“It’s Strange To Be Here. The Mystery Never Leaves You.” Parts of an Interview with John O’Donohue.

"Sea Eagle", jane kohut-bartels, watercolor, 2001

“Sea Eagle”, jane kohut-bartels, watercolor, 2001

Many are familiar with John O’Donohue, the Irish Poet/Priest/Philosopher. I wasn’t and didn’t hear of him until well after his death in January, 2008 at the age of 52. Coming upon him so late I realize what a marvelous voice has been stilled, but he did write a lot and spoke around the world. These writings and interviews are what we have left of this remarkable man, but they speak of deep and important issues of the heart. What I have cobbled together is partly from an NPR interview of a while ago and other readings of his works. His words speak deeply to my own
lack of faith, lack of any religious belief except certain Shinto elements and a yearning for answers about the visible life around us and the possible connections to the invisible world we contemplate. I am also rethinking O’Donohue’s words in light of the issue of familial narcissism and what it wrought for a family. It is a daily exercise that makes visible that is, at one point, carefully covered over. Then no appeal to religion or civility can abate the wounding. The fruit of a very poisonous tree.

As a poet, what O’Donohue says about poetry went deep and broad for me. O’Donohue’s words are in bold type, all else are mine.

Lady Nyo

The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more it seems to me actually is that the visible world is the first shoreline of the invisible world. And the same way I believe with the body and the soul. That actually the soul — the body is in the soul, not the soul just in the body. And that in some way the poignancy of being a human being is that you are the place where the invisible becomes visible and expressive in some way.

This is a radical concept to my thinking…that the visible world is the first shoreline of the invisible world. But reading Celtic novels, especially something extended like “Mists of Avalon” certainly has this factor in the mix. Further, this statement: That the soul- the body is in the soul, not just in the body, makes sense if you follow Celtic Christianity.

For me, beyond this Celtic Christianity concept, I find it also resides in the Japanese Shinto religion and general mythology in the form of “kami’ or spirits residing in the same natural element.

“Landscape” is a pivotal word, a defining feature of inner life as well as the outer physical world. For a while now, I have used this word, “landscape” in my own definition of thoughts of characters: however, his usage is much broader and more encompassing.

I think it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house. Whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you. And I think that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination: that landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape, landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.

But I do think though that it’s not just a matter of the outer presence of the landscape. I mean, the dawn goes up and the twilight comes even in the most roughest inner-city place. And I think that connecting to the elemental can be a way of coming into rhythm with the universe that’s there. And I do think that there is a way in which the outer presence — even through memory or imagination — can be brought inward as a sustaining thing. I mean, I think that — and it’s the question of beauty you’re asking essentially. I mean, I think that as we are speaking, that there are individuals holding out on frontlines, holding the humane tissue alive in areas of ultimate barbarity, where things are visible that the human eye should never see. And they are able to sustain it, because there is in them some kind of sense of beauty that knows the horizon that we are really called to in some way. I love Pascal’s phrase, you know, that you should always “keep something beautiful in your mind.” And I have often — like in times when it’s been really difficult for me, if you can keep some kind of little contour that you can glimpse sideways at now and again, you can endure great bleakness.

Enduring great bleakness. I think he is talking about an existence we all face in different and daily ways. I see this as the physical environment surrounding us, those places where we fear the most, see with great trepidation, but also those deep emotional places where we have been wounded. These “keep something beautiful in your mind” allows us to survive those onslaughts. I believe this is part and parcel of being a writer: we have a world of words to fashion for a particular ‘comfort’ and defense.

O’Donohue said these words that seem to be the meat of the argument…at least to me.
“It’s strange to be here: the mystery never leaves you”. M. Scott Peck also said something that resonates this concept: “Life is strange”.

When you think about language and you think about consciousness, it’s just incredible to think that we can make any sounds that can reach over across to each other at all. Because I mean, I think we’re — I think the beauty of being human is that we’re incredibly, intimately near each other. We know about each other, but yet we do not know or never can know what it’s like inside another person. And it’s amazing, you know, here am I sitting in front of you now, looking at your face, you’re looking at mine and yet neither of us have ever seen our own faces. And that in some way, thought is the face that we put on the meaning that we feel and that we struggle with and that the world is always larger and more intense and stranger than our best thought will ever reach. And that’s the mystery of poetry, you know, is poetry tries to draw alongside the mystery as it’s emerging and somehow bring it into presence and into birth.

“Thought is the face that we put on the meaning that we feel”. Rather complex but astoundingly simple, too. I especially like these words about poetry, because I struggle to be a poet…or actually, the poet in me…that invisible thing makes struggle to manifest into the visible, i.e.: words, poetry. But more, poetry IS the mystery, or a part of the mystery, and makes it manifest.

And the mystery is also the Divine. Perhaps this is why the Divine is and remains a mystery because of so many aspects, faces. It remains a mystery because we can never know it all.
An ancient archetypal poem, the “Song of Amergin” illustrates the Celtic sense of a symbiotic and seamless relationship between the natural and the divine.
“I am the wind on the sea. / I am the ocean wave. / I am the sound of the billows. / I am the seven-horned stag. / I am the hawk on the cliff. / I am the dewdrop in sunlight. / I am the fairest of flowers. / I am the raging boar. / I am the salmon in the deep pool. / I am the lake on the plain. / I am the meaning of the poem. / I am the point of the spear. / I am the god that makes fire in the head. / Who levels the mountain? / Who speaks the age of the moon? / Who has been where the sun sleeps? / Who, if not I?”

O’Donohue also writes that ‘everyone is an artist’.

I mean that everyone is involved whether they like it or not in the construction of their world. So, it’s never as given as it actually looks; you are always shaping it and building it. And I feel that from that perspective, that each of us is an artist. Secondly, I believe that everyone has imagination. That no matter how mature and adult and sophisticated a person might seem, that person is still essentially an ex-baby. And as children we all lived in an imaginal world. You know, when you’ve been told don’t cross that wall, ’cause there’s monsters over there, my god, the world you’d create on the other side of the wall.
When you’d ask questions like why is the sky blue or where does God live or you know all this kind of stuff. Like, one of the first times I was coming to America, I said to my little niece, who was seven, I said, ‘What will I bring you from America?’ She said, ‘Uhhhhh.’ And her father said, ‘No, ask him or you won’t get anything.’ And Katy turned to me and said, ‘What’s in it?’ Which I thought was a great question about America. So that childlike thing. And secondly, like that, every night when we sleep we dream, and a dream is a sophisticated, imaginative text full of figures and drama that we send to ourselves. So I believe that deep in the heart of each of us, there is this imagining, imaginal capacity that we have. So that we are all doing it.

I have to stop this entry because it could go on too long, and it’s a lot to take in, John O’Donohue’s words. Another time I will continue this, extend this, his fascinating words because there is much in them, and for me, it makes some very definite links: it explains some mystery that pulls on the heart and mind, regardless our religious or spiritual or philosophical beliefs.

There is a poem, the famous Cad Coddeu, (The Battle of the Trees) I believe Welsh, that I came across years ago when I first started to write a novel called “Devil’s Revenge” It is about the calling into battle of the trees, and it remains one of my favorites. The Battle of the Trees is a poem from the Book of Taliesin in which the legendary enchanter Gwydion animates the trees of the forest to fight as his army. In a loose fashion, it illustrates some of this concept that O’Donohue is talking about: the soul residing in all natural phenomena , the animating force of life. What is especially delightful about this poem is the calling out of the individual qualities of each of the species. Anyone a bit familiar with trees will recognize these qualities of the different ‘woods’.

Lady Nyo

Cad Coddeu
The tops of the beech tree have sprouted of late,
Are changed and renewed from their withered state.
When the beech prospers, though spells and litanies
The oak tops entangle, there is hope for trees.
I have plundered the fern, through all secrets I spy,
Old Math ap Mathonwy knew no more than I.
For with nine sorts of faculty God has gifted me,
I am fruit of fruits gathered from nine sorts of tree–
Plum, quince, whortle, mulberry, raspberry, pear,
Black cherry and white, with the sorb in me share.
From my seat at Fefynedd, a city that is strong,
I watched the trees and green things hastening along.
Retreating from happiness they would fein be set
In forms of the chief letters of the alphabet.
Wayfarers wandered, warriors were dismayed
At renewal of conflicts such as Gwydion made;
Under the tongue root a fight most dread,
And another raging, behind, in the head.
The alders in the front line began the affray.
Willow and rowan-tree were tardy in array.
The holly, dark green, made a resolute stand;
He is armed with many spear-points wounding the hand.
With foot-beat of the swift oak heaven and earth rung;
“Stout Guardian of the Door”, his name in every tongue.
Great was the gorse in battle, and the ivy at his prime;
The hazel was arbiter at this charmed time.
Uncouth and savage was the fir, cruel the ash tree–
Turns not aside a foot-breadth, straight at the heart runs he.
The birch, though very noble, armed himself but late:
A sign not of cowardice but of high estate.
The heath gave consolation to the toil-spent folk,
The long-enduring poplars in battle much broke.
Some of them were cast away on the field of fight
Because of holes torn in them by the enemy’s might.
Very wrathful was the vine whose henchmen are the elms;
I exalt him mightily to rulers of realms.
Strong chieftains were the blackthorn with his ill fruit,
The unbeloved whitethorn who wears the same suit.
The swift-pursuing reed, the broom with his brood,
And the furse but ill-behaved until he is subdued.
The dower-scattering yew stood glum at the fight’s fringe,
With the elder slow to burn amid fires that singe.
And the blessed wild apple laughing in pride
From the Gorchan of Maeldrew, by the rock side.
In shelter linger privet and woodbine,
Inexperienced in warfare, and the courtly pine.
But I, although slighted because I was not big,
Fought, trees, in your array on the field of Goddeu Brig.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2013

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15 Responses to ““It’s Strange To Be Here. The Mystery Never Leaves You.” Parts of an Interview with John O’Donohue.”

  1. Caliban's Sister Says:

    O’Donohue is a spirit kindred to Gerard Manley Hopkins. This post captures the delicate difficulties of trying to keep the astonishing nature of Reality somewhere in our minds each day, as the concrete of the world hardens around us every morning. I’m not religious; but the fact that after the Big Bang there was just a little more matter than anti-matter, when there shouldn’t have been, according to the laws of physics, means we have a universe instead of nothing. What could be more mysterious than that, aside from the guess that more than 70% of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy, and we don’t even know what that is. There’s poetry in there, of that I have no doubt. CS


  2. ladynyo Says:

    LOL! You gave a MUCH better review of O’Donohue than I did….and I wrote the damn thing. LOL!

    I love what you say, and I agree absolutely. I don’t know of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I will look him up, you can be sure.

    Thank you so much for reading all these entries and for your insightful comments. It’s good to know another kindred spirit in this universe!



  3. Caliban's Sister Says:

    Jane, GMH wrote “The Windhover,” and “Pied Beauty,” was a Jesuit priest who was in love with the way God radiated through everything in the world. When you read these poems you’ll see why O’Donohue probably knew his work. I’m also a Thomas Merton reader. The right kind of Christianity (non-tethered to doctrine, IMO) can grasp at something like what Buddhism does; but I prefer it all without the idea of crucifixion as part of some benevolent master plan. It’s just evil Romans doing evil Roman things to a radical philosopher. This post reminds me of one of your earlier ones about haiku and the quote about haiku capturing what’s between the material world and utter vacuity.


  4. ladynyo Says:

    Oh, I have heard of “The Windhover”….and will get it. Yes, I do believe O’Donohue probably knew him. I also like Thomas Merton very much. I have been reading Matthew Fox, but have some questions now about some of his writings.

    I did write several poems, “Original Blessing” and “Via Negativa” from his philosophy. So there is inspiration in where you can find it without holding your nose, but opening your heart.

    These two poems also were a direct challenge to the bibical fall and redemption concept and the dogmatic and limiting teaching of fundamentalist Christianity.

    Yep, perhaps that is why so many of us poets go towards the Japanese and other forms that capture what’s betwen the material world and utter vacuity. Looking for a belief system that doesn’t sit on our chests and destroy our creativity and our wonder at the Universe.

    And yes, there is a great deal of linkage and good in certain religions with Buddhism. Personally I follow a Celtic Devotional and Lord Jizo from Buddhist/Shinto which would have me branded as a heretic by fundamental Christians, but that is fine with me. Better than than a dogmatic fundamentalist. Don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, but if Hell exists, don’t want to sit on a bench fanning myself with them. LOL!

    Thank you, CS…I have linked your blog with mine and am very glad for it.



  5. M. J. Joachim Says:

    I’m going to save this link to a sticky note – there’s way too much to think about for me to comment right off the top of my head right now. The soul, the universe, the crossing of spiritual realms, communication with other species, dynamics…this one needs to be digested for a while.


  6. ladynyo Says:

    I agree, M.J. And I wrote it. I have to take it in small chunks, too. It’s a lot to digest for sure. And then there’s the poetry at the end.

    A lot in there, O’Donohue’s words are packed with a lot of concepts and philosophy. I ran this before but added to it. And still I have to read it in chunks…

    Thanks so much for reading this and your comment.



  7. Caliban's Sister Says:

    I just noticed you did that breathtaking watercolor. Wow. You are gifted. But hopefully you already know that. Graced, and you’ve paid for it the hard way. CS


  8. ladynyo Says:

    Actually, CS? I think that is a common bond of most ACONs. We won it the hard way. Perhaps that is why we recognize each other’s abilities…I think of your writing and CZ’s and I am humbled. Such passion and compassion. Such gratitude for just surviving, and from what I have read on these sites, some of the women there survived by their teeth. Perhaps we all did…and when the abuse is contineous, it amazes that anyone survives and goes on in some sort of mental health.

    All the paintings, watercolor and oil, are mine on the website. There is another website on my blog roll, of some paintings…janekohutbartels.wordpress.com.

    Hugs, Jane


  9. Caliban's Sister Says:

    Morning Jane, I looked at some of your other paintings online, the landscape watercolors. I can see the Buddhist/Shinto influence and style in the paintings, and they are truly beautiful; not “somewhat competent” but talented, skilled, accomplished, and full of exactly the kind of impact you want them to have. They have the effect of lowering the blood pressure and making me breathe more deeply. All good art does that for me. It’s about use of space, color saturation and play, balance, a center of gravity, a ‘home’ for the eye but nothing that snags the gaze unduly long. This is what art is. I’m an amateur painter, I work in acrylic, my paintings are decent but not NEARLY as good as yours (I’m not just saying thins). My sister loves my paintings (youngest sister, chief GC), and therefore she has two of them. My father is struck by them, but then, he never comes to visit me, so has only seen photos. My mother, during her last (and final) visit here in 2009 looked at every one I have hanging in myhome, sniffed”Hmmm” then made a point of saying, in front of one of them, “I like that one.” I have a list of her passive aggressive comments over on CS, in a post on passive aggression.


  10. ladynyo Says:

    Dear CS, Good Morning! And what a wonderful comment to find and open the day with! I am truly thankful for your writing these insightful and encouraging words here. Very few people ever notice this paintings. LOL! And when they do (rare) I am surprised because no one has ever given me the analysis you have. I fly by the seat of my pants in painting, and frankly, it’s not this ‘downtime’ where I melt into the canvas or paper; my heart is in my throat just about every painting you saw there because I never remember that after 25 years of painting off and on, I have something in the brain pan to remember ‘how’ to paint something! LOL! And this is from lack of confidence, I believe. So your words come like a balm and convince me that perhaps these things are better than I see them. LOL! I have so many that aren’t photographed, just because for years I would paint in a rush and then…nothing.



  11. Caliban's Sister Says:

    Morning Jane. Like me, you’re an instinctual artist. Each painting I start is a disaster waiting to happen. When they are finished, it always seems like they got good enough just because a) I kept at it until they were ok or b) by accident something turned out right. Of course, each new scholarly thing I write is the same exercise in abjection. We have to remind ourselves, “oh yeah, I really am the one who published that book; wrote those poems; painted those paintings; I’ve done it before I can do it again. It all feels ‘accidental.’


  12. ladynyo Says:

    LOL! It’s amazing and MIRACLE that we are not crazy or murderers~ that is the blessing from somewhere. LOL`

    That is the blessing of survival.



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