, taking in all the little things around you.
    Looks like I’m going to have to find this book now!
    Thanks for sharing this with us!!!
    p.s. we miss you every day 🙂

  3. Alice Jean said,

    June 27, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    If I hadn’t read the by-line I would have assumed your mother had written this most moving piece. She has taught you well.
    Way to Go Marcia (CIA)

  4. Rev. Roger Newton said,

    July 6, 2008 at 5:38 am

    Good afternoon, Kara:

    Thank you for your wonderful words.

    I first heard of John O’Donohue a few months ago when his book Anam Cara was recommended to me by one of my favorite musicians, singer and harper Aine Minogue, in her response to my essay, “Celtic Inspiration.” I don’t believe it was a mere coincidence that I read John’s book at just about the time when everyone who knew him was mourning his passing.

    I am a semi-retired Lutheran pastor facing physical health problems and finding much comfort and spiritual refreshment in the music of Celtic artists like Aine. John’s book and his poems which I read after reading Anam Cara are, just as Aine promised, also very comforting and refreshing for me..

    I have read the tributes and the criticisms which have been written about John. I can identify closely with the reasons, both positive and negative, that other people have proposed for why John left the Roman Catholic priesthood, because before I became a Lutheran pastor I was a Roman Catholic priest. I believe that John may have represented the best of what the Irish Catholic Church could have become had it not been for the Synod of Whitby (664 A.D.).

    The Synod of Whitby imposed an authoritarian and rigid rule on the Celtic people in place of a more personal and loving spiritual mentorship. There is an irony here. The Catholic Church adopted the Irish practice of individual confession to a friendly priest in place of the potentially humiliating Roman practice of public confession. But somehow in the process individual confession became a legalistic requirement rather than the loving spiritual mentorship it was intended to be. And the priest ceased to be the “Anam Cara” which he was intended to be and became, instead, the “enforcer.” The irony affected even my fellow Lutherans, especially in the US. We lost sight of the comfort and peace that individual confession should bring to the believer, even though Martin Luther himself appreciated and advocated it.

    I think John O’Donohue would have been at home as a priest-mentor and “Anam Cara” in the Irish Catholic Church if Whitby had never occurred. And who knows? Perhaps the whole bloody period of Irish vs. English warfare and the persecution of Catholics in Ireland would never have happened and songs like “An Raibh Tu Ag an gCarraig” and “Roisin Dubh” could have remained love songs instead of hidden political and religious freedom songs.

    Roger Newton
    Philadelphia, PA, USA

  5. stephen said,

    October 17, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Thank you for this post. Having just discovered the work of John O’donohue, I can understand your emotionally deep tribute.

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