The Common Good

Naomh Padraig: St. Patrick's Day, John O'Donohue and Blessing

Image of John O'Donohue via www.JohnODonohue.com
Image of John O'Donohue via www.JohnODonohue.com

To bless someone, in the most literal sense of the word, is to confer your hopes to them.

That's why so many traditional blessings begin with the word "may."

Take, for instance, what is perhaps the best-known Irish blessing (or toast, as the case may be this time of the year):

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
The rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

"May" doesn't mean "so be it." May implies that something is possible, but not a done deal. May hopes that God puts it in play and that you get out of your own way and allow it to happen.

John O'Donohue, the great contemporary Irish poet/philosopher (and former Catholic priest), knew the power of "may."

"The language of blessing is invocation, a calling forth," O'Donohue, who died unexpectedly in January 2008 at the age of 52, said in his final book, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, published posthumously in the United States not long after his death. "[May] imagines and wills the fulfillment of desire. In the evocation 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."

For many of us modern-day Celts, O'Donohue, the author of the groundbreaking 1997 book Anam Cara (which means "soul friend" in the Irish language) became the catalyst for exploring the ancient rhythms of our faith, the meeting place where our collective past informs our contemporary spirituality.

In the introduction to an edition of The Confession of St. Patrick several years back, O'Donohue described the Celtic spiritual concept of Anam Cara — that God is a friend to our soul — this way:

"This relationship cuts across all other connections. In your Anam-cara you discovered the Other in whom your heart could be at home."

O'Donohue's book of blessings is a stunning tome — both physically, with its cover of intricate Celtic knot-work, as well as in content. O'Donohue, who spent much of his life roaming the untamed, mystical landscape of his beloved Connemara in the West of Ireland, possessed an almost matchless gift for language, spinning words into vivid vistas and ideas into sounds that spoke directly to the heart. Even in prose, the man was a poet.

"[A blessing] touches that tender membrane where the human heart cries out to its divine ground," he wrote. "In the ecstasy and loneliness of one's 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 life than the secret under-territory where it anchors."

St. Patrick's Day should be a celebration, one that surpasses the kind of ecstasy reached with one too many green beers. This year, may it be an occasion to bless and be blessed, a moment to remember the Anam Cara that draws us to one another in celebration and in sorrow.

O'Donohue concludes To Bless the Space Between Us with a poem titled "The Eyes of Jesus," which ends with the words:

Forever falling softly on our faces,
His gaze plies the soul with light,
Laying down a luminous layer

Beneath our brief and brittle days
Until the appointed dawn comes
Assured and harvest deft

To unravel the last black knot
And we are back home in the house
That we never left.

NPR's Krista Tippett, host of On Being, had the privilege of conducting O'Donohue's last interview. It's a beautiful and powerful conversation, which you can hear it in its entirety HERE.

Below is a video montage accompanying John reading (to Krista) a poem he wrote called "Beannacht," which means "blessing" in Irish.
 

See video
From O'Donohue's Echoes of Memory

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

Catheen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.

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