I began reading John O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara about a year and a half ago. (See related post Soul Friends and Community.) If you’re not familiar with this book or it’s been a while since you looked at it, the subtitle is “A Book of Celtic Wisdom,” and it is broken into sections that address friendship, spirituality, solitude, work, aging, and death. O’Donohue had a unique writing style blending poetry, philosophy, and scholarship. I savored this gem of a text, really digesting it bit by bit, and finally—just today—I read through to the last page. It doesn’t seem right to say “I finished it,” because really I just started it. That’s the nature of wisdom texts.
However, it is a milestone, and I want to note it here in Vital Signs—a blog about aliveness!—because I want to add my voice to the chorus of those encouraging conversation about death. I think about death a lot more frequently now, and my reading, wandering thoughts, and discussions with others about it have absolutely enriched my life.
Once I reached the final chapter in Anam Cara, I saw the perplexing title: “Death: The Horizon Is in the Well” and noticed myself pause, considerably. I set the book down for a couple of months; didn’t want to read it. And then one day last week I was ready, and I truly enjoyed every page. (Postscript: It didn’t occur to me until penning this post, but John O’Donohue died when he was 52, and I turn 53 within days. It seems entirely non-accidental that I was finally compelled to complete my first reading of this text at this moment.)
In the spirit of sharing and opening dialogue, below are two short excerpts (very difficult to narrow to two), followed by a haiku series I felt inspired to write, and finally a gorgeous “prayer-poem” from 13th century Persia that closes Anam Cara. That we will all die unites us. Let us talk of death to enrich our aliveness, strengthen our bonds, and marvel in the mysterious.
“Death is a lonely visitor. After it visits your home, nothing is ever the same again. There is an empty place at the table; there is an absence in the house. Having someone close to you die is an incredibly strange and desolate experience. Something breaks within you then that will never come together again…The terrible moment of loneliness in grief comes when you realize that you will never see the deceased again. The absence of their life, the absence of their voice, face, and presence become something that, as Sylvia Plath says, begins to grow beside you like a tree.” - Anam Cara, p. 207-208
“A glimpse at the face of your death can bring immense freedom to your life. It can make you aware of the urgency of the time you have here. The waste of time is one of the greatest areas of loss in life...It seems that we are meant to inhabit and live everything that comes toward us. In the underside of life there is the presence of our death. If you really live your life to the full, death will never have power over you. It will never seem like a destructive, negative event. It can become, for you, the moment of release into the deepest treasures of your own nature; it can be your full entry into the temple of your soul. If you are able to let go of things, you learn to die spiritually in little ways during your life. When you learn to let go of things, a greater generosity, openness, and breath comes into your life.” - Anam Cara, p. 218
Wisdom teachers say
the eternal world is here—
cease looking elsewhere
Those who have died are
right here now invisible
released from time’s line
Our souls sense them
in our bones we know there is
no away, no other
Some nights stay up ‘til dawn as the moon sometimes does for the sun.
Be a full bucket, pulled up the dark way of a well then lifted out into light.
Something opens our wings, something makes boredom and hurt disappear.
Someone fills the cup in front of us, we taste only sacredness.
- Persia, 13th century