John O’Donohue was my friend. We had been getting to know each other for almost four years now – a lifetime in our transient world – the very world that John’s words sought to slow down. I felt that we had in some sense adopted each other as compadres on the spiritual journey – a 50-something former priest taking into his life a 30-something former evangelical; both of us bound by our common Irish heritage, love of cinema, and fondness for sipping what he insisted on referring to as ‘firewater’. We spent many hours talking on the phone, eating together, and engaging in two of our favourite pursuits: whiskey and talking about movies.
He had a way with words that made you feel whole again – he created a space with language, both spoken and written, that felt like the home you never knew you were missing, but now never wanted to leave.
His work on retrieving the earthiness of celtic spirituality and helping make sense of it in a postmodern world is so profound that its impact has not yet been fully felt, and it represents something rare in a consumerist, post-Britart culture: a work of art that will outlast its author.
He managed also to write with the utmost seriousness and care for language, making his books the kind that you read slowly, savouring each page; meanwhile, his public talks were characterised by an indelicate Irish charm and the kind of wit that leads to laughter so deep it makes you feel like you belong.
What many may not know is that in addition to his ministry in the Catholic priesthood, and latterly as a writer and speaker, he was a serious environmental activist, helping to spearhead a small group that successfully prevented the despoilment of the Burren, one of Ireland’s most stunning natural landscapes. He put his reputation on the line to save something worth preserving, even being prepared to go to prison to do so.
In his activism, as well as his writing and speaking, and most of all, in his life, he wanted people to have shelter from the storms their lives would bring; when I once told him of my own struggles with serious depression and anxiety he clapped his hands together in a gesture of defiance and almost shouted at me: ‘May those feckin devils stay far from your door and NEVER TOUCH YOU AGAIN. You are worth far more than you think.’ His presence in my life made me believe it.
John knew that we live in the intersection of the sacred and the profane, and he wanted to nudge us in the direction of understanding that holiness has more to do with being aware of the light around us than moral puritanism. In the introduction to his most recent book ‘Benedictus’, published only a couple of months ago, he writes of how in any given day, some of us humans will experience the shock of being told of the sudden death of a friend. John wanted us to be tender to the fact that the faces of strangers we meet every day all hide secrets that are both divine and tragic. We do not always know who among us is suffering some unnameable torment, nor who is rejoicing at the blessing of a lifetime.
Last night, I became one of the people he wrote about – when I received an email (another manifestation of this world’s transience) informing me of his peaceful death, while asleep, on holiday in France. It is bewildering to note that a man who brought so much life around him is dead. But it is also vital to remember that he saw death as a path to freedom. He had spent so much time ministering with the dying – one of the greatest privileges of ministry, as far as he was concerned – that I felt he was, while totally committed to living life to the full, somehow also looking forward to his own death. Not in a morbid sense, but simply because he did believe that our own death is a step forward. He often said ‘when you enter into freedom, possibility comes to meet you’ – I imagine that he is, right now, experiencing a kind of freedom about which he would – at the very least - write some pretty marvellous poetry. It is hard to begrudge him his death when part of him was so ready for it.
I wonder how he’d describe it. For those of us left behind, well, we miss him dearly, and are grateful for the spaces he opened in our lives. I find it almost impossible to believe that he is gone; but if he was right about his own future, we will meet again.
A BLESSING FOR EQUILIBRIUM.
BY JOHN O’DONOHUE, from ‘Benedictus – A Book of Blessings’
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the music of laughter break through your soul.
As the wind wants to make everything dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.
Like the freedom of the monastery bell,
May clarity of mind make your eyes smile.
As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.
As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May a sense of irony give you perspective.
As time remains free of all that it frames,
May fear or worry never put you in chains.
May your prayer of listening deepen enough
To hear in the distance the laughter of God.