John O’Donohue

I never met John O’Donohue but always planned to. There always seemed to be enough time. When news of his death came to me in an email from my friend Laurie in Indiana who played the banshee in this, one of my first thoughts was, “Now I never will.” So I only know him through his books, tapes, and poems, and “that feeling” that always comes over me when I am in the presence of his words. But more on this in a moment.

O’Donohue brought great riches into our world. First off, he was an authentic Irish-speaking ambassador from that West Ireland culture that many fear is too rapidly disappearing. But he was more than that. Over his Irishness he layered other coatings: priest, philosopher, scholar, intellectual, poet, healer, teacher. It’s the same list we pull out every time we try to describe a Druid. If every age calls forth the Druids that it needs, then I would say John O’Donohue was a Druid for our age.

As fate would have it, I was browsing through his book Beauty just a few days before he died. It was also a few days before New Year’s and I was mulling over typical year-end thoughts with my morning coffee. I skimmed around in the book and found a line that leaped out at me. The line was, “The quest for the truth of things is never ending.” And so I wrote it down in my journal, and settled into “that feeling.”

And “that feeling” is this:

Like a deer
that yearns
for running streams,
so my soul is yearning
for you, oh God

So begins Psalm 42 setting a mood of great yearning. These lines from the psalm have stuck with me since childhood and have become a kind of mantra over the years. It’s not just the content but the mood or feeling, one that always seems to be hovering in the background of my consciousness.

While it’s true that O’Donohue’s words that I found that morning and these from the psalm have similar content, it’s more than the meaning of the words–it’s the mood of yearning that they convey and that comes over me and lingers even when the words themselves have slipped away. Much of O’Donohue’s writing, to my mind, expresses this mood. I guess that’s why I enjoy reading him. He writes from a sense of yearning that always seems to accompany me.

Some translations of the psalm don’t use the word “yearning.”

Like a deer
that pants . . . . . . . . .

Like a deer
that thirsts . . . . . . . . .

John O’Donohue uses words like “yearning” and “longing” a lot. Who with a Celtic soul would not? Having never met the man, I can’t say if he was the type who pants. Something tells me he wasn’t. Whatever he yearned for and quested after, he did so with a quiet calm that was always reassuring and comforting. You can hear it in his voice both on the page and on the tapes. He’s never out of breath.

But I’m sure he thirsted. He sought the sacred waters of wisdom, and found them in beauty, compassion, friendship, love, service–qualities that are also never-ending. And so these too contributed to that quiet yearning of his soul that he so beautifully shared with others. I don’t mean to imply that O’Donohue found everything he searched for. No one does. And he himself said the quest for the truth of things is never ending. It’s that desire to know the meaning of things that characterizes the mystic, seeker, philosopher, poet that O’Donohue was. The desire to know God–or the meaning of God.

So there can be a quiet surrender to the yearning. It can be done without panting (depending, of course, on how fast you’ve been running), but never without thirsting. When I am in the presence of O’Donohue’s words I always get “that feeling” from the psalm that reminds me that something I need lies ahead. Something still needs to be sought and found.

John O’Donohue was like a deer. Or a Christian Druid. Disappearing into the forest. Looking for those running streams. He will be missed. But he left a bright path for us to follow.

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