In 1996 my sister Sharon was about to undergo her first brain surgery to remove several tumors. Though we had lost our father five years before, I had never questioned that Sharon would always be a part of my life. She was my older sister. Now I had to face the unimaginable possibility of being without her.
Sharon and I had been raised Catholic, but had both long ago abandoned the Church and often joked about being “recovering Catholics.” Now Sharon’s illness raised questions for me, and on the advice of a friend I attended a retreat led by a former priest: Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue.
The retreat was a great help to me, and I was impressed and soothed by O’Donohue’s deep kindness. He had no aura of Catholic guilt — something I had worked hard to get rid of myself. His words and presence left me feeling lighter and freer. I bought his book Anam Cara (Harper Perennial). Anam is the Gaelic word for “soul,” and cara the word for “friend.” In the early Celtic church, an anam cara acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide, someone with whom you could share your innermost thoughts.
In the coming years, as I watched my sister slowly slip away, I turned again and again to O’Donohue’s Anam Cara and his other books. They addressed my grief and also my questions about how to live a meaningful life, how to cultivate wonder, and how to be more gentle with myself. Since my sister’s death, I have attended two more retreats with O’Donohue and have discovered that underneath his gentle and kind manner lies a brilliant mind capable of addressing the most complex questions of our times.
O’Donohue has a PhD in philosophical theology from the University of Tübingen in Germany and has written several books, including Beauty: The Invisible Embrace and Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong (both Harper Perennial), and two volumes of poetry, Echoes of Memory (Dufour Editions) and Conamara Blues (Harper Perennial). To Bless the Space between Us: A Book of Blessings is due out from Random House in the fall, and he is currently working on a book about the teachings of fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart. More information can be found on his website: www.johnodonohue.com.
O’Donohue lives in a cottage in the west of Ireland — an unspoiled, rustic region of the country — and lectures and teaches around the world. He holds two annual retreats: one in Ireland in May, and one in the U.S., on the Oregon coast, in late October. This interview is composed of two conversations that took place at those retreats. Maybe it’s a characteristic of O’Donohue’s Celtic background — he speaks fluent Gaelic — but he injected a lightness and a sprinkling of laughter into our conversation.
Covington: Do you think there is a spiritual hunger in the U.S. today?
O’Donohue: There is a fierce hunger for spirit at the heart of an American culture that has lost all belief in the old language about God. That language no longer resonates for most Americans, nor leads them to wells of nourishment. Ironically, in other areas of American culture, there is a fundamentalist obsession with God. But inevitably this God tends to be a monolith and an emperor of the blandest singularity. Attention to the living God, who incorporates the beauty of the senses and spirit, and is the deepest source of the imagination and the highest calling of intellect, seems very scarce.
New Age spirituality is rising up to try to fill the gap. I do not wish to criticize any system that can nourish people’s spirits, but I find that a lot of New Age writing cherry-picks the attractive bits from the ancient traditions and makes collages of them; it usually excises the ascetic dimension. In general it is not rigorously thought out, but is what I would call “soft” thinking.
Granted, it is difficult to write well about spirit: namely, to bring the lyrical and the philosophical into a true tension. In my writing, I endeavor to excavate the Celtic and the Judeo-Christian philosophical and literary traditions and to bring them into conversation with our modern hunger and questioning.
Covington: There has been so much conflict in the name of religion down through the ages — so much war and killing and hatred. What do you, as a deeply religious person, say about that to people who aren’t religious?
O’Donohue: I think it’s true that religion has been used to funnel political hostility, racial hatred, and all kinds of awful violence. But I would suggest that this is not the fault of religion but of the people who use it this way. In Northern Ireland we had a conflict said to be between Protestant and Catholic, but that conflict had nothing to do with the heart of Protestantism or the heart of Catholicism. Similarly with Islam nowadays, we in the West are often working with a mere caricature of that faith. But there is a beautiful and mystical theology at the heart of Islam. It’s ironic that one of the most widely read poets in the U.S. today is Rumi, who comes out of the thirteenth-century Islamic tradition.
One of the great problems in postmodern culture is the lack of true conversation. What we have is more a series of intersecting monologues. There has been no real conversation between the West and Islam. We need one badly, for it is conversation that breaks down caricature and allows bridges to be built.
The tragedy of the West at the moment is that all interaction seems to take place across one bridge: economics. China is the next big superpower, and if we look at it only through economic lenses, as a field for profitable investments, the consequences will be disastrous. I was in China for six weeks and talked to a lot of people there. Even though they use Western tools for economic development, their mentality and sensibility are so different from ours. Whereas our starting point is the individual, theirs is the group. Their perception and language have such a different subtlety and structuring; economic bridges will never help us reach toward each other. Without a true cultural conversation, no real relationship will occur.
The conflict in Northern Ireland has proven beyond a doubt that, sooner or later, you come to the table. And it is wiser to come to the table sooner, rather than after thirty years of murder, grief, and personal tragedy.
Covington: You are writing a book on fourteenth-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. How are his teachings relevant to Americans in the twenty-first century?
O’Donohue: The U.S. is a great country. You can live the way you want there; you can be a self-made person. But sometimes, when all our energy goes into progress, acquisition, and productivity, it leaves a huge emptiness in the heart. I think the teachings of Meister Eckhart can address that emptiness, can show us how to be patient with it, and in fact bring us deeper into it. At the heart of our emptiness, we can actually discover nourishment in the secret landscapes of imagination and spirit.
Covington: You’ve said that each Catholic can create his or her own “niche” in the faith. Is that really Catholicism?
O’Donohue: The term a la carte Catholicism has been used to denigrate those who pick and choose from the tradition, selecting only what nourishes, challenges, and heals them. On the other hand, nobody goes into a restaurant and chooses everything on the menu.
One of the difficulties in Western religion in general is that we are inclined to take current manifestations of the tradition as the whole truth about the religion. I don’t think that is a responsible or honorable way to engage with a tradition. Tradition is to a community what memory is to the individual: a huge archive of knowledge that is tested over time. The questions of the human spirit are perennial, but they come in different forms at different moments in history; we shouldn’t equate contemporary, and often banal or inferior, manifestations of the tradition with the depth of the tradition itself. Sometimes the people who represent a religious tradition at a particular moment will masquerade as the absolute owners of the tradition, but they are not. They are only good or bad servants of the tradition.
Although we might reject the faith’s current representatives, I don’t believe we can simply jump from one tradition to another. I can do Buddhist practice, but I cannot be a Buddhist. Nor can a Tibetan Buddhist come to Ireland and turn into a Catholic.
It saddens me to see so many spiritually starved people in the West passing the great granaries of the Christian traditions on their way to some New Age or fundamentalist church, and not even looking in the doorways. When the grain is tested, as it is in the great traditions, you get true nourishment, not fast food.
Covington: Why did you leave the priesthood?
O’Donohue: It was a difficult decision, and it did take years to make. I suppose the oxygen had become too scarce. I also found myself diverging from quite a few of the teachings. The final straw was acquiring a new bishop who exhibited and exercised a strong chemical hesitancy to my theological viewpoint. Once made, the decision brought me great peace of heart.
Religious fundamentalists, who claim to speak for God yet would not be able to distinguish God from a cucumber, are allowed full access to the public, and nobody comes along and questions their vacuousness. We need the renowned academics to step up and say, “The emperor has no clothes.”
Covington: You’ve said the Catholic Church has a “pathological fear of the feminine.” Why do you think that is?
O’Donohue: First, before I criticize it, let me say what I love about the Catholic Church. I think the seven sacraments are the most beautiful liturgical rituals. The Christian mystical tradition is populated by such giants as Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Hildegard von Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. The dogmas of the Catholic Church are sophisticated, poetic, speculative doctrines; they invite imagination, not dogmatism. I love the Church’s teaching on the communion of saints. I love the theology of the Trinity, which is not often preached because it is such a complex thing, yet it remains one of the most exciting discoveries of the nature of the divine.
On the other side, I do not trust the Catholic Church with Eros. I never did, even when I was a priest. The Church does have a pathological fear of the feminine. It would sooner allow priests to marry than it would allow women to become priests. This awful mistrust of the feminine goes all the way back to Genesis, where Eve is blamed for offering the apple to Adam. And the doctrine that a woman, after giving birth to a child — the most beautiful thing a human being can do — has to go to the Church to be cleansed: this is a demonization of women that I cannot understand.
All extremes create a mirror of themselves. So when you have the demonization of the feminine, you also have the creation of the ideal feminine type: Mary as the perfect woman, on whom no stain of mortality — or complexity — was allowed to fall. None of the awkward, subtle, different, or dark faces of the feminine were allowed near her image. I think it’s a shame, and it has consequences. I think the Church is in danger of losing women. As I’ve said for the last twenty years: if tomorrow all the women in the Catholic Church decided to walk, the Church wouldn’t last three months.
Covington: From your perspective, what intellectual and theological contributions does the U.S. make?
O’Donohue: I have great admiration for intellectual life in the U.S. You have some of the best minds in the world in the sciences and the humanities. Universities like Harvard, Boston College, Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, Chicago Divinity School, and Emory can hold their own with the best universities in the world. But where are these intellects in the U.S. media, the public discourse? Religious fundamentalists, who claim to speak for God yet would not be able to distinguish God from a cucumber, are allowed full access to the public, and nobody comes along and questions their vacuousness. We need the renowned academics to step up and say, “The emperor has no clothes.” There’s never been a greater need for prophetic, courageous, informed, critical, imaginative people in any domain than there is in the U.S. media today. Instead you have journalists dancing to the tune of that horrible little two-syllable scourge the “sound bite.”
Covington: It’s ironic that the U.S. is supposed to be setting up a democracy in Iraq, while our own democratic principles are threatened.
O’Donohue: Yes, the country seems divided into two extremes. In the absence of a strong middle ground, the political pendulum will always swing too far to either side. By “middle ground” I don’t mean the status quo. I mean a true balance that is autonomous and authentic. That’s why we need responsible media and good conversation and universities that are open-minded and not already loyal to one side or the other. Plato said that to practice philosophy is to follow the question wherever it leads. Loyalty to the voyage of the question will create a wise middle ground and protect us from extremism.
Covington: In Anam Cara you write that the phrase “do not be afraid” appears 366 times in the Bible. I find that profound.
O’Donohue: Fear is the greatest source of falsification in life. It makes the real seem unreal, and the unreal appear real. In The Courage to Be, the theologian Paul Tillich draws a distinction between fear and anxiety. Anxiety, for him, is this diffuse worry that has no object or point of reference. This is the atmosphere right now in the U.S., the land of the free and the home of the brave. There is a huge anxiety just under the surface.
Fear, as distinct from anxiety, has an object and a point of reference. Tillich says that in order to handle anxiety, you have to translate it into a fear that has a definite object. Then you can engage with it. Part of the intention of growth is to overcome one’s fears.
Covington: Anam cara means “soul friend.” Underneath, is your book about being a friend to yourself?
O’Donohue: Yes, most things that are true and lasting have a symmetry between inside and out. Your outward relationship toward your beloved, if it is not mirrored internally by a loving relationship with yourself, is reduced and limited. You end up scraping from him or her what you are not giving yourself. But if you are nourished at your own table, you do not need so desperately to be fed by someone else; consequently, you can be free and open with that person.
This is true of our relationship to the world as well. When you approach even the simplest object, the depth that you see in that object will be proportionate to the depth you bring to it. One of the most interesting philosophical movements of the mid-twentieth century was hermeneutics: the science of interpretation. The key question in hermeneutics is always “How do you approach a text?” — and philosophers use the word text broadly. It could be restated as “Through what lenses and apparatus do you look at something?” You should be constantly aware of your own act of approaching anything. When you know what you are putting into it, and what you are taking from it, the text — or object, or person — has a better chance to meet you as itself.
Covington: Solitude seems central to your work. Why is it so necessary?
O’Donohue: Solitude is the sense of space as nourishing. What usually happens with solitude is that people equate it with loneliness, which frightens them. But I don’t know anyone who has a good friendship or love relationship in which there are not long periods of solitude. There is a way in which we treat our relationships almost like a colonial expedition: we want to colonize the space, all the territory in between, until there is no wilderness left. Most couples who have deadened in each other’s presence have colonized their space this way. They have domesticated each other beyond recognition. Sometimes you see a beautiful woman who quickens your heart. Then you meet her again years later, and she has become a domesticated relic of who she once was, and you think, Where is the dangerous vision that I saw in her? The same happens to men.
I think it is more interesting to be with somebody who still has his or her wilderness territory — and by that I don’t mean bleak, burned-out, damaged areas where wounding has occurred; rather, I mean genuine wilderness. Upon seeing that in the other person, you promise yourself: One thing I will never do is try to domesticate her wilderness. Because the authenticity of her difference and the purity of her danger and the depth of her affection are all being secretly nourished by that wilderness, as all of my spirit is being nourished by my own wilderness. There is a great tradition in the U.S., even more so than in other countries, of the solitary person going out into the wild. It’s a shame that this model is not now being revived for the voyage into our inner wilderness.
Covington: Stillness and silence are natural companions to solitude.
O’Donohue: Yes, all three are necessary for a mystical life, a harmonious life. Stillness is just being still. There is no great mystery about it. Your body is an object in space — not an inanimate object, but an object nonetheless. I will be putting my body-object into a tin machine on Tuesday and flying over the ocean. My body will emerge all shaky on the other end, and it will take time for it to recover its native tranquillity. Spending time being still is a simple and modest requirement that we face each day, not just when traveling. If you could sit still for twenty minutes every day — just sit in your chair and look at a place on the rug — your body would love you for it. Your body loves the simple relief of stillness. And it’s great for your health.
The third thing is silence. When someone is talking, try to listen to the silence between the words. This is what a good therapist does. She is listening for what your words are saying, and she is also listening between the words for the things that your unconscious wants to say, but which your conscious mind does not know about or is not yet ready to make heard. To be a great listener is to be a listener on that level.
Silence depends on stillness and solitude. If you do not have solitude and know what wilderness is, and you do not have stillness and know what tranquillity is, then you are not able to listen with that sort of refinement and subtlety. Bring a rhythm to your life that has a share of solitude, stillness, and silence in it, and you will gradually come home. That is what spirituality is: the art of homecoming.
What usually happens with solitude is that people equate it with loneliness, which frightens them. But I don’t know anyone who has a good friendship or love relationship in which there are not long periods of solitude.
Covington: In Anam Cara you write about embracing our negativity: “The negative is one of the closest friends of your destiny.” This idea seems foreign in American culture, where we’re supposed to pretend we don’t have any negative traits or thoughts.
O’Donohue: Negativity is a precious force. No movement of consciousness goes forward on its journey without the motor of the negative driving it.
Most of us live in cultures that have become soft; we have unlearned the wisdom that hardship brings. But in Ireland we were raised to see difficulties, obstacles, and barriers as precious. We were taught that the thing you pushed against helped to define you.
I remember when I was studying German in Berlin, I used to smuggle books over to East Berlin, to a lovely girl there who was eager to read. I’d be walking along with novels by Thomas Mann, Günther Grass, and Hermann Hesse, and maybe some poems by Sarah Kirsch concealed inside my overcoat, feeling as if I were an international criminal. One day, while I was waiting for the girl in a pub, an East German man asked me to pass the ashtray. He knew immediately by the way I answered that I was not German, so he asked me where I was from and what I did. I said I was an Irish priest. He told me he didn’t believe a word of my religion, but he’d raised his six children as Catholics. “What would you do that for?” I asked. And he said it was because he wanted them to develop their spiritual awareness through interaction with a great tradition; to shape their questions against the push of that tradition. When they were seventeen or eighteen, he said, they could leave it behind forever, but at least they would be well schooled in the ultimate questions through engagement with a great tradition.
Frequently the most fecund time in a relationship is when you run into the “otherness” of your beloved, an otherness that you cannot calm or accommodate by means of your affection, love, or understanding. This otherness is actually set against you. But when you exercise patience and develop a hospitality toward this otherness, something deeper gradually emerges between you.
The challenge is similar in the writing life. I believe that a writer has to develop skill and craft first, then go to the biggest barrel of darkness or silence he or she can find and wait for something to come up. You must have craft so the quality of your writing will be proportionate to the importance of what will arrive on your table. But craft alone isn’t enough. You can develop a great ability as a writer, but if you write about insignificant matters, your work will interest nobody.
Sadly, many people view darkness as the enemy rather than the threshold, the invitation to become something more. In Beauty I write about sculpting a block of stone being akin to shaping yourself: your calling in the world is to keep refining yourself until you find the secret form inside you. We should consider life primarily as an invitation to become who we are. Most of the time, when we think of becoming something, we have a plan to better ourselves: “I want to lose this sense of inferiority” or “I want to make my life easier” or “I want to call off my inner Dobermans, who are chewing up my insides.” We all have these problems we want to get over, but that is so bloody limited. So what if your childhood has its quota of damage? Wouldn’t it be healthier to say, “OK, my wounds deserve to be recognized and healed, but they also need to be placed in a more dignified context”? We should ask for the strength to push forward into deeper graciousness and sophistication. One way to do that is to recognize respectfully the places where your negativity appears. They are great clues to the location of the treasure troves in the deep inner caves.
The imagination is not interested in two-dimensional reductionism or naively pitting one side against another, dark against light. It is interested in the place where the two sides meet, and what they give birth to when they cross-fertilize each other. That is the heart of creativity.
Covington: What exactly do you mean when you say a writer should go to “the biggest barrel of darkness or silence” and “wait for something to come up”?
O’Donohue: In the creative world, true brightness is seldom found. Sometimes you get a perfect poem that comes all at once and you do not have to work on it, but such visitations are incredibly rare, a form of grace. Brightness in a poem or a painting or a piece of music usually has to sweat its way to the top through caverns of darkness. And when it comes to the surface, you can still see in it the beautiful shadow of the dark journey it has made.
The imagination is not interested in two-dimensional reductionism or naively pitting one side against another, dark against light. It is interested in the place where the two sides meet, and what they give birth to when they cross-fertilize each other. That is the heart of creativity: it is not fantasy, not invention. Creativity is listening in on the places where the opposites are dancing with each other.
Covington: What do you say to people who don’t consider themselves creative?
O’Donohue: I don’t agree with the idea that there are those who are creative and those who are not. I feel everyone is creative, sometimes even in spite of themselves. I am always disappointed when I see middle-aged women who finally have the time to do something creative, and they engage in the most boring, disastrously unoriginal enterprises, ones that have vacancy written all over them. Now and again, however, you meet someone who has been busy raising children but has always had a deeper longing inside and somehow has remained faithful to her originality. And she will take up her new freedom and engage with herself in a way she never has before. She is willing to take risks and bring patience to learning the skill of painting, music, photography, writing, or sculpture.
When you meet a person like that, you realize that the creative instinct you felt as a child remains within you at forty-seven, or fifty-seven, or sixty-seven. It is heartening to discover that the dream you’ve never paid attention to hasn’t died, but rather, in the fermenting period of waiting, has become a powerful presence.
Creativity is about opening up to your own originality and allowing it to come forward. As the French poet Rimbaud said, “I have no ancestors.” You will never write a poem that someone else has already written. We are all such strange worlds. We are more than human. Each individual is an opening where the eternal is breaking through, a portal where things go out and come in.
Covington: In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that when we write, we are excavating something, trying to bring it up whole. Would you agree with that?
O’Donohue: I would partly agree with it. It is excavation, but I don’t think what we are excavating is already fully formed, and we’re just taking away the cover and bringing it up. What happens for me is that there is this search for bits, pieces, fragments, shards. But in the process of digging them up, complementary shapes are drawn to each other and become something more. So it is actually during the emergence that form establishes itself. It is like sculpting: you have a block of stone and a chisel, and bit by bit, according to your vision and the grain of the stone, a shape eventually emerges. But it is a collusion between the object itself and the skill of the artist.
Covington: Some would say it’s overly romantic to believe that everyone is creative.
O’Donohue: Maybe it is, but I have several reasons for believing it. One is that every one of us dreams, and a dream is a most sophisticated artistic vision. It is said that when the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky slept, he hung a notice on his door that read, “Poet at work.” You people your dreams with characters, settings, images, plot, and you present it to yourself. You are both the creator and the audience for it. As the Talmud says, “A dream that has not been interpreted is like a letter that has not been opened.” So if you can dream, I believe you can create.
Second, we were all children once, and when you were a child, you lived in an imaginative world. That childlike side of us never dies. It is always there.
Third, the nature of creation is that it is constantly growing and becoming and emerging. And we are the stuff of creation. So, in a sense, it is in our nature to be creative.
Fourth, the act of knowing is a function of the imagination. All knowing has an imaginative element in it. We don’t see the world as it is at all. Our consciousness always co-creates everything we see. So what you are seeing is not just out there, on its own. You are always seeing it through the lens of your own thinking. Therefore, you are co-creating the world, whether you like it or not.
Covington: You believe strongly in each person’s individuality.
O’Donohue: One of the amazing things about creation is its plenitude and diversity. No two stones are the same. No two fields are the same. No two waves or stars or faces are the same. No two thoughts are the same. It is amazing, really, that we manage to find any similarity at all. It is there, of course, because without it we couldn’t achieve continuity. But the true calling of everything is to be itself. There would be huge problems in creation if things decided not to be themselves — if leaves, for example, decided that they were really feathers, or streets decided they were rivers.
Covington: I haven’t heard much about the concept of “providence,” except in your books. I found this quote on your website: “There is an unseen life that dreams us; it knows our true direction and destiny. We can trust ourselves more than we realize, and we need have no fear of change.” Would you say that providence is the “unseen life that dreams us”?
O’Donohue: Yes, I would. Actually, I think the idea of a single human being is an illusion. Behind each of us, way back in the unrippled beforeness, there is a stack of forms that dream us into being. And behind and around every person is a formal elegance that is secretly structuring that person’s actual experiences. I understand providence as that supreme, all-embracing knowing that is always obliquely there, accompanying us.
I had a friend who lived for a while in India, and I asked him what it was like. He said it was the strangest thing to live in a country that did not believe in death. There was also this concept of fate that relieved so much spiritual angst.
The idea of fate is too predetermined for me. I prefer destiny. I think when we arrive here in this world, we begin unfolding from within ourselves that which is already latent within us. Experience is the semipublic theater in which our inner content unfolds.
Providence is perhaps the other side of the spectrum, where we are free to shape our lives. And in the middle is the meeting of destiny and freedom. Our significant acts are perhaps approaches to something that is already approaching us; this subtle coming together is what eventually yields experience. The secret middle is where the actual narrative of life is shaped.
We should trust that overall design and try to avoid getting in its way or reducing the sophisticated script to a story about our grubby egos. The ego is hard to handle, because it is elastic. If you enter into straight combat with it, it will bend every which way. When I hear people talking about overcoming the ego, I’m inclined to smile and say, “Best of luck to you with that particular battle.”
But something infinitely greater than ego is happening, and that seems to be what the spiritual traditions are all about. It seems to be what the imagination is interested in too. The imagination has a huge capacity for trust. It knows that if it goes toward the disheveled chaos, eventually, out of that fragmentation, a cohesive form will surface to bring the fragments together in such a way as to release their secret music.
Covington: How exactly are providence and destiny different?
O’Donohue: I see destiny as engaging with your own freedom to shape your life. And if you abuse your freedom and fail to engage your destiny, if you build false bridges and burn ones that you shouldn’t, there still remains a secret, eternal something that will provide for you regardless of your poor decisions. Providence is that something. It will insure that you don’t totally destroy your place in the larger script. The script is working through you.
But how providence and destiny work is a huge question, and the answers are unknown. Imagine somebody is in a car crash: was that destiny or providence? It’s difficult to say. Most models work fairly well until you push them to the extremes, where they become ever more tenuous. Ultimately it is almost impossible to tell what is fortune or misfortune.
Covington: The Irish believe a lot in luck.
O’Donohue: In Ireland there is always the recognition that you can be lucky or unlucky. And if you are unlucky, no matter what you do, it will be the unraveling of you. So when someone is undertaking something new, we always say, “The best of luck to you.”
When I was a boy, my family sold cattle, and a rich cattle buyer would come to our farm twice a year. He was a lovely man, and he always brought a big box of Emerald sweets for us kids. We would follow him and my father and my uncle out to the field, where they’d begin the bargaining. If my family wanted sixty pounds a head for the cattle, the buyer would look startled and say, “Oh, Jesus. No, they’re good, they’re good. They’re not as good as last year, though.”
And my father would say, “Ah, they are.”
And the buyer might say, “I’ll give you forty-five apiece for the lot.”
And they’d go back and forth:
“Remember the ones we sold you before?”
“Did you ever get a bad cow from us?”
“Well, now. C’mon.”
“OK, I’ll come up to fifty.”
“We might come down to fifty-five.”
And the buyer would say, “All right, fifty-two pounds, ten.”
Everyone would think, Jesus, what a good deal.
Then, when the buyer would count out the money and give it to my uncle or my father, he always got at least ten or twenty pounds back. That was called the “luck penny.” And if you bought cattle and you didn’t get it, you’d be very upset. You’d say, “There’ll be no luck in them cattle, because I got no luck penny back.”
Covington: Sometimes in your books you talk about something “minding” us. Is that like something looking out for you?
O’Donohue: Yes, it would be the same thing. There’s always that sense in the Irish psyche — at least, in the west of Ireland — that you’re minded and looked after. The old people would say, in Gaelic, “The help of God is closer than the door.”
Covington: In one of your books you say, “We need . . . to treat ourselves with great tenderness.” In the U.S. we don’t talk a lot about “tenderness.” Does that come from your Irish background, or your background as a priest?
O’Donohue: I don’t know where it comes from. I know that when I was writing Beauty, I gave the manuscript to a friend of mine to read, and she said that if she found one more reference to tenderness in it, she would come over and finish me off. [Laughter.]
The Bible says, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” I love the New Testament and the wisdom for daily living that it contains: the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount. Even if you don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God, there is still so much you can learn from the New Testament. There is a quality of gentleness and tenderness to it that allows you to open internally to your own spiritual inheritance.
The opposite of gentleness and tenderness is force. Many people in postmodern spirituality and psychotherapy try to force themselves to improve. The thing about the spiritual world is: if you push, it does not work. It’s like the sexual world: you have to be in rhythm, be in the flow, and be gentle, and then the whole thing takes off and unfolds with a sublime spontaneity of its own.
Covington: You’ve said that Meister Eckhart asked the one great question: “How should I be?” How do we begin to answer that?
O’Donohue: There are many ways of coming at it. Self-examination in the U.S. seems to involve lengthy visitations to the laboratory of feelings. Feelings are analyzed backwards and forwards, upwards and downwards. I would not start there at all. I would look at thinking. A simple thing to do is to realize, as I said earlier, that everything we see, understand, know, and feel is filtered through the lens of thought. Picture it as a pair of glasses: if you put on spectacles with little squares all over them, then everything you see will have squares on it.
A simple exercise is to ask yourself, “What are the seven thoughts that guide my being and frame what I call ‘meaning’ in my life?” Once you’ve identified them, leave them alone for a while. And then, at some later date, say, “What are some other ways in which I could think but, through my constant attention to these seven ways of thinking, I never do?” Soon you will be on an adventure at the heart of your being. True thought is full of feeling, and refined feeling is luminous with thought.
True creative, critical thought cuts away the undergrowth, helps you recognize being, and lets you realize how magical and strange and mysterious and full of potential life is. Being is the mystery and the adventure.