There are books for students to read over the summer but Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (Harper Perennial, 1997) by the late John O’Donohue is for teachers looking to rejuvenate themselves during those long days of heat and humidity.
O’Donohue was a former priest and philosopher from Ireland who spent his life exploring the ways of silence and contemplation inherent in Celtic philosophy. He died much too young, at the age of 52. His life’s work includes such seminal works of poetry and wisdom as Echoes of Memory (Harper Perennial, 2000), Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (Harper Perennial, 2005), and Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Yearning to Belong (Harper Perennial, 2000). These books are not fast reads but must be absorbed slowly in both mind and spirit.
O’Donohue opens Anam Cara with a poem entitled, “Beannacht,” or blessing. “When the canvas frays / in the curach of thought / and a stain of ocean / blackens beneath you, / may there come across the waters / a path of yellow moonlight / to bring you safely home.” With that, he moves into beautiful, poetic and deeply moving prose about the nature of this life, how we learn to be, and ultimately, how we should face death. He echoes many Buddhist teachings as well as both eastern and western thinking, including the concept of non-attachment. “If we become addicted to the external,” he writes, “our interiority will haunt us. We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still.”
Anam means soul in Gaelic, and cara is friend—the title therefore means “soul friend”—and the person who fits this description for each of us is someone “to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.” Those who function as our anam caras “were joined in an ancient and eternal way” to us. He uses this imagery to explore many aspects of human existence, including spirituality, growth, and finally, death. “Death is the great wound in the universe,” he writes, “the root of all fear and negativity.” Part of having a good death and facing this fear is to “celebrate the eternity of the soul, which death cannot touch.” In his contemplation of the mystery of our lives, he presents the idea that “We are always on a journey from darkness into light.” Existence has a recognizable rhythm, and one must surrender to this rhythm. “You can only discover balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm,” he says. “The year also is a journey with the same rhythm.”
Like the medieval philosopher Meister Eckhart whom he admires, O’Donohue spends some of his poetic intensity discussing the necessity of silence in our modern, fast-paced life. We must practice silence with others which really means listening. O’Donohue writes: “One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.” He is referring to two entwined souls, a mate or best friend, but this advice is applicable as well to the classroom. Many times, it is not necessary for a teacher to tell students what they need to know, or to tell them how they should behave. We must often listen to what the student has to say, or isn’t saying, to comprehend his or her true nature. Especially with high school or middle school students, adults want them to keep silent and follow directions. However, their issues resonate on deeper levels that can only be accessed by listening to them, by paying attention to what they say and how they behave. Teaching is as much about knowing a subject as it is about understanding the students, their individual challenges, and how they learn. He quotes John Henry Newman, a Catholic cardinal recently beautified by Benedict XVI, who said “To grow is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” We, as teachers, as well as our students, are always growing, changing, morphing into the people we are in the fullness of our identity. We must listen to each other, the voices and the silence, to understand, to become an anam cara for others.
Within O’Donohue’s writing is the river of Celtic wisdom and philosophy. He tells us that the Celts greeted each new day as a new beginning, a chance to make a difference in the world, to appreciate the wealth of time and place and people that we encounter every day. He brings his philosophical underpinnings into the present, writing about morning traffic jams, modern anxieties and frustrations, the restless desire for security and safety in a dangerous and duplicitous world. He believes that due to modern life, we suffer a loss of dignity. “We often feel that our contribution, while it is required and demanded, is merely functional and in reality hardly appreciated,” he writes. “The soul desires expression,” and therein lies the opportunity for healing. One soul expressing to another, the relationship of two who are anam cara for each other.
That brings us to the conclusion of the book where O’Donohue meditates on death and non-attachment. “Mystics have always recognized that to come deeper into the divine presence within, you need to practice detachment. When you begin to let go, it is amazing how enriched your life becomes.” He goes on to say that our trepidations are rooted in fear, and when this fear raises its ugly head, we must ask ourselves what is it that causes our anxiety. He calls this the liberating question because “All fear is rooted in the fear of death.” O’Donohue believes it “takes a good while to really die. For some people, it can be quick, yet the way the soul leaves the body is different for each individual. For some people, it may take a couple of days before the final withdrawal of soul is completed.” This is why the Irish hold wakes for the deceased, and why loved ones often sit vigil over the body until the funeral. In Celtic traditions, the dead do not live far away. The ghosts continue to remain as spiritual reminders of the deceased, inhabiting old ruins and fields. But in the end, no one should fear death because “When the moment of your dying comes,” O’Donohue writes, “you will be given everything that you need to make that journey in a graceful, elegant, and trusting way.”
John O’Donohue’s work makes for profound summer reading for teachers. His words have a way of centering us and assisting us with focusing on what is important. Great teachers live the life of the mind and spirit. Teaching is not a job you leave when you exit campus at the end of the day. A teacher must be in touch with the spiritual, even the metaphysical, as well as learning styles and multiple intelligences. There are great books to read about how to teach. But works like Anam Cara tell us not only how to be for others, but how to be for ourselves so we can feel and understand the lives of our students. His book is Celtic wisdom, the intuitive knowledge of the centuries from a spiritual and deeply intuitive culture. It is well worth the time spent in reading and contemplating the wisdom O’Donohue has to offer.