Pádraig Ó Tuama – Some Poems and Reflections Before a Retreat With Him on the Island of Iona, Scotland

Poet, Podcaster and Memoirist, Pádraig Ó Tuama (1972 – )

How to Belong be Alone

It all begins with knowing
nothing lasts forever,
so you might as well start packing now.
In the meantime,
practice being alive.

There will be a party
where you’ll feel like
nobody’s paying you attention.
And there will be a party
where attention’s all you’ll get.
What you need to do
is talk to yourself
between these parties.

there will be a day,
— a decade —
where you won’t
fit in with your body
even though you’re in
the only body you’re in.

You need to control
your habit of forgetting
to breathe.

Remember when you were younger
and you practiced kissing on your arm?
You were on to something then.
Sometimes harm knows its own healing.
Comfort knows its own intelligence.
Kindness too.
It needs no reason.

There is a you
telling you another story of you.
Listen to her.

Where do you feel
anxiety in your body?
The chest? The fist? The dream before waking?
The head that feels like it’s at the top of the swing
or the clutch of gut like falling
& falling & falling and falling
It knows something: you’re dying.
Try to stay alive.

For now, touch yourself.
I’m serious.

Touch your
Take your hand
and place your hand
some place
upon your body.

And listen
to the community of madness
you are.
You are
such an
interesting conversation.

You belong

Pádraig Ó Tuama from On Being, November, 2020

This poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama. One I cherish and use often with my clients in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. One that has been wonderfully made into a video poem which can be found here on the On Being website. The understanding love and compassion in this poem. The last lines continue to inspire and comfort me:

And listen
to the community of madness
you are.
You are
such an
interesting conversation.

You belong

I have been following the life and career of  Pádraig for many years now and he defies easy categorization. He has a theology degree but has had struggles (especially in his early years in Belfast) with some Christian structures because he is gay. Now, he says he is an agnostic. He is as at home with contemporary English-speaking poetry on both sides of the Atlantic as he is in the bible. He is a poet, podcaster (the Poetry Unbound podcast through the On Being project), storyteller, memoirist and author of Poetry Unbound, a recent collection of 50 of his podcasts featuring 50 contemporary poets with his commentaries.

But there is more. I think he is also a spiritual healer both as poet and theologian and as someone well-versed in conflict resolution through his five-year tenure as leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, one focused on peace and reconciliation. And what especially strikes me is his vulnerability in sharing his own suffering, difficult years growing up as a gay man.

And all these aspects of  Pádraig have led me here to this day where I begin a five day retreat, led by him, on the island of Iona, offshore western Scotland. It is now, after almost eight months since I signed up, that this adventure has real sights and sounds. Incessant bird calls outside my window. A bright sun (yes, bright sun) manhandling its way through the clouds and the low silhouettes of the harbour headlands and past there, islands. This is Mull. This island, at Fionnphort, is the stepping off place for Iona and Pádraig’s five night retreat.

Pádraig, now so well-known  through his Poetry Unbound podcast and book that more than 400 people attended the paperback launch of his book Poetry Unbound at Southwark Cathedral in London a few days ago. But when I first heard of him through an interview on Krista Tippett’s On Being program years ago he was less well known. He was in conversation with Krista and the black American poet Marilyn Nelson. I was driving up island from my home in Duncan on Vancouver Island. Nothing stood out in that interview as I remember until I heard him say a version of this quote from another interview with Krista:

Or in Irish, when you talk about trust, there’s a beautiful phrase from West Kerry where you say, “mo sheasamh ort lá na choise tinne” — “You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” That is soft and kind language, but it is so robust. That is what we can have with each other.”

I was gobsmacked. The poverty made so obvious in an abstract word like “trust” in English. My shock that another language, one disregarded and overlooked for so long as the English language overshadowed it, could so poetically bring the idea of trust into a sharp emotional focus. To say instead of, I trust you: You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.

To be able to talk in this way: the openness and vulnerability of the metaphor: when my feet are sore. The immediacy of this. That’s why I signed up for a two day retreat he led in 2019 in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Many rich poems were written in those two days. Especially ones using the form of the ancient Anglican prayer called a Collect. Here is one of his from 2010:

God of watching,
whose gaze I doubt and rally against both,
but in which I nonetheless take refuge, despite my limited vision.
Shelter me today,
against the flitting nature of my own focus
and bring me to the calm place
in which to stand.
And when I falter, which is likely,
give me both the courage and the kindness to begin again with hope
and coping.
For you are the one whose watchfulness

Pádraig Ó Tuama

As described by Pádraig the Collect has five folds or turns. While in its traditional form it is an address to God Padraig opens it up so it can also address someone or something other than God. The five folds or turns: 1. Name or names for God (Beloved, Higher Power, Creator etc. etc.) or whom ever or whatever is being addressed. 2. Say more about whom or what is being addressed. 3. Name a desire or request. 4. Give a reason for it: because…5. Amen or a few words of closing, praise.

One prompt Pádraig gave us at his Nanaimo retreat was to write a Collect addressed to someone who is dead. I knew instantly who I would write about but not how. My dear friend and Episcopal priest, Andy Parker of Texas, who hosted ten poetry as prayer retreats for me up until 2017. He died in December 2018, five months after a cancer diagnosis. I never made it to see him before he died.

Collect for a Poet Priest

Friend, now inside brackets
and the hyphen between two
dates (1954-2018), priest of words of poems,
of the maker
of all poems. Andy. Andy. Andy.
I never heard the pneuma
whisper out of you, depart
from you and you
with it. May you still, somehow
be close enough to breathe in
my sorrow
because I need you
to know
how much
I love you
Amen. Ameni

Richard Osler, 2019

So hard to believe it has been five years since that Nanaimo retreat. I so enjoyed being able to see Pádraig again in person in London a few days ago. And to hear him say a few concise things about poetry:

“A poem is a form to hold what is difficult to hold.”

“A poem provides an echo for the reader. Not a solution. No fix-it.”

“Think of a poem as music, not as what it means.”

“Poetry is about all the things that happen to people – even war.”

“Poetry is an invitation to be completely present to the world.”

And I look forward to seeing him later today.


  1. Cathie Kernaghan
    Posted March 18, 2024 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Lovely. Thank you Richard. Sun is so wonderful here I have stopped to sit outside To
    write a memory of a poetic moment and send it off to my daughter as Paidraig had taught me to do in a workshop last year in Calgary. And now I read your blog. Feels like a full circle moment. Blessings on your retreat.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted March 19, 2024 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    And big blessings on you from Iona.

  3. Liz
    Posted March 18, 2024 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    My feet are sore today Richard, your blog a welcome respite. Much love

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted March 19, 2024 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    You today are a floor where I can rest my sore and grieving feet. Bless you.

  5. Richard Osler
    Posted March 19, 2024 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Today you are the florr where I rest my sore and grieving feet.

  6. Posted March 19, 2024 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Dear Richard, how wonderful that your feet have so many resting places all over the world. And now on the Isle of Iona in such wondrous company. I too find belonging in the last nine lines of “How to Belong/Be Alone.” Thank you, thank you for yet another generous offering… Donnie

  7. Richard Osler
    Posted March 26, 2024 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your generous reader’s heart!

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