Bless you, we say as someone sneezes. God bless, we hurriedly scrawl on a birthday card. Blessings, we sometimes breezily sign off an email to a friend. In my own culture, the concept of a blessing has lost its deep and profound meaning through such daily overuse of the word. Some cultures and traditions still retain the sense of power in a blessing. In this blog series, I hope to rekindle the ‘lost art of blessing’. The world is caught in the grip of fear, grief and upheaval. The covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage nations. In the USA, the callous murder of George Floyd by a white policemen has led to angry protests, unrest and deep division. Our world has never needed blessings more. So I invite you: together, let’s make this a season of blessing.
Blessings in the Bible
For the ancient Hebrews a blessing was a serious thing. Anyone who attended Sunday School will remember the story of devious Jacob fooling his blind father into thinking he was his older brother Esau, so that Isaac would pronounce a blessing over him. When Esau returns from hunting and Isaac realises his mistake, he cries out, “just before you came I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”
Another lesser known Bible story is that of a prophet Balaam, paid by the king of Moab to curse the Hebrews, yet when he opens his mouth, blessings pour out of it instead. He could not curse those God intended to bless.
And we still recite these beautiful words–the Aaronic blessing:
The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.”
Blessings in the Celtic Tradition
Those with Celtic roots have always valued blessings too. The Irish priest and writer, John O’ Donohue explains, “In the Celtic world there is a great tradition of blessing. There are blessings for every possible occasion.” Traditionally in Ireland, blessing was woven into the very fabric of life. When baking bread, a woman would make a cross in the dough. Candles would be brought to a priest to be blessed, and every time there was trouble in a house this ‘blessed candle’ would be lit. You might even be clothed in blessings, as these words spoken in Connemara over a new garment show: “May you live and may you wear it and may you wear seven more even better than it.”
What is a Blessing?
The dictionary defines a blessing simply and succinctly as “the invoking of God’s favour upon a person”.
A deeper and more poetic description is given by John O’ Donohue is his book To Bless the Space Between Us: “a blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen.”
O’ Donohue goes on to explain:
Regardless of how we configure the eternal, the human heart continues to dream of a state of wholeness, a place where everything comes together, where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of a life’s journey will enjoy a homecoming. To invoke a blessing is to call some of that wholeness upon a person now.
How do we bless?
To bless someone—truly, truly bless them—we have to go deep:
When you bless another, you first gather yourself; you reach below your surface mind and personality, down to the deeper source within you—namely, the soul. Blessing is from soul to soul.
Wherever one person takes another into the care of their heart, they have the power to bless. To bless someone is to offer a beautiful gift. When we love someone, we turn toward them with our souls. And the soul itself is the source of blessing. (John O’ Donohue)
Why do we bless?
We know the expressions well. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. There’s truth in them, and yes, we can greatly bless people through acts of kindness, generosity and our presence.
But let us not believe that our words are powerless, especially words of blessing. Isaac, Esau and devious Jacob knew better. Remember Isaac’s cry—indeed he will be blessed! To which Esau replied, “Bless me—me too, my father!”
My own Christian tradition values prayer—words that invoke the favour of God. We do not think such words to be meaningless, wasted or cheap. It’s a mystery to me, but I believe that things shift and move through prayer, and sometimes what shifts the most is my own heart. So, in invoking the favour of God through prayer or blessing, I may also find myself compelled to take action. Such is the power of a prayer of blessing.
A journey of blessing
Let’s start a journey together today, to make this a season of blessing. Over the next few weeks I will be writing blessings and sharing them with you. Perhaps, if they touch you, you will find yourself passing them on to others. But more than that, I invite you to go deep and to rekindle the lost art of blessing in your own life too. Speak blessings over your children, your spouse, your parents, and those you see around you in need of God’s favour (let’s admit it, that’s everyone we know).
My first blessing is therefore for you as you become a conduit of blessing in a very scared and very broken world:
Blessing for those who seek to bless
May you perceive deeper than what the eye sees
That the fears, the hurts, the brokenness of those around you
Calls forth your heart of compassion and flows into words of blessing.
May these words of your heart carry to the very heart of God
To invoke his favour and power
And bring peace, hope and healing.
May your words be a cross-marked bread for the empty.
May your words be a glowing candle on a troubled night.
May your words be a garment of warmth to souls growing cold.
May you have the courage to whisper a blessing for another
Even when your own heart needs it the most
And may God himself wrap His arms of grace around you
So that you will know you are most beloved and most blessed.
Other blog posts in this series:
Story of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing – Genesis 27
Story of Balaam blessing the Israelites – Numbers 22-24
Aaronic blessing – Numbers 6:22-27