Subversive by Blessing

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.

John O’Donohue

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 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.' 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.

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 i