Saturday, November 12, 2011

Four Elements: Reflections on Nature by John Donohue

Four Elements

Reflections on Nature

John Donohue

ISBN 978-0-307-71760-3

Harmony Books, a Division of Random House

Contact: Nora O’Malley 212-782-8370

Review By Dennis Daly

As a rule, books categorized by their publishers as inspirational cause me to avert my eyes and hold onto my wallet. Four Elements by John O’Donohue is not one of those. It is rather a series of beautifully crafted essays tapping in to fourteenth century mysticism and twenty-first century environmental concerns.

O’Donohue, a Gaelic-speaking poet and priest from a remote parish in the west of Ireland, uses the ancient metaphor of the four elements—air, water, fire, and earth (stone) as the prism to explore the nature of man and his world. This is not cutesy new age drivel. Although simply written, it has a hard philosophical core. O’Donohue, by the way, had a PHD in Hegelian philosophy. That said, he does use Irish culture, including the likes of Yeats, Joyce, and Becket to support his points and charm the hell out of us.

In the first of the four sections of his book, O’Donohue meditates on air as the breath of God, which in a sense welcomes us as we enter the world and gives us the timespan of our lives. He speaks of breaths as prayers. Not the silly techniques taught by self-aggrandizing gurus, but real straightforward connections with the divine. He seems able to rework older religious myths into a new understanding of spiritual reality. In his poem In Praise of Air he says,

In the name of the air

The breeze

And the wind

May our souls

Stay in rhythm

With eternal


In this first section there is also a wonderful discussion of Michelangelo’s Prisoners in Stone, a series of sculptures I saw years ago in Florence. The lower half of each figure is still part of the stone, while the upper half is a fully formed human being. “This is the tension of emergence,” say O’Donohue, “such sculpture awakens one’s eyes to the power of encounter that is permanently going on between the air and each shape that allows it.” O’Donohue parlays this encounter into a discourse on life’s possibilities.

The next element, water, is used as a metaphor for spiritual need or thirst with a poetic exposition on “the gift of tears.” O’Donohue’s poem, In Praise of Water, touches on this,

Water: voice of grief

Cry of love

In the flowing tear

Rites from the Catholic faith like the sacrament of baptism and the tradition of holy water are put in a larger and lovely continuum that is nothing if not pantheistic.

Fire, the third element that O’Donohue muses on, encompasses man’s endless passions originating in the fire of creation. Here is the opening of O’Donohue’s In Praise of Fire:

In the beginning

The word was red

And the sound was thunder

And the wound in the unseen

Spilled forth the red weather of being.

An association is also developed between fear and fire. Children, who play with fire, get burned. Heretics and witches were for a time burned at the stake. Hell is eternal burning according to Church teachings. But here O’Donohue rejects his church’s darker vision as a grave misinterpretation and he even suggests some papal penance for past injustices committed in the name of his faith. Donohue, himself, retired from his priestly duties in 2000 to devout full time to writing and lecturing.

According to O’Donohue, stone, the fourth element, is a Zen-like presence, a repository of memory. Limestone contains the memories of the sea. Igneous rock contains memories of fire. Coal is organic rock. And so on. His concept of stone expands to landscapes, which he sees as having selfhoods, which interact in some interesting ways with humans. In fact he sees humans as expressions of the earth, sentries with an especial responsibility. The earth becomes a comforter, a great conclusion.

O’Donohue’s submergence of religious myth into a much larger pantheistic system rivals Francis of Assisi for nerve. In another age O’Donohue might have been one of those heretics burned at the stake that he so poignantly laments.

John O’Donohue died at the age of 52 in 2010. He wrote a number of books including two international best sellers, Anam Cara and To Bless the Space Between Us. The essays comprising Four Elements were written early in his career and are a perfect introduction into the wonders of this visionary’s later works.

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