375 of 376 people found the following review helpful
John O'Donohue died peacefully in his sleep on January 8 of this year. He was working on a book on the late medieval mystic Meister Eckhart. Hopefully, enough of it was completed to warrant a posthumous publication. In the meantime, his To Bless the Space Between Us is O'Donohue's parting gift.
The book is a collection of blessings. That doesn't necessarily sound too exciting until one recognizes the deep-down meaning of a blessing, and O'Donohue's introduction provides some guidance. In our overly busy culture, he writes, we frequently race over the "crucial thresholds in our life" without pausing to take note of their significance. We no longer have "rituals to protect, encourage, and guide us as we cross over into the unknown" (p. xiv). A blessing is precisely one of those protecting, encouraging, and guiding rituals. It memorializes our transitions, connects us with a wider community (since none of us really ever travels alone), and strives to "present a minimal psychic portrait of the geography of change it names" (ibid).
Blessings, then, are all-important. They serve to orient us in our life's journey, establish fellowship with fellow travelers, and remind us of what we too often forget: that we are pilgrims, not haphazard wanderers.
Because there are all kinds of thresholds that lead to new stages of the journey, O'Donohue has written all kinds of blessings: for obvious thresholds such as birthdays, parenthood, adulthood, old age, and death; for interior thresholds such as courage, grief, addiction, suffering, loneliness; for the thresholds of callings to the priesthood, marriage, farming; and for the thresholds that our yearnings for love, peace, and friendship can nudge us towards. Some of the blessings O'Donohue gives us are breath-takingly beautiful; others, not so much. As he himself confesses, blessings are difficult things to write. They're not poems, because they're not oblique, but rather are direct addresses "driven by immediacy and care." Yet they're not utterly unpoetic, either, because in their immediacy they must also be evocative.
Given O'Donohue's passing, it's not amiss to quote a bit of one of his most beautiful and haunting blessings (p. 72): "For Death."
From the moment you were born,
Your death has walked beside you.
Though it seldom shows its face,
You still feel its empty touch
When fear invades your life,
Or what you love is lost
Or inner damage is incurred...
That the silent presence of your death
Would call your life to attention,
Wake you up to how scarce your time is
And to the urgency to become free
And equal to the call of your destiny.
That you would gather yourself
And decide carefully
How you now can live
The life you would love
To look back on
From your deathbed.
356 of 364 people found the following review helpful
"Endings seem to lie in wait," John O'Donohue wrote. His certainly did. He died in his sleep, January 3, 2008, on vacation near Avignon. He was just 53.
I met John O'Donohue only once. I had read Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, the 1997 book that made him deservedly famous. "Read" is wrong. At 100 words a minute, I had, over weeks, absorbed enough of this deceptively simple exploration of "soul friendship" to grasp that here was an original thinker, a gifted poet and, most astonishing of all, a philosopher who had forged a way of looking at the world that was painfully aware of human frailty but insistent on the triumphal power of divine love. And he wrote beautifully.
A book this exciting, you have to talk about it. I mentioned O'Donohue to Sarah Ban Breathnach, the author of the Oprah-annointed Simple Abundance and Moving On. As luck would have it, she and O'Donohue were friends. And when he came through New York, Sarah generously arranged a dinner.
That was the night I learned to drink single malt. And was there ever a better teacher in the art of sipping than an Irish philosopher and mystic who had worn the collar for 19 years? I don't recall what we talked about, and neither can my wife, who does not drink; all I remember is the cascades of laughter, the unbuckled happiness of people who are thrilled to be alive, and together, and sharing good fellowship with sympathetic souls in a nice restaurant on a rainy New York night.
An evening like that is so rare I think of it as a religious experience. John O'Donohue, a holy man if ever there was one, had a lot of nights like that. A recent interviewer wrote, in memoriam, about a morning when O'Donohue came to breakfast with a hangover, having polished off an entire bottle of single malt with friends the night before. "The bottle didn't die," he announced, "without spiritual necessity."
That offhand remark was quintessential O'Donohue. He never failed to connect the worldly with the sacred --- and see it all as holy. As a writer and a man, he reminded me of the priest who was a friend of Proust's. Yes, he believed there was a Hell. But he didn't believe anyone went there.
Where do our deepest beliefs come from? Generally from childhood, and then not from what our parents and teachers say, but from what they do and who they are. In John O'Donohue's case, his mother was the family's loving center. His father was a stonemason and farmer --- and, O'Donohue thought, the "holiest man I ever met, priests included." Sometimes the boy would bring tea to his father as he worked the fields. Often, young John heard him --- praying --- before he saw him.
O'Donohue had a superlative education, earned a Ph.D. in philosophical theology from the University of Tubingen, became known as an expert on Hegel and, later, Meister Eckhart. As a priest, he loved the Church's sacramental structure and its mystical and intellectual traditions. He also loved writing. Eventually, an officious bishop made him choose. "The best decision I ever made was to become a priest," O'Donohue would say, years later, "and I think the second best decision was to resign from public priestly ministry."
In fact, he had his issues with Catholicism, especially its views on sex and women. The Church, he said, "is not trustable in the area of Eros at all." And it "has a pathological fear of the feminine --- it would sooner allow priests to marry than it would allow women to become priests."
He was just as hard on other denominations. Religious fundamentalists, he said, "only want to lead you back, driven by nostalgia for a past that never existed, to manipulate and control you.... [Their] God tends to be a monolith and an emperor of the blandest singularity." New Age spirituality, he felt, was a smorgasbord, and undisciplined. Not that he found any comfort in secular life. He scorned the mall, feared for the spiritual health of the young, and had a special dislike for media folk, "non-elected custodians of sensationalism."
His bedrocks were his faith and "the Celtic imagination," which, he said, "represents a vision of the divine where no one or nothing is excluded." The blend he created was pure joy: "I think the divine is like a huge smile that breaks somewhere in the sea within you, and gradually comes up again."
O'Donohue was no Pollyanna. He was deeply troubled by bad things happening to good people. But he also saw that "a lot of suffering is just getting rid of dross in yourself, and lingering and hanging in the darkness is often --- I say this against myself --- a failure of imagination, to imagine the door into the light."
So it makes sense that O'Donohue's last book would be nothing but invocations and blessings --- a simple, how-to guide that, in effect, takes him back to his father praying in the fields. By the fact that we live, we are blessed; by the light that shines in our hearts, we have the power to bless others and be blessed by them. Is there a purer, more elementary form of the divine in action?
He asks: What is a blessing? His first answer is formal, and expected: "A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen." But then the poetry enters: "It is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart." And then there's the magical factor: "When a blessing is invoked, a window opens in eternal time."
We need to impact one another's lives in this spiritual way, he writes, because the process of living in a post-industrial, media-drenched world moves us further and further from our innate wholeness. Only direct action can breach the distance. Happily, it takes no special training to bless one another. It's just a matter of gathering yourself --- and finding the words.
In "To Bless the Space Between Us," the poet in O'Donohue seeks to break the shackles of dead language. He offers fresh blessings, and on topics the Church might overlook --- not just for a new home, marriage and child, but for the parents of a criminal, for parents who have lost a child, for those experiencing exile, solitude and failure.
These blessings look hardship in the face, but only as a challenge. In our souls, and, especially, in our hearts, O'Donohue believed, we are all home. We never left, we never will. How hard it is to hold that thought. And yet, when we take the care of others into our hearts, something happens.....
You may not have a problem with the plainspoken language of O'Donohue's blessings. I do. Maybe it's just a writer's discomfort with another writer's words. But the invocations that dot the book --- my God, could this man write! Just one example:
"Our longing for the eternal kindles our imagination to bless. Regardless of how we configure the eternal, the human heart continues to dream of a state of wholeness, that place where everything comes together, where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of life's journey will enjoy a homecoming. To invoke a blessing is to call some of that wholeness upon a person now."
Death was nothing to John O'Donohue --- a silent friend who walks beside us all our days. And on the other side? "I believe that our friends among the dead really mind us and look out for us," he wrote. "Often there might be a big boulder of misery over your path about to fall on you, but your friends among the dead hold it back until you have passed by."
Let it be.
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2008
This book of blessings is a great gift to us all. I bought the book and the audio CDs and I have used both almost daily since I received them. It is a CD/book you will use, because the occasions for the different blessings will arise in your life. The author's lovely Irish brogue as he reads the blessings and the music of Irish harpist Aine Minogue allow for a deeper understanding of the written word.
The Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue did not shy away from topics that will make us cringe. He wrote a blessing "For love in the time of conflict", a "Blessing for the Parents of one who has committed crime", and - possibly one of the hardest tragedies of all - a "Blessing for the family and friends of a suicide".
John O'Donohue was a priest for 19 years (before he committed all his time to writing and speaking) and he knows about death from his work with the sick and the dying. But at the same time he is intimately familiar with the opposite of impermanence, he knows about the living presence of the light in our lives.
He talks about the luminous light in the mystical landscape of the Burren in the West of Ireland (his home), that reaches us when we become still to listen and witness. If we are mindful, nature and landscape can alert us to the eternal and we might be allowed to see a light that will speak to our human fears.
The blessings in this collection address crucial thresholds: A New Year blessing, a Morning Offering, the birth of a child, starting a new job, the breakup of a relationship, the experience of failure and the joy of friendship to name just a few. The invocations provide the structure of rituals that will protect, encourage and guide us on our life journey. Rituals have been neglected and become lost in post-modern secular society, but parallel to their disappearance awoke an incredible hunger for some kind of spiritual observance of the milestones in our lives.
John O' Donohue reaches way back into the Celtic tradition of blessing your loved ones, and he makes this tradition accessible to us in a simple, refreshing and non-dogmatic way.
It seems auspicious that John O'Donohue was able to finish this book and the recording of the CD before he was called home unexpectedly - in his sleep- at the age of 53 in January 2008.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2008
I grabbed this book off my shelf before a flight, and all the way there I was reading it and sharing with my fellow-passengers..."here, read this one, this is so beautiful (sniff)" and they'd read it and it would bring tears to their eyes, too. Then, when I got there, I met two women from Ireland, and I asked them if they had ever heard of John O'Donohue. "Know him? Oh, yes, he was a dear friend of ours," they said, "and do you know that the western half of Ireland went into mourning when he died? He was such a lovely soul, we still can't believe he's gone." I went and grabbed my copy of this book and brought it back and asked the one if she would be so kind as to read the Introduction (which isn't to be missed!!!!!) and then one of the blessings, thinking that in her lovely Irish brogue it would be more like listening to John O'Donohue himself. And it was a magical time.
Okay, you have to know that I'm a Unitarian, believe that there are many paths to enlightenment. I don't read much of anything any more, it seems there's not enough time in the day for all I'd like to do. But these blessings invoke power to strengthen a soul. First they open one's heart; a brief window that allows the hard shell of bitterness about ones' life not turning out quite as one had envisioned it to fall away and to be replaced with a loving softness, a kind glow that refreshes, even as one sits there in amazement. How did this guy write these? How did he write about a pregnant woman or parents of a child who has committed a crime and make one feel that he KNEW what he was writing about? But he did. It is so amazing.
So, back in South America, I read the introduction to a North American woman who has made her home there, and she took the book, held it close and said, "May the blessing that I need to read be the one I open to." And when she opened the book, it was "For an Exile." We all got teary-eyed as she read it; she is in a self-imposed kind of exile. When she finished, she tried it again. The next one was, "For Old Age." I laughed. "Well, that one didn't work very well, as you aren't old, Catherine." Catherine's 87-year-old mother-in-law, who was sitting with us, stayed me with her hand. "This one's for me, dear." And it was.
It's been all I can do not to tell people about this book, and the ONLY reason I'm waiting is because everyone I love is getting a copy for Christmas. It is simply the most beautiful writing I have ever read. May the blessings within it help to heal and strengthen you.