John O Donohue: Celtic Reflections on our Yearning to Belong

John O Donohue: Celtic Reflections on our Yearning to Belong
John O Donohue has been one of my ‘go to’ writers and poet for many years after reading his first book Anam Cara at the turn of the millennium and then also listening to him share with his warm, lyrical Irish voice full of laughter at a GreenBelt Festival. Since then I have read all his books and regularly listening to his podcasts whilst travelling. They help me to gain a poetic sensibility of the world and my place within it, and have introduced me to a wider understanding of the role and beauty of prayer. John sadly died unexpectedly in 2008 in his sleep but his words and writings continue to shape and bless all who read them. Born and raised in Connemara, Western Ireland he spoke the native tongue of Gaelic, and his love of his homeland influenced much of his writing and spirituality. John trained and served as a Catholic priest before furthering his philosophical studies of Hegel in Germany.  A became a highly respected poet and philosopher, lecturing in Europe and America and wrote a number of international bestsellers: Anam Cara, Eternal Echoes, Divine Beauty and Benedictus, which he completed shortly before he died. He also wrote two collections of poetry, Conamara Blues and Echoes of Memory, his first published work.
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Below are a some quotes from Johns book Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger to Belong.
“The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature. Cut off from others, we atrophy and turn in on ourselves. The sense of belonging is the natural balance of our lives. Mostly, we do not need to make an issue of belonging. When we belong, we take it for granted. There is some innocent childlike side to the human heart that is always deeply hurt when we are excluded. Belonging suggests warmth, understanding, and embrace. No one was created for isolation. When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we become vulnerable to fear and negativity. The sense of belonging keeps you in balance amidst the inner and outer immensities. The ancient and eternal values of human life—truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love are all statements of true belonging; they are the also the secret intention and dream of human longing.”

“There is some strange sense in which distance and closeness are sisters, the two sides of the one experience. Distance awakens longing; closeness is belonging. Yet they are always in a dynamic interflow with each other. When we fix or locate them definitively, we injure our growth. It is an interesting imaginative exercise to interchange them: to consider what is near as distant and to consider the distant as intimate.”

“The restlessness in the human heart will never be finally stilled by any person, project, or place. The longing is eternal. This is what constantly qualifies and enlarges our circles of belonging. There is a constant and vital tension between longing and belonging. Without the shelter of belonging, our longings would lack direction, focus, and context; they would be aimless and haunted, constantly tugging the heart in a myriad of opposing directions. Without belonging, our longing would be demented. As memory gathers and anchors time, so does belonging shelter longing. Belonging without longing would be empty and dead, a cold frame around emptiness. One often notices this in relationships where the longing has died; they have become arrangements, and there is no longer any shared or vital presence. When longing dies, creativity ceases. The arduous task of being a human is to balance longing and belonging so that they work with and against each other to ensure that all the potential and gifts that sleep in the clay of the heart may be awakened and realized in this one life.”
“Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy. Every one longs for intimacy and dreams of a nest of belonging in which one is embraced, seen, and loved. Something within each of us cries out for belonging. We can have all the world has to offer in terms of status, achievement, and possessions. Yet without a sense of belonging it all seems empty and pointless.”
“There is a desperate hunger for belonging. People feel isolated and cut off. Perhaps this is why a whole nation can assemble around the images of celebrities. They have no acquaintance with these celebrities personally. They look at them from a distance and project all their longings onto them. When something happens to a celebrity, they feel as if it is happening to themselves. There is an acute need for the reawakening of the sense of community.”
“Our bodies know that they belong; it is our minds that make our lives so homeless. Guided by longing, belonging is the wisdom of rhythm. When we are in rhythm with our own nature, things flow and balance naturally. Every fragment does not have to be relocated, reordered; things cohere and fit according to their deeper impulse and instinct. Our modern hunger to belong is particularly intense. An increasing majority of people feel no belonging. We have fallen out of rhythm with life. The art of belonging is the recovery of the wisdom of rhythm.”
“In post-modern culture there is a deep hunger to belong. An increasing majority of people feel isolated and marginalised. Experience is haunted by fragmentation. Many of the traditional shelters are in ruins. Society is losing the art of fostering community. Consumerism is now propelling life towards the lonely isolation of individualism. Technology pretends to unite us, yet more often than not all it delivers are simulated images. The “global village” has no roads or neighbours; it is a faceless limbo from which all individuality has been abstracted. Politics seems devoid of the imagination that calls forth vision and ideals; it is becoming ever more synonymous with the functionalism of economic pragmatism. Many of the keepers of the great religious traditions now seem to be frightened functionaries; in a more uniform culture, their management skills would be efficient and successful. In a pluralistic and deeply fragmented culture, they seem unable to converse with the complexities and hungers of our longing. From this perspective, it seems that we are in the midst of a huge crisis of belonging. When the outer cultural shelters are in ruins, we need to explore and reawaken the depths of belonging in the human mind and soul; perhaps, the recognition of the depth of our hunger to belong may gradually assist us in awakening new and unexpected possibilities of community and friendship.”

“Perhaps your hunger to belong is always active and intense because you belonged so totally before you came here. This hunger to belong is the echo and reverberation of your invisible heritage. You are from somewhere else, where you were known, embraced and sheltered. This is also the secret root from which all longing grows. Something in you knows, perhaps remembers, that eternal belonging liberates longing into its surest and most potent creativity. This is why your longing is often wiser than your conventional sense of appropriateness, safety and truth… Your longing desires to take you towards the absolute realization of all the possibilities that sleep in the clay of your heart; it knows your eternal potential, and it will not rest until it is awakened.”

For Belonging
by John O’Donohue

May you listen to your longing to be free.

May the frames of your belonging be generous enough for your dreams.

May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart.

May you find a harmony between your soul and your life.

May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted.

May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time.

May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.

May you never place walls between the light and yourself.

May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you,
mind you, and embrace you in belonging.


Questions for Discussion and Reflection

1. Why is there such a crisis of belonging in our times? What are the characteristics of our fragmented and broken belonging? What are the voices of longing in your heart at this time in your life? Where do you think you were before you came here? What is the true relationship of longing and belonging? In your childhood, how did longing and belonging relate? In what ways do you actually belong in the world?

2. Human presence is unique, passionate and complex: discuss. What styles of presence do you have? How are you present to people who are angry, indifferent or threatening? Where is your anger? Is there any ascetic dimension to your life? Freedom also consists in keeping the contours of your choices porous: discuss. How do you incarnate longing?
3. What is false belonging? Why are you afraid of freedom? The images others make for us are never sufficient: discuss. How are guilt and shame related? Where is the haunted room in your mind? Where are the walls of your private prisons? Can you identify in your life the gifts brought to you by the angels of attraction and inspiration?

4. Suffering and evil are the most critical evidence against our belief in a good, kind God: discuss. Can there be growth and creativity without darkness? Why are we so vulnerable? Is spontaneity disappearing from our lives? Does suffering eventually give way to transformation? How important is failure in your life? No wound is ever silent: discuss.
5. What is your understanding of prayer? When and how do you pray? How does prayer help us to see things differently? How is wonder related to prayer? Why is wonder so vital to the world of spirituality? How does prayer change our experience of space and time? Write out your own prayer to suit the rhythm of your life and the shape of your soul.
6. What are the absences in your life? How does presence differ from absence? When do you experience real presence? When we talk too easily about ourselves, we cheapen our mystery: discuss. How does the role of participant and observer balance in your life? Discuss a philosophy of loss. What pathways toward new community lie hidden around us? What is the grief in your life? Who are the people you never hear from? What traditions do you really belong to? How can you reclaim the traditions that belong to you?


by John O Donohue

blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.

may you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

may you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

may the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

may the one you long for long for you.
may your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

may a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

may your mind inhabit your life with the sureness
with which your body inhabits the world.

may your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

may you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
may you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

Krista Tippet interviewed John O Donohue for her series of podcasts OnBeing, just a few months before he died. It is a delight to listen to this beautiful conversation.