May perpetual light shine upon
The faces of all who rest here.
May the lives they lived
Unfold further in spirit.
May all their past travail
Find ease in the kindness of clay.
May the remembering earth
Mind every memory they brought.
May the rains from the heavens
Fall gently upon them.
May the wildflowers and grasses
Whisper their wishes into light.
May we reverence the village of presence
In the stillness of this silent field.
“On Passing a Graveyard” by John O’Donohue (1956-2008), from Benedictus: A book of blessings (Bantam Press, 2007)
A GOOD prayer often resembles poetry in its rhythm and structure, diction and compression. In the last book published before his death in 2008, at the age of 52, John O’Donohue, the author of Anam Cara and Divine Beauty, brought together his priestly calling and his poetic gift to compose Benedictus: A book of blessings.
These blessings mark significant thresholds in our lives, for which we need the language of ritual and beauty. In his introduction, he writes: “It is the modest wish of this book to illuminate the gift that a blessing can be, the doors it can open, the healing and transfiguration it can bring. Our times are desperate for meaning and belonging.”
His blessings have many practical applications to people going through times of change. The prayer that I have chosen, in the section “Homecomings”, reminds us that Jesus spoke of preparing a place for us where we can belong — much like home.
The blessing consists of seven couplets, like a bracelet of beads with pauses for reflection, each beginning with “May” — an invocation which, O’Donohue writes in his introduction to the book, is “a word of benediction. It imagines and wills the fulfilment of desire.”
There is no mention of God because, he says, “‘God” is too huge to allow any other word to breathe beside it. . . The structures of our experience are the windows into the divine. When we are true to the call of experience, we are true to God.”
It is as if we are walking along the corridor of our habitual life, oblivious to the immensity of God, when something happens — a birth, a change, a loss — and, for that time, we pause, and see through a window, one of Keats’s “magic casements”, which opens up vistas of the divine.
The opening words echo the blessing of Aaron, and words such as “travail”, “remembering”, and “reverence” evoke the past, but are firmly rooted in present, earthy life. The unusual collocation of the “kindness of clay”, held together by alliteration, changes our usual idea of the coldness of clay by bringing a warmth of feeling to a harsh reality.
There are several such sound-associations that knit the blessing together. The warm w’s and sibilant s’s of “May the wildflowers and grasses Whisper their wishes into light” make this a beautiful blessing to read out loud.
And this is what I often do. When we hold a ceremony for the interment of ashes in the Tree of Life memorial garden (Faith, 26 August), we walk through the trees in our churchyard — “a village of presence” — before emerging into the light space where the Tree of Life is imprinted as a path on the ground.
We continue along the River of Life, carved into a strip of Kilkenny limestone, to the top of the carved tree, with a view across the hills near by, and surrounded by the sounds of birdsong and “whispering grasses”, a neighbouring playground, and a railway line. At the end of the liturgy, after the ashes have been interred, the earth has been trowelled in and tamped down, the turf replaced, and the leaf-shaped stone plaque laid on top, we pause to absorb the sounds, with the sunshine, rain, or wind on our faces.
Then I read this blessing, which embodies all that we are experiencing of God’s lovingkindness, his presence in nature, and in this work of art. The poetry roots itself in the imagination of each one present, and provides both comfort and hope, with a sense of completeness. The ceremony concludes with the familiar Celtic blessing “Deep peace of the running wave to you. . .”
O’Donohue’s blessings occupy the space between poetry and prayer, and remind us of the importance of the priestly ministry of releasing the blessing of God, which is open to all people. Perhaps we, too, can find ways of bridging the spiritual gap in our culture through creativity in worship and prayer, to mark with significance the different seasons of life among those we serve in our communities.
Increasingly, people are choosing to deal with the death of a loved one in their own way, which often bypasses the ministry of the Church. We can reclaim some of that vital ministry by offering a memorial service, where candles can be lit and placed on the altar, by being creative with liturgy, by creating gardens of contemplation within our churchyards, by offering bereavement courses, or a “Holiday at Home” in a church hall to enfold those who are lonely or housebound.
At our three-day Holiday at Home this summer, besides craft activities, a meal, talk, quiz, and singalong, we always have a creative time of worship and contemplation. This year, we focused on three Irish saints: Patrick, Bridget, and Kevin.
The threshold of baptism is tied in with an invitation to our Sunday-afternoon family service. During one season of Lent, we invited contributions in poetry and art to reinterpret the Stations of the Cross.
Each of these occasions gives us an opportunity to serve and relate to people who are not regular worshippers, and we depend on the priestly work of people who are called to bless others with their giftedness.
These are just a few examples of the kind of creative interaction with our communities which many churches are already engaged in, growing out of the rootedness of being parochial. Like O’Donohue’s blessings, they help to reach out to people, and to mark the thresholds of life.
The Revd Rupert Martin is the Vicar of Sandal Magna, in the diocese of Leeds.