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John O'Donohue: blessings and tributes

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William Crawley | 14:33 UK time, Saturday, 12 January 2008

Many people have already paid tribute to the priest and writer John O'Donohue, who died last week. John was buried today in county Clare. One of the most moving tributes I've read was written by Gareth Higgins. Gareth was a close friend of John's and introduced me to him a couple of years ago. I'm glad that he was able to travel to county Clare for the service.

Those who were unable to do that may wish to attend an Ikon event in Belfast's Black Box venue tomorrow night (Sunday). It's billed as "Eternal Echoes: an evening inspired by the life and work of John O'Donohue" and starts at 8.00 p.m.

This afternoon, I recorded a short tribute of my own which will be broadcast as part of a montage of tributes tomorrow on Radio 4's Sunday programme. It turns out that the long interview I conducted with John in December is the last he ever gave (listen again here). On tomorrow's Sunday Sequence, I'll be talking to one of John's friends, Father Kevin Hegarty. John And Kevin were students together for seven years at Maynooth. In an article Fr Kevin wrote just before John's untimely death, he explains why John left the priesthood for the life of an independent writer. He writes:

His ecclesiastical superiors became suspicious of his growing reputation. They sought to clip his wings by imprisoning him in a busy curacy where they hoped he would have less time for flights of fancy.
They may have hoped that his imagination would wilt somewhat under the sodden weight of careful clerical conversation in the presbytery. It was as if (former All-Ireland club champions) Crossmolina GAA confined the contribution of (star footballer) Ciarán McDonald to carrying the jerseys for their third-string team.

I've attached Kevin's full article below.

For people jaded by the blandness of conventional Irish Catholicism, John O'Donohue opened up new vistas of exploration and experience, writes Kevin Hegarty.

I knew John O'Donohue before he became a spiritual superstar. I am referring to the author of Anam Cara , which became a best-seller throughout the English-speaking world. John and I went to Maynooth in the same year. We studied together for seven years. Even then he was an impressive intellectual figure.

Most of us as first years were daunted by the hallowed portals of the college, its long and high cloisters decorated by big oil paintings of grim-faced 19th century clerics. John found his natural habitat in the lecture halls and the library. I must confess I did not always understand him. The range of his thought and the intricacy of its expression sometimes baffled me. Wryly I comforted myself with Oscar Wilde's aphorism that "to be intelligible is to be found out".

But John was no killjoy, wrapped in an ivory tower, looking askance at the preoccupations of ordinary mortals. He often touched down in our everyday world. He had a capacity for fun and the grace of being able to laugh at himself. He once took part with a group of friends in the Maynooth Song Contest.

One of my abiding memories of my time in college is of John, already in thrall to the rigorous charms of the German philosopher Heidegger, belting out with gusto that hymn to coy easy living, Blanket on the Ground.

After ordination, John honed his intellect in the strict atmosphere of Tübingen, the German university. On his return to Ireland he combined lecturing with some parish work. For people jaded by the blandness of conventional Irish Catholicism, he opened up new vistas of exploration and experience.

His ecclesiastical superiors became suspicious of his growing reputation. They sought to clip his wings by imprisoning him in a busy curacy where they hoped he would have less time for flights of fancy.
They may have hoped that his imagination would wilt somewhat under the sodden weight of careful clerical conversation in the presbytery. It was as if (former All-Ireland club champions) Crossmolina GAA confined the contribution of (star footballer) Ciarán McDonald to carrying the jerseys for their third-string team. John took the brave decision to leave the comfortable clerical zone and strike out on his own.

From this decision has flowed a career of sparkling lectures and thought-provoking books. He has an audience that spans a huge range of human experience from ageing nuns to exuberant eco-warriors.

His first book, Anam Cara - his take on the spiritual wisdom of the Celtic world - burst on the tired religious publishing world like an array of daffodils on a dark, end-of-winter landscape. All his books are distinguished by their philosophical underlay, his acute perception of the light and darkness of human nature, his awesome awareness of the power of landscape, his poetic intensity and his profound integrity. He has devoted himself to minting a new language for contemporary spiritual experience.

His latest work, Benedictus , is a wonderful book of blessings for a diversity of human experiences.
One of them, A New Year Blessing , is apt for the week that's in it.

A New Year Blessing
BEANNACHT

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

Fr Kevin Hegarty is a priest of the diocese of Killala and works in Kilmore Erris, Co Mayo. This is an edited version of an article he wrote for the Mayo News , which appeared last Wednesday, the day before John O'Donohue died

Comments

  • 1.
  • At 04:44 PM on 12 Jan 2008,
  • Mark wrote:

[Some insensitive comments have been removed.]

... command of the English language had become so rare and the skill to follow the rules of meter and phonics even rarer to the point that their numbers remained far too thin to raise enough money from annual dues for even an occasional modest bacchanal (as in the Calypso song Harry Belafonte recorded “Zombi Jamboree.”) As a result, they redefined poetry by inventing the very clever idea of free verse which allows anyone to become a self proclaimed poet and therefore a member. Now their motto is; “I came, I wrote, I conquered” and you don’t even have to be admired or even published in your lifetime, you can be discovered long after you are dead.

[Some comments removed ... ]

This all makes me want to burst out in song as in Tom Lehrer’s “We Are the Folk Song Army” (folksongs being so closely related to junk poetry) whose memorable lyrics go;

We are the folk song army.
Everyone of us cares.
We all hate poverty, war, and injustice,
Unlike the rest of you squares.

There are innocuous folk songs.
Yeah, but we regard ’em with scorn.
The folks who sing ’em have no social conscience.
Why they don’t even care if jimmy crack corn.

If you feel dissatisfaction,
Strum your frustrations away.
Some people may prefer action,
But give me a folk song any old day.

The tune don’t have to be clever,
And it don’t matter if you put a coupla extra syllables into a line.
It sounds more ethnic if it ain’t good english,
And it don’t even gotta rhyme--excuse me--rhyne.

Remember the war against franco?
That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.

So join in the folk song army,
Guitars are the weapons we bring
To the fight against poverty, war, and injustice.
Ready! aim! sing!

:-) May the bluebird of happiness...fly up your nose.

God rest him and so on, but thank God there'll be no more of his awful books. Shallow, trite, meaningless rubbish with bogus Celtic motifs.

I thought this was most telling: "they sought to clip his wings by imprisoning him in a busy curacy". Gosh, imagine expecting an ordained priest to actually work.

  • 3.
  • At 04:21 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • jan g wrote:

Smasher, that was one of the most insensitive comments i've ever read anywhere. I've looked at your website and you are obviously a fundamentalist catholic. No doubt this is why you were opposed to John's brand of thoughtful, progessive catholicism. Shame on you.

Jan g - yes, I am opposed to anyone who has their own "brand" of Catholicism. There is only one brand and you can call it fundamentalist if you like.

By the way, can we stop the
"hurting, sensitive" approach to debate - it's very trying. You either agree or disagree with my comments but cut the cry me a river stuff. To whom was I insensitive? I think he was a charlatan who made up things and pretended it was Celtic and then he used that as a cover for, as you describe it, "thoughful progressiveness".

Writing about Anam Cara he says it was "an inner conversation with the Celtic imagination," and "it takes its inspiration from the implied and lyrical metaphysics of Celtic spirituality." In other words, made up.

Smasher- Ever seen The Golden Compass?

John Wright - your point?

Not only have I seen The Golden Compass, but I have read the three books, being the broad-minded and open, liberal person that I am.

I believe in religious freedom, which means I believe in the right of mean spirited anti-Catholic atheists like Philip Pullman to produce such works. The books were entertaining enough but I did think the characters lacked warmth and, funnily enough, too many Deus ex machina moments.

I wouldn't be overly concerned about the propoganda value either. I don't believe in the God that Philip Pullman thinks he doesn't believe in either - an empty straw god. Nor do I recognise the Church in his evil magesterium.

And I appreciate the difference between fiction and non-fiction.

  • 7.
  • At 07:02 PM on 26 Jan 2008,
  • L Herrero wrote:

Smasher Lagru’s comments on Jonh O’ Donohue’s death Such an insensitive display can only come from people who pollute our minds. If Smasher Lagru doesn’t like or doesn’t understand John’s books I am very sorry for him. It is his problem. To express dislike or disagreement is very different from the ‘God there'll be no more of his awful books- shallow, trite, meaningless rubbish with bogus Celtic motifs”. My face went red feeling ashamed by words that are not mine. It doesn’t happen every day. Since some of those adjectives could be easily applied to his own website then I understood why it was so easy for him to use the terms

  • 8.
  • At 08:42 PM on 26 Jan 2008,
  • Anne Jamison wrote:

Let's keep the focus of comments on John, rather than on an insensitive person's attack on him. I love John's words - they are precisely the antidote to cruelty and abuse that the world sorely needs.

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