The Common Good

Enduring Works of Beauty


I would love to live as a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.

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The Irish writer, priest, and environmental activist, and my beloved friend - John O'Donohue - died unexpectedly and peacefully in the early hours of Friday, Jan. 4, 2008. His witness to peace, his work on the human heart, and his actions for justice make him someone that I want to introduce to readers of this blog who may not already know him.

John's work on retrieving the earthiness of celtic spirituality and helping make sense of it in a postmodern world is so profound that its impact has not yet been fully felt, and it represents something rare in a consumerist culture: a work of art that will outlast its author. He knew that work for justice and peace in the world depends on the inner work we must do to allow our own souls not to become corroded by whatever wounds we have sustained on our journeys.

What many may not know is that in addition to his ministry in the Catholic priesthood, and latterly as a writer and speaker, he was a serious environmental activist, helping to spearhead a small group that successfully prevented the despoilment of the Burren, one of Ireland's most stunning natural landscapes. He put his reputation on the line to save something worth preserving, even being prepared to go to prison to do so; and through building community consensus and taking on the powers that be, won an astonishing David and Goliath victory that resulted in substantial change to Irish law and politics.

John knew that we live in the intersection of the sacred and the profane, and he wanted to nudge us in the direction of understanding that holiness has more to do with being aware of the light around us, and living lives that honour it, than moral puritanism. In the introduction to his book To Bless the Space Between Us, to be published in March, he writes of how, in any given day, some of us humans will experience the shock of being told of the sudden death of a friend. John wanted us to be tender to the fact that the faces of strangers we meet every day all hide secrets that are both divine and tragic. We do not always know who among us is suffering some unnameable torment, nor who is rejoicing at the blessing of a lifetime.

In his activism, as well as his writing and speaking, and most of all, in his life, he wanted people to have shelter from the storms their lives would bring. To those of us privileged to know him, he showed love and friendship of a rare sort; he was the kind of spiritual teacher who revealed mysteries that most of us can't see; he truly lived a life to the full. And at the beginning of this year, which brings the 40th anniversary of the deaths of three other men who sought to embody an extraordinary kind of leadership

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