The late Irish poet and theologian priest John O’Donahue published a beautiful book that explores our yearning to belong. I have been devouring it lately with great gusto. He has become my new favorite writer.
As a seeker of the contemplative life, his words on “presence” ring true to me.
Its not about withdrawing from life or becoming a hermit, but rather how one seeks to incorporate daily practices and ways of be-ing that allow us to be truly present to each moment. What does it mean to discover the gifts offered of our short, precious lives— whether life is handing us lemons or giving us deep soul nourishment. Sometimes those two things are not necessarily polar opposites, but two sides of the same coin.
In John O’Donahue’s chapter on “Presence” he talks about the increasing functionalism of technology as the death knell of presence. He writes,
“Our culture is saturated with information which stubbornly refuses to come alive with understanding. The more we become immersed in technology, the more difficult it is to be patient with the natural unevenness and unpredictability of living. We learn to close ourselves off, and we think of our souls and minds no longer as presence but more in terms of apparatus and function. Functionalist thinking impoverishes presence. The functionalist mind is committed to maintenance and efficiency. The priority that things continue to work….Functionalism is lethal when it is not balanced by sense of reverence. Without reverence, there is no sense of presence or wonder…
There is something deeply sacred about every presence. When we become blind to this, we violate Nature and turn our beautiful world into a wasteland. We treat people as though they were disposable objects.” (p. 75-76, Eternal Echoes, John O’Donahue, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999)
O’Donahue calls us to counter this functionalism and live into a more contemplative and present way of being by tending our souls in various ways.
Two that really resonated with me were music and the aceticism of solitude.
Music has always been a delightful place for my soul, beginning with that four part hymnody of my childhood in the Mennonite land of Ohio. I have everlasting gratitude to my parents who introduced me to the great classics, engaged me in church music and voice lessons. They kept the legacy of this gift alive and on fire within me until I left home and could claim it for myself. Throughout my adulthood, as I navigated the vicissitudes of chronic illness, overwork and major life transitions of death, marriage, miscarriage, vocation, singing in various ensembles, chorales, theaters, Interplay, piano/percussion and local churches became a life raft—a ballast amidst the storms and endless turbulent seas. It gave me a way of enduring suffering, even if I couldn’t make sense of it.
Donahue writes, “music is perhaps the most divine of all the art forms in that it creates an active, living and moving form that takes us for a while into another world. There is no doubt that music strikes a deep and eternal echo within the human heart. Music resonates in and with us…the sounds quality of contemporary life is utter dissonance and cacophony…when great music quickens your heart, brings tears to your eyes or takes you away, then you know that in its deepest hearth the soul is musical. The soul is sonorous, echoing the eternal music of the spheres.” (p. 56, Eternal Echoes)
The other soul tending practice is solitude and silence. I write these words sitting on a log in the sun, with the vanilla scent of Ponderosa Pines wafting around me and the music of the birds and wind in the trees. I have taken myself on a short 24 hour retreat at a cabin. The hunger for solitude drives me away— sometimes for months, sometimes for a few short days. I know that if I don’t take my Sabbath soul seriously, I will be in big trouble! For O’Donahue, solitude and silence are the medicines for a culture addicted to distractions. He calls it “The Ascetical Presence: Wisdom to Subtract from the Feast”
This ascetical solitude and withdrawing from the hubbub, was something that the early Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers knew well, sometimes to a fault. It has become withered and dormant, if not dead, in our consumer culture of clutter—which extends to and includes our thoughts. O’Donahue calls us back to the desert of solitude to be present to those hidden, undiscovered parts of our souls. To wait for the Divine Presence to reveal herself. To return us to our truest home—the place where we eternally be-long. Our deepest Soul is connected to the Divine and can never be abandoned or invaded. It is inviolate. It always longs for us to return…
May you awaken to the mystery of being here and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.
May you have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.
May you receive great encouragement when new frontiers beckon.
May you respond to the call of your gift and find the courage to follow its path.
May the flame of anger free you from falsity.
May the warmth of heart keep your presence aflame and may anxiety never linger about you.
May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.
May you take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.
May you be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.
May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.
(Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue, p. 97)