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


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

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.

You opened the door to another world for me

imageedit_1_6541196834Some thoughts from André Gorz’s book Letter to D: A Love Story.

On love and life together:

I understood that pleasure is not something you give or take. It’s a way of giving yourself and calling forth the gift of self from the other person.

What captivated me about you was that you opened the door to another world for me.

You gave all of yourself to help me become myself.

You opened up the richness of life for me and I loved life through you – unless it was the reverse and I loved you through all living things (but that comes down to the same thing).

It’s fairly safe to say I probably haven’t lived up to the resolution I made 30 years ago: to live completely at one with the present, mindful above all of the wealth of our shared life.

On finitude:

You have to accept being finite: being here and nowhere else, doing this and not something else, now and not always or never … having only this life.

On writing:

… you knew that a person who wanted to be a writer needs to be able to shut themselves away in seclusion, to make notes at any hour of the day or night; that their work with language goes on well after they’ve laid down their pen and can take complete possession of them without warning, in the middle of a meal or a conversation.

‘When everything’s said, everything remains to be said, everything always remains to be said’. In other words: it’s the saying that matters, not the said. What I’d written interested me a lot less than what I might write next.

On theory:

… theory always runs the risk of blinding us to the shifting complexities of the real world.


The forgotten astonishment

the invisible walls,
the rotten masks that divide one man
from another, one man from himself,
they crumble
for one enormous moment and we glimpse
the unity that we lost, the desolation
of being man, and all its glories,
sharing bread and sun and death,
the forgotten astonishment of being alive

From Octavio Paz’s long poem Sunstone / Piedra de Sol.

Two poets on the burning bush

… Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

From ‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes

From ‘Aurora Leigh’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning