If I had to select one book of poetry that is the most dog-eared in my library, the most quoted in classes at The Seattle School, and the most used by friends in times of celebration and need, it would be, To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue. A master poet, O’Donohue has taught us that some of the most powerful and intimate words are the invocation, “May you…” Those two little words awaken our longing and desire. They strengthen our presence and belonging. They make a place for the Holy Spirit to dance. They evoke light and life and yes.
The Double Capacity
When I teach week-long writing workshops, I often end class exploring the genre of blessing, pulling from the Celtic tradition among others. Writing and giving blessings is an important way that we send one another into our everyday rhythms and honor what has happened in our time together. While O’Donohue’s exquisite blessings get most of the attention, I like to give the class his short essay tucked into the back of the book called, “To Retrieve the Lost Art of Blessing.” Through his insights, I’ve come to understand that the form of blessing relies on a double capacity. Its task is to simultaneously look outward and honor the reality of what is happening, while looking inward to name the inner experience and resources within.
Writing the genre of blessing participates in the tradition of all art making and language itself: to make visible the invisible world. In fact, O’Donohue suggests that “the imagination is the faculty that bridges, co-presents, and co-articulates the visible and the invisible” (Anam Cara, 51). Perhaps one of the reasons we are drawn to particular poets, musicians, writers, and painters is that we feel known by their representations of the world. They hold together both matter and psyche, the visible and in the invisible worlds. Great artists articulate something true that mirrors something true we have already held in our own bodies.
One of the profound things that O’Donohue’s work suggests is that blessing doesn’t erase difficulty, but rather reaches deeper. In his essay he argues:
It [blessing] is not the invention of what is not there, nor the glazed-eyed belief that the innocent energy of goodwill can alter what is destructive. Blessing is a more robust and grounded presence; it issues from the confident depth of the hidden self, and its vision and force can transform what is deadlocked, numbed, and inevitable. When you bless someone, you literally call the force of their infinite self into action (207).
The hope of a robust blessing is that we reach for language that is large enough to hold and welcome the full range of human experience. An example of a weak blessing is something like, “May you never know hardship.” Quite frankly, that is just outside of the range of possibility. My understanding of what it means to be human is that our hardships are an inevitable part of the story. Our difficult experiences are our teachers that mark us and make us. A stronger example of a blessing goes something like, “When hardships come, may you not be alone. May you draw on the stories of those who have come before you. May you remain yourself as you respond.”
Blessing and Resilience
Blessings carry with them the particular intimacy and care of direct address. While they are crafted out of the universality of human love, longing, and loss, they use the second-person “you.” When I read an O’Donohue blessing, the fact that every “you” is addressed to every reader doesn’t diminish the fact that it feels addressed to me in a particular moment in my life. As the title of the book suggests, a blessing occurs between people and is predicated on connection. Like the book itself, our blessings are meant to bear the marks of our hands as we pass them to one another. They are meant to do much more than wish us well. They are meant to relationally contextualize us. They are meant to thread us into an intricate fabric of meaning and belonging.
One of the laments in O’Donohue’s essay is that for a culture so steeped in progress and technological communication, we are haunted by disconnection and loneliness. He suggests that not only have we lost the art of blessing, but “we have unlearned the grace of presence and belonging” (To Bless the Space Between Us, 194). Research suggests that an important indicator of a person’s resilience is their connection to a community of support. Our well-being is nourished by people who grieve over what grieves us and delight over what delights us. Our isolation from our own lives and the lives of others weakens our capacity to weather the tempests and thresholds of our lives. The good news is that the inverse is true as well. When we are woven into the fabric of community, we are less likely to unravel. The genre of blessing reminds us that the words that pass between us have potential invite and to invoke. Our words can clear a path for the depth of another soul to emerge. Our words can weave us into one another’s stories such that we are not alone. The central gesture of a blessing is presence calling to presence.
As we move into a season of gratitude, I am reminded of the words of yet another poet. W. B. Yeats wrote in his poem Vacillation, “It seemed, so great my happiness,/ That I was blessed and could bless.” There is something beautiful about the cyclical nature of that line. It reminds me that blessing is gratitude made manifest in the world. Having known love, we seek to love others well. Having been witnessed, we bear witness to others. Having known suffering, we listen to the suffering of others. Having been accompanied through thresholds, we are moved to accompany others. Having been blessed, we become those who further beget blessing. May it be so with you.