Anam Cara: A Book Of Celtic Wisdom Paperback – November 1, 1998
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About the Author
John O'Donohue was awarded a Ph.D. in philosophical theology from the University of Tübingen in 1990. He is the author of several works, including a book on the philosophy of Hegel, Person als Vermittlung; two collections of poetry, Echoes of Memory and Conamara Blues; and two international bestsellers, Anam Cara and Eternal Echoes. He lectures and holds workshops in Europe and America, and is currently researching a book on the philosophical mysticism of Meister Eckhart. He lives in Ireland.
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In a sense, this book is review proof. To anyone who has read my other reviews on fiction and non-fiction this may be seen as a departure. Personal philosophical contemplation of the big issues—life, death, eternity, etc.—are so subjective that to apply the same kind of critical analysis to them that I would apply to a novel misses the meat of the matter and becomes a stab in the air of Intellect. Just as all books are not created alike, so all reviews of those various books should also not be alike.
The anam cara can be found in another person although, whether one finds THE anam cara or AN anam cara in another person or not, there is the presence that travels with the individual from birth to death. An individual’s life span, like the seasons, is a cycle. O’Donohue traces the phases of the cycle throughout the book in explorations of solitude, friendship, love and death. These are all big abstract concepts but O’Donohue brings them inside our eyelids with his intimate, poetic language.
Donohue’s contemplation of the large themes is an intimate as poetry and as spiritual as any church service and yet this former priest never preaches. His pleasure in the novelties of creation and his meditations on the threshold of conscious and unconscious existence are contagious. He brought to my awareness a few insights that seem obvious except that I never thought to articulate them but here he has presented them to me.
Consider what he says about the human face:
“The human face carries mystery and is the exposure of the mystery of the individual life. It is where the private, inner world of a person protrudes into the anonymous world. While the rest of the body is covered, the face is naked. The vulnerability of this nakedness issues a profound invitation for understanding and compassion. The human face is a meeting place of two unknowns: the infinity of the outer world and the unchartered, inner world to which each individual alone has access…Your feet bring your private clay in touch with the ancient, mother clay from which you first emerged. Consequently, your face being at the top of your body signifies the ascent of your clay-life into intimacy and selfhood.”
He invokes the cyclical view of life repeatedly. It is inherent in the fact that he was born and died a Celt:
“The Celtic mind was never drawn to the single line; it avoided ways of seeing and being that seek satisfaction in certainty. The Celtic mind has a wonderful respect for the mystery of the circle and the spiral. The circle is one of the oldest and most powerful symbols. The world is a circle; the sun and moon are too. Even time itself has a circular nature; the day and the year build to a circle. At its most intimate level so is the life of the individual. The circle never gives itself completely to the eye or to the mind but offers a trusting hospitality to that which is complex and mysterious; it embraces depth and height together. The circle never reduces the mystery to a single direction or preference.”
Generally, O’Donohue’s imagery and metaphor is fresh and vibrant although he does use a phrase such as ‘neon consciousness’ or ‘neon awareness’ a bit too frequently for my taste. Once was fresh; more than that the impact is diluted. He also quotes people without citation. He will write, “Dostoevsky said…” or “Goethe said” without providing the specific source of the quote. I don’t doubt O’Donohue; I believe in his integrity. I would just like to read the original for myself to see the context in which the quote appeared.
Those are relatively minor quibbles. One of O’Donohue’s great achievements is to shed a fresh light on things we either take for granted or have never articulated. He presents them to us in a novel context, which is really what the best writers do for us.
The chapter on death is worth the price of the book for me. It provides the wisest, most consoling, most clear-eyed outlook toward death that I have encountered. He describes the Irish mourning tradition in which women keen and provide a sad liturgy, a ritual for externalizing the loss of the departed. This is followed by the wake:
“Its ritual affords the soul plenty of time to take its leave. The soul does not leave the body abruptly; this is a slow leave-taking.”
He provides a calm reassurance that assuages any fear of dying that touches me more than most anything else I’ve read about death. He died unexpectedly in his sleep in 2008. The cause of death was not disclosed outside the family. Reading his calming words, I could imagine them echoing through his consciousness in his last moments. His cycle was complete.
John died too soon in 2008 but his spirit is as strong as ever, I feel. A few days ago my mother told me she likely has cancer again. And so I will look for quotes that may strengthen me for the coming time, whatever it may bring. I often find that I start with one that always moved me very much, although I am not sure it is his best known quote:
“Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.”
Strange how this particular quote moves me. It makes me feel, as I read it, that Soul exists – that I am Soul. Not just as a concept or metaphor, but something real, yet … undefinable. And that is the power of all of John O’Donohue’s writings.
I don't think I can put it better than this. John O'Donohues Anam Cara is an experience. You will have to experience it and see what it can give you. This book is thoughtful but reaches out to your feelings and invites you to reach out for them, too.
Top international reviews
Deeply thought provoking
unfortunately i could not return the book as it was second hand.. pity..
for those interested in prose.. it is a lovely book.. but lil to do with ancient celtics..