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The Inner Landscape of Beauty

The Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue was beloved for his book Anam Ċara, Gaelic for "soul friend," and for his insistence on beauty as a human calling. In one of his last interviews before his death in 2008, he articulated a Celtic imagination about how the material and the spiritual — the visible and the invisible — intertwine in human experience. His voice and writings continue to bring ancient mystical wisdom to modern confusions and longings.
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January 26, 2012

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: John O'Donohue was an Irish poet and philosopher beloved for his books, including Anam Ċara, Gaelic for "soul friend," and for his insistence on beauty as a human calling and a defining aspect of God. I sat down with John O'Donohue in our studios in the fall of 2007. Then just a few months later, before our interview could go to air, he died in his sleep at the age of 52. And so this hour of radio has become a remembrance of him. At the same time, John O'Donohue had a very Celtic lifelong fascination with what he called "the invisible world." And he would surely see this as a serendipitous continuation of his life's work of bringing ancient mystical wisdom to modern confusions and longings.

JOHN O'DONOHUE: Beauty isn't all about just nice, loveliness like. Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming. So I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.

MS. TIPPETT: "The Inner Landscape of Beauty," John O'Donohue's vision. I'm Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.

Anam Ċara was published in 1997, and it became an international best-seller. John O'Donohue's final work, a collection of blessings, was published posthumously. He was born in 1956 in County Clare in western Ireland.

(Sound bite of Irish music)

Historically, this part of the world was a crucible of Celtic Christianity, merging a strong sense of mystery with a passionate embrace of nature, the body, and the senses. The divine is understood as manifest everywhere in everything. John O'Donohue entered seminary at a young age and was a Catholic priest for 19 years. But in the 1980s, he went to Germany to study the philosophy of Hegel. He eventually left the priesthood and devoted himself full time to meditating and writing on beauty, friendship, and how the visible and the invisible — the material and the spiritual — intertwine in human experience.

(Sound bite of Irish music)

MS. TIPPETT: Tell me a little bit more about where you come from and what formed you? What began to form you to come to this spiritual perspective and philosophical and poetic perspective that you have now?

MR. O'DONOHUE: Well, I suppose I was blessed by being born into an amazing landscape in the west of Ireland.


MR. O'DONOHUE: And it's the Burren region, which is limestone. And it's a bare limestone landscape. And I often think that the forms of the limestone are so abstract and aesthetic, and it is as if they were all laid down by some wild surrealistic kind of deity. So soon — being a child and coming out into that, it was waiting like a huge wild invitation to extend your imagination. And then it's right on the edge of the ocean as well, and so a conversation — an ancient conversation between the ocean and the stone going on.

MS. TIPPETT: I know that "landscape" is a really pivotal word for you that you use, not just in describing the natural world but an important word in talking about how human beings know themselves and move through the world. I haven't been to precisely the place you are from; but I think the west coast of Scotland, the west coast of Ireland, it is this completely unusual, this wild raw, bleak beauty. But talk to me about how you have come to understand landscape as something that forms each of us.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Well, I think it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house. Whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you. And I think that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination: that landscape wasn't just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape, landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.

MS. TIPPETT: Are you just talking though about landscape as the natural world around us? I'll tell you, I remember a summer I spent a few years after I had first gone to this beautiful, raw, wild edge of Scotland, and I was working with children in a very impoverished inner-city neighborhood. And I would often wish that I could just transport them, you know, for an hour, so that what they saw when they opened their eyes and looked around them was that kind of beauty that opens so much possibility. So I wonder how this Celtic sensibility would also speak to people who don't have that kind of beauty at hand, that kind of beauty.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Yeah, an awful lot of urban planning particularly in poor areas has doubly impoverished the poor by the ugliness which surrounds them. And it's understandable that it is so difficult to reach and sustain gentleness there. And I do think, like, a friend of mine, just in the last week, who was absolutely exhausted in London, just came away down to southern England and spent the week by the slow ocean and she's totally recovered, you know, come back to herself.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Yes.

MR. O'DONOHUE: But I do think though that it's not just a matter of the outer presence of the landscape. I mean, the dawn goes up and the twilight comes even in the most roughest inner-city place. And I think that connecting to the elemental can be a way of coming into rhythm with the universe that's there. And I do think that there is a way in which the outer presence — even through memory or imagination — can be brought inward as a sustaining thing. I mean, I think that — and it's the question of beauty, I mean, you're asking essentially. I mean, I think that as we are speaking, that there are individuals holding out on frontlines, holding the humane tissue alive in areas of ultimate barbarity, where things are visible that the human eye should never see.


MR. O'DONOHUE: And they are able to sustain it, because there is in them some kind of sense of beauty that knows the horizon that we are really called to in some way. I love Pascal's phrase, you know, that you should always "keep something beautiful in your mind." And I have often — like in times when it's been really difficult for me, if you can keep some kind of little contour that you can glimpse sideways at now and again, you can endure great bleakness.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I've been looking back at the thought of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and he has this statement at the beginning of his book The Nature and Destiny of Man, you know, the first line, "Man is his own most vexing problem." Or I think of a great kind of pivotal work in this culture of modern psychology, M. Scott Peck's book, which begins, "Life is difficult." And then I read this line, which begins your book Anam Ċara, which is also a different way of kind of analyzing the human condition: "It's strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you." Talk to me about that as a way of thinking about what it means to be human and how you come to that and what you mean when you write those words.

MR. O'DONOHUE: OK. I mean, when you think about language and you think about consciousness, it's just incredible to think that we can make any sounds that can reach over across to each other at all. Because I mean, I think we're — I think the beauty of being human is that we're incredibly, intimately near each other. We know about each other, but yet we do not know or never can know what it's like inside another person. And it's amazing, you know, here am I sitting in front of you now, looking at your face, you're looking at mine and yet neither of us have ever seen our own faces. And that in some way, thought is the face that we put on the meaning that we feel and that we struggle with and that the world is always larger and more intense and stranger than our best thought will ever reach. And that's the mystery of poetry, you know, is poetry tries to draw alongside the mystery as it's emerging and somehow bring it into presence and into birth.

(Sound bite of Irish music)

MS. TIPPETT: The late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue. Poetry has always had a vital role in Celtic and Irish culture, history, and spirituality. Here's an ancient archetypal poem, the "Song of Amergin." These are some of Ireland's oldest known verses illustrating the Celtic sense of a symbiotic and seamless relationship between the natural and the divine.


I am the wind on the sea;

I am the ocean wave;

I am the sound of the billows;

I am the seven-horned stag;

I am the hawk on the cliff;

I am the dewdrop in sunlight;

I am the fairest of flowers;

I am the raging boar;

I am the salmon in the deep pool;

I am the lake on the plain;

I am the meaning of the poem;

I am the point of the spear;

I am the god that makes fire in the head;

Who levels the mountain?

Who speaks the age of the moon?

Who has been where the sun sleeps?

Who, if not I?

MS. TIPPETT: Find this poem and view images of Connemara, John O'Donohue's home, and other dramatic Irish landscapes of his youth at I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being— conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: "The Inner Landscape of Beauty" — John O'Donohue's Celtic imagination about human life and meaning.

MS. TIPPETT: What do you mean when you write that everyone is an artist?

MR. O'DONOHUE: I mean that everyone is involved whether they like it or not in the construction of their world. So, it's never as given as it actually looks; you are always shaping it and building it. And I feel that from that perspective, that each of us is an artist. Secondly, I believe that everyone has imagination. That no matter how mature and adult and sophisticated a person might seem, that person is still essentially an ex-baby. And as children, we all lived in an imaginal world. You know, when you've been told don't cross that wall, because there's monsters over there, my god, the world you would create on the other side of the wall.


MR. O'DONOHUE: You know, and like when you'd ask questions like why is the sky blue or where does God live or you know all this kind of stuff. Like one of the first times I was coming to America, I said to my little niece, who was seven, I said, "What will I bring you from America?" She said, "Uhhhhh." And her father said, "No, ask him or you won't get anything." And Katy turned to me and said, "What's in it?" (Laughter) Which I thought was a great question about America. So that childlike thing. And secondly, like that, every night when we sleep we dream, and a dream is a sophisticated, imaginative text full of figures and drama that we send to ourselves. So I believe that deep in the heart of each of us, there is this imagining, imaginal capacity that we have. So that we are all doing it.

MS. TIPPETT: And as I read you, I think what you are also saying is that just the act of living, of creating our lives, of growing, moving forward in time is a creative act.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Absolutely, it is a creative act, because …

MS. TIPPETT: That it is a work of art …

MR. O'DONOHUE: That's right, because …

MS. TIPPETT: … to — to elevate, to ennoble — to give ennobling words to something we are doing.

MR. O'DONOHUE: That's right, because the amazing thing about us, I mean, this is — we are so strange and we lose sight actually of how strange we are. I mean, I'm always amazed that you never meet a human — you meet humans looking for all kinds of things. And you never meet a human and you say to them, "What are you looking for on this day?" "I'm looking for yesterday. Where did yesterday go to?" We just take it that it goes into nothingness. And that's on one side. The other thing of course is that we have no idea what will land on the shoreline of morning tomorrow. So that we are always actively involved in receiving and shaping, you know?

MS. TIPPETT: You wrote about time: "Possibility is the secret heart of time. On its outer surface time is vulnerable to transience. In its deeper heart, time is transfiguration." I wonder how you are able to have — I don't know, I think a larger sense of time, because of — as an inheritor of — the Celtic tradition. I have this …

MR. O'DONOHUE: Yeah, I think that's a bit of it, you know? That old Celtic thing, because, I mean, there is in Ireland, like, still even though it's getting consumerized so fast. There is still in the west of Ireland, where I live, a sense of time, you know? That there's time for things.


MR. O'DONOHUE: And that when God made time, he made plenty of it, and all the rest of it. And you see, I think that one of the huge difficulties in modern life is the way time has become the enemy.

MS. TIPPETT: Time is a bully. We're captive to it.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Totally, and I'd say seven out of every 10 people who turn up in a doctor's surgery are suffering from something stress-related. Now, there are big psychological tomes written on stress. But for me, philosophically, stress is a perverted relationship to time. So that rather than being a subject of your own time, you have become its target and victim, and time has become routine. So at the end of the day, you probably haven't had a true moment for yourself. And you know, to relax in and to just be. Because, you know, the way in this country — there's all the different zones. I think there are these zones within us as well. There's surface time, which is really a rapid-fire Ferrari time.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and over-structured.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Yeah, over-structured, like, and stolen from you, thieved all the time. And then if you sit down, like, Dan Siegel, my friend, does this lovely meditation, you know: You imagine the surface of the ocean is all restless and then you slip down deep below the surface where it's still and where things move slower. And what I love in this regard is my old friend Meister Eckhart, 14th-century mystic.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. German mystic.

MR. O'DONOHUE: German mystic. And one day I read in him and he said, "There is a place in the soul — there is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch." And I really thought that was amazing, and if you cash it out, what it means is, that in — that your identity is not equivalent to your biography. And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there's still a sureness in you, where there's a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.

(Sound bite of Irish music)

MS. TIPPETT: John O'Donohue. Here's a reading from his book Anam Ċara.

READER: In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam ċara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and ċara is the word for friend. … In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam Ċara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam ċara you could share your innermost self, your mind, and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. … In everyone's life there is great need for an anam ċara, a soul friend, in this love you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. Where you are understood, you are at home.

(Sound bite of Irish music)

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think a lot about how in Western culture, and the United States culture, really important words get watered down and almost ruined and yet we still need them, and "love" is one of those words. And "friendship," I think, may also be a word in which we haven't — we struggle to — to not let our definition of that become impoverished. And you know just to bring this to a very practical level, some of the things we wring our hands about in our public life, like the disintegration of marriages, you know, the kind of crisis of relationship. And then implications of that, like how do we raise our children to know what commitment is? And I actually think an impoverished sense of love and of friendship complicates that. You know, I'm asking you this as a philosopher and I think as a wise person. I mean, are we less capable of love and commitment and relationship in a mature sense, you know, in our time than previous generations were? Or is this just a human dilemma that has different details in our time?

MR. O'DONOHUE: I don't think we're less capable at all. I think we're more unpracticed at it and therefore more desperate for it. And I think it's a matter of attention really, just attention. That if you realize how vital to your whole spirit — and being and character and mind and health — friendship actually is, you will take time for it, you know? And the trouble is though for so many of us is that we have to be in trouble before we remember what's essential. And sometimes it's one of the lonelinesses of humans is that you hold on desperately to things that make you miserable and that sometimes you only realize what you have when you're almost about to lose it.

So, I think that it would be great to step back a little from one's life and see around one who are those that hold me dear, that truly see me, and those that I need, and to be able to go to them in a different way. Because the amazing thing about humans is we have immense capacity to reawaken in each other the profound ability to be with each other and to be intimate. That's one of the things I've always thought here is that, you know, there is loneliness here that is covered over by this fake language of intimacy that you meet everywhere.


MR. O'DONOHUE: And that doesn't have — you know, everybody will say, "Have a nice day" to you and, you know, you can imagine if you went — turned back to them and said, "God, I really wonder if I'll have a nice day or what the day will be like," things could get complicated very suddenly, you know? And I think this is one of the key things in parenting and the difficulty of raising children in a very, very fast-moving culture that again it's the difficulty of creating a space where children can actually unfold and where they can be truly accompanied in their journey. Because I think young kids now in adolescence are going through huge, huge question zones that when we were young we didn't go through. And sometimes it's very lonesome to watch how distant parents feel from them, because of their incapacity to somehow hold conversations with them that really need to happen.

MS. TIPPETT: I think something else that's connected to all of this that we're not very self-aware about in this culture is the connection between our interior lives and our exterior appearance, not just physical appearance, but how we conduct our lives in the light of other — of expectations, and I think that is something that you write about again that we just aren't attentive towards.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Yeah, I feel like in the book I wrote on beauty, I was trying to say that one of the huge confusions in our times is to mistake glamour for beauty.


MR. O'DONOHUE: And we do live in a culture which is very addicted to the image, and I think that there is always an uncanny symmetry between the way you are inward with yourself and the way you are outward. And I feel that there is an evacuation of interiority going on in our times. And that we need to draw back inside ourselves and that we'll find immense resources there.

MS. TIPPETT: When you say symmetry, I don't think you mean that — that there's an equality, but that they are intimately connected.

MR. O'DONOHUE: They're intimately — yeah that's precisely, yep.

MS. TIPPETT: We're putting our energy outward; it's taking something from inside us.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Right. It's taking something — exactly that's exactly what I mean. That it's taking something from inside and we're secretly debilitating ourselves. And, you know, it's understandable too. Because if you look at the educational system and you look at most of the public fora in our culture, there is very little time or attention given to what you could almost call learning the art of inwardness or a pedagogy of interiority.


MR. O'DONOHUE: That's why I find the aesthetic things like poetry, fiction, good film, theater, drama, dance, and music actually awaken that inside you, you know? And remind you that there is a huge interiority within you. Like, for instance when I came in to New York last Thursday evening and checked into the hotel, I found out that there was a Tchaikovsky concert on in Lincoln center. And I went over there and I got a ticket, like one of the last tickets, which was two rows in the front, and I'd never been so near an orchestra. And I said, "My god, I'm too near." Then I watched them, and all the rest of it. But I knew, why I was given the ticket then, at the end, because it was Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, and Lorin Maazel came out to conduct it. And then this beautiful violinist, Janine Jansen, a Dutch violinist, it was her debut in New York. And she played this, it was just unbelievable. I cried. Like, after the first movement, people spontaneously stood up and went to give her a standing ovation, and she just held it. And we all went back again into our seats. And then at the end, people were just blown away, because an event, an aesthetic event had happened.

This is a complicated piece of music everywhere — she was playing a Stradivarius from 1727. Everywhere she went on this violin she got exactly what she was looking for, she held it and Maazel was so sovereign and so — you know like a huge patriarch. And three or four times — I was up close enough to see them — he looked at her with a wistful, proud gentleness of a grandfather. And there was this woman, this beautiful slim body, and you could almost see the music hurting her even when she wasn't playing. So it was a huge, and like everybody — and there were hardened New York critics there — but everybody was so touched. And I think that's the magnificence of beauty, is that even in landscapes of control, corrugated categories that you can be swept off your feet by just beauty.

(Sound bite of "Swan Lake")

MS. TIPPETT: The late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue. This is the Dutch violinist he just mentioned, Janine Jansen, playing another piece by Tchaikovsky, "Swan Lake."

(Sound bite of "Swan Lake")

MS. TIPPETT: Hear this piece again at While researching the music for this show, we serendipitously found a video of Gaelic singing in the "old style" — a musical form called sean-nos. You can hear the arresting voice of Iarla Ó Lionáird, front man for the band Afro Celt Sound System, singing in a pub.

(Sound bite of Iarla Ó Lionáird singing)

Find links at

(Sound bite of music)

Coming up, where soul and beauty might fit into modern work — and the unusual emotional power of Celtic music. "Music," John O'Donohue said, "is what language would love to be if it could." I'm Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.

(Sound bite of music)

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today: "The Inner Landscape of Beauty" — with the late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue. I interviewed him just before his death in 2008.

(Sound bite of music)

We've been talking about beauty, a topic which ran through much of his writing. The human soul does not merely hunger for beauty, John O'Donohue believed; we feel most alive in the presence of what is beautiful. It returns us often in fleeting but sustaining moments, he said, to our highest selves. And a neglect of beauty, he believed, is at the heart of our deepest modern crises.

MR. O'DONOHUE: I think that beauty is not a luxury, but I think that it ennobles the heart and reminds us of the infinity that is within us. I always loved what Mandela said when he came out, and I was actually in his cell in Robben Island, one time I was in South Africa. Even after 27 years in confinement for something he never — for wrong you never committed, he turned himself into a huge priest and come out with this sentence where he said, "You know that what we are afraid of is not so much our limitations but the infinite within us." And I think that that is in everybody. And I suppose the question that's at the heart of all we've been discussing really, which is a beautiful question, is the question of God, you know?

And I think that one of the reasons that so many people turn away from religion in our times is that the God question has died for them, because the question has been framed in such repetitive dead language. And I think it's the exciting question, once you awaken to the presence of God.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, you have said, you write, "God is Beauty."

MR. O'DONOHUE: Yeah, I — I, yeah, I have, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Did you always feel this? Is that something — is that a sense that has grown in you or something that you name now?

MR. O'DONOHUE: It's a sense that has grown in me, I suppose, that I've always kind of had the intuition about it, because I feel that there are two ways that you must always keep together in approaching the God thing. One is, and this is what I like about the Christian tradition — and this is where I diverge a little from the Buddhist tradition even though I love Buddhism as a methodology to clean up the mind and get you into purity of presence. What I love is that at the heart of Christianity, you have this idea of intimacy, which is true belonging, being seen, the ultimate home of individuation, the ultimate source of it and the homecoming.

That's what I call spirituality, the art of homecoming. So it's St. Augustine's phrase, like, "Deus intimior intimo meo" — "God is more intimate to me than I am to myself." Then you go to Meister Eckhart, and you get the other side of it, which you must always keep together with it, where in Middle High German, he says, "Gott wirt und Gott entwirt" — that means, "God becomes and God unbecomes," or translated it means that God is only our name for it, and the closer we get to it the more it ceases to be God. So then you are on a real safari with the wildness and danger and otherness of God.


MR. O'DONOHUE: And I think when you begin to get a sense of the depth that is there then your whole heart wakens up. You know, I mean, I love Irenaeus' thing from the second century, which said, the Glory of the human being — "The glory of God is the human being fully alive." And I think in our culture that one of the things that we are missing is that these thresholds where we can encounter this, and where we move into new change in our lives, there are no rituals to help us to recognize them or to cross them worthily.

MS. TIPPETT: And you know threshold is a word you use a great deal in your book on beauty as well.

MR. O'DONOHUE: It is, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And what is that relationship between beauty and thresholds?

MR. O'DONOHUE: Well, I think that the threshold, if you go back to the etymology of the word "threshold," it comes from "threshing," which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness. And I think there are huge thresholds in every life. I mean, I think, you know that, for instance, I'd like to give a very simple example of it is, that if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, 50 things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love is suddenly dying. Takes 10 seconds to communicate that information, but when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Because suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative. And I think a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and I think that very often how we cross is the key thing.

MS. TIPPETT: And where is — where is beauty in that?

MR. O'DONOHUE: Where beauty is — I think is beauty — beauty isn't all about just nice, loveliness like. Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming. And I think when we cross a new threshold that if we cross worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere. And in our crossing then we cross on to new ground where we just don't repeat what we've been through in the last place we were. So I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.

MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you, I think we're right — when we began to talk about beauty, you rightly said that in this culture we tend to associate beauty with glamour. And I think if you just mention the word, if you just threw it into a commonplace conversation, someone might just think of a beautiful face, of a famous beautiful face, right? I want to ask you, and want you — when you think of the word "beauty," what pictures come into your mind?

MR. O'DONOHUE: When I think of the word "beauty," some of the faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me, by people that cared for me, in bleak unsheltered times or when I needed to be loved and minded. I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes for me, who you never hear about, who hold out on lines — on frontiers of awful want and awful situations and manage somehow to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility and imagination and seeing. I also think — always when I think of beauty — because it's so beautiful for me — is I think of music. I love music. I think music is just it. I mean, I think that's — I love poetry as well, of course, and I think of beauty in poetry. But I always think that music is what language would love to be if it could, you know? And …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I have to say that I discovered Celtic music, you know, after going to that part of the world, Scotland especially. And Celtic music for me has this completely, you can say this about Beethoven as well, but in a very particular way, it seems to express the greatest joy and also the deepest sorrow, almost indistinguishable from each other and yet both with a kind of healing force. I — can't even put words around what …

MR. O'DONOHUE: That's beautiful what you've said though, because I think there is that. One of the things I'm always amazed about Irish music, for instance, is how in some way the lines of the landscape find their way into the music, the memory of the landscape almost, the memory of the people too. And that in some sense despite the sorrow that we've endured, and I mean Ireland — it's not fashionable to say it now, Ireland has hundreds of years of an awful history of suffering.

MS. TIPPETT: And I feel that you hear that in the music of Ireland.

MR. O'DONOHUE: You hear it in the music, you do.

MS. TIPPETT: Even in …

MR. O'DONOHUE: Even in the fast music and the light, gay music.

MS. TIPPETT: … the celebratory — Yes. Yes.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Yeah, you do. Yeah, you do. You hear it there; you hear the undertones and the quiet spaces where the echo of this hauntedness comes through.

(Sound bite of Irish music)

MS. TIPPETT: And yet it is absolutely linked with — see joy doesn't even do it either with this.

MR. O'DONOHUE: It doesn't.

MS. TIPPETT: Exuberance.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Yeah, there's an exuberance or a vitality.


MR. O'DONOHUE: There's some kind of vitality. And I know friends of mine, who play you know, and when they play they're unreachable, you can't find them, you know? They're totally — they're serving the music. They're just in another place.

(Sound bite of Gaelic singing)

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett with On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: "The Inner Landscape of Beauty." In the last years of his life, John O'Donohue became a well-known speaker on leadership and creativity in the corporate sector. He consulted with executives on integrating a sense of the soul and of beauty into their leadership and their imagination about the people with whom they work.

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MS. TIPPETT: I would like to hear about the work you do in corporations and workplaces. It seems to me in a strange way some of the most — the greatest intimacy and community we have or fail to have is with our colleagues at work. And because we spend so much time at work and it so defines us, you know, our souls — the light and darkness of our souls is on display at work. And yet there's a real question about how do we honor that sort of in ourselves and in others and remain professional. I don't know if that's what you get at in your work with corporations, but that's kind of on my mind.

MR. O'DONOHUE: I think you are right. I mean, we spend over one-third of our lives actually in the workplace, and one of the loneliest things you can find is somebody who is in the wrong kind of work, who shouldn't be doing what they are doing but should be doing something else and haven't the courage to get up and leave it and make a new possibility for themselves. But it's lovely when you find someone at work who's doing exactly what they dreamed they should be doing and whose work is an expression of their inner gift. And in witnessing to that gift and in bringing it out they actually provide an incredible service to us all. And I think you see that the gifts that are given to us as individuals are not for us alone, or for our own self-improvement, but they are actually for the community and to be offered. And I think this is where leadership comes in at work. And that's why I think good, wise leadership will be attuned to the vitality of a true ethos and helping to establish it.

MS. TIPPETT: And are you finding that there is great interest and curiosity and willingness to have this new kind of imagination in workplaces.

MR. O'DONOHUE: I really think — yeah, I really think there is, because I think in most workplaces there is huge imagination anyway but it's usually practical imagination. There's dedication to productivity and looking at the bottom line. And I think then when they stand back a little and see that the spirit and soul dimensions are not kind of luxury items but are actually the very origins and sources which will enable everything to flow and unfold in a new way, that then they realize that the invisible world is a secret hidden resource that can be released and excavated for the huge resources of spirit, guidance, for areas of ourselves that we've forgotten.

MS. TIPPETT: It was actually in your book that I first realized, and I had never thought about this, that the root — the Greek root for the word "beauty" is related to the word for calling.

MR. O'DONOHUE: That's right.

MS. TIPPETT: Kalon, kalein.

MR. O'DONOHUE: That's it exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: That's fascinating.

MR. O'DONOHUE: It is actually. And it means that actually in the presence of beauty. It's not a neutral thing, but it's actually calling you, you know? And I feel that one could write a wonderful psychology just based on the notion of being called, you know, being called to be yourself and called to transfigure what has hardened or got wounded with in you. And it's also, of course, the heart of creativity this calling forth all the time, because like in the work that I do trying to write a few poems, you never write the same poem twice. You know, you are always at a new place. And then you're — you're suddenly surprised by where you get taken to, you know?

MS. TIPPETT: But if we think, as you've suggested, as beauty as relevant to some of the most troubling problems in our world and in ourselves, you know, how do we pursue that calling, given the limitations, given that a lot of what is around us is not visibly, objectively beautiful and may not be?

MR. O'DONOHUE: Absolutely, and that's a very fair question. And you know it's like in old notions of growth and development, there was always this idea, as Noel Hanlon, a poet friend of mine says, you know, in a poem about her daughter, "Like me you needed something to push against" — that somehow we needed something to push against in order to grow. Now there is almost a feeling like as that growth should be delivered to us. And I think that from the way you state it is that it's a recognition. That there is this dialectic there, that around us the forces are not kind in terms of either recognizing, awakening, or encouraging beauty, but that actually, they should be the impetus and spur to do it. Now how do we do it?

One way, and I think this is a really lovely way, and I think it's an interesting question to ask oneself too, you know? And the question is when is the last time that you had a great conversation, a conversation which wasn't just two intersecting monologues, which is what passes for conversation a lot in this culture. But when had you last a great conversation, in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew. That you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost and a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you on to a different plane. And then fourthly, a conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks afterwards, you know? And I've — I've had some of them recently, and it's just absolutely amazing, like, as we would say at home, they are food and drink for the soul, you know?

Second thing, I think a question to always, ask oneself, who are you reading? Who are you reading? And where are you stretching your own boundaries? Are you repetitive in that? And you know, one of the first books I read as a child — we had no books at home, but a neighbor of ours had all these books and he brought loads of books, that's how I ruined my eyes and I have to wear glasses. But one of the first books I read was a book by Willie Sutton, the bank robber, who was doing 30 years for robbing banks. And in the book somebody asked Willie, and they said, "Willie why do you rob banks?" And Willie said, "'Cause that's where the money is." And you know, why do we read books, 'cause that's where the wisdom is.

So like, my professors in colleges used to always say, you know, if you were doing an essay or doing a thesis, you know, the first thing you have to do is read the primary sources and trust your own encounter with them before you go to the secondary literature. And I'd say to anybody who is listening to us, who is interested in spirituality and who is maybe being coaxed a little away from believing it's all a naive, doomed, illusion-ridden thing, pick up something like Meister Eckhart or some one of the mystics and just have a look at it, and you can be surprised what an exciting adventure and homecoming it could become.

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MS. TIPPETT: John O'Donohue died in his sleep on January 3rd, 2008, at the age of 52. This was one of the last interviews he gave. His books include Anam Ċara and Beauty. His final work, which was published posthumously, is called To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.

And here in closing, is one of his well-known poems of blessing, which he wrote for his mother at the time of his father's death. He read it aloud to me when we sat together.

MR. O'DONOHUE: This is a poem I wrote several years ago, and it's called, Beannacht, which is the Gaelic word for blessing.

On the day when

The weight deadens

On your shoulders

And you stumble,

May the clay dance

To balance you.

And when your eyes

Freeze behind

The grey window

And the ghost of loss

Gets in to you,

May a flock of colours,

Indigo, red, green,

And azure blue

Come to awaken in you

A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays

In the currach 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.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,

May the clarity of light be yours,

May the fluency of the ocean be yours,

May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow

Wind work these words

Of love around you,

An invisible cloak

To mind your life.

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MS. TIPPETT: We've woven John O'Donohue's reading of Beannacht together with his friend's photographs of the Connemara landscapes he loved. Take that in at There you can also find links to our blog, where I wrote about a visit I made to Ireland. I was recalled then to John O'Donohue's observation that a defining quality of beauty is how we feel more alive in its presence. My original conversation with him unfolded over two hours. He spoke at length about the hidden possibilities within words and his Celtic sense of the invisible world. He also recited seven other poems that we weren't able to include in this final broadcast. They include, "A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness" and "A Blessing for One Who Holds Power." You can automatically get these poems as free MP3s by subscribing to our podcast. Look for the "PODCAST" button at the top of our home page at And as always, be sure to "like" us on our Facebook page at And follow us on Twitter; our handle: @Beingtweets.

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This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer. Kate Moos is a consulting editor.

Special thanks this week to Linda Alvarez.

Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I'm Krista Tippett.

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MS. TIPPETT: Next time: an innovator in the emerging field of "public history." History has become a newly favored backdrop for blockbuster novels and movies; and interpretations of history complicate our present political divisions. Tiya Miles' work is about making forgotten history useful to our common life — stretching the canvas of the past wide enough that it deepens both hard truths and healing.

TIYA MILES: If I didn't see light in the story, I could not tell it — because that's why I'm doing this work. I'm doing this work to try to contribute something that can move us toward healing, you know, across and among communities that have experienced such divisiveness. And how can we lean on what we know about the past to reach toward a more positive future?

MS. TIPPETT: Please join us next time. This is APM, American Public Media.