Soul friend

Reflections on the Irish poet and author, John O’Donohue.

John O'Donohue

While many will have heard the name of this wonderfully inspirational man, John O’Donohue is not a name known to the masses.  Yet his writings are, without fail, beautifully moving.  Indeed, this Post was prompted by me coming across a piece from his first book, Anam Cara, meaning ‘soul friend’ in Gaelic, and, as any dog owner will attest, dogs are the animal example of a soul friend to a human.

John tragically died well before his time, in January 2008, just three days after his 56th birthday.  As the John O’Donohue website reveals,

John O’Donohue vanished from among us on January 4, 2008 as physical presence, but it is impossible to write about John as someone who “was”; he so thoroughly “is”. In the context of the immense presence of his absence, the following biographical facts and dates can serve only as time-bound points of orientation for those who wish to try and locate history.

John was born in January 1956, the first of four children to Patrick and Josie O’Donohue. At the age of 18, John entered the novitiate at Maynooth where he completed his BA in English and Philosophy in 1977 and his degree in Theology, in 1980. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1982, received his MA in 1982 and, in 1986 began work on a doctorate at the University of Tubingen in Germany. John was awarded his Ph.D in Philosophical Theology in 1990. In his dissertation, Person als Vermittlung, (published in Germany in 1993), John developed a new concept of Person through a re-interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel. The prestigious Review of Metaphysics commended him for “breaking new ground in our thinking about consciousness . . . [with] a richer and deeper notion of Personhood.” In John’s words: “Hegel struck me as someone who put his eye to the earth at a most unusual angle and managed to glimpse the circle toward which all things aspire.”

There is so much more to say and write about this lovely man, but for another time.  Let me close by publishing this extract from Anam Cara. But a plea!  Before you plunge ahead and read these words, just slow yourself down.  The thoughts behind the words below are profound, romantic and applicable to all, yes, every one of us.  They offer peace and calmness – embrace them with a peaceful and calm mind.

The eye celebrates Motion

The human eye adores movement and is alert to the slightest flicker. It enjoys great moments of celebration when it beholds the ocean as the tide comes in, and tide upon tide repeats its dance against the shore. The eye also loves the way light moves; summer light behind a cloud crawling over a meadow. The eye follows the way the wind shovels leaves and sways trees. The human person is always attracted to motion. As a little baby you wanted to crawl, then to walk, and as an adult you feel the continuous desire to walk into independence and freedom.

Everything alive is in movement. This movement we call growth. The most exciting form of growth is not mere physical growth, but the inner growth of one’s soul and life. It is here that the holy longing within the heart brings one’s life to motion. The deepest wish of the heart is that this motion does not remain broken or jagged, but develops sufficient fluency to become the rhythm of one’s life.

The secret heart of time is change and growth. Each new experience which awakens in you adds to your soul and deepens your memory. The person is always a nomad, journeying from threshold to threshold, into ever different experiences. In each new experience, another dimension of the soul unfolds. It is no wonder that from ancient times the human person has been understood as a wanderer. Traditionally, these wanderers traversed foreign territories and unknown places. Yet, Stanislavsky, the Russian dramatist and thinker, wrote: “The longest and most exciting journey is the journey inwards.”

There is a beautiful complexity of growth within the human soul. In order to glimpse this, it is helpful to visualise the mind as a tower of windows. Sadly, many people remain trapped at one window, looking out every day at the same scene in the same way. Real growth is experienced when you draw back from one window, turn and walk around the inner tower of the soul and see all the different windows that await your gaze. Through these different windows, you can see new vistas of possibility, presence and creativity. Complacency, habit and blindness often prevent you from feeling your life. So much depends on the frame of vision – the window through which we look.

Think about the times we live in, challenging times for so many.  Then realise that what we see (and feel) is so dependent on how we look.  Let me repeat those last few lines, “Through these different windows, you can see new vistas of possibility, presence and creativity. Complacency, habit and blindness often prevent you from feeling your life. So much depends on the frame of vision – the window through which we look.”

7 thoughts on “Soul friend

  1. Wonderful, paul! I was at the conference at which John was scheduled to speak, and his address was ultimately given by his close friend. His book Anam Cara has got to be one of my faves. I sent this post
    to a friend whom I am confident will treasure it. Thanks so much for sharing God’s love in this way!


    1. MaryAnne, I shall be offering some more extracts from John O’Donohue over the next couple of weeks. Trust your friend enjoyed this one – must say that JD’s writings are beautiful beyond description! P.


  2. Paul,

    I must say that I have come to look forward to your blog; I find you introduce me to so many subjects that generate in me a greater awareness on so many levels. I took your advice and “slowed myself down” before reading the following on John O’Donohue, not aware of who he was (is), I wanted to thoroughly absorb what he had to say on the subject of movement. Thank you for introducing me to this very extraordinary man.

    Because I have lived in six states and in more than thirty homes, my family and friends believe I have no concept of stability and travel like a gypsy. What they do not understand is that I have relished every move with great anticipation, have never felt lost and have learned from every experience. There is a saying I once read, of which I know not where it comes from – “not all those who wonder are lost;” and my favorite, by Henry Miller – “If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” So, just how blessed have I been to have had the opportunity to live in so many places and have experienced the “inner growth of one’s soul and life” as John O’Donohue so aptly described. I dare not criticize others in which they wish to live their lives, but this article validates my beliefs that I have been on the right path, and will continue to travel “the rhythm of one’s life,” and acknowledge the “peace and calmness, and embrace them with a peaceful and calm mind.” Therefore, ”the window through which I look” is beautiful, exciting and brings me ever closer to who I am. I continue to see “new vistas of possibility, presence and creativity.” My inner soul rejoices! Thank you!



    1. Dear Merci, that is such a wonderful openness of spirit that you share on Learning from Dogs. Thank you on my behalf. I have no doubt that many others reading what you wrote will offer similar thoughts into the ether. As I have just said to MaryAnne, I will be offering some more extracts from JD over the next couple of weeks. P.


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