An encounter that shaped my ministry: time with John O’Donohue

This post is authored by John Burton Hunt, and has been posted on his behalf by blog moderator, Jose Reader.

A harsh spirit

I was a Plunket baby. The nurse told my mother, “Feed baby every four hours, ten minutes on each side, and if he cries after three hours, don’t go to him. He will have you running to him all the time. It won’t hurt him to cry for an hour”. I cried – and so did my mother.

What is the underlying assumption? That a baby is a tyrant who needs discipline? What is the underlying belief? The doctrine of original sin. It was said, “Sin lurks at the door of the womb”.

My school reports always read, “John could do better”. I remember, my heart heavy, sighing, “How good is good enough?”

Prior to my confirmation, aged fourteen, I met with the minister. He said, “On this eve of your profession of faith, it is appropriate for you to confess your sins”. He explained, “You kneel down, I will offer prayers of confession. When I say something you need to confess, you say, ‘I confess that sin, Lord’”. He was confessing sins I had never heard of! I felt a failure. He said, “I have taken your name in vain”. I was so relieved. I had something to confess.

From when I was five, following a time in hospital, I had a severe stutter. My mother sent me to endless therapists. None was able to help me. But I got the message – I am not acceptable as I am. At Otago my English tutor was setting up a play-reading. She looked at me: “You won’t want a part, will you Mr Hunt?”.

After a long illness my mother died a painful death.

A costly spirit

It was with a bruised spirit that I made my way into ministry. I found Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. It was a model I could embrace. My wounds had given me a deep empathy. I could identify with people in their pain. In the way of the crucified one, sharing their pain, I could ease it for them.

I was soon told stories of people in need whose minister had not come. I was dedicated to being alongside people in their troubles and sorrows.

Before leading worship I would pray, “Loving God, bless these people. Let there be, for them, comfort in their needs and nurture for their dreams. Let them know your love enfolding them”. Every Sunday I was afraid people would find my sermon not helpful; that they would go home disappointed. I could hear a whisper in my ear, “John could do better”.

I became drained. I suffered epileptic seizures.

A nurturing spirit

I came across John O’Donohue’s writing. He was a parish priest in the diocese of Galway, Ireland. He had a doctorate in philosophy from Tubingen in Germany. He was a poet and a Celtic dreamer.

The early Church did not get to Ireland. The Celts were free of the doctrine of original sin. For the Celts, God’s love came in the baby Jesus – and comes in every baby. For the Celts, Christ comes to us in a friend or a stranger. For the Celts, this world is not one that we struggle through, and if we’re good, go to a better world: rather, this world is the one in which we know God’s love surrounding us.

It was a spirit which resonated in my own experience. I remembered my mother sending me to the corner grocer. When the grocer said, “Next, please,” I blocked on every word. I couldn’t tell him what I wanted. Other customers didn’t know where to look. Finally I ran home. I shut myself in my room and cried. My mother answered a knock on the door. It was the grocer. I heard him say, “Young John couldn’t tell us what you wanted. Here’s a pound of butter. Tell John we love him, stuttering or not.” God’s unconditional love came to me in the lips of the grocer.

I brought to mind the love and support of my wife, the love of friends and parishioners, enabling me to offer a good ministry.

Wonderfully I was able to take study leave, with John O’Donohue at the abbey on the island of Iona. He was about forty, quite tall with a wispy beard and smiling Irish eyes. After dinner on the first night he said, “Everyone is invited to Mass in the Michael Chapel at seven o’clock”. Someone asked him, “When you say ‘everyone’, does that include Presbyterians?” He smiled, “Of course it does”.

We gathered – about 30 of us from 25 different countries. Candles burned in the darkness. He came in with his vestments over his arm. He robed, poncho style. He said, “Let us pray. O God, you look upon us with tenderness, with compassion – and sometimes even with delight! – help us to look upon ourselves in the same way”.

I saw in the candle light tears running down cheeks and felt my own. For me it was the beginning of a new faith, hope and love and a new ministry.

John Burton Hunt

2 thoughts on “An encounter that shaped my ministry: time with John O’Donohue

  1. Thankyou John, Beautifully written and honestly reflected….and
    so much of your life journey echoes my own….fragility, sensitivity, inadequacy etc.
    Yet the Love of God became a reality even in the struggles of each day..
    How blessed am I, to have been able to pastorally walk alongside others in
    their journeys of pain, joy and eventually growth by the power of the very Holy Spirit—…
    and all because I too read and identified with Henri Nouwen’s “Wounded Healer.”
    Forty Years on…. I still read and refect on his material!
    Gratias Deo.


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