Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Brisbane Conference of ANZTLA 2018

Here is Philip Harvey's informal and distinctly selective summary of ‘Connecting People, Ideas, Learning’, the 33rd conference of the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association (ANZTLA), held at The Women’s College, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, on the 11th-14th of July 2018. These words, which are inflected with thoughts about the passing of time, were delivered during the handover session. 

We still build Dewey numbers in the time-honoured way, though the Dewey books themselves are being phased out in favour of online schedules. Does anyone use Web Dewey? A head count showed: not a lot and more for reference than the classification numbers. Kim Robinson (Mary Andrews College, Sydney) claimed a record for 26 numbers after the decimal point, only to warn the Dewey-eyed cataloguers assembled that this was too long and not the way to go. How far is too far with a Dewey number? The answer seems to be, it’s up to us. We may want to stretch the number around the front cover if it suits our specialisation, or keep it as simple as possible. Some things never change. 

Maria Stanton (American Theological Library Association) gave the keynote address, which reminded me of a time when ANZTLA’s relationship with ATLA was much more tenuous than today. She quoted the historian Shelby Foote: “A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.” We pondered this Zen koan. “Quaint pre-internet days” was how Maria described the world before say 1995. Poor articles and bad science were out there then, peer-reviewed or not, but today students swim in fake academic material. Who asks the questions about this? We do, the librarians. We step in and offer ways of challenging contemporary misinformation and identifying what is authentic. How to develop a thesis or an argument? The onus on us has increased to train students in these practices. Assistance with identification of copyright law issues – did I do anything like that thirty years ago? No. Open access publishing has been around for fifteen years. We need the understanding of all of this because we are the one who people come to, to sort it out. We keep learning to provide access, whatever the mode of access. Another work that Maria called “a chunky complicated thing” is the institutional repository. That’s our job: chunky complicated things. Community has always been there in our libraries, but today our ability to make community has increased to provide a special service to our schools. We support faculty and students, and while the library is physically there we can better provide our services and meet our own special objectives. 

Mandy Lupton explained YouTube as an example of user-driven connected learning. Bow Drill Boy showed what he was doing and asked what he needed to know: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuFsDN8dsJU  It’s network learning that draws on the wisdom group. Education is something you can do for yourself. You don’t have to wait for education to come to you. Levering digital networks is what we are doing, and Bow Drill Boy did not go to the local library to lever the answer. Connected learning developed out of youth identification networking, in particular marginalised youth. In other words, this is a whole way of doing shared learning unimaginable when ANZTLA was founded. 

It was affirming to be told that we are GLAM. Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums. We didn’t think of ourselves as GLAM back in the day, but Erin Mollenhauer (Moore College Library, Sydney) brought us up to date. Special collections are our responsibility and our pride. We must preserve, record and show off our special collections. They are an asset for our institutions and researchers. But we have to think of the future too. Time is ticking. Erin warned us that 2025 is the last chance to convert audiovisual materials. Digitisation is not itself digital preservation, Erin admonished. CDs and magic sticks and flash drives are not archives. 

We have always lived, as librarians, with people’s needs and experience of knowledge and information. It’s our bread and butter. Kate Davis (Digital Life Lab, University of Southern Queensland) talked about information practice. Today we need to be aware of the holistic focus on people’s complete view of the world itself and everything they encounter that impacts on study. 79% of people are living on social media much of the time; younger people even more than older people. It’s mind boggling. We need to be more aware of the lived experience. I was struck by Kate’s admission that social media is her office, her lounge room, her car, her everywhere and that, freakily, this is my world as well. It is a state of social interaction that pre-millennial librarians did not grow up knowing. We are invited to adapt. 

It is good to know that a librarian is an evolving role. We don’t want to get stuck in the past, after all! Digitisation, research data, bibliometrics, and visualisation are examples of our evolution. According to Angela Hannan and Felicity Berends (Centre for Digital Scholarship, University of Queensland Library) digital humanities gather, create, and disseminate scholarly knowledge. Theological librarians are digital humanists. We break down silos. We may shadow researchers to figure out how they collaborate. We develop projects. We use guides to text mining and text analysis by following UQ Library to Locations to Centre for Digital Scholarship, then scroll to Text Analysis Software then click the link called Text Mining and Text Analysis Guide. This is evolution. Do we have sufficiently developed foundational digital skills? If not, we may want to apply for a Digital Skills Driving License. It’s never too late. After this session, the Award for Most Used Word at the ANZTLA Conference had to go to Digital. 

Friday morning we were reminded that of the building of libraries there is no end, contrary to the urban myth that no one uses libraries. ACU Banyo’s new library extension affords magnificent views of Brisbane and is designed to accommodate more students more of the time. We also visited a workshop that can supply a library with every signage need, with no sharp edges to cut fingers or snap when dropped. 

Clare Thorpe (Library Quality and Planning, University of Southern Queensland) spoke on evidence-based practice, evaluating our collections and services. This practice first took off in 1997, so even though it was going on before then, it is now part of library life. Clare’s library is the first in Australia with a staff member dedicated entirely to this one job. It is about making librarians great, she said. We have to be advocates for our libraries, so we need a backpack of evidence, ideas, and statistics. This is not about “how good are we!”, but about how good are we in serving our users. This has remained true through time, we are there for others. 

I doubt if a session on LGBTQI would have been feasible in the early days of ANZTLA, not least because the terms were neither subtly defined nor common language. Time-wise, it is significant that liberation, black, and feminist theology – already familiar to our libraries then – have informed the methodology of queer theology. Mark Hangartner (Subject Librarian, University of Auckland) skilfully demonstrated how a librarian reads, appreciates and utilises online bibliographies and databases. 

Susan Thomas, Eve James, Stephen Morton, Jill Walker, Annette McGrath, Kenny Ladd, and Elizabeth Greentree were this year’s conference organizing committee. We are thankful to them for putting on this marvellous conference. Those with long memories will remember the first Brisbane conference held at what was then Pius XII Seminary in Banyo, today the site of Australian Catholic University Banyo and St Paul’s Theological College. It is a sign of the passing of time that one of the members of the organizing committee of that conference, Carolyn Willadsen, reserved a seat at this year’s conference dinner here at Women’s College, but did not show, for what has been explained diplomatically as a senior’s moment. Which only goes to show, it can happen to the best of us.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

KINGDOM OF GOD a series of quotations arranged by Clare McArdle

On Thursday the 5th of July Clare McArdle led the Carmelite Spiritual Learning Circle in a discussion about the Kingdom of God. Here are the notes used during the seminar.

Questions to guide us.
1.      What does the ‘Kingdom of God” and ‘Heaven’ mean to you?
2.      Can it be possible to have a precise understanding of such notions?
3.      In what ways can the “Kingdom of God” come about “on earth as it is in heaven”?
4.      How can I apply this notion to my daily life?


Via the parables

Thomas Keating – “The parables,…, are like handles on the mystery of the kingdom, pointers suggesting both what it is and what it is not.  We cannot fully understand the kingdom because it is a mystery that transcends any possibility of being contained in a concept.  But by rotating the wisdom of Jesus’ sayings in our mind’s eye and with the help of the parables, we can at least get a glimpse of it.” (p 39)

Keating identifies a pattern that is common in the parables namely: “shock value, an undermining of the grandiose ideas about the kingdom, and identification of the kingdom with the unclean, the marginalized, and the outcasts of society”. (63)

“The word parable means ‘laid aside.’  So the kingdom of God is known by laying it beside certain symbols or signs.  Unlike a simile, the parable actually contains  the truth revealed by the comparison.  Hence the parables are not just comparisons or something like something else.  The kingdom really is the way that Jesus presents it.”(75)

Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) tells us that the Kingdom of God knows “no fixed social, ethnic, racial, nationalistic, economic, or religious boundaries.” (20) “The Samaritan in the parable was not rewarded.  The kingdom of God is manifested in showing love whether or not it is accepted or its compassion appreciated.  Divine love is its own reward.  It is also irresistible.  It keeps flowing until it finds someone who will receive it.” (19) “Our unquestioned values are profoundly undermined.  We are forced to acknowledge the goodness of those we detest or distrust – perhaps even to accept compassionate service from them.  The kingdom of God seeks to enter our lives just as they are.” (20)

Parable of the Publican (tax collector) and the Pharisee. (Luke 18:10-14a) reinforces the central themes of the parable of the good Samaritan. To understand the radical nature of this parable and the previous one is to understand the social map of the times.  The Pharisee was conforming to the social role as the insider of the Temple and the tax collector as an outsider was required to pray apart from the Pharisee. Keating holds that the main point of the parable is the undermining of the current social order- “the kingdom of God is no longer to be found in the temple.  The holy is outside and the unholy may be inside.  The activity of the kingdom of God has moved from the sacred precinct of the temple to the profane arena of the secular world”. (24)

Parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32)  “This parable takes place in the context of a society where everyone was assigned a fixed place in the class structure” (26).  What emerges is that the primary concern of the father is to bring his two sons together in love.  “The father communicates unconditional love to his two sons so that they in turn may show mercy to each other…[god] seeks the unity of the human family, the removal of divisions and barriers, and the triumph of compassion by manifesting the maternal values symbolized in that culture by nourishment and overflowing affection.   The parable must have left the Jewish audience with their mouths open in astonishment.  What they thought was their major claim to God’s protection and love, his free election of them as his chosen people, is profoundly undermined by this parable.  The fact is that everyone is chosen.  This includes both public sinners, who know that they have offended God, and the self-righteous who deny their complicity in sin.” (30)

Parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-26) “The nature of the kingdom of God is that it has to be shared….To be in the kingdom is to participate in God’s solidarity with the poor by sharing with them the good things that have been given to us.  In the New Testament the great sin is to be deaf to the cry of the poor whether that cry springs from emotional, material, or spiritual need.  Although we cannot help but partake in some degree in social injustice because we live in this world, we must constantly reach out in concrete and practical ways to those in need.  Divine love is not a feeling, but a choice.  It is to show mercy.” (35)

Parable of the mustard seed (Luke 13:18-19) “The thrust of the parables is to subvert the distorted myths in which people live their lives. “(36)  In Jesus’ time, the mythical vision of Israel was as God’s chosen people and the “cultural symbol for this myth was the great cedar of Lebanon.” (37) “The kingdom of God as a nation would be the greatest of all nations just as the great cedar of Lebanon was the greatest of all trees.” (37)But the mustard just becomes a bush. The “parable implies that if we accept the God of everyday life, we can find God in everyday life….The kingdom is available right now.” (39) “The kingdom is manifested in ordinary daily life and how we live it.  If [we accept the God of everyday life] then we can enjoy the kingdom here and now without having to wait for an apocalypse or someone to deliver us from our difficulties.” (41) Even so Keating says the parable was too much of a myth changer and some versions of this parable have the mustard seed turning into a mighty tree. (40)

Parable of the workmen in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15) “The householder’s behavior seems unjust…This parable raises questions about the standard of justice in the kingdom of God.” (71)  “Ordinary standards of justice cannot explain how the kingdom works….Over centuries a secular standard of values crept into Christian teaching in the form of an elaborate system of earning heavenly rewards….How do we get into the kingdom if it is not something that we can earn?  We enter the kingdom not by meriting but by consenting to the invitation.”(72)  “Jesus in this parable seems to be trying to justify his practice of reaching out to outcasts and sinners.  Their behavior does not merit anything, but their need is great.  It is their need that he, as God’s son, is responding to….On the spiritual journey we need to be alert to our secret motivation.  Although self-knowledge does not cure the disease, at least it disposes us to work toward healing, because it shows us the harm we are doing to ourselves and to others. In trying to face the dark side of our personalities, mixed motivation, and the damage done to us in early childhood, our attitude toward our very real limitations is more important than their healing. 
The bottom line of this teaching is that the kingdom is not based on human standards of justice and equity but on the infinite mercy of God whose principal need is to respond to the desperate state of the human condition.” (73-74)

Parable of the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44) “The man in the parable in his joy went and sold all he had and bought the field.  Once it is safely concealed in the field, he cannot dig it up again without people wondering how he got it.  Though he has the treasure, he is more impoverished than before, because he has now sold all his other possessions.  He winds up with an enormous treasure that he cannot do anything with.  The parable alerts us to the fact that the kingdom, although it is given us as sheer gift, is not given to us just for our personal benefit.  To share this gift with others is an essential part of receiving it.”(76-77).....When the spiritual journey becomes an inner treasure, we want to give more time to prayer, silence, and solitude.  We do not want to be disturbed by the cares of the world.  There is nothing wrong with this desire in due proportion but to try to maintain our own peace of mind for selfish reasons such as avoiding the problems of others is to fail to understand the chief responsibility of the kingdom. “ (79)

Via the statements of Jesus as reported in the gospels

Keating (pp85ff) takes the following insights from the reported meeting of Pilate and Jesus (John 18:34-38) when Jesus responds to Pilate’s repeated questions “Are you the King of the Jews?” saying “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”.  Jesus “makes it clear that his kingdom has nothing to do with sovereignty, power, or domination.  It is just the opposite.” (p 85) “The truth to which this kingdom points is that the God of the universe, the ultimate reality, is the Father of infinite compassion and concern for every living thing. …The kingdom to which Jesus bears witness addresses the human condition exactly where it is and says in effect, “it’s okay to be weak broken, even sinful, a long as you accept yourselves and your condition for the love of God”.

Via other passages in the scriptures

Christ appears before Pilate (see John18:34-38). Pilate asks whether Jesus is “King of the Jews”.  Jesus replies “My kingdom is not from this world”….”You say that I am king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”   Jesus refers to a kingdom or a community with a very different “spirit and motivation from those of the kingdoms of this world.”  (Keating p 86) “The truth to which this kingdom points is that the God of the universe, the ultimate reality, is the Father of infinite compassion and concern for every living things.  This is a revolutionary idea for human beings.  Most people live in situations that are more or less oppressive and in varying degrees of interior turmoil, because they do not know how to deal with their frustration.  Our false self – the apparatus for self-centered projects for happiness – places us in a continuous double bind.” …We ask “Why doesn’t [this God] defend me and provide for me and others better than he does? Isn’t this what kings and dictators are for?” [but] “kings and dictators only offer an illusion of security, a vain hope that hides the basic uneasiness of everyday life, which is that we are not secure not loved as we would like, and not in complete control of anything including our lives and our deaths.”(Keating p 86)

“Certainly the kingdom, in all its modes of expression, tends towards its final and perfect form, which lies behind the last day of this earthly period, just as all the spiritual and corporeal manifestations of a child are expressions of his growth, and contribute to his attaining full human maturity.” (Winklhofer p 18)

“The truth about the universe, Christian theology contends, is that the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Something new is about to happen, indeed is happening and will one day have happened in its fullness.  The fact that the something new is happening now precludes the posture of passively waiting for the future.  It also means… that there is a purposive continuity in history.” …”Panneneberg’s intention must be distinguished from any idea of the future that places the Kingdom as a static entity somewhere ahead of us, or from any suggestion that the generic power is moving from the past through the present to the Kingdom. The coming Kingdom is the overarching reality that informs our understanding of existence.” (Neuhaus p 25) 

Pannenberg – to understand the Kingdom requires us to reverse the “connection between present and future, giving priority to the future. This is strange for contemporary thought [the assumption of which is that past and present are the cause of the future].  “…God’s Kingdom does not lie in the distant future but is imminent.  Thus, the present is not independent from that future.  Rather does the future have an imperative claim upon the present, alerting all men to the urgency and exclusiveness of seeking first the Kingdom of God.  As this message is proclaimed and accepted, God’s rule is present and we can even now glimpse his future glory.” (p 54)

2.         Is a precise understanding possible?

“Theology of reason, according to Pannenberg, is something quite different from the arid rationalisms of the past. ….[it] poses no threat to Christian piety.  To be reasonable means to be open to those aspects of reality which do not conform to our conceptual processes…A reasonable man..stands in fearful awe before the mystery of existence, before the power of the future that will in its coming resolve the contradictions of experience…. …If the most fundamental truth about existence is the imminence of the rule of God, from which all reality is derived and to which all hopes point, then it is perfectly reasonable that the thing to do is to commit oneself totally to the coming Kingdom.  He who tries to save his life by holding back from trusting the future that Jesus proclaims will surely lose his life.  This is the eminent rationality of discipleship.” (Neuhaus on Pannenberg p 45)  “Pannenberg brings together the evidence that he thinks supports a very high degree of probability for the truth of Jesus’ message.  This is what historical study and reason can provide, a high degree of probability.”  “There is no absolute certitude, no irrefutable proof”. (Neuhaus on Pannenberg p 46)

Bourgeault – “…Jesus, the living master, is real, alive, intimately and vibrantly enfolding you right now.  He is more present, in fact, than even your breath and your heartbeat.  But to really know this presence you need to tune in on a different wavelength: to shift from your usual binary operating system to the heart frequency where the Jesus connection broadcasts.  Wisdom Christianity is practice-driven.  When you do the practices that nurture the heart, you will sense this connection as a living bond.” (p 136-137)

Treston – There are many different ways of knowing – cognitive, experiential and revealed knowing. (p 41-42)  “Revelation is really a series of conversations between God and us via various stories….Revelation invites people towards a transformation of consciousness which not only acquires knowledge about God but experiences God as divine love.” (Treston p 43)

How do we apply this idea in our daily lives?

“…the Lord’s prayer, which Gregory of Nyssa recommends as a way to ‘remember that the life in which we ought to be interested is ‘daily’ life.  We can, each of us, only call the present time our own…Our Lord tells us to pray for today, and so he prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow’” ( Norris p 260)

Rowan Williams – “Scholars of the New Testament have been talking for generations about the tension in the Bible between the already and the not yet. …Yet what the New Testament actually says, again and again, is that we do not and cannot know the date of the final end, and that therefore we should live our lives as if the end might be at any moment – and at the same time, live our lives with complete responsibility for the here and now.” (p 97)  “We have to live in the light of the end – not gloomily and fearfully, but trying to bring ourselves relentlessly out of the shadows where we hide from God and ourselves and each other.” (p 99)

Pannenberg discusses how the Kingdom of God provides a foundation for ethics, that can be applied socially and personally.   (see chp 3)

Pannenberg – “…the Kingdom of God defines the ultimate horizon for all ethical statements.”(p 111)  Throughout the ages philosophers have tried to establish a foundation to support universal ethical principles including happiness, virtue of the classical philosophers to principles based on reason (Kant). “…the quest for the good is bent back upon man himself.  The good becomes a projection of his own self-realization”. (Pannenberg p 114)

 Pannenberg argues that God must be thought of as relating to the world both as its creator and as its future; not as some static transcendent being separated from the world.  As such we can take the idea of the good as essentially related to present man and his world because the good is concerned with the future of this man and his world. (Pannenberg p 111-112)

“…the striving for God as the ultimate good beyond the world is turned into concern for the world. This corresponds with God’s intention for the transformation of the world through his rule….Here we see the exciting relevance of Jesus’ message about the power of God’s future upon the present.  The most constructive consequence of this conversion to the world is the Christian idea of love that affirms the present world in transforming it. “(p 112)   “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (I John 4:16). (Pannenberg p 112)

“…to love God can only mean to anticipate in the dynamics of his love for this world and for this mankind.” (Pannenberg p 112)   Love of God and love of others are not two different types of love, according to Pannenberg, for love of others is “participation in God’s love; that is to say, love for fellowmen is participating in the coming Kingdom of God.” (p 113)

“If we participate in the love of God, we participate in the dynamics that make for unity, especially for the unity by which mankind is joined in the common quest for the highest good.  And the highest good for men, whether they know it or not, is the future of God’s Kingdom.  If a particular action springs from the spirit of creative love and contributes to individual and social integration, unity, and peace, then that particular action expresses the spirit of God’s Kingdom.  In pursuing such actions, the life of the individual will be integrated into personal identity and integrity through membership in a communion which is itself related to larger communities and is finally related to the whole of mankind.” (Panenberg p 118)

“To relate to somebody as a person is no routine thing but an act of faith.” (Pannenberg p 118)  “To accept somebody as a person means conceding to him an ultimate equality with myself in the human vocation.  The recognition of equality demands expression in opportunities for each person to achieve a life-style of human dignity, to develop individual gifts, to make his distinctive contribution to his own group and, beyond that, to mankind. “ (Pannenberg pp 119-120)

Implications for our political life or as Pannenberg calls it  the Commonweal.(p 122ff)
Pannenberg asserts that the Kingdom of God “is manifest in the common good”.  But a commonweal can only survive in a society “where a universal spirit unites the individuals and leads them beyond their narrow self-interests.  And …this cannot be achieved unless such a people knows to live in peace with the rest of the world.” (p 123)

While Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God is “addressed to each individual and calls for personal decision…the social dimension is far from lost.  The very decision of the individual points to a communal hope….The personal decision cannot be separated from the communal promise of God’s love manifest in the peace and justice that is to exist within a given society and is to order relationships among societies.” (p 124)


Bourgeault, Cynthia (2008)    The wisdom Jesus: transforming heart and mind – a new perspective on Christ and His message.  Boston & London; Shambhala.  (248.341 B772W)

Keating, Thomas (1993)         The Kingdom of God is like… New York; The Crossroad Publishing Company.  (226.8 K25)

Norris, Kathleen (2008)          Acedia & me: a marriage, monks, and a writer’s life. London: Riverhead Books. (248.505 N856A)

Pannenberg, Wolfhart (1969) Theology and the Kingdom of God.  Includes a profile of Pannenberg by Richard John Neuhaus.  Philadelphia; The Westminster Press.  ( 217.78 P194 TK)

Treston, Kevin (2010) A modern credo: telling the Christ story within the context of creation. Mulgrave, Vic; John Garratt Publishing (247.384 T799MC)

Williams, Rowan (2007)         Tokens of trust: an introduction to Christian belief. Norwich; Canterbury Press.  (247.98 WIL TT)

Winklhofer, Alois (1962)        The coming of His kingdom: a theology of the last things.  Freiburg, Edinburgh-London: Herder ,Nelson.  (237 W775)

Rainer Maria Rilke

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand. [3]

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).translated from German by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Subversive by Blessing - What does it mean to live in a spiritually expansive world? CAROL O'CONNOR

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.
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
ivIbid p165-7
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