Monday, 22 October 2012

A Book of Blessings

Philip Harvey 
“It would be infinitely lonely to live in a world without blessing,” says John O’Donohue at the start of this large experiment in blessing God, ourselves, and the world. (Benedictus, a Book of Blessings, by John O’Donohue, Bantam, ISBN 9780593058626)  Indeed, he promotes the view that there are certain times when a blessing is nearer to us than any other person or place. Blessings are a “privileged intimacy.”

Although poetic in form, the blessings are prayers of recognition rather than poems. They generalise our common world without sentimentality, and invite us to specify our own experience. They acknowledge existence, making it both real and surprising. ‘In Praise of Air’, for example, describes air as the “benefactor of breath”, “vast neighbourhood of the invisible”, and “reservoir of the future out of which our days flow”; it concludes, “May our souls stay in rhythm with eternal breath.”

We may conventionally think of blessing as an act of start or conclusion, but O’Donohue takes this much further, treating blessings as lively words in the midst of change. Thus the book’s seven sequences: Beginnings, Desires, Thresholds, Homecomings, States of Heart, Callings and Beyond Endings. They speak of all ages of human life, showing that blessing is found not just in ecstasy and bliss, but more often than not in our daily routines, and in loss and desolation. His grounded understanding of self and world is heard in the request to "take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention."

This is John O’Donohue’s last published book before his early death at the age of 52. "May your heart be speechless at the sight of the truth," he asks in 'For the Dying'. Out of his study of the ancient spirituality of his homeland Ireland and of the honorary Irishman Hegel, O'Donohue developed a philosophy of authentic personhood. One of his sayings is "the duty of privilege is absolute integrity," something we find at the basis of these blessings. He was a scholar, poet, philosopher, priest, spiritual leader and environmental activist, in recent years working to protect parts of the Burren in County Clare. He was a big, bearded, happy bear of a man who enjoyed great receptions everywhere, including Australia. He deserves a yet wider readership.  

Two of O’Donohue’s guiding principles are expressed in states of beatitude. In ‘For Absence’ we pray, “May the absences in your life grow full of eternal echo,” while ‘For Friendship’ asks “May you never be isolated but know the embrace of your Anam Cara.” Eternal echo is the rendering of an Irish phrase meaning personal true belonging and an anam cara is your soul friend or spiritual guide, both  rich teachings in Celtic spirituality, popularised by O’Donohue. He knows the need for blessing in a world of anxiety. "In our confusion, fear and uncertainty," he writes, "we call upon the invisible structures of original kindness to come to our assistance and open pathways of possibility by refreshing and activating in us our invisible potential."

Yet the book takes us further. The blessings enliven our thought and awareness of who or what we bless. Further, these blessings engender new blessings of our own, through association. Blessing inspires the practice of blessing. 'Benedictus' is a book of self-discovery as well as recognition of those around us, hence the American title for the book, 'To Bless the Space between Us'. It is a prayer-book, a source for liturgies, a genuine introduction to living Irish spirituality, and a way of making new.

This review first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican 

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