A Year in the Death 1/4/21
Today is the 13th anniversary of the death of the great Irish poet, author, and philosopher John O’Donohue — a man we lost far too soon. (He had just turned 51 a few days before dying in his sleep on January 4, 2008.)
If you’ve never read any of O’Donohue’s writings, you don’t know what you’re missing. He was best known for his international best-seller Anam Cara, which is Gaelic for “soul friend.” In it, he drew on his Gaelic heritage to introduce the world to classical Celtic stories, blessings, and teachings.
But I discovered Mr. O’Donohue through his equally beautiful Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Yearning to Belong. In this deeply spiritual book, he explored the “divine restlessness of the human heart, our eternal echo of longing that lives deep within us and never lets us settle for what we have or where we are” [from the jacket cover of the hardcover edition].
One of the things I most loved about this book is O’Donohue’s belief that we spend too much time focusing on where we’re going at the point of death and not enough time pondering where we came from before we were born. Because if the soul continues after death, it had to be somewhere prior to birth.
Ponder that for a while.
If you do, I think you’ll be as fascinated by the concept as I was when he discussed it years ago in the upstairs of the Boulder Bookstore — an experience that truly was life-changing for me and one I want to share with you.
It is an early spring evening in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. Large, damp snowflakes are falling outside the Boulder Bookstore, which is along the Pearl St. pedestrian mall at the base of the majestic Flatirons.
Upstairs in the area reserved for book readings and signings, a large crowd has gathered to hear Mr. O’Donohue read excerpts from Eternal Echoes and take questions. Many of those in attendance are from Ireland, here to commune with one of their nation’s best-known contemporary poets. Their lilting Irish brogues are filled with excitement as they talk with each other prior to the reading.
A hush falls over the room as O’Donohue is introduced by one of the bookstore employees. And for the next two hours, we are transported to both corporeal Ireland and the non-corporeal spiritual realms where our souls resided prior to our births and will return to after our deaths.
At the end of the two hours, when the bookseller who introduced him reminded all of us it was time to wrap up and begin the autographing session, O’Donohue thanked us for attending and then shared one of the most profound and powerful things I have ever heard another human say. Even today, I can clearly see O’Donohue’s facial expressions and hear his soft Irish brogue as he concluded:
“You know, in the two hours we’ve bin here this evenin’, a lot a’ people in the world have died. Some of whom you may know. And I bet there wasn’t a one of them who wasn’t lyin’ there thinkin’: If only I had two more weeks. Then I’d live a life that was truly worth livin’. But they didn’t get that chance. Yet, all of us here this evenin’ have that opportunity. We can walk out those doors and choose to live a life that’s truly worth livin’. So for God’s sake do it! Because the greatest sin is the unlived life.”
Are you living a life that’s truly worth living? Or are you committing what O’Donohue called the “greatest sin?” The choice is up to you.
This is part of a year-long series I’ve entitled “A Year in the Death.” As I discussed in my first entry on January 1, I am going to contemplate and write about death each day of 2021. Some days, my thoughts and writings may be detailed essays. On others, they may be little more than the contemplation of a quote about death or a piece of art representing death or dying. Also, I may not share every daily contemplation with you, reserving my thoughts to my private journal. But I am committed to the practice and invite you to follow along throughout the course of the year.