Beyond every safe frontier

And some final thoughts on longing from John O’Donohue’s essay on fire.

This is the longing in all spirituality: to come in out of the winter of alienation, self-division and exile and into the hearth of warmth and at-one-ment.

… the fire of longing is what confers life. This longing brings one beyond every safe frontier. It is in the giving of oneself to the fire that ultimate transfiguration and renewal comes.

John O’Donohue, ‘Fire: At Home at the Hearth of Spirit’, in: The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature


No intoxication of thoughts

Nothing Else Matters

From you
I don’t want anything new
no more gifts
nor the scent of landscapes
rising to fill us,
no bouquets of insight
left by my head
in the tenderness of morning

no intoxication
of thoughts that open horizons
where rooms are low,
nor the sever of spring
under the grid of old words
that has set on our skin,
nor my favourite blue,
the cobalt
colour of silence.

All I want
is your two hands
pulsing in mine,
the two of us
back in a circle
round our love.

From: John O’Donohue, Echoes of Memory

God is the greatest question


John O'Donohue

John O’Donohue

God is the most passionate presence in the universe. … there is not a stitch of utilitarianism or functionalism in God. … God surges and flows and is wild. 

This aspect of God’s vitality has been lost for so long with­in the tradition. … Aristotle’s idea of God as unmoved mover seemed to protect the transcendence of God by putting him safely beyond all change.

The danger of such a concept is that it deadens the deity. God is not a dead answer. God is the greatest question in the universe, a question that has kept itself free of banal answers. This is where all fundamentalists and sects get lost. They convert the passion, wildness and danger of God as a question into a clichéd answer ….

John O’Donohue, ‘Fire: At Home at the Hearth of Spirit’, in: The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature

Anger points to life

Fire is often used to portray anger. Anger burns and blazes. It inflames the human heart. But it can also be a subtle presence. It can turn totally inward and become depression. It can also hide under several guises. However, unlike resent­ment, which points to death, anger points to life. For oppressed people, or for oppressed dimensions within the individual life, the awakening and release of anger can be powerfully liberating. Anger is powerful because it has an immediacy, innocence and action in it. The reason that so much evil and corruption are allowed to destroy so many lives is that people’s anger is cleverly managed and quelled into indifference and powerlessness. One of the first targets of prophecy is to locate and kindle this forgotten and neglected anger. Part of the wisdom of living a creative and healing life is to learn the art of using this inner fire well.

John O’Donohue, ‘Fire: At Home at the Hearth of Spirit’, in: The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature

The great falsity of colonisation, the art of letting go – and some other thoughts from John O’Donohue’s ‘The Four Elements’

John O’Donohue is one of the most evocative writers I know. His books, his thoughts, his phraseology are like beautiful cathedrals to me, beautiful cathedrals made of words. Here are some passages from ‘Air: The Breath of God’, the first essay of The Four Elements.

John O'Donohue, The Four ElementsMost of the brutalization that occurs externally in the world is usually subsequent to a prior brutalization that has happened within the heart.

On fundamentalism:

One of the terrible deficiencies of most fundamentalism is that the … flow and risk of life get totally managed and programmed into categories.

Talking about Jesus, O’Donohue points out that ‘any place he appeared, his presence became a challenge’. A challenge, one might add, that is as unwelcome in institutionalised religion (the Church) today as it was at the time, a challenge we so often are quick to tame, contain or ignore.

I love these observations on territorial and spiritual colonisation:

We believe that salvation can only come from outside. This is the great falsity of colonization, be it territorial or spiritual. It robs the native land, or the native soul, of the sense of its own indigenous treasures and resources. Against all attempts at programmes and methods, the great art of holiness is to let oneself be.

And here is what O’Donohue has to say about religion vis-à-vis the truly inspired, the eternal:

Something inspired has the surprise, vitality and warmth of the eternal within it. … There is none of the deadness, seriousness or narrowness which affects so much religion and which has nothing to do with the eternal, but everything to do with the fears and competitiveness of the ego.

Finally, some words about loss, the art of letting go and receiving back a hundredfold:

We need to learn to be creative about loss …. The art at the heart of the mystical is letting go. If you learn to develop this art, you will receive back again a hundredfold everything you released. If you love something, let it go, and it will return to you. … This is the free art of presence in love and friendship. The Kingdom of God is about the transfiguration of Nothingness and loss into the fecundity of possibility.

The ‘fecundity of possibility’ – something to hope for and trust in, I suppose.

On death and life; surrender and buoyancy; hope, memory, dream and words

I thought I would add some reflections on yesterday’s quotes from John O’Donohue’s poems.

As air intensifies the hunger of fire,
May the thought of death
Breathe new urgency
Into our love of life.

Death can be all pervasive at times, occurring in a variety of ways and reducing us to a shadow of our true selves, lessening, diminishing, stifling life. Against all this,  O’Donohue sets his evocation of our love of life, and he’s right, I think, about the urgency of this. Death is inevitable, but we need to be careful not to think and live ourselves into an ever darker place.

O’Donohue’s second poem talks about a surrendered life, a continuous belief ‘in the slow fall of ground’, an elegant swirling through all the unlikenesses we face on our pilgrimage. These are powerful metaphors. May we learn to be like that river he talks about. And may we acquire not only the humility of water, allowing ourselves to be shaped by things beyond our control, but also its buoyancy, which, as he puts it so well, is ‘stronger than the deadening, downward drag of gravity’.

In the third poem, ‘In Praise of Earth’, O’Donohue speaks of ‘an endless coma of cold’, which is a truly chilling metaphor. Life can feel like that at times, when all warmth appears to have evaporated. May we be like the earth, holding hope, storing fragments of the memory of warmer times, and may we see and feel the sun returning one day. May our cells, too, as O’Donohue says in the following lines, become ‘charged with dream’.

For me, these are deeply resonant, life-giving words. As the Gospel of John says, in the beginning was the Word. Where words dry out, life surrenders to death.

Love of life, heart and being, the downward drag of gravity, hope during an endless coma of cold, cells charged with dream – the beauty of John O’Donohue’s poetry

Another book that I find truly inspiring and refreshing is John O’Donohue’s The Four Elements. Here are some extracts from three of his poems quoted by his brother Pat in the foreword.

From ‘In Praise of Fire’

As air intensifies the hunger of fire,
May the thought of death
Breathe new urgency
Into our love of life.

As short as the time
From spark to flame,
So brief may the distance be
Between heart and being.

May we discover
Beneath our fear
Embers of anger
To kindle justice.

From ‘In Praise of Water’

The courage of a river to continue belief
In the slow fall of ground,
Always falling further
Towards the unseen ocean.

Its only life surrendered
To the event of pilgrimage

It continues to swirl
Through all unlikeness,
With elegance

Let us bless the humility of water,
Always willing to take the shape
Of whatever otherness holds it.

The buoyancy of water,
Stronger than the deadening,
Downward drag of gravity

From ‘In Praise of Earth’

When the ages of ice came
And sealed the earth inside
An endless coma of cold,
The heart of the earth held hope,
Storing fragments of memory,
Ready for the return of the sun.

Until its black infinity of cells
Becomes charged with dream,
Then the silent, slow nurture
Of the seed’s self, coaxing it
To trust the act of death.

Let us ask forgiveness of the earth
For all our sins against her:
For our violence and poisonings
Of her beauty.