Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Review of "An Abundance of Blessings" (and, to a lesser extent, "A Pagan Ritual Prayer Book")

An Abundance of Blessings by John O'Donohue
A fair amount of stress has entered my life within the past few weeks. Among the problems with my immediate local pagan community, there have been very upsetting posts on the Tumblr blogosphere, and as well as my own mental health management. While Next Millennium just provided two more examples as why I should continue to boycott them, I am going to step back from addressing the community and community circles (online or otherwise) to address a collection of blessings I picked up while shopping yesterday.

First, I did not pick up An Abundance of Blessings by John O'Donohue at the New Age section of a bookstore. I was in the home goods section of clearance store. I happened upon this mixed in with decorative post cards and notepads. From a quick glance inside on the blessings, I noticed a lack of addressing any sort of divine spirit. This contrasts my other prayer book, A Pagan Ritual Prayer Book by Ceisiwr Serith, which has more of a focus on pagan spirituality.

Second needed observation is that this is less of a book and more like a deck of cards. An interesting way to produce this type of literature. There are eight blue cards that start each "section" or "chapter" within the pile. They are titled "Mediation on Desire," "Mediation on the Spirit," "Mediation on Thresholds," "Mediation on the Heart," "Mediation on Ending," "Mediation on Transformation," "Mediation on Callings," "Mediation on Intention," "Mediation on Homecomings," "Mediation on Relationships," "Mediation on Kindness," and "Mediation on Beginnings." This is most likely not the traditional order presented in the box, but how it got shuffled around (I found the product opened already.)

Then, there are fifty-two blessing cards. Each with a specific intention. A few examples being: "A Blessing for a Leader," "A Blessing for Friendship," and "A Blessing for Retirement." Each of the cards has the title followed by a free-versed poem. While I am personally critical of most free versed poetry, these blessing cards don't disappoint me. The language is beautiful and simple.

There are three positives to having the blessings on cards. The first being that the box itself is designed to display the top of the deck. I could put this stand on my kitchen counter so I see it every morning (an idea for the blessings concerning morning), or in more pagan-aspects put the blessing stand on my altar with a blessing I wish to work on or acknowledge. Or put the blessing on a shrine for a deity or spirit.

Second is that the cards make it easier to focus on a particular blessing. One at a time, opposed to visually blocking out the other words on the page. I am also holding just that blessing in my hand, which takes away any other stimuli of holding a heavy book. This is helpful if I were to take a particular blessing with me outside my home.

The last way having cards is beneficial is that I get to decide the order of the deck as well as how each blessing corresponds to the meditation blue cards. I can make a particular collection of blessings for a particular ritual in the order I see fit, or spend time reorganizing the deck to evaluate how I see each blessing's topic. (Do I see "Retirement" as a beginning or an end, for example.) In this way, the blessing cards become more personal.

To contrast the pagan prayer book I mentioned above, O'Donohue's blessings are more poetic and encompassing than the blessings (and even prayers) from the Serith's book. It is also worth noting that the prayer book by Serith contains writings by the author but also writing by other poets and writers--usually out of context and with no footnotes as to which came from which (though there is a source page in the back.) Thus, by its very construction, the prayers and blessings are only parts of larger works (even just parts of Serith's original writings.)

I use Serith's prayer book, though, mostly as a reference for ideas to create my own prayers and blessings. As though they were less like complete works and instead prompts for my own poetry. This is partly because the blessings inside are less than fulfilling. As an example, here is one blessing:
Look, overarching sky, under whose gaze we pass our days,
see this person I bring before you:
bless them!
Look, long-extending earth, upon whose breast we live our lives,
see this person I bring before you:
bless them!
Look, see, bless, Sky and Earth!
(Serith, page 136.)
This blessing is simple, but very vague and unspecific. If I were giving this as a blessing, I may try to embellish it myself. This also helps to make the blessing specific to the person and to my personal spiritual practices.

On the contrast, O'Donohue has more to offer and needs less embellishment on my part. Here is a blessing called "A Birthday Blessing",
Blessed be the mind
that dreamed of the day
The bluepring of your life
Would begin to glow on earth,
Illuminating all the faces and voices
That would arrive to invite
Your soul to growth.

Praised be your father and mother,
Who loved you before you were,
And trusted to call you here
With no idea who you would be.

Blessed be those who have loved you
Into becoming who you were meant to be,
Blessed be those who have crossed your life
With dark gifts of hurt and loss
That have helped to school your mind
In the art of disappointment.

When desolation surrounded you,
Blessed be those who looked for you
And found you, their kind hands
Urgent to open a blue window
In the gray wall formed around you.

Blessed be the gifts you never noticed,
Your health, eyes to behold the world,
Thoughts to countenance the unknown,
Memory to harvest vanished days,
Your heart to feel the world's waves,
Your breath to breathe the nourishment
Of distance made intimate by earth.

On this echoing-day of your birth,
May you open the gift of solitude
In order to receive your soul;
Enter the generosity of silence
To hear your hidden heart;
Know the serenity of stillness
To be enfolded of stillness
To enfolded anew
By the miracle of your being. 
O'Donohue has more to offer in terms of word count. Nonetheless, there are many ways I would still want to adapt this blessing. For example, not everyone has a father and a mother so I would change the first line of the second stanza to reflect the parents of whomever I was blessing. And in the second to last stanza, I may change the wording depending if the person receiving the blessing was blind or had other gifts I rather recognize. But all my adaptations would most likely be minor, which contrasts how I use Serith's prayer book as a prompt.

While marketed as blessings, the cards could easily be introduced into ritual or witchcraft. As O'Donohue writes on the box, "A blessing is a powerful and positive intention that can transform situations and people." This sounds very familiar to how Aleister Crowley defines magic(k): "the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will." (source) Thus, it makes sense that these blessings could easily be put into a spell or charm if one wished to do so. I easily am reading over some of these blessings and seeing how they could be spells as well, especially ones that give wishes for the future. And while the blessings are not tied to any spirituality, some rewording or additional stanzas could make them suitable for a ritual or prayer.

Speaking of, I do like the lack of religious undertones. While I am a spiritual person and these blessings will most likely be merged into my practices one way or another, I do not usually like religious blessings or prayer books because either the author has a NeoWicca or Christian bent, neither of which I am. Serith's book has this NeoWicca bent, but fortunately also includes many other pagan gods/desses and spirits. Not to mention that, again, Serith's prayer book serves best as prompts to creating ones own prayers.

As for the meditation cards I mentioned, they seem like introductions more than actual meditations. Or, at best, invitation to think about the subject in the header. While not necessarily problematic, the paragraphs under the "meditation" headings do not give any prompts for meditation. Unless, of course, I were to read the blue cards as the prompts themselves.

And that is really all that is lacking with this collection: an overall introduction to how to use the cards. It is a toolkit without instructions on how to use the tools. The only instruction was that the box could be used as a display for a blessing the reader wanted to contemplated. While an introduction to how to use this collection of blessings could be stating the obvious, I think it doesn't hinder a reader to know of ways the cards could be used. For example, if someone did not know what meditation was, the blue cards could be a missed opportunity for them. (Note: I am only assuming that the box does not come with an overall introduction or instructions. Again, I bought it open so there is the possibility that there was an introduction that has since been parted from the box.)

Before I close this article, I do want to mention that while I advocated several times during this review about adapting prayers and blessings for one's personal practice--changing words, adding words, taking out words, etc--I do not condone doing so in the public without proper attribution. For example, if I did change "A Birthday Blessing" for a specific person, I would credit it as: "revised version of John O'Donohue's original poem." I also would not sell or claim ownership of the revised version.

The same is said for Ceisiwr Serith's published prayers, though I usually morph those prayers so far from the original that it is indeed my own work by the time I am done (which is to say that I don't just change a few words, but completely change it to the point where it is not recognizable to Serith's publication.)

Over all, I like An Abundance of Blessings. The set up is versatile, the blessings are well-written, and there are a variety of topics. While it is mostly secular, the uses for religious or witchcraft purposes is not off the table. O'Donohue is a poet whose words I connect easily too, as well as the ideologies mentioned in the mediation cards (eg: that a beginning is an invitation for the unexpected.) I see many opportunities for these blessings to be brought into my day-to-day spiritual routine.

As always, I will end with a question:
Do you use blessings in your religious work, 
and if so, where do you draw inspiration?

[ Works Cited ]

          "Magick." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 May 2013. Web. 05 June 2013. (Though the specific definition is drawn from Aleister Crowley's book Magick, Book 4. on page 127 according to the Wikipedia's editor.)
          O'Donohue, John. An Abundance of Blessings 52 Meditations to Illuminate Your Life. N.p.: Clarkson Potter, 2012. Print.
          Serith, Ceisiwr. A Pagan Ritual Prayer Book. San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2011. Print.

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