John O’Donohue was not a full sentence into his book, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, before I was mentally picking a fight with him. This happens sometimes, with books and me. But usually I make it past the first 10 words.
“There is a quiet light that shines in every heart,” he writes. I did not add a comment to the margin. But I did pencil a question mark. And underlined every. It was as if to say, “Really, John? Every heart? Let’s just see about that.”
He goes on to describe this universal light as what enables us to see beauty, to seek possibility, to love life, and knowing what I know about the world, and the people in it, particularly in light of very visible reminders in this country in the last few weeks, I just was not convinced that every person had this capacity.
It is my good fortune from time to time to be assigned books to read, so that I am not able to walk away 10 words in. There’s a built-in second chance to go further in and find new ways. That was, in fact, the first blessing of O’Donohue’s book of blessings for me.
In the introduction, O’Donohue reflects on the way in which “we have fallen out of belonging” and the ways in which we are often ill-equipped to express needful things as we embark on certain changes in our world. “For such crossings we need to find new words. What is nearest to the heart is often farthest from the word. This book is an attempt to reach into that tenuous territory of change that we must traverse when a threshold invites us. Each blessing is intended to present a minimal psychic portrait of the geography of change it names. Without warning, thresholds can open directly before our feet. These thresholds are also the shorelines of new worlds. The blessings here attempt to offer a brief geography of the new experience and some pathways of presence through it.”
As we stand on one of those precipices, globally, in these days, the language of geography is striking and helpful. O’Donohue contrasts the poem with the blessing, finding several distinctions. I find myself less interested in the difference between a blessing and a poem than the difference between a blessing and the idea we often have of a blessing. I live in the South, where “bless your heart” is less an expression of kindness and warmth than a veiled condescension. We’re prone to claim we are “blessed” when good things happen (implying by contrast that it’s something else when bad things do) and to pass along blessings as good wishes, words that often lack any positive action behind them. But in O’Donohue’s hands, the blessing becomes a sort of cartography that can guide us to a new way of being, a new way of seeing, a new way of embracing another.
The blessing, O’Donohue says, is “direct address, driven by immediacy and care.” There is an intimacy to such a thing, there is action, and there is a necessary connection created or expanded between the giver and recipient. He writes that “When a blessing is invoked, it changes the atmosphere. Some of the plenitude flows into our hearts from the invisible neighborhood of loving kindness. In the light and reverence of blessing, a person or situation becomes illuminated in a completely new way. In a dead wall a window opens, in dense darkness a path starts to glimmer, and into a broken heart healing falls like morning dew.”
O’Donohue begins this collections of blessings with “Beginnings,” an array of blessings appropriate for all manner of beginnings. Before he offers the blessings, he helps us to understand that beginnings are really continuations. “When we arrive into the world, we enter this ancient sequence. All our beginnings happen within this continuity. Beginnings often frighten us because they seem like lonely voyages into the unknown. Yet, in truth, no beginning is empty or isolated.” A beginning, he writes, is “an invitation to open toward the gifts and growth that are stored up for us. To refuse to begin can be an act of great self-neglect.”
The blessing, and the act of blessing, can be a way of offering and finding courage. In “A Morning Offering,” O’Donohue encourages an openness to this new geography:
May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
And when he offers a blessing “For a New Home,” it feels as though it can reach far beyond a home and into the new way of living we are asking ourselves to take on.
May this be a safe place
Full of understanding and acceptance,
Where you can be as you are,
Without the need of any mask
Of pretense or image.
May this home be a place of discovery,
Where the possibilities that sleep
In the clay of your soul can emerge
To deepen and refine your vision
For all that is yet to come to birth.
May you have the eyes to see
That no visitor arrives without a gift
And no guest leaves without a blessing.
He extends another set of blessings for “Desires,” considering the ways in which desire can spur us forward, creating a restlessness for something better. But he also considers the darker side of desire, the way it can be manipulated commercially and the way it can become “blind to presence” and “driven to have more and more.” He describes desire’s shadow side, greed, as “some lonely infinite [that] sleeps within desire, and when it comes awake it can destroy everything in its singular wish to possess. All perspective is lost, and vision is reduced to destructive ideology.” Ultimately, he writes, desires are “messengers of our unlived life, calling us to attention and action while we still have time.”
On the page with the blessing “In Praise of Air,” I have penciled “in the time of COVID.” O’Donohue offers,
Let us bless the air,
Benefactor of breath,
Keeper of the fragile bridge
We breathe across
Air: the vast neighborhood
Of the invisible, where thought lives,
Entering, to arise in us as our own,
Enabling us to put faces on things
That would otherwise stay strange
And leave us homeless here
Air, home of memory where
Our vanished days secretly gather,
Receiving every glance, word, and act
That fall from presence,
Taking all our unfolding in,
So that nothing is lost or forgotten.
But what may have been the most interesting to me is the inclusion of a blessing about conflict in the middle of a section on desire. In “For Love in a Time of Conflict,” he uses desire to help us fall back into belonging.
When the gentleness between you hardens
And you fall out of belonging with each other,
May the depths you have reached hold you still.
When no true word can be said, or heard,
And you mirror each other in the script of hurt,
When even the silence has become raw and torn,
May you hear again an echo of your first music.
Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
To allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt,
Reach out with sure hands
To take the chalice of your love,
And carry it through this echoless waste
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you
Toward thegateway to spring.
May we be the one to be gracious, to allow a kindness, to reach out with sure hands in times of great hurt and distress and to see that “quiet light that shines in every heart.”
This month, we’re reading John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us together. Let’s think together on some of the ideas expressed in the first two chapters.
1. What images does the idea of a blessing conjure for you? How have these images been helpful to you in closing “the space between us” with people in your life?
2. Have you received or extended a blessing for a beginning or related to desire? What has that experience been?
3. How has the idea blessing fit into your experience of our current moment?
Join us as we continue reading on the schedule below:
Book Club Announcement
June 10: Introduction, Beginnings (Ch. 1) & Desires (Ch. 2)
June 17: Thresholds (Ch. 3), Homecomings (Ch. 4) & States of Heart (Ch. 5)
June 24: Callings (Ch. 6), Beyond Endings (Ch. 7) & To Retrieve the Lost Art of Blessing
Photo by AirHaake, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.
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