Saturday, March 16, 2013



Last Wednesday the whole world was watching when the brand new pope stood on the balcony about to give his first blessing as Supreme Pontiff. Then he broke protocol (something tells me we better get used to that!) and asked first that the rest of us should silently say of prayer of blessing over him. I grew up in a family where parents and grandparents gave blessings as a matter of course. It was never explained to me exactly why or how those folks could bless us children, it was just a fact of life. As I got older and entered the monastery, blessings became formal and ritualized and were the preserve of priests. But I always knew better.
In the African-American church I have benefited from the “prayer over the preacher,” the blessing that the congregation invokes over the kneeling homilist before he begins to break the Word of God for them. I have asked congregations and communities of religious to extend their hands in blessing over me before I began a retreat or a day of recollection. So that’s what I felt Pope Francis was doing when he asked that before he blessed us, we should pray for him.


By coincidence, I happened to be reading a book by the late John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between us: A Book of Blessings. (If you'd like to hear what he sounds like you might try clicking here.) So I thought that on Saint Patrick’s Day weekend I might share with you some of the thoughts this wonderful Irishman offers in the Introduction to this book of and about blessings.

It would be infinitely lonely to live in a world without blessing. The word blessing evokes a sense of warmth and protection; it suggests that no life is alone or unreachable. Each life is clothed in raiment of spirit that secretly links it to everything else. Though suffering and chaos befall us they can never quench that inner life of providence.

While our culture is all gloss and pace on the outside, within it is too often haunted and lost. The commercial edge of so-called “Progress” has cut away a huge region of  human tissue and webbing that held us in communion with one another. We have fallen out of belonging. 
Consequently, when we stand before crucial thresholds in our lives, we have no rituals to protect, encourage, and guide us as we cross over into the unknown. 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. … These thresholds are also the shorelines of new worlds. …

A blessing evokes a privileged intimacy. It touches that tender membrane where the human heart cries out to its divine ground. In the ecstasy and loneliness of ones life there are certain times when blessing is nearer to us  than any other person or thing. A blessing is not a sentiment or a question; it is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart. There is nothing more intimate in a life than the secret under-territory where it anchors. Regardless of our differences in religion, language, or concept, there is no heart that is without this inner divine reference.  … Our times are desperate for meaning and belonging.
 [As I sat in front of the television and prayed for the new pope, I imagined myself doing so in union with people of good will all over the world: Christians and non-Christians, rich and poor, even athiests whose hearts are "desperate for meaning and belonging.]   

On the parched deserts of postmodernity a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well. It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another. I believe each of us can bless. When someone blesses 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 a blessing, a person becomes illuminated in a completely new way. In a dead wall a new window opens, in dense darkness a path starts to glimmer, and into a broken heart healing falls like morning dew. It is ironic that so often we continue to live like paupers though our inheritance of spirit is so vast.The quiet eternal that dwells in our hearts is silent and subtle; in the activity of blessing it emerges to embrace and nurture us. Let us begin to learn how to bless one another. Whenever you give a blessing, a blessing returns to enfold you.  (Pages xiv-xv)   

Maybe the new pope was demonstrating this very truth by asking us to exchange blessings with him: Blessing is a two-way street! I offer to our Pope Francis the following blessing from O'Donohue's book, that our new Pontiff may be blessed with an evenness of temperament that will allow him to touch our hearts in blessing every day of his pontificate.

For Equilibrium, a Blessing 

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity by lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what's said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of god.


  1. "On the parched deserts of postmodernity a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well." Really? Why are people down on postmodernism? That's where I found Christ to be...alive and well.

    1. Only recently when I attended Mass at another parish did I happen upon the congregation holding up their hands for a communal blessing while the priest-celebrant gave his blessing to birthday and wedding anniversary celebrants. I must confess I felt unqualified for what I consider a divine act, and it was quite a while before I joined them. But when one realizes that all of us possess a soul wherein the divine nature of God dwells, it becomes something special in our eyes. Hence, to offer a blessing unifies the divinity within us and, as Fr. O'Donahue states, "In the light and reverence of a blessing, a person becomes illuminated in a completely new way." Blessings give us pause, albeit for a moment, to feel our connectedness and to renew our faith in the triune God. What a beautiful way for Pope Francis to begin his papacy.