Review: A Celtic Pilgrimage; Four Elements

“A Celtic Pilgrimage with John O’Donohue” (New Perspective Productions/Sounds True 2009) ISBN 978-1-60407-524-3 and

“Four Elements: Reflections on Nature by John O’Donohue” (Harmony Books 2010) ISBN 978-0-307-71760-3

Mike Farrell, a friend of the late John O’Donohue (1956-2008), introduces the film, A Celtic Pilgrimage, which offers an opportunity to walk with the Irish poet and philosopher through the landscape of western Ireland. Just as in O’Donohue’s  writings, he weaves ancient wisdom with his personal history as he walks the land.

According to the Celtic imagination, the Irish landscape is alive and has a divine presence. Many were fortunate to go on pilgrimages with O’Donohue during which time they experienced a balance of reflection, myth, and poetry. There was often music and dancing too! The DVD offers us an opportunity to go along.

The pilgrims visit The Burren, a landcape that is hundreds of millions of years old, dreamed up by some magnificently wild God. They visit Connemara (Conamara in Irish), a district in the west of Ireland “over which the mountains preside.” Here, O’Donohue says, “your imagination lets you get in touch with presences. Imagination loves to disclose a hidden, oblique kind of presence.”  Corcomroe in County Clare is another favourite place on the pilgrimage where there is a Cistercian abbey tens of centuries old.

In the part of the film on St. Coleman’s Well, one of the most beautiful holy wells in Ireland, O’Donohue has pilgrims lay on the shore looking into the ocean. We never know how close the edge, or death, is he says. He was once afraid of death but once he saw people going from fear to serenity, he was no longer afraid.  (Raised Roman Catholic, O’Donohue was a priest for about seventeen years.)

The film made me long to see Ireland with a desire to know my own landscape. In and around Nanaimo, the landscape is also full of the memories and stories of the first people who lived here thousands of years ago.

Published after John O’Donohue’s death, Four Elements is based on a series of booklets he wrote on the elements of water, stone, air and fire. Pat O’Donohue, the author’s brother, wrote the foreword and it is a fine tribute to John O’Donohue whose fluency in the native Irish tongue “rooted him deeply in an endangered tradition and mysticism.”

Having heard his voice in the film, I could hear the lilt in his words as I read the book. O’Donohue shares poignant memories in his mediations. In the section on “air,” he recalls his father always pausing at the door to inhale a last deep breath before leaving home.

Many of O’Donohue’s poems are included as well as the poems of others including Starhawk’s incantation to Brigid, saint and goddess. It seems only fitting when reflecting on the four elements to include guidance from other wisdom traditions, as well as Celtic, which he does throughout the book.

“One of the reasons for the modern poverty of spirit is amnesia,” O’Donohue writes. He realized while walking the hills of Conemara, that “one can acquire in memory the strength and courage that is not available in the present. The integrity of human presence needs and depends on the balance of time: the fecundity of the past in conversation with the possibility of the future.”

The reflections in this book are what informed his later much beloved books as if born of the elements including Anam Cara, Eternal Echoes, Divine Beauty, and To Bless the Space Between Us. The books are meant to be read over and over as each sentence offers the kind of presence O’Donohue encourages in us: a balance of the past in conversation with the possibility of the future.

Mary Ann Moore is a poet, writer and creator of Writing Home: A Whole Life Practice.

Mary Ann Moore is a poet, writer and creator of Writing Home: A Whole Life Practice.