The Bigness of Small Poems – #24 in a Series – The Poetic Wisdom of John O’Donohue

Irish Poet and one of the Wise Ones, John O'Donohue

Irish Poet and one of the Wise Ones, John O’Donohue


I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding

John O’Donohue from Conemara Blues, HarperCollins, 2001

Short and sweet! This poem! And too short and so sweet: the life of poet who wrote this poem.  John O’Donohue   (1956-2008), poet, non-fiction writer, philosopher, priest ( who gave up his active priesthood in 2000). Such a wise fellow-traveller who walked along side so many of us through his writings! He was much loved for his books including Anam Cara and Beauty,  but he was also a poet whose poems I cherish more, I must confess, for what they say as opposed to how they say it, poetically!

But the little gem above feels perfect to me. Especially: Carried by the surprise of its own unfolding! Nothing sentimental here. That is a bold wish. And in his case the unfolding ended with such a surprise. Too soon.  But to trust life the way this poem suggests. Sometimes there will be rapids, or worse, cataracts, that take us under. But to live with that aliveness. That amount of risk taking! It echoes one of the great themes of  his friend David Whyte who exhorts us to live on the frontiers of our lives. Indeed! May I always be carried by surprise. Yes.

Rooted so strongly to the land and stories of his native Ireland, O’Donohue was celebrated not just for his books but especially for his many talks/lectures and workshops around the world before his unexpected death, aged 52, in January 2008. He was mourned by many including his close friend  Whyte, poet and celebrated speaker, who  included a number of poems about the impact of losing his friend in his poetry collection, Pilgrim in 2012. What a loss.

But O’Donohue’s on-line presence has not gone. Ann Cahill,  his literary executor, maintains an active Facebook page where every few days a new quote from one of his books is posted. Like this one posted December 1st. Oh, how to hear the voice of our own soul!

When you take the time to draw on your listening-imagination, you will begin to hear this gentle voice at the heart of your life. It is deeper and surer than all the other voices of disappointment, unease, self-criticism and bleakness. All holiness is about learning to hear the voice of your own soul. It is always there and the more deeply you learn to listen, the greater surprises and discoveries that will unfold. To enter into the gentleness of your own soul changes the tone and quality of your life. Your life is no longer consumed by hunger for the next event, experience or achievement. You learn to come down from the treadmill and walk on the earth. You gain a new respect for yourself and others and you learn to see how wonderfully precious this one life is. You begin to see through the enchanting veils of illusion that you had taken for reality. You no longer squander yourself on things and situations that deplete your essence. You know now that your true source is not outside you. Your soul is your true source and a new energy and passion awakens in you.

I was lucky to spend an afternoon with O’Donohue on Bowen Island in April 2007  thanks to the kindness of my friend Ross, who gave up his place at the workshop so I could go. O’Donohue seemed tired but his intensity never wavered. He had just eight more months to live. In that workshop he listed thirteen questions for us to answer inside our lives. The ones that stand out for me: number 1 and number 9. Great questions:

O’Donohue’s Thirteen Questions

  1. If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?
  2. If you have a relationship with a loved one, what would you add and what would you take away?
  3. What are 3 secret doors through which you can get out of your own way?
  4. What decision do you need to make now that you’ve been postponing? (got him on the now!!)
  5. What is happening to your face?
  6. When was the last time you went pure wild?
  7. When was the last time you sat down with yourself naked and had affirmative and affectionate body conversation?
  8. What burden can’t you let go of?
  9. What is the true face of the enemy?
  10. What dream of the body do you miss the most?
  11. How do children view you?
  12. Who can’t stand you?
  13. How would you like the view from your deathbed to seem?

To know that our true source is not outside us. To find that source and aliveness inside. An aliveness that says: you might fail but do it anyway! My wish for all of us at this Christmas time is that we hoard and do not deplete our truest essence! Now that would be a priceless treasure under the tree! To all of you reading this. Thank you for reading my blog! Merry Christmas!

One Comment

  1. Liz
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Richard
    Lovely to read about John tonight.
    His Beannacht is always a staple for me this time of year, that last stanza:
    “And so may a slow
    Wind work these words
    Of love around you,
    An invisible cloak
    To mind your life.”

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