John O'Donohue (1954-2008): Our New Friend on the Other Side (2023)

"Endings seem to lie in wait," John O'Donohue wrote. His certainly did. He died in his sleep, January 3, 2008, on vacation near Avignon. He was just 53.

I knew John O'Donohue very slightly. I had read Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, the 1997 book that made him deservedly famous. "Read" is wrong. At 100 words a minute, I had, over weeks, absorbed enough of this deceptively simple exploration of "soul friendship" to grasp that here was an original thinker, a gifted poet and, most astonishing of all, a philosopher who had forged a way of looking at the world that was painfully aware of human frailty but insistent on the triumphal power of divine love. And he wrote beautifully.

A book this exciting, you have to talk about it. I mentioned O'Donohue to Sarah Ban Breathnach, the author of the Oprah-annointed Simple Abundance. As luck would have it, she and O'Donohue were friends. And when he came through New York, Sarah generously arranged a dinner.


That was the night I learned to drink single malt. And was there ever a better teacher in the art of sipping than an Irish philosopher and mystic who had worn the collar for 19 years? I don't recall what we talked about, and neither can my wife, who does not drink; all I remember is the cascades of laughter, the unbuckled happiness of people who are thrilled to be alive, and together, and sharing good fellowship with sympathetic souls in a nice restaurant on a rainy New York night.

An evening like that is so rare I think of it as a religious experience. John O'Donohue, a holy man if ever there was one, had a lot of nights like that. A recent interviewer wrote, in memoriam, about a morning when O'Donohue came to breakfast with a hangover, having polished off an entire bottle of single malt with friends the night before. "The bottle didn't die," he announced, "without spiritual necessity."

That offhand remark was quintessential O'Donohue. He never failed to connect the worldly with the sacred --- and see it all as holy. As a writer and a man, he reminded me of the priest who was a friend of Proust's. Yes, he believed there was a Hell. But he didn't believe anyone went there.

Where do our deepest beliefs come from? Generally from childhood, and then not from what our parents and teachers say, but from what they do and who they are. In John O'Donohue's case, his mother was a loving rock. His father was a stonemason and farmer --- and, O'Donohue thought, the "holiest man I ever met, priests included." Sometimes the boy would bring tea to his father as he worked the fields. Often, he heard him --- praying --- before he saw him.


O'Donohue had a superlative education, earned a Ph.D. in philosophical theology from the University of Tubingen, became known as an expert on Hegel and, later, Meister Eckhart. As a priest, he loved the Church's sacramental structure and its mystical and intellectual traditions. He also loved writing. Eventually, an officious bishop made him choose. "The best decision I ever made was to become a priest," O'Donohue would say, years later, "and I think the second best decision was to resign from public priestly ministry."

In fact, he had his issues with Catholicism, especially its views on sex and women. The Church, he said, "is not trustable in the area of Eros at all." And it "has a pathological fear of the feminine --- it would sooner allow priests to marry than it would allow women to become priests."

He was just as hard on other denominations. Religious fundamentalists, he said, "only want to lead you back, driven by nostalgia for a past that never existed, to manipulate and control you.... [Their] God tends to be a monolith and an emperor of the blandest singularity." New Age spirituality, he felt, was a smorgasbord, and undisciplined. Not that he found any comfort in secular life. He scorned the mall, feared for the spiritual health of the young, and had a special dislike for media folk, who he described as "non-elected custodians of sensationalism."

His bedrocks were his faith and "the Celtic imagination," which, he said, "represents a vision of the divine where no one or nothing is excluded." The blend he created was pure joy: "I think the divine is like a huge smile that breaks somewhere in the sea within you, and gradually comes up again."

O'Donohue was no Pollyanna. He was deeply troubled by bad things happening to good people. But he also saw that "a lot of suffering is just getting rid of dross in yourself, and lingering and hanging in the darkness is often --- I say this against myself --- a failure of imagination, to imagine the door into the light."


So it makes sense that O'Donohue's last book, To Bless the Space Between Us, would be nothing but invocations and blessings --- a simple, how-to book that, in effect, takes him back to his father praying in the fields. By the fact that we live, we are blessed; by the light that shines in our hearts, we have the power to bless others and be blessed by them. Is there a purer, more elementary form of the divine in action?

He asks: What is a blessing? His first answer is formal, and expected: "A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen." But then the poetry enters: "It is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart." And then there's the magical factor: "When a blessing is invoked, a window opens in eternal time."

We need to impact one another's lives in this spiritual way, he writes, because the process of living in a post-industrial, media-drenched world moves us further and further from our innate wholeness. Only direct action can breach the distance. Happily, it takes no special training to bless one another. It's just a matter of gathering yourself --- and finding the words.

In "To Bless the Space Between Us," the poet in O'Donohue seeks to break the shackles of dead language. He offers fresh blessings, and on topics the Church might overlook --- not just for a new home, marriage and child, but for the parents of a criminal, for parents who have lost a child, for those experiencing exile, solitude and failure.

These blessings look hardship in the face, but only as a challenge. In our souls, and, especially, in our hearts, O'Donohue believed, we are all home. We never left, we never will. How hard it is to hold that thought. And yet, when we take the care of others into our hearts, something happens.....


You may not have a problem with the plainspoken language of O'Donohue's blessings. I do. Maybe it's just a writer's discomfort with another writer's words. But the invocations that dot the book -- my God, could this man write! Just one example:

"Our longing for the eternal kindles our imagination to bless. Regardless of how we configure the eternal, the human heart continues to dream of a state of wholeness, that place where everything comes together, where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of life's journey will enjoy a homecoming. To invoke a blessing is to call some of that wholeness upon a person now.

Death was nothing to John O'Donohue --- a silent friend who walks beside us all our days. And on the other side? "I believe that our friends among the dead really mind us and look out for us," he wrote. "Often there might be a big boulder of misery over your path about to fall on you, but your friends among the dead hold it back until you have passed by."

Let it be.

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What is John O Donohue best quotes? ›

Nature is the direct expression of the divine imagination.” “May all that is unlived in you blossom into a future graced with love.” “ gaze into the face of another is to gaze into the depth and entirety of his life.” “We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program for our lives.”

What did John O Donohue believe? ›

The philosopher and poet John O'Donohue believed that it is within our power to transform our fear of death so that we need fear little else this life brings.

What is the meaning of for the traveler by John O Donohue? ›

For the Traveler: By John O'Donohue

Awaiting us on our next journey is "a crystal of insight, you could not have known you needed." In this poem, John O'Donohue invites us to listen, taste, feel and see all that comes to us as we travel the world beyond our front door.

What happened to John O Donohue? ›

Just two days after his 52nd birthday and two months after the publication of his final complete work, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings, O'Donohue died suddenly in his sleep on 4 January 2008 while on holiday near Avignon, France.

What is John O Donohue blessing for a new baby? ›

To be born is to be chosen. To be created and come to birth is to be blessed. Some primal kindness chose us and brought us through the forest of dreaming until we could emerge into the clearance of individuality, with a path of life opening before us through the world.

What is John O Donohue blessing for healing? ›

May memory bless and protect you With the hard-earned light of past travail; To remind you that you have survived before And though the darkness now is deep, You will soon see approaching light. May the grace of time heal your wounds.

Is John O Donohue a mystic? ›

John O' Donohue was a modern-day mystic, philosopher, theologian and poet. He spent his life along the West Coast of Ireland where the solitude and beauty of the land shaped him as an artist and thinker.

What is Donohue in Irish? ›

Donohoe or O'Donoghue is an Irish surname, an Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Donnchadha 'descendant of Donnchadh', a personal name composed of the elements donn = 'brown-haired man' or 'lord' + cath = 'battle'.

Where is John O Donahue buried? ›

John is buried in Creggagh graveyard, about two miles further south along the coast road, just beyond O'Donoghue's pub on the lefthand side of the road. All of John's friends hope that respect will be shown to his gravesite and to the community and environment that John loved so well.”

What is the central idea of the poem travel? ›

In “Travel,” a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the author takes the reader on a journey through the imagination of a boy by discussing real and fictional places to which he would like to travel. C.S. Certainly, Stevenson illustrates the theme of traveling by imagining all the places he has read and learned about.

What is the overall meaning of the poem travel? ›

This poem is dreams of a boy who wants to travel the whole world wants to unleash all the wonders of life and he wants to observe every monument or natural point without any biased feeling.

What does this mean I could not travel both and be one traveler? ›

Question: The phrase “and sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler” means: The speaker believes that even if he returns to the crossroads later and takes the other road, he will be in some sense have become a different traveler by virtue of having taken the first road.

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Irish poet Colm Tóibín avoids metaphors to write with "expression and power" : NPR's Book of the Day : NPR.

How long does a baby blessing take? ›

Baby Blessing ceremony performed at a site of the parents choice. The baby blessing ceremony ranges between 15-30 minutes.

Why do Mormons bless babies? ›

The naming and blessing of a child (commonly called a baby blessing) in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is a non-saving ordinance, usually performed during sacrament meeting soon after a child's birth in fulfillment of the commandment in the Doctrine and Covenants: "Every member of the ...

What do you say in LDS baby blessing? ›

Instructions for Naming and Blessing a Child
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Loving Father, touch me now with your healing hands, for I believe that your will is for me to be well in mind, body, soul and spirit. Cover me with the most precious blood of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Cast anything that should not be in me.

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Religious practices have been associated with healing for millennia. People pray for good health and for relief from illness. Prayer may result in health and healing through one or more of several mechanisms. We briefly consider these mechanisms.

How do you pray for miracle healing? ›

Lord, please heal my broken heart. Fill me with the peace and joy I know can only come from You during this hard time. Walk closely beside me during my journey to healing and recovery that I know is possible through Your power alone. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Who was an influential mystic poet? ›

Kabir Das, a mystic poet of the 15th century, had a significant influence in the Bhakti movement in India. Since his works were completely related to religion and contributed to the Bhakti movement in medieval India, his works would be classified as religious literature.

What type of mystic was Meister Eckhart? ›

Meister Eckhart, English Master Eckhart, original name Johannes Eckhart, also called Eckhart von Hochheim, Eckhart also spelled Eckehart, (born c. 1260, Hochheim?, Thuringia [now in Germany]—died 1327/28?, Avignon, France), Dominican theologian and writer who was the greatest German speculative mystic.

What is the most popular Irish surname in America? ›

Murphy – the sea warrior

The most common of all Irish surnames you'll hear in America is Murphy. This highly popular surname means “sea warrior”, a personal name that was once particularly popular in County Tyrone.

Is Ireland an Irish name? ›

According to the Constitution of Ireland, the names of the Irish state are Ireland (English) and Éire (Irish).

Is Ireland a German name? ›

Answer and Explanation: Irland is the German name for the country of Ireland. It is pronounced EAR-lahnd.

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He retired to his home near Stovall, where he was buried. In 1894, Penn's remains were transferred to what would become Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro.

Where did John Denver get buried? ›

Buried at the John Denver Sanctuary at 470 Rio Grande Place. Like Hunter S. Thompson, there's not a gravesite for singer-songwriter John Denver, whose ashes were scattered in the Rocky Mountains. But the city of Aspen erected a memorial park that anyone can visit.

Where is Jim Marshall buried? ›

A statue of Marshall stands on top of the monument, pointing to the spot where he made his discovery in 1848. He now lies buried under the much larger statue in James Marshall Gold Discovery Park in Coloma.

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The poem "The Writer" is spoken from the poet's point of view as he comments on the writing efforts of his young daughter. The theme is the challenge of the writing life, especially for a young person struggling to make sense of the world.

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