Monday, April 09, 2007

The Spirit at Your Back The Spirit at Your Back by Daniel O’Rourke

Reviewed by Rich Hasselbach

Reading Dan O’Rourke’s first book, The Spirit at Your Back, brings to mind the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem Aurora Leigh,

… Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

From the simple things of life, like drinking a cup of coffee or caring for his grandchildren, to the seemingly intractable problems of war and prejudice, O’Rourke finds wisdom, and meaning, and hope.

This collection of short essays, originally published as newspaper columns in the Dunkirk, New York, Observer, is eminently readable. Dan writes with the wit of an Irishman in love with language and passionate about sharing his deepest convictions with his readers. Throughout the book there is one overarching theme – “love takes action.” It is this insight, woven subtly into almost every chapter, which gives this book its power.

Like a good teller of parables, O’Rourke finds his material in the stuff of everyday living – often drawing profound and challenging insights out of the simplest of life’s experiences. Meditating on going to a garage sale, we are reminded of the poignant human stories behind some of the stuff that clutters those American rituals: of the children who once played with now-discarded toys; of lives and loves long forgotten, but preserved as browning pictures in ancient frames offered for sale. Ultimately we are reminded of the fragility and impermanence of human life itself: all things pass, and here we have no lasting city. But this is not the whole story – from the impermanence of life, Dan reflects on those things of enduring beauty that point beyond themselves to that “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” and so invites us to value the valuable, while seeking the eternal.

O’Rourke challenges the reader to live in the present, and to honor the Mystery, the Spirit in which “we live and move and have our being.” The author manages to touch the heart and soul as well as the mind, but the book does much more than merely touch – it inspires, it encourages, and it lures us to ACT. This is no “head trip,” it is a gently prophetic call to live life in the Spirit through loving, compassionate, and prudent engagement in family, community and national life.

The Spirit at Your Back is not a religious book in the narrow sense of that term. Dan breaks beyond the boundaries of narrow institutionalism, and of a god who is too small to embrace the world with all its splendid diversity. Yet in another sense, it is profoundly religious. The author reminds us, in one chapter, that the etymological root of the word religion is the Latin verb religare (from which we also get the English word “ligament.”) Religare means to reconnect. Genuine religion unites, it connects; it makes us one and helps us “atone.”

Forgiveness and atonement are also themes that run through the book. O’Rourke recognizes forgiveness as one of the great human skills needed in successful marriages; he challenges us, in our civic and international relationships, to accept the other with understanding; to embrace differences with prodigious love; to forgive our enemies, and (what is even more difficult), forgive ourselves.

The Spirit at Your Back is also an invitation into the mystery of prayer, and into Mystery itself. Whether reflecting on the current state of American politics; the disastrous war consuming precious lives in Iraq; a friend’s death; or the meaning of Christmas or Thanksgiving, O’Rourke approaches his topic with sensitivity and prayerful reverence. And he urges us, his reader, to go and do likewise. In this sense, he stands in a great tradition – with Meister Eckhart, and with Dag Hammarskjöld.

Prayer connects us to Mystery beyond all words — the Mystery “from which all words recoil.” Dan reminds us that, according to John of the Cross, ”Silence is God’s first language.” Throughout the book, O’Rourke challenges us to find and nurture that silence within us, and so to make space for God’s indwelling presence to grow more and more brilliant. But prayer is not for prayer’s sake – in every great religious tradition, prayer and meditation lead to enlightenment, to a sense of being one, not many; to the knowledge that the other, even the enemy other, is our brother and sister. And so prayer leads to compassionate action.

Some may not agree with O’Rourke’s take on things political. He can be harsh in his criticism of the Bush Administration and its national stewardship. He points out failures, not only in the administration’s pursuit and management of the war in Iraq, but also in its care for the environment, and for the policies it fosters that affect the most vulnerable in our society. Whether or not you are in agreement with him politically, O’Rourke’s soulful critique of current issues and events deserves a respectful hearing.

The title of this work is adapted from the Irish Blessing: “… may the wind be always at your back.” The author explains in his opening paragraphs that: “the title is a bold assertion in faith that the Mystery we call God is ever with us, around and behind us in all of life….” Spirit and Grace fill the pages of this book, which encourages us not only to be more enlightened people, but to be more thoughtfully engaged in life, more gentle with others and with ourselves, more compassionate and more kind. Dan O’Rourke eloquently invites us to live consciously, knowing that our earth is crammed with heaven, and the Spirit is, indeed, at our backs.

Those interested in reading a copy of the book should contact the author directly at

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