Excerpt from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by the late, Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008)
The Mystery of Friendship
Light Is Generous
If you have ever had occasion to be out early in the morning before the dawn breaks, you will have noticed that the darkest time of night is immediately before dawn. The darkness deepens and becomes more anonymous. If you had never been to the world and never known what a day was, you couldn't possibly imagine how the darkness breaks, how the mystery and color of a new day arrive. Light is incredibly generous, but also gentle. When you attend to the way the dawn comes, you learn how light can coax the dark.
The first fingers of light appear on the horizon, and ever so deftly and gradually, they pull the mantle of darkness away from the world. Quietly before you is the mystery of a new dawn, the new day. Emerson said, "No one suspects the days to be Gods." It is one of the tragedies of modern culture that we have lost touch with these primal thresholds of nature. The urbanization of modern life has succeeded in exiling us from this fecund kinship with our mother earth. Fashioned from the earth, we are souls in clay form. We need to remain in rhythm with our inner clay voice and longing. Yet this voice is no longer audible in the modern world. We are not even aware of our loss, consequently, the pain of our spiritual exile is more intense in being largely unintelligible. The world rests in the night. Trees, mountains, fields, and faces are released from the prison of shape and the burden of exposure. Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark.
Darkness is the ancient womb. Nighttime is womb-time. Our souls come out to play. The darkness absolves everything; the struggle for identity and impression falls away. We rest in the night.
The dawn is a refreshing time, a time of possibility and promise. All the elements of nature—stones, fields, rivers, and animals—are suddenly there anew in the fresh dawn light. Just as darkness brings rest and release, so the dawn brings awakening and renewal. In our mediocrity and distraction, we forget that we are privileged to live in a wondrous universe. Each day, the dawn unveils the mystery of this universe. Dawn is the ultimate surprise; it awakens us to the immense "thereness" of nature.
The wonderful subtle color of the universe arises to clothe everything. This is captured in a phrase from William Blake: "Colours are the wounds of light."
Colors bring out the depth of secret presence at the heart of nature.
The Celtic Circle of Belonging
All through Celtic poetry you find the color, power, and intensity of nature. How beautifully it recognizes the wind, the flowers, the breaking of the waves on the land. Celtic spirituality hallows the moon and adores the life force of the sun. Many of the ancient Celtic gods were close to the sources of fertility and belonging. Since the Celts were a nature people, the world of nature was both a presence and a companion. Nature nourished them; it was here that they felt their deepest belonging and affinity. Celtic nature poetry is suffused with this warmth, wonder, and belonging.
One of the oldest Celtic prayers is a prayer called "St. Patrick's Breastplate"; its deeper name is "The Deer's Cry."
There is no separation between subjectivity and the elements. Indeed, it is the very elemental forces that inform and elevate subjectivity:
I arise today through the strength of Heaven,
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
The Celtic world is full of immediacy and belonging. The Celtic mind adored the light. This is one of the reasons why Celtic spirituality is emerging as a new constellation in our times. We are lonely and lost in our hungry transparency. We desperately need a new and gentle light where the soul can shelter and reveal its ancient belonging. We need a light that has retained its kinship with the darkness. For we are sons and daughters of the darkness and of the light.
We are always on a journey from darkness into light. At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother's womb. Your birth was a first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body.
Every thought that you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness.
The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born in darkness.
Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm. The year also is a journey with the same rhythm. The Celtic people had a deep sense of the circular nature of our journey. We come out of the darkness of winter into the possibility and effervescence of springtime.
Ultimately, light is the mother of life. Where there is no light, there can be no life. If the angle of the sun were to turn away from the earth, all human, animal, and vegetative life, as we know it, would disappear. Ice would freeze the earth again. Light is the secret presence of the divine. It keeps life awake. Light is a nurturing presence, which calls forth warmth and color in nature. The soul awakens and lives in light. It helps us to glimpse the sacred depths within us. Once human beings began to search for a meaning to life, light became one of the most powerful metaphors to express the eternity and depth of life. In the Western tradition, and indeed in the Celtic tradition, thought has often been compared to light. In its luminosity, the intellect was deemed to be the place of the divine within us.