Saturday, January 05, 2008

John O'Donohue, 1956-2008, and continuing forever

I'm deeply saddened to report that my friend the Irish priest, poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, died suddenly on Thursday 3rd January 2008, and I'd like to share some thoughts about him.

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.

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.


The Father said...

amen ..... beautifully summing up the impact he has had in many lives. M

Sharon J said...

Glory be to God for having given us John and what he brought into my life. Here in South Africa he has many friends whose lives he touched in his unique and down to earth way.
Gareth you have articulated what I thought when I heard the news as John was not afraid of the final journey out of this world

Cathy said...

You've done John proud and reminded those of us who think we've been elsewhere of the good life led, the good fight won and the beauty of life that dissolves its own boundaries.
Thank you for a wonderful tribute to a remarkable soul.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Harbour of Ourselves said...

i knew your words would embody how we whose life he had brushed are feeling

i also know how much you loved each other, and how much you will miss him on your big day...i remember so much

love you my friend, as does he

been trying to get hold of you - will try again this evening


Rainbow dreams said...

Thank you for a glimpse into the life of a man whose writing I am only just getting to know.
I would dearly have loved to hear him. A remarkable man who will be sadly missed.
My condolences.

MMS said...

Gareth, thank you for your beautiful tribute to John. He had been "peeking" around corners and from under trees in my waking and dreams for the past 10 days or so. I couldn't figure it out; but now I can: he was saying GoodBye. There is such a miracle in the expansion of consciousness in a death... and his love was so big, that it showers us all with abundant blessings.

Now take back the soul of
John O'Donohue
Whom you have shared with us.
He brought us joy
And we loved him well
He was not ours...
John, wherever you are going, you must make the fire very big so we can find you!

mister tumnus said...

lovely tribute gareth. i regret i will never meet this person who i have heard so much about.

awareness said...

Dear Gareth. I am so sorry for your loss. Your words are full of love and kinship. It's a beautiful tribute.
I learned of John through reading about him on Paul's and Pip's blog....have since seen photos and have read some of his work now, which only reinforced my desire to hear this remarkable man speak his lyrical poetic words.

Thinking of you and your friends while sitting here in Canada.....

Unknown said...

a great sadness indeed. gareth your words remind us what friendship is meant for, a reminder i miss

rhino said...

Thank you for your words about John.You said it so well.
I knew him in Tuebingen when he wrote about Hegel.He was an amazing friend. He has given so much. I wish now I had gone to the retreat in Oregon last fall, to see him one more time.
I know that he will be watching out for us:
"I believe that our friends among the dead really mind us and look out for us. Often there might be a big boulder of misery over our path about to fall on you, but your friends among the dead hold it back until you have passed by."Anam Cara

Breacghael said...

Buíochas duit, a Sheáin.

Friend of our soul,
May you travel lightly
Through to eternal time.
You who blessed us with
Your Celtic wisdom,
To awaken in us
What was always there.
Feast on the Beauty of the Divine,
Now that you are back
To where you never left.

Suze said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carey said...

Gareth - Thank you for providing a gathering place to remember John; your words describe him beautifully; he was a wonderful friend.

John touched so many lives in deeply profound ways. I discovered his books at a time in my life when I had lost connection to community – I felt like I belonged nowhere. “Through the fog of forsakenness, a new shoreline of belonging becomes clear,” are his words from Eternal Echoes that I clung to, believed, and that eventually came true.

I am fortunate to have spent time with John at two Oregon Coast retreats. Experiencing his earthy humor and joie de vivre was as invigorating as a walk on the beach; his poetry readings magical; his philosophical musings provocative; his spirituality palpable, accessible, and inclusive. I am so very glad that in this lifetime I was able to share a glass of Irish whiskey and good conversation with John O’Donohue.

The news of his passing leaves me calm and peaceful because I know his words to be true: “The departed one is gone home and is gathered now in the tranquility of Divine Belonging.”

Andrew Jones said...

Gareth. Thanks for introducing me to John last year and also for your words here. I have just linked to them on my blog.

He made an impact on me.


tony said...


So sorry to hear about the loss of your friend...

Trevor Henderson said...

We got your message last night - we are saddened to hear this news. Your words about John pay tribute to the love and respect that he brought out in you.

Love from Nashville.

The Hendersons

Trevor Henderson said...

We got your message last night - we are saddened to hear this news. Your words about John pay tribute to the love and respect that he brought out in you.

Love from Nashville.

The Hendersons

portinexile said...

Gareth - thanks for the post. I discovered your blog a few days before returning to Ireland for Christmas and I made a mental note to post a comment when I got a chance. However, with all the hustle and bustle of Christmas I had totally forgot about it until today, when I received the news that an old friend of mine had tragically passed away, and I was surfing the internet to distract myself and numb my depression. My friends name is John too[John Stephenson,from Portaferry/Belfast] ,and although we had totally lost touch over the years, the news of his passing has really sucker punched me. Anyway, I suppose what I am trying to say is that your post has comforted and consoled me with the thought that my friend John will be making the hike into eternal love with John O'Donohue as a companion. Peace, Kevin

Mitchell Clute said...

Gareth, thanks so much for this tribute. I met John just two months ago, and spent several delightful days with him in the recording studio. I'm a producer at Sounds True, the company that will be releasing his audio program of Benedictus: A Book of Celtic Blessings. His beautiful voice made my job easy. We had several additional projects in the wqorks, including a six-CD program on Meister Eckhart, and I'm deeply sorry that I won't get to hear John's wisdom on that subject. I've worked with a lot of interesting people in the course of my work, but John made a huge impact on me. My own background in poetry was part of it, but more than anything it was his insight and generousity of spirit that had an impact. He was a great man, and that is a rare thing.

Suzanna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suzanna said...

Thank you for writing about John, who through his own writing has given me courage when I needed it most.
The most dear Madeleine L'Engle died last September 6th. It's good to be so changed by such people. It's good to carry the torch they have lit for us. I will be praying for you.

Unknown said...

I always felt that John's approach to study, writing and speaking resembled that of a stone wall builder. First he took the wall to pieces, scattering and spreading out the old wall. But not into oblivian.To reasemble anew. Each word,phrase or sentence to be placed in a fresh bed that left room for the air to gently find it's way between the stones. Like Inis óirr stone walls on the Aran islands across Galway Bay.
New wine. New vessels. Recreations of the creator's raw material.
Nourishment for those of us who follow.

Mike Todd said...

What an incredible tribute. Thank you for sharing it, and for pointing me to someone I should get to know, if only through his writings.

Unknown said...

Read about it on Andrew's blog...
That was beautiful... praying grace and peace your way... to the deepest measures.

Unknown said...

Thanks for everything Gareth, including these words about John.

Suze said...

Gareth - I wanted to leave my thoughts on John out in the universe for a couple of days and thanks for the opportunity.

portinexile said...

Wanted to share this :

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

Peace, Kevin

Christy said...

What a beautiful tribute to John. His presence called forth the fulness and love within those he met and, like you said, breathed in a sense of home. While I did not know John well, the energy of our brief meeting lives with me daily. Just the day before he passed I listened to some of his lectures to help me through a tough time. He was love so beautifully expressed.

Sean Patrick O'Reilly said...

John was a friend of mine.

All are invited to his Seattle Memorial on Jan. 26 at 3pm. See

for further information.

Your Celtic Minister,
Sean Patrick O'Reilly

Sean Patrick O'Reilly said...

John was also a friend of mine.

All are invited to his Seattle Celtic Memorial on Sat. Jan. 26 at 3pm. Please visit this site for further information:

Your Celtic Minister,
Sean Patrick O'Reilly

Kayce aka lucy said...

a beautiful tribute to john o'donohue. peace be with you.

Shona said...

Thank you for your words and tribute to an exceptional man. I discovered John O'Donohue's work shortly after my husband's death over two years ago. John's language helped me get through some very difficult nights and I had the pleasure of thanking him in person when I took a workshop with him in Vancouver, Canada. I will always treasure John, his beauty and the remarkable way he affirmed life.


Dianna Woolley said...

I am one of the unfortunate many who will now only come to know John because of his death.

Never having heard or read his words before, but being alerted to his demise by friends such as you, I have been deeply moved by not only John's own words and descriptions but by those of his closest friends and admirers. God bless and keep you in your loss of John's physical presence.

Unknown said...

I did not know John. I never met him nor heard him speak. It does not matter. I have read his books over the last two years having been introduced to his writings by a dear friend. His beautiful words have changed my life. Now whilst physically apart from us all, his spirit remains within the minds of everyone who has been touched by his presence. From beyond transient life he still communicates with us.

breda said...


did John get back to you about the film "ONCE"?


Gareth Higgins said...

hello breda - yes john did - he said he had finally got round to watching it with a friend before christmas and had just loved it.

thank you so very much to everyone who has availed of this space in the past few weeks to reflect on their memories and love of our beloved john. we love him, he loves us, and i'm sure he would want us to enter into the mystery of life, with all its ups, downs, surprises, challenges, and beauty.

Alicia M B Ballard StudioGaleria said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your tribute to John.
Along with my wife, I met him in the days just after he had returned to Ireland from Germany. He was leading a week study group (40)with the Iona Community in the Abbey.
We all felt privileged to have sat with him, enjoying his wisdom and company.
Over time we have also met many others who like us, have been touched throough his writings.
It is safe to say contact with John has been a life giving experience

Detta said...

Gareth thank you for giving me the opportunity to say a few words about this most gracious and elegant man. I only became aware of him last night having watched him speaking at findhorn last year. In an evening I experienced a storm of emotion, I laughed and I cried when I read on his site of his passing. I did indeed feel I had come home when his words touched the parts of my soul that had long been searching for meaning. I am grateful to have had him come into my life and know although I may never see his skin and bones, I will always be able to feel his wisdom support me through his writings and words. I hope and have a feeling he will be well into the next part of his very big adventure.
Bernadette Darnell

Blake Steele said...

Lovers mustwrite lyrically, loving the sea and sky, the earth and stones. John wrote and spoke as a lover should, with passion and peace, with wisdom and wildness. God rest his bones in his old mother as his flame flies home into Flame.

Blake Steele

LG said...

John was a wonderful person, a great speaker. I heard him two years ago, when he was speaking at a conference in Washington, DC. He was supposed to be there again this year, and I am sad about not being able to hear him once again and have him autograph his books for me, as he did before. I will have to be satisfied with the books that I have, and with the audio recording that I am so glad I had the foresight to acquire. He seemed to me a very thoughtful, caring man, so I am certain that his close friends will really miss him. However, as he believed, there is still something of himself left with his friends and family, and they will smile through their tears as they recall his presence. May God bless his memory among us always.

Anonymous said...

Something I read about parenting from the book Beauty by John O'Donohue:
"It has been shown, for instance, that when there are two harps tuned to the same frequency in a room, one a large harp and the other smaller, if a chord is struck in the bigger harp it fills and infuses the little harp with the grandeur and beauty of its resonance and brings it into tuneful harmony. Then, the little harp sounds out its own tune in its own voice. This is one of the un-noticed ways in which a child learns to become herself. Perhaps the most powerful way parents rear children is through the quality of presence and an atmosphere that pertains in the in-between times of each day. Unconsciously, the child absorbs this and hopefully parents send out enough tuneful spirit for the child to come into harmony with her own voice."
Thank you for this site - a lovely tribute.

Scott and Viola said...

I have so come to cherish John O'Donohue. What an incredible deposit of God he had within him and which he allowed to be shared with so many others. He has altered the way I think about spirituality.

Unknown said...

Channel surfing tonight - PBS caught my eye with beautiful visuals of Ireland, but mesmerized me with the healing words coming from a most precious man. My ears had never heard the melodic words of John O'Donohue prior to this evening, but my heart and spirit have known him for an eternity. His gift of embracing and releasing is akin to breathing in and breathing out. I am humbled.