John O’Donohue

Anam Cara

This is one of my favourite books I’ve read in recent memory. It resonated with me a lot and it’s some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read. After listening to one of O’Donohue’s final interviews, I was enamoured by the way he spoke and this book was my first introduction to his body of work. His ability to articulate the fundamental yet impactful elements of our lives continually left me in awe as he wove his philosophy of spirituality gracefully into the Celtic tradition of the natural world.

‘The landscape is numinous, but the landscape isn’t just the physical world, but the entire experience of life.’

An anam cara is a person to whom you can reveal the hidden intimacies of your life which directly translates to ‘soul friend’ in Gaelic. It’s the perfect book to explore spirituality in more depth regardless of what you’ve read. Traversing across the planes of existence O’Donohue guides you through the spiritual landscape of the Irish imagination, allowing you to connect to places you once felt disconnected.

‘It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone. Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world exists. A world lives within you.’

The book opens by acknowledging friendship as a creative and subversive force, one that we could not do without. Nobody would wish to live without friends even if they had all other goods things.

Everything that happens to you has the potential to deepen you and the Celtic tradition heavily entwines life with the natural world. Just as the darkness brings rest and release, the dawn brings awakening and renewal.

‘This inner world that we inhabit is so vast yet it is never seen but always sensed.’

O’Donohue then enters into the realms of love which he views as our deepest nature and that consciously or unconsciously each of us searches for love. He explains that we often choose false ways to satisfy this deep hunger, for instance excessive concentration at work, various achievements and even spiritual quests which can lead us away from the presence of love. In and through the warmth and creativity of love, the soul shelters us from the bleakness of that nothingness. It should encourage and free you fully into your own potential.

He follows on from this by focusing on the physical; the face, the body and the human senses. The face always reveals the soul; it is the divinity of the inner life which finds an echo and image. When you behold someone’s face you are gazing deeply into his or her life, the mirror of their mind. On such a small surface an incredible variety and intensity of presence can be expressed, the breadth of which overflows the physical form.

‘The dream of the winds and the oceans, the silence of the stars and the mountains, reached a mother-presence in the face.’

O’Donohue explains that it is a false dualism to separate the soul and the body. Your body is in the soul and the soul suffuses you completely. Your body is very truthful and you know from your own life that your body rarely lies, it is your only home in the universe. It tells you, if you attend to it, how your life is and whether you are living from your soul or from the labyrinths of your own negativity.

He then breaks the body down into its elements. When you look at something deeply it becomes a part of you, the eye is the mother of intimacy. Our taste is mirrored by our use of language. Words we often use are too thin to echo experience; they are too weak to bring the inner mystery of things to real expression. Smell is the most faithful of our senses in terms of memory. It’s incredible how simple a scent on a street or in a room can bring back years to an experience you had long forgotten. True listening brings us in touch even with that which is unsaid and unsayable. Sometimes the most important thresholds of mystery are places of silence. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people. Music ministers to the silence and solitude of nature; it is one of the most powerful, immediate and intimate of sensuous experiences.

‘Music is the artform that brings us closest to the eternal because it changes immediately and irreversibly the way we experience time. When we are listening to beautiful music, we enter into the eternal dimension of time.’

Solitude is an incredibly important thing in the Celtic tradition. It fosters a sense of individuality, which is the only gateway to spiritual potential and blessing. In your solitude you are frequently nearer to the heart of belonging and kinship than you are in your social life or public world. Thoughts are our inner senses and to cultivate and grow from them we need solitude. We grow through our experiences and if you can learn to look at yourself and your life in a gentle, creative and adventurous way, you will be eternally surprised at what you find.

Growth is also fostered through the work we pursue, however it is very difficult to bring the world of work and the world of the soul together. There is such an anonymous side to work in which all that is demanded of us is the input of our energy. We move through the workplace and as soon as we are gone in the evening, we are forgotten. We have a feeling that our contribution, while it is required and demanded, is merely functional and in reality hardly appreciated.

‘Our work should be the place where the soul can enjoy becoming visible and present.’

To finish, O’Donohue talks about our own rhythm with the seasons, memory and time and how the Celtic tradition approaches them. Winter is the oldest season, it was there from the very beginning. It reigned amidst the silence and bleakness of nature for hundreds and millions of years before vegetation. Spring is a youthful season. It comes forth in a rush of life and promise, hope and possibility. A wonderful time to undertake some new adventure, some new project or to make important changes in your life. Summer is a time of light, growth and arrival. You are in the flow of your own nature. Autumn is harvest. The things that happened in the past, or the experiences that were sown in the clay of your heart, now yield their fruit. It is a time for harvesting the fruits of your own experiences.

We experience the seasons in a sort of cyclical way and we tend to think of time in terms of eternity, but we eventually reach old age. The future of every experience is disappearance and old age is a time of harvest where you can attend to past time. The places where you made bad mistakes, you should not blame yourself. The most precious moments are the mistakes as they have brought you to a place which you otherwise would have avoided.

‘It is beauty that will save us in the end’