John O’Donohue’s Soulful Home

Photo by Sam Goodgame on Unsplash

When you visit someone at home, the door into the house…is rich with the textures of presence from all the welcomes and valedictions that have occurred on that threshold,” wrote this Celtic scholar and mystic who burned brightly then died at the age of 52.

The doorway is a liminal place—where we are suspended between two worlds. Coming into presence, we slowly shed our self-consciousness,  sharing our thoughts and passions with beloved friends, for a moment exposing the vulnerable core of the human heart. Then there is the moment of leave-taking, when we re-enter our own solitude. Yet we carry the conversation and storytelling with us, as a kind of blessing. And we treasure this memory formed by the cadence of human speech. The recollection of shared warmth.

“In everyone’s inner solitude,” O’Donohue says in Anam Cara, a book of Celtic wisdom, “there is that bright and warm hearth.”

This fire takes us far back in time, to the very origin of human homes and settlements, where people huddled against the dark and experienced a vast fear and dread of the unknown. This place O’Donohue links to the unconscious—the part of us that’s unexplored, off-limits—and can produce a host of eerie forebodings and uncomfortable thoughts.

There is a way to tame these negative imaginings, he says, and come home to the comforts of the hearth. To explain this process he invokes the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche.

For Rilke, difficulty is one of the greatest friends of the soul. And our lives are greatly enriched if we embrace it with hospitality. “The negative is one of the closest friends of your destiny,” O’Donohue writes. “It contains essential energies…that you can’t find elsewhere.”

Nietzche, too, was in favor of welcoming the dark. “(He) said that one of the best days in his life was the day when he re-baptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities. In this kind of baptism, instead of banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life. This is the slow and difficult work of self-retrieval. Every person has certain qualities or presences in their heart that are awkward, disturbing , negative. One of your sacred duties is to exercise kindness toward them. You are called to be a loving parent to your delinquent qualities.” And as a good householder, O’Donohue adds, you are called to take them in—to offer them a place at the fire.

At the hearth, people would exchange stories and perhaps tell one or two about Chuchulainn, one the great mythic heroes of Ireland, who had seven fingers on each hand, seven toes on each foot, and seven pupils in each eye. O’Donohue goes on to describe the lure of candlelight, another source of ancient magic.

"It gently opens up caverns in the darkness and prompts the imagination into activity….There is shadow and color within every candle flame. Candlelight perception is the most respectful and appropriate form of light with which to approach the inner world. It does not force our tormented transparency upon the mystery. The glimpse is sufficient. Candlelight perception has the finesse and reverence appropriate to the mystery and autonomy of soul. Such perception is at home at the threshold. It neither seeks nor desires to invade the (sacred space) where the divine lives."

"Your vision is your home and your home should have many mansions to shelter your wild divinity.”

Sounds True recently released A Celtic Pilgrimage with John O’Donohue — a tour of Ireland’s sacred landscape.  You can also listen to John O’Donohue’s passionate voice as he describes Anam Cara (“the soul friend”) and the role of home in Celtic lore and spirituality. 

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