The poet John O’Donohue wrote that “A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal, and strengthen.” He said, “To be in the world is to be distant from the homeland of wholeness. We are confined by limitation and difficulty. When we bless, we are enabled somehow to go beyond our present frontiers and reach into the source. A blessing awakens future wholeness.”)
When a blessing draws a circle of light around us, it illuminates the ground beneath our feet, always the only place to begin a journey into the unknown, whether it is a journey of a thousand miles or a thousand demands for justice deferred throughout centuries of oppression. A blessing takes the past into account and draws the circle wider to include a future of something new and different. Evoking wholeness, it steadies us. Naming a new reality, it inspires and calls us. It opens a wide intersection where contradictions can meet with the necessary tension and discomfort that accompanies growth; but sometimes, with enough mutual attention and effort, those contradictions can meet and pass without collision.
The threshold times we are in right now have been rife with collisions. Clashes, like flint on stone, igniting fires in our cities throughout the night as well as sparking fires in hearts and minds that burn with anger all day long. We have seen the destruction fire brings. Buildings reduced to rubble and twisted rebar, streetlamps and street side trees scorched into mere shadows. But let us not forget that fire also brings light. And each time we light our chalices as we Unitarian Universalists do when we gather, we are blessing the time and space we share by evoking the light of truth and the warmth of love that rise from communities where we are in covenant to walk with one another.
I wonder, can our chalice-lighting practice be of use in blessing the uncertain future awaiting us now? In a world ablaze with hatred, can we tend a different kind of fire – with flames of love and true connection – making a circle of light that gathers us and helps us move forward?
I have written before about my deep fear of fire. It began when I was 7 and fell, hands first, into the hot coals of a campfire, burning both hands badly. The healing took all summer. My fear of fire lasted much longer, keeping me from lighting a match until well into my teenage years.
Still, I was drawn to fire’s heat and shimmer, so I became a fire tender. I learned to make my fires by saving and recovering the smallest embers of fires abandoned by others as ashes. Every summer when our family went camping, I was often the first to rise on the cold northern mornings and I would wish for the warmth of a fire. Unable to light a match for fear of bringing my fingers so close to the flame, I would use a long stick instead, gently poking through the ashes in the firepit until I found a single ember still alive from the previous night’s fire. Then, I would feed it carefully, first with pine needles and small twigs and my own measured breath. Then with larger sticks and branches. Eventually a small log. Most mornings, by the time my family rose, I had a small campfire burning safely within the circle of stones and releasing its warmth and light beyond.
In the past two weeks, perhaps you have felt a variation of this dilemma – wanting to be part of kindling warmth and light but also holding back in fear, not only of the fires burning in the streets but also of the virus spreading with our breath. How do we live out our faith and values when these contradictions can create such confusion that we don’t know what to do or where to turn?
Blessing the confusion, the chaos, the contradictions with our own spoken commitment to lean toward justice is a good place to begin. If you want to discover the mixed blessings of this time, look for the embers of hope still alive in the ashes and offer them your breath, the breath of commitment, measured but strong. As you do, you will create a small but growing circle of light and warmth for yourself and others.
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. There is work enough for all of us to find our part, large or small. We have no shortage of tasks. There is work to be done in the streets as well as work to be done in our hearts and minds, and in our homes and neighborhoods. There is something for us all, friends. It is not helpful to compare one task against another as being more or less important. The most important thing is that we all take responsibility for doing something. That we not let the pain and destruction of this time pass without each sharing in some way the work of healing and repair that will take all of us.
Here is a blessing for the shared work that lies ahead. What blessing will you write for the work that is uniquely yours to do? Write it down, print it out, keep visible for the days and weeks and months to come. (If you like, join me for a guided writing session on The Power of Blessing in a Time of Unrest.)
May our grief keep our hearts open, to one another and to ourselves, to the truth of our past and present and the possibilities of our future.
May our rage neither divide us nor distract us from the true tasks at hand.
May our fears, anxieties and confusion not hold us back from work that is ours to do – in our hearts, in our streets and in our relationships and our systems.
May our hope not be false and our despair not let us retreat or stop feeling.
May the trembling discomfort of this moment be known for what it is – a fearful and powerful invitation to let go of the world and life we have known and to become our whole and best and beautiful selves, each of us guided and graced by a Love that holds us all.