This piece was first given by Carol O'Connor at a Margaret Silf Summit in Melbourne: Imagining the Self in a Spiritually Expansive World offered by Kardia Formation, 19th May 2018.
….beyond the threshold of want
where all our diverse straining
can come to wholesome ease.
where all our diverse straining
can come to wholesome ease.
John O’Donohuei (p 121)
The Irish Celtic writer John O’Donohue emphasises in his book of blessings To Bless This Space Between Us, that life is a constant flow of emergence. In his blessing For The Unknown Self he describes how our ‘unknown self’ calls us to evolve. We live in the place of possibility, of thresholds which are possibilities into new worlds. ii He teaches that our ‘unknown self’ dwells in us gently, kindly, knows our primeval heart and has the capacity in dreams to create ‘many secret doors / Decorated with pictures of your hunger.’iii
But what premise can this rest on, what shape can it possibly even outline in this first part of the 21st century, where the world seems to have a sense that it’s shrinking not opening, where the notion of ‘truth’ seems vague and slippery, not creative and life giving, where abundance seems to be the exponential increase of our non-biologically degradable garbage or arms of war, and the growing list of endangered species? Viewed from one lens, the future of our civilisation looks increasingly bleak, fraught and full of suffering. In this context, the unknown self can seem to harbour only states of unease and anxiety.
This book of blessings was John O’Donohue’s final before he unexpectedly died young. In it he wrote, ironically now, that ‘we never see the script of our lives nor do we know what is coming towards us, or why our life takes on this particular shape or sequence’. For him although ‘to be in the world is to be distant from the homeland of wholeness….we are confined by limitation and difficulty….’ he also suggests a deeper recognition that ‘when we bless we are enabled somehow to go beyond our present frontiers and reach into the source. A blessing awakens future wholeness…’ We are physical beings subject to the laws of nature, but the future stands on an unmade threshold full of potential. Blessings, he says, are ‘different from a hug or a salute….(they) open a different door in human encounter. One enters into the forecourt of the soul, the source of intimacy and the compass of destiny.’iv
John O’Donohue understood that primarily a blessing is about relationship: with the self, with God, with one another. And blessings are about wholeness. Blessings seek wholeness of the self and community without denying the brokenness - the reality of slippery truth, the fact of the degradation of our planet. They reach into a source beyond our present frontiers and do this for the sake of wholeness and healing.
To reach into a source is to live with recognition of the self as being in process: ‘we are distant from the homeland of wholeness.’ It is an old truth that we’ve almost forgotten that the best things in life take time, we need the leaning in of time to form who we are becoming. The gift of time actually is the enabling vehicle which evolves us. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that we need to remember that we are shaped by time, otherwise we are in danger of losing of what it is to be human. So, the practice of silence and reflection enables us to ‘enter into that forecourt of the soul,’ that source of intimacy which enables possibility to emerge. Rowan Williams goes on to say: ‘Time is a complex and rich gift; it is the medium in which we not only grow and move forward, but also constructively return and resource - literally re-source - ourselves.’ v
There are two Greek words translated as blessing or to bless or blessed in the New Testament. The first one is eulogeo: to speak well of God, to ask God’s blessing on a thing - to praise, to invoke, to consecrate something and set it apart for its ongoing wellness in God. Luke 24:30 ‘He took bread and blessed it, and broke, and gave to them’; Mark 11:9 ‘Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord’; Matthew 5:44 ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you.’ The second word is markarios - this is the one we most often translate as ‘blessed’ from the Beatitudes: it means to be a partaker of God and the fullness of God. Makarios in particular has that deep sense of joy and grace.
Why does the word ‘may’ often appear when we speak a blessing? John O’Donohue tells us, ‘it is a word of benediction. It imagines and wills the fulfilment of desire. In the invocation of our blessings here, the word may is the spring through which the Holy Spirit is invoked to surge into presence and effect. The Holy Spirit, is the subtle presence and secret energy behind every blessing…’vi The word ‘may’ is our link between heaven and earth.
The biblical world Heaven, as explained by English theologian Paula Gooder, was not understood as a spiritual place, over there in the distance and somewhere I or you go to when we die. We have developed a very different understanding of Heaven because we no longer share the ancient cosmology that the earth is flat. Biblical understanding was in fact that heaven is not an eternal realm far, far away from earth, but a spatial created realm very close to earth, and created to be alongside earth. The early Celtic Christians also believed that Heaven is right here, and right now. Their sense of ‘thin places’ was resonant with the closeness of Heaven alongside earth. To employ the word ‘may’ in terms of benediction, in terms of speaking well of, is to affirm that this spatial realm of Heaven is right close alongside earth and the ongoing work of the spirit between the two.
It’s important here to note that blessings recognise God’s goodness in the world, rather than establish it. So when you bless something, you are not magically transforming it. Contemporary English theologian Andrew Davison in his book Blessing which has inspired my own thinking and forms the basis for this reflection, explains, ‘blessings will not be about God’s holiness in itself….. We do not make God holy but we can help our world to make a better attempt at recognising God’s holiness and keeping it in mind.’vii So blessings do not make God great; they proclaim God’s greatness. Blessings are about speaking well of God; they ‘call out’ if you like, God’s presence in the world. They ‘call out’ in order to show that light which already exists, but has still yet to be fully revealed. And when we bless a place or a person, a vocation with this understanding we are setting them out on a path which recognises their ongoing relationship in and with God.
So, in blessing, we acknowledge the closeness of heaven to earth and that God’s action is caught up in the process of well making in our world. God seeks wholeness and works for the good (in an ontological senseviii) here on earth. But we also acknowledge that God doesn’t play havoc with laws of science or our physical embodiment. When we bless a person before they have an operation it is so that they may be healed - if not in body, then in mind; we bless someone before they die so they transition in peace to eternal rest and the hope of rising in Glory; we bless a house when newly occupied, so that those who live under its roof may enjoy ongoing hospitality and love. These blessings are a part of the redemptive process in the world. But they don’t deny that tragedies and suffering and de-humanisation will continue to happen. The violence in the world, the uncertainty, the suffering doesn’t go away. But blessing does affect the way we encounter them and move within and alongside them.
So how is it that I have come to believe that ‘blessing’ is subversive in our early 21st century world? Coming from the French, the word subversive literally means, ‘from below to turn’. There’s action happening in the world that’s turning everything, but unlike many other actions in the world, this action is happening from below. There’s a deeper urging causing the self to shift. So then, what is it in our life that blessing is coming under and trying to turn? And also where would blessings have us turn toward?
Well, here are six suggestions - and here again I acknowledge the work of Andrew Davison in helping shape my own considerations:
Firstly, blessings teach us, ‘that all is not entirely well with the world.' ix We are by nature broken and flawed. We need restoration and healing.
Each of these six suggestions in some way deal with how and not what; how we move in the world, how we travel with our outer circumstances - not so much what we have to work with. I’m often struck by how people can take something - an image or a line of poetry - and use it for their own purposes. For example, the poem Invictis by Henly, has a memorable final couplet: ‘I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.’ In 1995 this poem and these lines in particular, were chosen to be the final words spoken by Timothy McVeigh before his execution - he was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 people and injured over 680.
But during Nelson Mandela’s eighteen year imprisonment at Robben Island prison between 1962-1980 this same poem inspired him to stay alive and dream about what God’s well making in Africa could possibly look like. For Mandela the words brought courage and determination to make Africa free from Apartheid, to make it a more just country through reconciliation and accountability. His premise was on a greater ontological good, and in 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this journey towards national healing. For McVeigh, the words meant the desire to take over control himself on a matter which he considered unjust. Taking on the role as ultimate arbiter, and taking revenge on the Government in such an abhorrent manner completely invalidated any nominal cause he may have had.
Mandela and McVeigh both used the same poem, but where for one it was used with a sense of moving alongside God’s purposes for greater good in the world, the other attempted to shrink the world and play god. By acknowledging that we are all linked into much bigger processes in the world, processes that seek through us to bring wholeness rather than revenge or bloodshed, we release ourselves from a terrible bondage.
Blessings are subversive because they belong to the broken seeking to emerge into a new wholeness, and are not captive to mastery or self-mastery. Understanding practices of mastery or self-mastery as an education in honing skills and talents can be a great benefit. But wholeness cannot be sought only by learning to have control over who we are or who others are and only by controlling our outer circumstances. To do this would be to necessarily make the world small to our human purposes, and bring on an unbearable burden. Blessings recognise the mystery of healing in God. Because of this, they cut directly through the belief that we must strive to be masters of who we are and what we do.
The notion of self-mastery permeates our ‘first world’ culture, established on desire. There are self-mastery business seminars you can attend; self-mastery cards you can purchase to teach how to master compassion, enthusiasm, self-respect; there is a self-mastery board game whose goal is to create your own self-mastery and to regain a sense of equilibrium in your life. These work well as tools of empowerment, but not as ends in themselves. And the pervasiveness of self-mastery is also more subtle than this: there is the desire to perfect the body: the increasing availability of medical procedures (regardless of health risks) so we can become perfectly designed physically. As adults we have access to a range of drugs to help us master our emotions as well as our bodies. I don’t mean here taking drugs that alleviate depression or bipolar, or medical procedures that seek to heal disfigurement. But, the misshapen understanding about the way we have been created that seeks to control the self in attempt to fit an unrealisable idealisation. In fact, a distortion of what it means to be a human being.
So blessing not only recognises, but makes a credible space for the reality of our broken and flawed humanity. But how can blessing help us understand our place in the world?
Secondly, blessings remind us that what we are given in life is gift; and by this they call us back into the priority of relationships with one another. The world is on loan to us created from a deep well of cosmic Love for creation, and we are each called to live a life of sharing in it. In the Christian Church, unlike some other religions, blessings are not commodities to be bought or sold. You can’t buy a bag of eulogeo or makarios, even at Coles. So much that is thought to be credible in our world is ‘for sale’; worth is judged in terms of its monetary value. To live by the way of blessing subverts the notion that life is premised on acquisition and objectification.
They also subvert the notion that we can live only in our heads; they turn us back to the concrete reality of one another. As much as I relish and am hooked into both technology and social media - I recognise they risk taking me away from personal face-to-face interaction with a person into a vicarious head game of avatars. The Face Book ‘wall’ is not a wall at all in any physical sense, but a moving tide of thought posts which operate only in my own head space. Bitcoins are crypto-currencies where transactions are verified by network nodes; they may have power over earth’s resources, but operate only in virtual communities. Advertisements work in the illusory and objectification. Constantly being taken out of our bodies and into head space we risk losing the connection with one another in the embodiment of the physical world.
Technology and social media and bitcoins are not in themselves the problem: it’s when they are used to derail what it means to be human. The currency of our lives often only puts money and virtual reality into circulation; however blessings recognise mutuality in relationship to be of more value. They are freely given touchstones which remind us of the giftedness of life itself; that all creation comes from God. In the Gospels Jesus is very present and real to each person he encounters. He stays grounded in the body to the point where he knows when someone touches the hem of his garment. We witness him say ‘no’ to all things that get in the way of direct relationship with one another and with God: he confronted the money changers in the temple who exploited the poor by selling them offerings. He taught that our relationship with God is not to be mediated nor conditional. For relationships to be real they have to be founded on mutuality, on listening, on noticing; breathing in the same space.
Time itself is a gift. To hear rightly, that common phrase ‘Bless You’ is to be released into a process, a day by day, moment by moment, realignment toward and in God. In an essay on St Benedict, Rowan Williams says: ‘there are some good things that are utterly inaccessible without the taking of time……good things that only emerge in time as we look and listen, as we accompany a long story in its unfolding….’ x So, thirdly, blessings remind us that orientation towards God is a life-long, ever deepening practice which takes time and opens us to being shaped in time. There is no Manna From Heaven Fast Food outlet or One Stop Blessing Franchise. To live in the spirit of blessing is challenging work. We are so often resistant to what it means to being shaped by time. And yet it would be an absurd notion to listen to the fastest version of The Moonlight Sonata or receive the whole of the musical Into the Woods by Sondheim in five minutes.
Perhaps it’s the Beatitudes most of all in the Gospels which give us food to really sit down with and chew over. Their very subversive directives demand our taking of time even to begin to understand the direction they are hinting. Classicist and Hebrew scholar Sarah Ruden refers to this passage in the Gospels as a poem on ‘Blessingnesses.’ She explains that the ‘Greek speaking people in the wider Roman Empire very likely experienced this passage as sort of chant.’xi with each line divided into two parts. Rhythmically in the Greek, the first part of each line ‘yields’ to the second. Thus, ‘…The pounding comes in the second halves of the Beatitude’s lines, until there are no longer any distinct lines.’ xiiTo me, each line reads like a Zen Koan. Eugene Peterson translates the first line in Matthew’s version: 'You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.' This is a line to ponder. Again, it’s only in the sitting with, giving time to, interrogating each of Peterson's translated lines, that they can begin to make sense.xiii By their very implacable tone they call us to remember what it is essential in our lives with one another: authenticity, mercy, truth, peace, groundedness.
So fourthly, blessings are concerned with what is essential, and they remind us to give thanks. In the Christian mass the church service is centered around the Eucharist. This is the giving to us of what is essential - the bread of life. The bread of life, the body of Jesus, the feeding of divine love. ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Yes, give us food for our body. But Lord, give us also your love. We need love. And we need love to shape us.
Blessings turn us towards the essential and in this turning they urge us to practice thanksgiving. Therefore, we don’t bless things that are excessive - plasma TVs or the latest Xbox game. They may be fun extras. And we don’t bless those things that go against the common good: weapons of mass destruction. We bless food and rivers and houses; those necessary things we need each day and so often take for granted. And we bless people because healthy relationships are life-giving. Blessings expand the heart to recognise the true worth of what we are given, they remind us about Who the giver is, and draw us deeper into the mystery of life unfolding.
So, in all this, who are blessings actually for? One of my favourite Gospel stories is from the Gospel of Luke, 19:3. It’s the story of Zacchaeus, who was a tax collector. He was also very short in stature so that he was not able to see Jesus through the crowd. He ran on ahead and climbed a tree. When Jesus reached the spot he simply said, Come down Zacchaeus I’m going to dine with you today. Christ is the one who is able to see the particular needs of each one of us - be it even the most socially despised tax collector.
And for Jesus, everyone is invited to dinner; everyone is invited to the party, to the Eucharistic feast. City people, country people, fringe dwellers. Smelly people, clean people, people with warts and people with perfect complexions. Judas is invited to the last supper in the full knowledge that he will betray Jesus. Because here at the Eucharist people are not judged on moral or racial or religious terms, but related to as persons. At the table of Jesus, whatever inherent risk there is in worldly terms, here it is rendered redundant and nonsensical. For what we are invited to share in this meal is the coming together in blessing, for the inherent goodness in God’s creation. Here is the place where the Word of God is remembered, and praise and thanksgiving given for God’s Spirit amongst us.
So, fifthly, blessings are inclusive and they offer wellness for everyone. They are subversive in our world because here is one feast, a celebration, at which there are no insiders and no outsiders. You actually don’t need a club membership card. And you don’t need to pay any fees. And how subversive is this - especially for the Church?
But look what happens of its own accord in this meal with Christ: as a social outsider, having received the inclusive invitation to dine with Jesus, by Jesus himself, what does Zacchaeus then offer to do? ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Luke 19: 8. He turns his whole life around to one of giving to others. He’s not buying into a club membership, but his own sudden recognition of the value of what he is invited to participate in at such a deep level instinctively turns his desires into wanting to share what he has with others.
All blessings are particular and individual, but they recognise that the calling out of goodness in one person is in effect the calling for more life and more wellbeing for everyone. Blessings are inherently inclusive, seeking to integrate and gather together, rather than split off. No-one is considered unworthy or insignificant of notice at our Lord’s table because that is the very place where we are all healed.
Given this then, that everyone is invited to participate in the life of God, sixthly and finally, blessings affirm our interconnectedness and interdependence.
At the heart of Margaret Silf’s latest book, Hidden Wings, is this salutation of the butterfly effectxiv. What I say and do today, what you say and do today, can have bearing on a child growing up in England or Sudan. When a person is blessed before going on a pilgrimage, it can change the way that persons relates to people they encounter.
Blessings are subversive because they are relational in nature to a wider community, rather than individualistic. When you bless someone for their journey, or bless a church, or celebrate the Eucharist you are recognising by this action that you and I, or you and this building are linked together in some bigger action of God’s. And all our own stories are linked into a much bigger picture of God’s story of creation. No matter if we were born 2000 years ago and knew Jesus then, or 4 000 years ago and didn’t know him; no matter if we live the life of a hermit or recluse today - we are all a part of God’s story of our planet earth and our time and space in the universe.
Indigenous cultures have so much to teach us because they are steeped in this innate wisdom. We may believe that we have been created prima facie as existential, alienated beings. We may feel because of dispossession, suffering or violence that we are split off. But as Desmond Tutu teaches, there is a word in his language: Ubuntu. It means, 'I am because You are.’ You and I, whoever you are and I am in whatever circumstances, right now in this room - you are you because of who I am, and I am myself because of who you are. And this mutuality ripples out into the wider world beyond the edges.
This whole reflection could have been about the Beatitudes, and I still wouldn’t have said enough. As a group of statements about being living in the fullness of God, they are outrageous and impossible in worldly terms. But that’s just it, they are about life in the kingdom of God. Benedictine monk and systematic theologian, Luigi Gioia urges us not to understand the Beatitudes so much as a moral code of conduct, but as a portrait of Jesus: his justice, his perfection, his purity, his forgiveness. He writes: ‘and only because of and insofar as they are related to him do they relate to us.’ xv In our humanity we fall vastly short of Christ’s perfection.
Perhaps ultimately it’s only via music that the inward signs toward what living with and in blessing as being an alternate way, can truly be discovered. The composer Arvo Pärt has written a piece for the Beatitudes. In his interpretation there are two distinctive traits which really speak here. One is the silence that marks the gap between the first half and the second half of each line. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…..(pause)……for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ The pause is the silence, the time taken to absorb and bring into effect the power of the second part of the line.
And the second trait is the organ music itself. Initially only the voices carry the music and the organ is gradually introduced. Its tone begins like a short growl under the sung words, then departing in silence, only to re-emerge in the next line. And each time the organ sounds, it's own presence is a little more emphatic, a little more insistent. This growl gradually increases in immensity and climaxes at the end of the last line. What we hear here, I believe, is Arvo Pärt drawing our attention to God’s great affirmation of living in ‘markarios.’ This affirmation is born from a deeply erotic, a primal place. By erupting gradually underneath the words and building up and up, the music itself finally explodes open as the surge of Love – of God's very groundedness - strives to turn right around our more worldly assumptions about what the nature of love means. What we think, generally in our day to day transactional interactions to be the case, in fact, in God’s realm is not the case.
To live in this way of blessing is not a weakness, but a deep primal strength which can only come out of the very foundations of a God of Love. Makarios like eulogeo, is a call from below to all of us in our world to turn around and open our hearts to the very Giver of life, and begin to draw the wellness of life from this subversive wellspring.
iFrom 'For the Unknown Self' in To Bless This Space Between Us, by John O'Donohue, Doubleday, 2008, p 121
iiIbid Introduction p xiv
iiiIbid p 121
vBeing Human: Bodies, minds, persons, by Rowan Williams, SPCK, 2018 p 78
viTo Bless This Space Between Us Op Cit p xvi
viiBlessing by Andrew Davison, Canterbury Press, 2014, p 11
viiiIbid p 26. Here Davison differentiates ontological goodness from moral. Ontological is 'simply the good of being, and being it well. It is the goodness that we can ascribe to an apple when we say a 'good apple' whereas it would make no sense to say that an apple was morally good, or morally bad for that matter. 'Good' said of an apple means the apple lives up to what an apple can be...'
ixIbid p 19
xHoly Living: The Christian tradition for today by Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury, 2017, p 65-66
xiThe Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible by Sarah Ruden, Pantheon. 2017, p 80-81
xiiIbid p 80
xiiiThe Message: Remix by Eugene Peterson, Navpress, 2003, p 1434. Peterson's transaction of the Beatitudes as a whole is worth a read.
xivHidden Wings: Emerging from Troubled Times with New Hope and Deeper Wisdom, by Margaret Silf, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2017
xvSay it To God: In Search of Prayer by Luigi Gioia, Bloomsbury, 2017 p 91