Subversive by Blessing - What does it mean to live in a spiritually expansive world?
….beyond the threshold of want
where all our diverse straining
can come to wholesome ease.
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. 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.’
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.’
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.’
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…’ 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.’ 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 sense) 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 operati