“It’s an old-fashioned thing to say, but I think that occasions of fear are invitations for freedom and for courage.”
It was just before Thanksgiving in 2017 and I was scared. The enormity of the decision I had just made – to leave behind 5 years worth of memories, friendships, and professional networks on the opposite side of the country to move home and run for office – was finally hitting home. I was lonely and afraid. So I decided to drive down to Durham to meet up with a close high school friend I hadn’t seen in a long, long time. After a couple of beers, I confessed my anxiousness. She recommended a lecture by an Irish thinker named John O’Donohue, specifically “Love is the Only Antidote to Fear”. The words hit me like a thunderbolt. Ever since then, whenever I am weighing the pros and cons of a big decision, I make sure to re-listen to this talk.
These are confusing, chaotic, and uncertain times. It is natural to be afraid. I hope this lecture provides some level of comfort to you, just as it has for me throughout the years.
NB: I highly, highly recommend listening to this talk. You can find the link here. O’Donohue is a noted lecturer for a reason, and it’s clear when you hear his highly conversational style in a Celtic lilt that those skills were honed at a lecturn during his years as a parish priest. However, if you prefer to read the text, I have transcribed it below.
Love is the Only Antidote to Fear
This text has been lightly edited to improve the flow while reading. I fed the recording through Descript to generate the original transcript, and then attempted to manually clean it up as I best I could. Transcription errors may remain. If you have suggestions or corrections, please email me.
Something that everyone has in common is the experience of fear, and the power of the presence of fear. There is no one that could say that they’re not afraid of something. Fear is present in every heart, and science and cultural studies show us that we’re right to be afraid to a level of about 10% in our experience that that corresponds with what’s actually the situation, but that 90% of the fear that we have is unreal. And that’s the haunting loneliness and incredible wastage of what fear does to the human heart.
Fear is the greatest trickster of all. It makes what is real seem unreal and it makes the unreal, real. I always think from nature that the most telling image to correspond to fear is fog. If you’ve ever been out in the mountains and you’ve got caught in fog, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Several years ago, in the mountains at home in the west of Ireland that I know very well, I brought a friend from Manchester for a day on the mountains. And about two hours up in the mountains, the fog came down. I know these mountains really well and we kept going because I told her that I knew where I was going. And about four hours later, we found ourselves exactly back in the place where we were on the fog came down, not knowing where we were. Eventually we got down off the mountains because I was able to hear the ocean and we went in that direction. But that’s what fear does. And your normal experience is that it inflates things and makes something that’s fairly small very, very huge.
Some years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who is into psychology and psychotherapy about fear. He said that something that he found very helpful when he was afraid was to hold on to one question and stick with it. And the question is to ask yourself, “What is it, exactly, that I’m afraid of?” If you hold to this question, gradually what seems huge and amorphous and beyond your control begins to shrink right down to one moment, one thing that you can actually deal with and handle.
Part of the reason that fear has such power over us is we are vulnerable, and fear draws great strength from time. If you wake up one Monday morning and you realize that on the next Friday that you have something horrible waiting for you, the chances are that your days on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday will be totally shadowed by the threat of Friday, and you waste four lovely days because the fear of what’s waiting for you robs you of the beauty of the days that you have. Something that I try to do myself when I’m afraid is to sit myself down, and on an empty chair opposite me I’d imagine the thing (or person or situation or whatever) that I was afraid of. Then I’d say to myself, “Let’s do it now. Instead of being miserable about it, let’s have a blast at it.” And then I would imagine, I’d say to myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen in this situation?” And I’d think about it until I realize what the worst thing was and then I would force myself to imagine all the elements of the worst aspect of it. And then by the time the situation actually arrives, it isn’t too bad at all. You’ll be incredibly relieved cause it’s never as bad as you thought!
One of the questions that’s always haunted me is what is the origin of fear? Why are humans afraid? One of the reasons is that the place we live in the world is in this clay tent of the human body. And it’s a very vulnerable old tent. Because once you’re in a body, you’re always somewhere. You can never successfully hide and you can always be gotten to. You know, like in some of these mafia films, when they go off for a while but somebody always turns up nearly and gets to them? It’s the same thing, but in a human life.
The other thing is that the way that we interpret the world is an incredibly painful and broken and tender way through birth, which was separation. And I always think that humans are really able for anything after successfully coming through the trauma of being born. Because it was loss, separation, alienation. I mean, I often think that’s an image I often use for myself in relation to death. Maybe we have death all wrong because we always think of it as an ending, as closure. A quenching. But say you turn it the other way around. Say you conducted an interview with the baby in the womb before it was born. And say was a real “with it” baby, the kind that wanted to know what’s going down and you said:
“Okay, baby, you asked for it. You’re going to get it. Here’s the story. In a half an hour you will be expelled from the shelter of the womb where you have emerged and been formed. Secondly, you will come out along a passage (and we all did this) where you will feel that every moment you’re being smothered. Thirdly, you will arrive out into a huge vacancy, probably with merciless light in it. Fourthly, the cord that connects you to the mother heart will be cut. Fifthly, regardless of how close you ever come to anyone in your life afterwards, you will always be on your own. Sixthly, you’re going on a journey for which there is no map. And seventhly, you can’t turn back and eighth, anything can happen to you on the journey.” Now, if the baby was still breathing at that stage, it would have to conclude, “Jesus, things were really nice and good here and now it looks like I’m going to die,” when in actual fact what’s happening is that has been born. And my suspicion in relation to death is that we only see all the destructive side of it, and that possibly, (I’ll address this bit tomorrow and my talk on beauty), that what’s happening actually in death is that we’re being born again. This time, in a way that the loneliness of space and time no longer has a hold over us.
But I think that if you were to ask, “What is the root of all fear?” the root of all fear is in the fear of death. And I have an old suspicion that if you sort out your fear of death as the worst thing – not something that just might happen to you but that IS going to happen to you – then you remove the soil and the nutrient that nourishes your normal fears.
I used to be very afraid of dying for a long time in my life. And then I became a Roman Catholic priest. And in my years as a priest, one of the immense privileges was to help people to die. And early on in my priesthood there was this woman that I knew. She was a lovely woman, 27 years old. She was a traveler, one of the gypsy people, and she had two children and she was pregnant with a third child when she got leukemia. She was being treated for it though, and it seemed to be working. I was visiting her once a week, and one evening I went in to see her and I was going to give her a hug and she said, “Don’t hug me, I’m bleeding.” And it turned out that the treatment wasn’t working. About four nights later, in the middle of the night, there was a knock at the door of my house. Her family was there and they said, “We’ve got news from the hospital that she’s really bad and we need to go in.” So I talked to the father and mother, and then they all came with their vans and we all went into the hospital. And as soon as I came in the hospital door, I saw the young woman on all these machines and tubes and everything. And she looked up at me, the poor pet, and she said, “Am I going to die?” And I said, “I don’t know whether you’re going to die or not. But when I do, I will tell you.” She said, “Okay.” So then everybody arrived and all the rest of it, and about 4:15 in the morning, she said to me, “Will you open the window?” And something told me that she was going to die. So I went out and I met the house doctor who was on duty and I said, “What’s the story here?” He said, “At 7:30, we are going to bring our downstairs and try one more procedure. But, in actual fact, we expect her to be dead by 10.” So I went back into the room and I said that I wanted some time on my own with her. All the family left and I sat down. I took her hand.
“You’re going to die,” is one of the most awful sentences any human being can ever hear, no matter how sick you are. Sometimes we think when people are sick that they know what’s coming, but they don’t. Because language is an incredible presence. There are some words that are said that are like engraving on stone. You can never unengrave them again. I took her hand and I said to her, “You’re going to die.” And she went into absolute blue panic. Her whole body froze and she was terrified. And now I am a raconteur but, by Christ, I prayed. I prayed and prayed that I’d get the words for her. I think that accompanying a person into death is actually, if you’re any good at it, about making a raft of words to help the person to the other shore. So, because I knew her well, and I knew a lot of her memories, I was able to go back and back with her. I told her that she was going home, that there would be a smile on the face of God as she was welcomed because she was so tenderly and intimately known. That she would not be separating from her husband and her children, but would be close to them. That she’d always be able to help them. And I knew all the goodness of her, and I taught her all of that and prayed with her. And within about 20 minutes – this is what took away all my fear of death and all forever after – within about 20 minutes, the panic turned into palpable, tangible serenity. Complete serenity. She was like somebody that was after hours of meditation. She was just in this lovely still space and there were gentle waves coming off her, and I knew she’d broken through completely. And I said to her, “You have to do one of the toughest things that you ever did in your life now, which is to say goodbye to every member of your family. I’ll send them in one by one to you.” I went out and I collected them and I said, “Here’s the story. Go in, try not to be emotional, but think of her. Speak to her now and say what you’d love to say to her because you will never have a chance again. And tell her what she meant to you.” They went in and they looked after her. They came out in bits, but we looked after them then. But after the end, the doctor was right. She was dead by 10 o’clock. On a deathbed, I saw pure terror and panic, fear at the most intense level, transform into serenity. And after that, I did a bit of all work on my own attitude to death. And I took an awful lot of the old gravity and fear out of it. And then that informs your life with courage and with a bit of inspiration and a bit of brightness. When you’re afraid, you see it. There’s no such thing as abstract fear. When you’re afraid, your body knows it straight away, it clinches up and gets really tight. And the shelter has gone and you know that anything can happen to you. This is the situation of so many people in our world. It’s just unbelievable. We live such a privileged existence that we have no idea how lucky we are. And that’s one of the things that has always troubled me is this: why can we have such a great old time in the world? We have our troubles too, but compared to the horror that others endure, it’s nothing. I’ve thought a lot about this question. I’ve read everything I can read on it, and I don’t know what the answer is, why it is so that some beautiful ones must carry the loneliest, most haunted cross, that trips them 10 times a day, and why others have wings and go through beautifully. But I do know that because so much has been given to us, that the duty of privilege is absolute integrity. And that we are meant to share and give to those who have very little. Cause that’s what we’ll be asked about again.
The other brief thing about fear is that it’s incredibly actual when it happens. In other words, we believe that the world is solid and grounded and that’s the way things are. You know people who are totally into fact, everything is so solid around them – really solid, respectable kinds of people. And yet, the whole thing is so absolutely contingent! Anything can happen from one moment to the next. There are people who got up this morning, bedded into the lives they’ve had for 50 or 60 years up to now, completely expecting today to be like any other day, and maybe at 10 or 11 o’clock this morning, they got some news, which they will never forget and which changed their lives completely.
So the thing about the world is that absolutely anything can come. If you’ve ever had the experience of being involved in your life, completely focused on what you’re doing, when the next thing you know you get a phone call to say that somebody really close to you has just been taken seriously ill. The news on the phone takes about 30 seconds to receive, but when you leave that receiver down, you’re not standing in the same world as you were before you took it up because everything has changed with the news. Even mountains are only suspended on strings. And that’s why one of the greatest dreams of the human heart is to become free and not to live in fear, but to live in freedom.
Like the poet Carpenter said, “You’re meant to have the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.” And he was so lovely about that, and he went through awful fear. You know, one of the great things that I love about Christianity is that God was willing to come down into the clay and the mud and take the full hit of human fragility. And that thing in the garden of Gethsemane, that was the abyss in itself. And then the crucifixion! The silence of God on Good Friday is the most deafening thing there is. I mean, it’s amazing. But the best story that I know about overcoming fear, about fear, is an old story from India, and it’s a banal little story. But it has a great old moral.
It’s a story of a man who was condemned to spend a night in a cell with a snake. And it wasn’t a kind of, you know, benevolent, happy, integrated, therapied snake. It was a real kind of vicious, “I’m-going-to-get-you” kind of snake. “I am a hungry snake and I will kill because I believe that you should be reincarnated now!” sort of thing. So the man was in the corner of the cell and the snake was in the other corner. All during the night, he barely dared to breathe for fear of alerting the snake. And sure enough, as the first light of morning began to come through the bars of the cells, he could make out the shape of the snake and he said to himself. “God, wasn’t I lucky that I didn’t stir or I would have been just zapped.” But then when the full flood of light came in from the morning, he saw that it wasn’t a snake at all, but an old rope in the corner of the cell. It’s a banal, childish story but the moral is a good one: around the rooms of our heart there are harmless old ropes lying on the floors. Our fear starts to work on them and turns them into monsters, which keep us imprisoned in the most impoverished places in our lives.
I was a priest for 19 years and I’ve always been interested in spiritual stuff and talking to humanoids about it and everything. And one of the things that has always saddened me is people’s inability to realize and become aware of their happiness. I live in a village in Connemara and one of my neighbors one day was bringing sheep out to the mountain. He called to me on the way back and he came out with what I thought was a really cool question. He said, “Do you think that you could be happy without knowing it?” And I said, “Geez, I love the question! I suppose you could, you know?” Sometimes you’ll see people, and on their table (the Good Book talks about how “I will prepare a feast of delights for your table of delights”) would be most of what they’ve dreamed of in terms of their gifts, in terms of their health, in terms of the love that’s around them, in terms of the old adventure and danger of a good old passionate relationship. All they have to do is just look and yet they’d be miserable. I always think this is the worst-case scenario, to have the whole lot of it and to not realize it at all. Then perhaps later in life, to go through the bleak valley and lose an awful lot while looking back longingly and hauntingly at that time that you’re now living and say, “Jesus, I was so happy then if I had only allowed myself to enjoy it.”
I often think that one of the things that must drive God crazy is the way we misuse our freedom and then do that cool little trick that we do where we say, “I mean, I am miserable, but it’s the will of God.” God’s having a Campari up in some kind of corner of the divine lounge saying, “Jesus, they’ll never get it. D’yunno what I mean? They just don’t get it. And to blame me in the end, that’s just so cruel!” There’s a lovely line from a prophet where God says, “You have sown so much but reaped so little.” And the thing that saddens me about humans is how in the midst of abundance they force themselves to live like paupers, with all the misery of not being able to inherit or receive the feast of delights that’s been offered. If you love someone and if some special occasion is coming up for them, and if you put loads of work into thinking of a present for them, and you’re thinking, “what would you like?” and da da, da, “she hasn’t that…” da, da, da, da, da, and you give the gift and you never see it worn or used or heard you’ll say to yourself, “Geez, I really hit that one wrong.” And to think of all that we’ve been given and how we waste and squander the precious time that we’ve had, that we have and how we postpone the dreams of our hearts.
One of the reasons we do is fear of failure. Our fear of disappointing or not living up to other people’s expectations. There’s a friend of mine who’s a famous singer in Ireland, Luka Bloom, and we met one day in downtown Ballivor and we were having a cup of coffee. I was writing something at the time and I said, “I’m trying to write something on expectation.” And he says, “Well, geez, you know about expectation?” I said, “How do you mean?” He said, “Expectation is resentment waiting to happen.” I said, “That’s a sentence and a half!” One of the most awful things for humans is the way someone will limit the horizon of their life to correspond to the horizon of someone else’s expectations.
You know, Van, the old Celtic mystic from Belfast says, “If you live the life you love, you will receive the blessings from above.” And I always think when I hear people saying, “I want to imitate Jesus” or all that, like I said to myself, well, if you could phone up Jesus and say to him, “Hi Jesus, I’m going to do you a huge favor.” He’ll say, “Hey, what kind of favor are you going to do?” And he say, “I’m wanting to imitate you Jesus! I really want to do the full imitation thing.” He’d say, “Look, get real. Be yourself. Don’t be imitating me. Try to realize the harvest and springtime of possibilities that I put uniquely into your heart. I did my own old trip, but you shouldn’t be using me to anaesthetize the one that you meant to be on.”
Because in the Catholic tradition, we were taught an awful lot about sin. There was sin everywhere. When I was growing up, there was a lot of it around. I often think of the Catechism stuff, you could almost call it Catholic rap, there was stuff like (snapping fingers to a beat) “What is an occasion of sin? Da-dum, da-dum, an occasion to sin is any person, place or thing that entices you to sin!” That was actually in the Catechism though, and there was no shortage of sinners on every corner. You’d hear stories of someone that had lived a great life for 75 years and then in the last quarter of an hour before they did the runner, they hit some kind of sinful thought and that baby was going down.
My brother told me this great old joke about this guy who died and went to Hell. He was met by this very elegant angel at the door of Hell, and he was taken aside and he was absolutely shocked to find how beautiful Hell looked. He was walking, and there were beautiful avenues, lovely groves, trees, perfume, flowers – it was just gorgeous. Then they heard the music string quartet being played. The man said to the angel, “What’s that?” “Oh,” the angel said, “that’s our classical group. They often just play there in the grove, people gather and it’s lovely. They do beautiful Beethoven and some incredible Mozart.” The man thought to himself, “God, this is amazing!” So they were going down farther, and the next thing he heard was an animated conversation. And the man said, “What’s going on here?” And the angel said, “Oh, that’s our classical philosophy group. There are some great scholars here on Plato and Aristotle, and they usually get together and discuss the texts. Then everyone else wants to eavesdrop on it cause it’s so animated and so inspiring.” So they keep going down farther before they start to smell these lovely scents. The man asks “So what’s the cause of these beautiful smells? Is it food?” And the angel said, “Yeah, that’s a whole ethnic cuisine kind of thing. All different ethnic foods, just absolutely beautiful.” So the man said to the angel, “This is incredible! We were told Hell was just awful. Fires and all this.” “I know,” says the angel. “Everyone says that.” So they’re walking on anyway, everything was still really good. And the next thing they hear screams and wailing. And as Ian Paisley would say, gnashing of teeth. Do you know that great one of Paisely’s, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? For those who don’t have teeth, teeth, will be provided! But anyway, so here’s this wailing, he hears this wailing, and a terrible, terrible travail. And they come around a corner and there’s this huge ferris wheel with all these people tied to it. There are flames coming up halfway so that the first person goes down into the flames and they burn, but they don’t burn out. And then the wheel keeps turning so they go up and it come down again. And they’re wailing! The man is totally and absolutely shocked and disappointed, of course. So he says to the angel again, “Hell is so beautiful. It’s amazing, the aesthetics, so harmonious. But what’s with this group?” And the angel says, “Oh yeah, everyone asks that. They’re the Catholic sinners, they insist on that.”
The thing that always troubled me in terms of fear is that one of the huge fears that a lot of people have actually is the fear of God. I was thinking when I was preparing this talk and I was saying to myself, “Maybe we’re all afraid of God and that the difference between us and the mystics is that the mystics are the ones who conquer their fear of God and go for the trip.” I’ve just been in Oxford for the last three days at the Meister Eckart conference. There were some incredible talks. The theme was Eckhart on suffering. I think there’s a veritable industry now of spiritual literature, most of which (if you don’t mind me saying so) is like warm ice cream. You can put a knife through it and you won’t encounter a spine anywhere. If you want to read spiritual stuff, that’s good. Go for the mystics. And in this country you have one of the most beautiful woman mystics that is in the Western tradition, and that’s Julian of Norwich. The language is a bit off-putting, but often when I’m in trouble and I need to read something that will give me deep shelter that I can trust, I go back to her. She is just unbelievable. And then the other person that I love is Meister Eckhart. If you wanted to start a spiritual practice that would challenge you and meet you, a great way to start would be to buy the sermons of Meister Eckhart (they’re very easy to get) and say to yourself, I’ll read one a day, or one every second or third day. And even if you don’t get it (cause it’s tough stuff!), leave it alone and just put the seed into the heart. It’ll work a way in its own time. Meister Eckhard is just absolutely amazing. The most beautiful thing that I’ve ever read about God, he said it and it’s the coolest sentence. It’s the sentence that has the greatest reflexivity in it. I know that it’s philosophical old stuff, we didn’t mind that, but it’s very cool sentence. And the sentence is this: “The eye with which I see God is God’s eye seeing me.” It doesn’t get much closer than that! It’s just wonderful. So that’s one thing that I would recommend.
Another place where fear is really located in people is in the fear of themselves. You’d wonder what happened to us. I always think in Ireland – George Bernard Shaw said that one time, “the Irish are a very fair people. They never speak well of each other.” If you’re trying to start something new in Ireland, a person will give you four or five reasons why it wouldn’t work straight off. It’s very realistic. You’ll always know, you won’t get inflated. America is the contrast. If you were to say to the Americans, “I’m thinking of starting something new,” they’d say, “Wow! Go for it! Good for you!” You know how you say to an American person sometimes, “how are you doing?” And they’d say, “Sensational!” Now, if you heard an Irish person answering “Sensational!” to “How are you doing?”, you’d say, “God, there’s something wrong there.”
Now, if I was doing a workshop on meditation, I’d say, “think of a couple of good things. Three good things about yourself that you’re really proud of.” Everyone could think of about 15 negative things. But to find three things that they’d like about themselves seems to be so hard. We can blame parents and we can blame systems and all the rest, but it’s almost time to grow up and to let the poor old parents off the hook cause there’s a time when you have to take responsibility for who you are yourself. It’s one of the most important things in any life. I believe the heart of all spirituality is the way that you hold yourself, the way you are towards yourself. With humans there is one law that’s always true, and that is as people are towards others, they’re usually the same way towards themselves. When you see somebody who is destructive and negative, it’s nothing to what they’re doing to themselves inside. You know how some people can come into a room that is divided and suddenly the waves of ease begin to descend on the room? Another person can come into a room where everyone is fairly content and happy, and it’s like nuclear fusion in about three minutes. Every wrong note that could be hit is hit, and the whole thing is turned upside down.
But one of the most fundamental things is respect for yourself. It’s amazing. When I was a child, the word respect was big. Respect parents and respect this, that and the other. Now it’s gone completely, and it’s very interesting that the only place where the word respect has valence now, and power, is in gangland stuff between youths. Diss, somebody getting dissed. The whole respect thing is huge there. It’s an interesting question to ask yourself. How deeply do I respect myself? The gift that you most desperately need is a gift that no one else can give you but yourself. And that is the gift of affection towards yourself. And to let yourself off the bloody hook! Something happened 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years ago and there are people who have preserved the initial hurt in its pristine forum, with the proper lighting and looking and all the rest of it, over 20, 30, 40 years! The irony is they’re hurting no one but themselves. Take some time (and maybe this festival here could be good for it) to go off for a bit of a walk on your own. Say to yourself, “is there one thing I’ve carried that has put me out of rhythm, put me out of the peace of my own heart? I’m going to make a deal with myself, a bargain with myself, and I leave it here after me.” Could be the best gift you ever gave to yourself. There’s a friend of mine at home (who’s dead now, I miss him), who was an outsider in the town that he lived in. And he was a bit fond of the old firewater. People kind of considered him a rake. But he was quite, what we used to call a mind person, and he loved the old spiritual stuff. I remember I met him one night and we were talking about a mutual friend who was spiritually waking up and was having a bit of trouble with it. I said to him, “a lot of people are kind of awakening, but it’s making them very lonely and it needn’t. This thing has been alive in you for the last 40 or 50 years. How did you manage it?” He said, “You’re right, you know. All mystical stuff woke up in me when I was about 23 years of age. I knew what it was after awhile and I said to myself, ‘if I don’t handle it right it’ll destroy me completely.’ On that day, I made a bargain with myself, and the bargain was that I’d always remained best friends with myself. I’m an old man now, and I’ve made an awful lot of mistakes, but I never broke that bargain.” That’s an incredible gift to give yourself.
One of the most beautiful things that I ever read was written by, again, Meister Eckhart, 13th century mystic. It’s somewhere in the Latin writings and he says this ( think this is very, very, very wild):
“There is a place in the soul that neither time, nor flesh, nor any created thing can touch.”
There’s a place in the soul that neither time, nor flesh, nor any created thing can touch or reach. We continually tend to assume that identity is the same as biography. So you are what has happened to you. Like, “Who you?” “Well, I was really wounded. My father never told me that he loved me and I’ve always missed it and longed for it” and all the rest of it. Or, “My uncle looked at me one day with anger in his eyes and I’ve never got over it.” Or, “My mother could never talk to me about my enema.” But what Meister Eckhard is saying in this is that there is a place inside of you that no one has ever gotten to, or hurt, or damaged. A place where there is peace, serenity, courage, and healing. That you don’t need to go to gurus, you don’t need to go outside yourself. For what you want you actually have already within yourself.
It’s like, “How well do you play the piano?” “I don’t know, cause I never tried.”It’s that kind of thing. It’s like my father never drank alcoholic liquid, and he was saying to a friend one day, “Jesus, Jimmy, do you know I never took an alcoholic drink?” And Jimmy, his friend, said to him, “God bless it, Patty, isn’t a pity. You could have been great at it.” You could be the best pianist in the world, but if you never go in front of the piano, you’ll never know it. And one of the things about spirituality is what I’d call “spiritual self-recognition.” To recognize that, at your deepest core, you don’t actually belong to yourself, but you belong to a beauty and an intimacy and a shelter that offers you every freedom you could ever dream of or imagine. And the thing about about life is the time is slipping away so quickly and, to come back to the priestly work again, helping people to die. One of the loneliest places you can ever be is at a deathbed where somebody is dying, whose heart is eaten up with regret. And who has postponed their lives and said, “God, if I’d got another two years, I’d have done what I always dreamed.” It’s such a lonely place. I remember, several years ago, I had to make an old decision. There was a lot of stuff happening around me, and I was trying to make a old decision. I was talking to a friend of mine, she’s a great woman, and she said, “How are things?” And I said, “Oh, I’m in the middle of, between so many things, I don’t know.” And she said to me, “Steady yourself.” Now she said, “Steady yourself and decide what you want to do with your life.” And it was incredibly good advice because, you see, the funny thing about humanoids is that deep down we know exactly what’s going on. Or to put it more formally: there is a knowing in us which is more sophisticated and substantial than the surface patterns of our minds, but you can’t reach that if you don’t give yourself a chance.
And one of the ways to do it is to take a mystical journey. I always think for the whole mystical journey, you don’t need any tickets. You don’t need any club membership of anywhere. All you need to get on the mystical trip is, stillness, silence, and solitude. And if you build a bit of them into your day or into your week, everything that needs to happen to you will gradually begin to happen to you. And there’s no doubt about it like that. If you look after the old hungers of your heart, then everything else comes alive around you. Like we’ve a tendency often in the world not to handle our own old stuff. I don’t like the word hygiene, but I do kind of believe a bit in psychological hygiene. In other words, that you sort out your own messes and you don’t leak it over onto other people. This often happens in a relationship. You’d have a really person who was really integrated and balanced and grounded, and then they meet somebody who isn’t overburdened with integration, and then the next thing you see the two of them at it and the next thing – say it’s his problem – it gradually begins to leak over onto hers. And he says, “Well, when this happens, she does that and the next thing,” and then the two of them are turning up at counseling to discuss their problem. And it might be too, but there are problems – it’s always a very wise thing, if you can discern it, to know what belongs to you and what doesn’t belong to you, to keep that frontier clean. The other thing is there’s a lot of fear that is in us that actually comes out as anger. It’s very interesting to watch angry people. Sometimes some person gets really angry and you stay really cool, it really drives them crazy. You know what I mean? You’re just saying, easy, easy, and you’re not entering the zone with them, but if you have a conversation with them, very often what you find is – it’s a surprising discovery – that when you go through into the old core of their anger, and if you get them to flick it around towards the light, what’s on the other side of it very often is fear, and it expresses itself as kind of hostility, or as anger. The other thing, of course, is that a lot of depression is fear-related because a lot of depression is anger turned in on top of the person themselves. So there’s a very interesting relationship there that can be worked out and opened up. Now the thing about fear too is this: if you come at fear with fear, you’ll never resolve it or solve it. And in a way, that’s the huge problem, politically, of our time. A lot of what’s happening is tit-for-tat kind of stuff. When they’ve told something awful to us, we’ll go back and do something awful to them. And that, that’s not the solution – we’ve learned in Ireland and Northern Ireland, after 30 years of the most miserable, awful violence, and horror that sooner or later, you end up at the table. That’s what really leadership is about: to get to the table quick before the whole harvest of horror and loss has to be reaped. And I think that it’s an old-fashioned thing to say, but I think that occasions of fear are invitations for freedom and for courage.
And that’s what I think the creativity of the human heart is about. That every person is the holder of incredible possibilities. That’s where the imagination comes in, but I’ll hold that until tomorrow. But I think that everyone is always under the threshold of endless possibilities. And what happens to us sometimes is we get blinded and we only see the one door when in actual fact there might be seven or eight. If you can hold your imagination awake and keep your creativity, it’s amazing how you can transfigure your anxiety. I always think that thing in the New Testament that is very alarming, which says “Sins against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.” And I always wondered what that was. Then I was thinking of [that passage] a few months ago, I was saying to myself, “If you take the Holy spirit as the spirit of creativity, that you could translate it another way and say that sins against your own creativity exact a huge cost.
In one of the most beautiful documents from antiquity, which is Plato’s symposium – which if you’re wanting to read something good on love, that’s the one to go for. Don’t mind all the other stuff that there is about love. This is an incredible, beautiful treasury of stuff and love – but in that symposium, Plato says that one of the greatest privileges for any human being is to become midwife to the birth of the soul in another person. You know it yourself, cause if you think back now quick, there are at least one or two friends that were there for you at crucial thresholds that woke you up and helped you to step across into the deeper riches of your own life. Several years ago, I tried to write 15 sonnets on the structure of the Catholic rosary, which is an amazingly beautiful prayer. This is the one on Nativity, and it has to do with creativity:
No man reaches where the moon touches a woman. Even the moon leaves her when she opens deeper into the ripple in her womb, that encircles dark to become flesh and bone. Someone is coming ashore inside her. A face deciphers itself from water, and she curves around the gathering wave, opening to offer the life that craves. In a corner stall of pilgrims – strangers – she falls and heaves, holding a tide of tears. A red wire of pain feeds through every vein until night unweaves and the child reaches dawn. Outside each other now, she sees him first, flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.”
When I was preparing to work on that poem, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who had had her first child four or five months before. So I phoned her up and I said, “I need to talk to you about pregnancy, labor, birth, the whole thing.” She said, “I’d be delighted to.” She said, “I’m so fascinated with what happened to me, and nobody really wants to talk about it.” So I took about eight pages of notes from her and the poem emerged from that. But this other poem also emerged to which is – you see, I think between us, I think the irony is that none of us is on our own. I think the actual thing is that we are so connected with each other. And that between us, what we call empty space is full actually of invisible tissue. But what surprised my friend in the act of birth was her placenta. And when I was putting the collection together, I was looking at my notes (this sounds almost like baking a cake or bread) and I said, God, there’s almost enough left over there and now for another one. So I wrote over weeks, then months, I wrote this poem called “Placenta.”
“It grew between you naturally, this wise wall that took everything from you he needed. Grew vericose to carry through the seepage of calcium, holding rhythm, offering time to structure and settle the white scribble until it finds the stillness and strength of bone. Fed the beat of your pulse through the dark, a first music to steady the quiver that would become his heart. Sieved from the stream of your breathing, the breath of trees, fragrance of flowers, the heavy scent of woman, chorus of seas, ripples of the ancestral, and the strange taste of a shadow father of when you kissed. Feels towards the end, the temper of flow of change and absorbs the white stream to urge the child free. On your own now, growing away from each other. Nothing between you, but the distance that will remain alive with invisible tissue.”
There’s a lovely quote from an Abyssinian woman who says that “A man comes and lies with a woman and then goes away. And he is mainly the same as he was before. But she is never the same because she carries under her heart the child for nine months. And no matter where the child ever goes, the child will always be under her heart.” And I think in the same way with the whole Holy Spirit thing, that that’s exactly what’s going on. 366 times in the Good Book – that’s once for every day and, as the Americans say, and then some - -there is the phrase, “Be not afraid.” 366 times. “Be not afraid.” And the reason that we shouldn’t be afraid, and I have about seven minutes now to wrap this up, is that we are so loved. It’s just unbelievable. I mean it’s really a very strange thing. I mean, faith should be a really happy old thing. And you know, all the stuff with church and trouble and all the rest of that. I always say to humans that you should never allow any person or any institution to come between you and the delight and intimacy of the love that the infinite God has for you.
And the reason that we’re loved is that the old shape of the heart is known to God alone. It’s an amazing thing when you think of the divine presence that nothing that you ever did or thought, but is continually held, in the divine presence. And that the human body is born, if you like, in one moment complete physically but that the human heart is never finally born, it’s being birthed all the time. That one of the things that really brings the heart to birth is love and that we need love so desperately. I was talking already about the love that you need to give yourself. And you can’t love anyone if you don’t at least be trying to have affection towards yourself.
I often say to people who are really, as they’d say in Donegal, who are wild serious about how troubled they are and all the rest, I often say to them, “Argh, lighten up! And when you pass a mirror anymore, give a wink at it. Give a wink at yourself in the mirror and remember all the old strength and the grace and the light that has behind you, helping you.”
And that’s, I think, one of the great discoveries in the world that when, you discover all the care and shelter that is there for you because in a certain sense, you see that’s one of the lovely things about the mystical writings, is that you have to do very little because it’s actually already done for you. One of the things I love about Meister Eckhart’s writing is the way he says that there is no such thing as a spiritual journey. It’s more a matter of clicking in to what’s actually already there completely for you. In Irish they say that the shelter and the help of the divine is nearer to you than the door. That it’s always around you, and it’s a really subversive thing. D’you know sometimes when if you’re in a relationship with somebody on something, you let the person down or you disappoint them that very often you’ll be held to account either by getting the works there and then. Which isn’t too bad, at least it’s over. But then this can be kind of a long term punishment, the thing that will be referred to and you know exactly that you’re kinda still half in jail. Then there’s the other kind of response, which is that if somebody lets you down and really lets you down or, if you’ve let somebody down, that nothing will be said at all. They’ll say, “Yeah, it happened.” It’ll be acknowledged. But the graciousness of the other person’s presence actually forgives you, but also recalls you to your own loss of dignity and to the beauty and to the call of your own dignity. And I think that that’s the way that the divine works, and that’s the way that Jesus does it.
I always think that Jesus must’ve had beautiful eyes and that anybody that he ever gazed upon was never the same again. And I often – and people, when I’d be doing all meditation stuff, I often do a meditation or I’d get them right into a huge kind of stillness. And then what I would suggest to them to do would be to imagine the face of God and to imagine the eyes of God gazing at you. And then I always say as part of the meditation that no one has ever looked at you that way before. A look of complete seeing, holding, forgiving, sheltering and encouraging you into the full flow of your life. See I’ve a primal old head about stuff, cause I’m thinking primal categories, but I always consider the human body made out of clay and we’ve come up. But when you think of the grass there and now that you’re sitting on, there are hundred thousand billion whorls of clay down there that never got chosen. Like you said, none. And that never got up into the light. And God, we got the chance, we got up into the light. We’re actually able to do the walk on the Earth and it’s an incredible privilege. And we should travel light, as the mystical people say, and not be dragging things after you that you should let go, and tormenting and burdening yourself with things that don’t belong to you and squandering the beauty of your soul by staying marooned in prison places where the monster of fear keeps you a prisoner.
If you really awakened to your life, then everything that you need will be given to you. And then when the day comes, or the evening or the night, that you, as they say in The Godfather, you get the offer you can’t refuse and you’ve got to go, then you’d say yourself, “Well, Jesus, I’m going, but what I wanted to do while I was here, I mightn’t have done it the best way, but I had a great go at doing it.” I remember one time I was helping a bandito to die – full rouge, complete rogue, rogue or more – and I was helping to die and I had done all the magic with them, like the anointing, sacraments, the whole art, and he was going in the next five minutes, and I said to him, “You have about five minutes, you’re ready to go?” “Oh, I am,” he said. I said, “What would you say now about the whole thing as you’re about to leave?” What he said, “I knocked one hell of a squeeze out of it!” Five minutes later he was gone with a smile on his face and I was saying to myself, “What a way to go, really.”
I want to finish with a short little poem. Sometimes when you’d be writing, you’d get a great line or two and then you try to follow it, as they say. And nothing would come. And I got these two lines and I thought they were lovely, and I spent three weeks – now this is the craziness of trying to be writing – I spend three weeks every day trying to follow them, and I eventually had to shelf the whole thing because it was all rubbish. But then when I was putting the collection together, I was looking at my original two lines and I was saying, “Geez, it’s a pity to leave them out.” So I broke them in the middle and I made this short little four line poem out of them. And it kind of sums up everything I was trying to say about the way lovem, love for yourself and receiving the big love that’s in you can help you to totally transfigure and harness your fears. It’s a short little poem called “Fluent.” And before I read it, I want to thank you all for coming. Like it’s an amazing thing to come to a strange place where you don’t know people and that humans are willing to come up and sit in grass to go listen to a few old fragile words. And I thank you and I hope that that brings some little seeds to your heart that will give you shelter when you want to expect it. This poem is called “Fluent.”
“I would love to live
like a river flows
carried by the surprise
of its own unfolding.”
Thank you very, very much.