When John O’Donohue published Anam Cara: A Celtic Book of Wisdom in 1997, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair presided over the politics of the West. At that time, here in Philadelphia, we were a few years into planting a church. It had a great run until my successors hit the pandemic wall. The 90’s seem like a very long time ago.
But in many ways, O’Donohue is even more relevant now than he was in the 90’s. Then, he was just wading in the rivulets of what is now drowning us. When the publishers released the 25th anniversary edition of O’Donohue’s classic, new readers saw how prophetic his thinking was.
His main intent was to preserve vestiges of the sacred worldview of his Celtic ancestors; he was like Cary Fowler lobbying at the time for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Only O’Donohue’s seeds were spiritual and the fields from which he gathered them were quickly disappearing from Gaelic islands like the Amazon forests from Brazil.
Even more, he was like the prophet Isaiah, who intended to make an old truth present as he spoke for God to to his chosen people. In Anam Cara O’Donohue interprets the past, establishes God in the present, and offers a surprising, prophetic message for us twenty-seven years later.
Let’s listen to just one paragraph that speaks about the sacredness of intimacy. It will give us a chance to examine how we feel and think about relationships these days and how the threat to them O’Donohue prophesied is as real as he feared. The restoration of the kind of intimacy the Celtic church experienced with God, with one other and with Creation is the way to freedom through the shadows that dominate us.
In our culture, there is an excessive concentration on the notion of relationship. People talk incessantly about relationships. It is a constant theme on television, film and the media. Technology and media are not uniting the world. They pretend to provide a world that is internetted, but in reality, all they deliver is a simulated world of shadows. Accordingly, they make our human world more anonymous and lonely. In a world where the computer replaces human encounter and psychology replaces religion, it is no wonder that there is an obsession with relationship. Unfortunately, however, “relationship” has become an empty center around which our lonely hunger forages for warmth and belonging. Much of the public language of intimacy is hollow, and its incessant repetition only betrays the complete absence of intimacy. Real intimacy is a sacred experience. It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul and the soul is reserved. (pg. 15)
Let’s cut his word into three parts and better see what he is saying to us. I hope he will help us hang on to our souls in this troubled time.
Now people live in the shadows
In our culture, there is an excessive concentration on the notion of relationship. People talk incessantly about relationships. It is a constant theme on television, film and the media. Technology and media are not uniting the world. They pretend to provide a world that is internetted, but in reality, all they deliver is a simulated world of shadows.
In 1997 the misanthropic Seinfeld was nearing its last season of nine at #1 in the ratings. We laughed at terrible people unable to connect. Jerry Seinfeld mocked our increasingly shadowy existence and normalized the despair that now dominates our cultural self-image. Here he is on the Tonight Show when Jimmy Fallon was getting started deriding our relationships and the Post Office in his much-imitated way [link].
Meanwhile, in 1997 Friends was spending the third year of its ten-year run at #4. That charming group might be even more insidious. They, in some sense, suggested the world could be united as friends, just like they formed their unlikely, alternative family in the media ether. When Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) died last October from “the acute effects of ketamine” there was a worldwide cry of anguish on the internet — as if they had lost a friend. But technology and media have not united the world, have they?
The prophecy is: It is all shadows. Increasingly, people live in these shadows. The explosive use of artificial intelligence tools has led to the fear of “shadow AI” (that is, AI used outside system protocol) destroying order and normal relationships in a business. Creations like the A.I. Irish forest above are more real to people than actual ones. The colonization of souls by technology causes people to despair of relating and to become acclimated to living in shadow.
Now loneliness is an epidemic
Accordingly, they make our human world more anonymous and lonely. In a world where the computer replaces human encounter and psychology replaces religion, it is no wonder that there is an obsession with relationship. Unfortunately, however, “relationship” has become an empty center around which our lonely hunger forages for warmth and belonging.
Psychology has named loneliness a mental health crisis but generally has little to offer as a solution apart from trusting in individual education to cause individual change. People need something deeper and they are looking for it. One of the newly-popular, albeit usually illegal, paths they are taking is psilocybin/mushrooms; some think their use is outpacing the research.
Regardless of how you search, many of us are feeling and acting desperate. I don’t think we know what the pandemic did to the world yet. But our desperation is evidence something went wrong. An easy-to-see example of the upheaval is how the increasing loneliness of the West has become its own epidemic. Many of us are still not completely out of our lockdown. Not only are we dealing with health issues and death, our social institutions, like the church, took a hit. Many churches have also died in the last few years alongside millions of virus victims. The leaders burned out. The systems proved untrustworthy. One of the results of all this is we’re lonely because we’ve been left alone to fend for ourselves.
But we are obsessed with relationships, constantly foraging around the “empty center” for warmth and belonging. We scroll for intimacy. My heart is warmed for a second by fleeting images of pets cuddling and babies laughing which are fed to me by the algorithms. People who are serious about connecting download an app. According to a Forbes poll in late 2023 “Nearly 70% of individuals who met someone on a dating app said it led to a romantic, exclusive relationship, while 28% said it did not.” Pew’s 2023 survey says “One-in-ten partnered adults – meaning those who are married, living with a partner or in a committed romantic relationship – met their current significant other through a dating site or app.” As usual, any tool can be used to a good end, but the technology often makes the user in its image.
When the new Surgeon General put out his report on loneliness, the media started talking about it. He reported: “In a U.S.-based study, participants who reported using social media for more than two hours a day had about double the odds of reporting increased perceptions of social isolation compared to those who used social media for less than 30 minutes per day.” 75% of social media users reported they would find it difficult to give up their internet foraging.
The prophecy is: We will not find the intimacy we crave by going to an imaginary watering hole for a drink. True intimacy requires a soul language the media can only represent, if it even cares to; it takes humans and God to share it in reality.
Now intimacy is fully hollow
Much of the public language of intimacy is hollow, and its incessant repetition only betrays the complete absence of intimacy. Real intimacy is a sacred experience. It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul and the soul is reserved.
As soon as I re-read those lines above, I felt my reaction to The Color Purple (the new film of the musical) all over again. It is so hollow! It has great performances, especially by Fantasia, but the music feels redundant, like it was formulaically feeding on Alice Walker’s masterpiece (1982). Even more so, it feels like Oprah and Spielberg (the producers) are feeding off the movie they made of the book (1985) — in which Oprah was tremendous. The musical opened on Broadway in 2005, and by the time the movie of it was made, the horrific story of broken intimacy had been fully bathed in “neon.” The only interesting song among a series of derivative, banal tunes is the cringeworthy “Push da Button,” the antithesis of O’Donohue’s sense of intimacy.
Likewise, pundits noted how this year’s Grammys were dominated by women whose songs all tell intimate, often excruciating stories — Sza and Taylor Swift exposed to stadiums full of people, and the brilliant Billie Eielish (with her Gaelic name meaning “pledged to God”) singing about Barbie’s search for meaning and connection as a stand-in for countless people who can relate to her yearning. The performers hollow out intimacy, which “never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye.” The under-exposed Tracy Chapman’s reserve at last week’s award ceremony made her seem like a goddess.
The prophetic word is: real intimacy is sacred. It rises from an environment where God is present and honored. There is a secrecy, a mystery to it. We don’t own it, produce it, or control it. We share it. We receive it. We appreciate it. The “voyeuristic eye of a neon culture” is like Sauron’s eye searching Middle Earth for the final ring of power and we dare not placate the eye or wear the ring.
It is as dire and hopeful as Isaiah says it is
In the short run, Isaiah prophesies, the Jewish Kingdom of Judah will be overrun by Babylon, which is deserves to be. But in the long run:
Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation
and your gates Praise.
The sun shall no longer be
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give light to you by night,
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory. — Isaiah 60
O’Donohue has a similar prophecy. The outlook for the West is grim, but he has a lived message of intimacy with God and of security grounded in Creation. In the shadows “the Lord will be your everlasting light.” A seed of hope has taken root in him. He has seen God in the world and can’t unsee Jesus. The Holy Spirit has enlivened his soul, she has undammed the yearning that flows between heaven and earth and unleashed the joy inherent in that longing.
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