The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

A Review of John O’Donohue’s “Bless the Space Between Us”

Authored by John Bell, M. Div.

In his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, John O’Donohue sets out to write a book of blessings that follow what he calls, “the seven rhythms of the human journey: beginnings, desires, thresholds, homecoming, states of the heart, callings, and beyond endings.”  In chapter 4, Homecomings, O’Donohue describes the trajectory of human development from birth to adulthood.  He writes:

“Home is where the heart is.  It stands for the sure center where individual life is shaped and from where it journeys forth.  What it ultimately intends is that each of its individuals would develop the capacity to be at home in themselves.”

O’Donohue focuses on the early years of development and the impact the family has on a child’s functioning.  “When a place to belong is assured, the adventure of growth can begin with great promise,” O’Donohue writes.  “In the early silence of childhood, experience becomes deeply engraved.  Whatever experience happens here modulates and sets the rhythm of mind and the sensitivities of the heart…. The very ordinary of these houses conceals the force and mystery of the events that unfolds there…. it is quite incredible how so many of the roots of one’s identity, experience, and presence lead back to that childhood kitchen where so much was happening unknown to itself.

Over time, these invisible processes shape who one is and what ones becomes.  It is difficult to see this unfolding as a child, but years later one is in a better position to observe the process.

“If one can discern it, everything is there – on show.  This is often the startling recognition looking back years later at family photographs.  There one sees oneself as a child looking out at the camera from within your cluster of siblings, most likely innocent to all the psychological and spiritual forces that were at work.  There is nothing un-neutral as a home.  Even the most ordinary home is an implicit theater to subversive inner happenings.  It is the most self-effacing laboratory of consciousness quietly shaping belief, expectations, and life direction.  Parents are invisible creators.  Quietly, day after day, their care and kindness nurture and foster the unseen landscapes of their children’s minds.  On the life journey of each individual the nature of mind determines what is seen and valued.”

While O’Donohue captures the impact the family has on one’s development, he leaves out the opportunities available today to work on self.  Dr. Murray Bowen observed not only the influence of the childhood family on one’s functioning, but also how a multigenerational emotional process shapes and forms each person within a family system over time.  While O’Donohue sees the work of becoming more of an individual as mostly historical, looking back and then reflecting on the way things were, Bowen observed how our familial patterns of functioning are replicated in each new generation.  Thus, one doesn’t have to just look to the past.  The same laboratory and process that was at work in childhood is alive and well in the current configuration of the family.

I appreciate O’Donohue description of the effort one makes to “be at home within self.”  He writes:

”This is something that is usually overlooked, but it is a vital requirement in the creativity and integrity of individual personality.  It has to do with the essence of a person, their sense of their own inner ground.  When a person is at home in his life, he always has a clear instinct about the shape of outer situations; even in the midst of confusion he can discern the traces of a path forward.  When one is at home in oneself, one is integrated and enjoys a sense of balance and poise.  In a sense that is exactly what spirituality is: the art of homecoming.”

O’Donohue’s description of the development of the self within the context of the family, his appreciation of the strengths that come from our parents and his description of what it can look like to be at home as a self are a blessing to me.

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