It is not that easy to be a human, easy to be married, or easy to love your neighbor as yourself when you forget to love yourself. And it is strangely easy to just forget about love altogether.
Sometimes, when I am attempting marriage counseling, I would like to send the couple off with John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (1998/2022) until they can feel the possibility of another context for loving than the one they inherited from America or their traumatized and confused parents.
A soul friend to yourself and others
When O’Donohue begins his lovely book, he tries to describe a place in which to live that is hard for postmodern people to imagine. He wants us to return to a lost place the Celts knew well. He says of them:
“Their sense of ontological friendship yielded a world of experience imbued with a rich texture of otherness, ambivalence, symbolism, and imagination. For our sore and tormented separation, the possibility of this imagination and unifying friendship is the Celtic gift. “
Every marriage will be better if the partners have a sense of “ontological friendship.” That is, the sense of living IN Friendship with a capital F. That is, not sorting out the world or trying to get some power over it, but being a welcome and welcoming part of it — curious, receptive, awestruck, and creative. If we listened to our mate (and everyone, of course) from that context, it would be great.
Instead, we often come to our relationships from our “sore and tormented separation.” And the way we evaluate one another’s words more than feeling with someone beyond their words keeps us wounding others and creating distance. Sometimes I try to force a partner into a new way to listen and they realize they really do not want to give up their wound or their distance. If they lose their aloneness, they are not sure who they will be. Moving into an unknown place with trust in God and others is one of the things O’Donohue wants us to relearn.
John O’Donohue can’t help being poetic. When I bought Anam Cara (“Soul Friend”), I have to admit I was disappointed to find out it was not a collection of his poems. But as I read, I realized I was not disappointed after all, because his prose is basically poetry. I have arranged his following paragraph as a poem. In it he offers two important things I wish couples would learn so their conversation and experience of each other could get closer to the longing of their hearts.
If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us.
We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person or deed can still.
To be wholesome, we must remain truthful to our vulnerable complexity.
In order to keep our balance, we need to hold
the interior and exterior,
visible and invisible,
known and unknown,
temporal and eternal,
ancient and new,
No one else can undertake this task for you.
You are the one and only threshold of an inner world.
This wholesomeness is holiness.
To be holy is to be natural, to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.
Behind the façade of image and distraction,
each person is an artist in this primal and inescapable sense.
Each one of us is doomed and privileged
to be an inner artist who carries and shapes
a unique world.
Our “vulnerable complexity” takes time in silence and vulnerable dialogue to form an “interiority” that is fearless and pliable enough to connect with someone else. To have a better marriage, explore yourself.
Since we, unlike the Celts, generally live in an unfriendly world, we struggle to be friendly and struggle even more to get some friendliness. We’re very external these days: a picture on social media, a presentation at an interview, a constant smile (or fear of one) that is always looking for a safe place to land. All that energy pouring out leaves us accustomed to emptiness, but hungry.
I heard a person say once they broke up with a long-term dating partner because they both realized they just did not have enough substance to give to a relationship. They were both hungry, but they had no food to share, they were starving together. But their brilliant, honest analysis did not still their hearts. Being truthful about often being out of balance and hopeful about reality beyond our control often provides the stillness where we can be known to ourselves and others.
To have a good relationship, we need some wholesomeness to share. That holiness develops when we accept we are “doomed and privileged” to carry and shape the unique life we have been given. We are the threshold into the unique territory that is each of us. Holiness/wholeness is being formed in us – or not. No matter how many SUV commercials lure us to look for some rare wilderness where we will have an external experience that nourishes us, it will always be a false hope. The wilderness is in us.
People say the pandemic made everything that was getting bad get worse. I think one of the things it made worse was our fear. There is a lot of talk lately about how a child’s freedom to play has been declining since the 1980’s. You may have never been allowed to play on your own recognizance by your fearful parents and now you are not confident enough to goof around with your mate. You’re frustrated that what you think should come naturally just doesn’t. It feels difficult to welcome someone over the threshold.
The huge complex being built at Broad and Washington in Philadelphia is mostly studio and one bedroom apartments. We don’t even plan for families, partners or groups anymore. We’ve institutionalized fearful aloneness. Part of the reason we are so alone is we are conditioned to keep people on the other side of the threshold of our hearts. We could justly blame that attitude on the world around us, but when we do we are more likely to be subject to the unfriendly, unbalanced world within us. Acting in faith and friendship with God, ourselves and others is the beginning of being the artists we are created to be.
“Our interiority will haunt us” and “You are the one and only threshold of an inner world” could seem very threatening if we are committed to living alone, or just trying to survive an unfriendly world. It surprises me how many marriage partners feel resigned to their “sore and tormented separation.”
But O’Donohue inspires me by telling a truth I think we can feel. We bring beautiful things together in ourselves. We create wonder alongside God when we love others. The world is on our side, providing for and encouraging my wholeness.
When I bring that view of myself and my partner to our dialogue our “sense” of “ontological friendship” brings us together. It might even allow us to play. It would undoubtedly improve the depth and pleasure of sex. And it will eat away at the fear that is eating away at us.