From The Guardian nine years ago. When do friends send unexpected reminders of moving events in their shared past? Whenever, they are welcome, reminders of anam cara,* of sadness and delight in the Celtic imagination.
For a priest and academic who spent most of his time living in solitude in a remote spot on the west of Ireland, O'Donohue was as startled as anyone else by his success. Not long after he had decided to leave the priesthood - he found himself having "less and less in common with the hierarchy" — his 1997 book on Celtic spirituality, Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World (1997), became a word-of-mouth hit, racing up the bestseller lists.
For a student of Hegel who had written his Ph.D. in German, O'Donohue found it amusing that pop stars and presidents had his book at their bedside, that Hollywood directors and household name actors sought his counsel. It confirmed his view that there is an intersection between philosophy, poetry and theology which can host an audience increasingly exiled by what he called "the frightened functionaries of institutional religion". As an accomplished poet, he had the literary tools and dazzling vocabulary to speak a language that persuaded you he was right.
His books, emerging every three or four years, were written in a kind of long-form, prayer style which was impossible to read quickly and did not work for everyone. They were the distinct product of a life often spent in meditation and solitude. Not that he was not a gregarious, fun-loving companion, and mesmerizing storyteller in the bar, but that his public presence grew from private silence. One of his great influences, the German mystic Meister Eckhart, believed that nothing resembles God like silence and O'Donohue suggested that the highly strung character of western life was explained by the absence of silence. "When you acknowledge the integrity of your solitude, and settle into its mystery, your relationships with others take on a new warmth, adventure and wonder."
John O'Donohue's life cannot be encompassed within the one act of birth, life and death. He was not a finite act that existed and is now lost for evermore. He is just a story that is written, spoken and lives amongst us. Just as we are and continue to be. His themes of echo as the response of continuity, imagination as the ability to still see the mountain behind the mist, and absence as the transformed presence of the vanished, awaken our thinking and provide food for our spiritual journey in an increasingly hungry world.
* Celtic for soul friend.