On the winter solstice a few friends joined me on my patio, all of us masked and sitting in a circle several feet apart, for an afternoon of writing together. The nights were cold that week of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the mornings crisp, but at one-thirty on the sunny patio it was too warm for us to believe that winter had really arrived.
Sarojani looked up and asked Barbara, the painter, “What color blue is this sky?”
“Cerulean,” she answered.
We took off sweaters, put on broad-brimmed hats, and I read John O’Donohue’s poem “In Praise of Fire” as a blessing for us and also as a prompt for the writing we would do together:
As short as the time
From spark to flame,
So brief may the distance be
Between heart and being.
For thirty minutes in the Santa Cruz sunshine, we labored over notebooks and laptop, seeking that secret inspired place in each of us that might birth a poem, that could reveal the depths of what we really know. On the shortest day of the year the sun dips quickly, and cool shadows were spreading across the garden as we shared what we’d written. My poem began
May each new drop of light
in the lengthening days
fall into the dark well
where anyone might forget
the names we are called to say.
Even in the dark
may we remember …
“You write a lot of prayers,” Barbara pointed out when I finished and then, noticing John O’Donohue’s book on the table, asked, “What’s the difference between a prayer and a blessing?”
Well, that’s easy, I thought, but as I tried to formulate an answer, I was flummoxed. Are they the same? Is a blessing a form of prayer? Kim suggested that a prayer is offered, a blessing is bestowed. After they left, I pulled my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary off the shelf and looked up the verb to bless. Maybe part of the reason I was confused when I tried to answer Barbara’s question is that blessing carries multiple meanings:
- Hallow or consecrate by religious rite or word
- Hallow with the sign of the cross
- Invoke divine care for (bless your heart)
- Praise, glorify (bless his holy name)
- Approve, speak well of.
To pray has fewer definitions in my dictionary:
- Make a request in a humble manner
- Address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication or thanksgiving.
As I’d thought, there is overlap between these two actions. To invoke divine care or to praise God is both to bless and to pray, but that first definition of bless, to hallow or consecrate by religious rite or word, seemed to stand alone.
In my Catholic tradition the power to consecrate rests in the hands of the ordained priest. I learned this at age eight when I made my First Holy Communion. Only the priest can perform the sacramental rite that turns ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Yet he clearly isn’t a magician. He calls on the power of God to make the bread and wine holy. Only through divine action does transubstantiation take place. I think my first instinct was correct, blessing is a form of prayer, and so was Kim’s, a prayer is offered, a blessing bestowed.
The day I put on my white lace dress and veil to make my First Communion, my grandmother gave me a rosary as a gift. After Mass my mother took me to our pastor to ask for his blessing on it. He made a Sign of the Cross over the beads while saying some words I couldn’t quite hear, maybe something like this prayer I found online: may those who devoutly use this rosary to pray be blessed, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. “Amen,” my mother finished, and I quickly copied her. Although I wouldn’t have used Merriam-Webster’s words to describe what happened, it was clearly something special, yet now that I think about it, not so different from one of the very first prayers I learned, grace before dinner: Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts …
Objects and buildings, animals and people may all receive a blessing, and John O’Donohue believes that as human beings we each have the power to give a blessing too. “I never doubted that I could bless,” Kim shared during our gathering on the winter solstice, but despite learning to say grace from an early age, as a Catholic it took me a long time to realize, and I thank the role models who showed me that I too could perform this priestly act. Over the years I have joined in a blessing way for a pregnant mother, led ritual cleansings of new homes, laid hands on sick friends, blessed travelers, knit prayers into shawls, and anointed women with water from Brigit’s sacred well in Ireland.
“It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another,” John O’Donohue says in his book To Bless the Space Between Us. “Despite all the darkness, human hope is based on the instinct that at the deepest level of reality some intimate kindness holds sway. This is the heart of blessing.”
At the end of an apocalyptic year, still in the midst of a global pandemic, at the beginning of what will likely be a hard winter, I believe with John O’Donohue that an intimate kindness prevails, and I call on this kindness to bless you and keep you. When you find yourself in darkness, may it shine upon you.