“BLESS you!” Everyone seems to say it. It is so ubiquitous that many of us have stopped wondering what it is. The nature of blessing is saturated with meaning; so it can be difficult to know where to turn if curiosity about that word or action, which we hear on the street or see in the sanctuary, has sparked a particular interest.
The Faith Going Deeper series fills the gap between a dense academic approach, and an upbeat chapter in an introductory book on Christianity. This is much more than a “brisk trawl”, as the Revd Dr Andrew Davison humbly describes it. Indeed, it is in reading this slim paperback that it becomes all the more evident that there is a huge amount to learn about scripture, history, ethics, liturgy, and, of course, our vocation, when we begin to explore the nature of blessing.
There is something for everyone here. Quite rightly, though, the first part opens with a focus on systematic theology. Beginning with God’s gift of creation, it soon becomes clear that the notion of blessing is at the core of Christianity: Jesus, the inheritor and fulfilment of the blessings bestowed on Israel, is the embodiment of blessing; his crucifixion redeems us from the curse, which is explored here as an estranging force — the very inverse of blessing.
Further, links between abundance and humility, sanctification and salvation are sensitively drawn here. Nothing is glib, and the author is wary of offering neat explanations. Dr Davison remains firm, going deeper, not round about.
Words are mined: frequent delving into the treasures of etymology provides plenty for those who are keen to know how we got to our present understanding of what God may desire for us and of us.
For example, as we read about our invitation to look for possibilities to participate in God’s divine life through living more “intentionally”, we learn that the word comes from the Latin tendere, which Dr Davison artfully translates as “to crane one’s neck”. All this detective work leads to creative connections for us to follow.
He tackles the knotty issue of what blessings actually do. Help from a wide range of thinkers and writers, from George Herbert, Evelyn Underhill, and Aristotle, to the C of E Doctrine Commission, gives us a broad spectrum of interpretation, and also tests claims that are sometimes all too easy to make. And yet we learn, as we read, that blessings of any sort are not ends in themselves: every blessing commits us to action.
Taking the subject of blessing seriously inevitably requires broaching controversial issues. The chapter “Who or what is blessed?” begins by highlighting the kinds of people and things whose destiny the Church has explicitly desired to align with the redeemed Kingdom of God. For instance, widows were once consecrated; and there was a liturgy for the blessing of doorkeepers, used until 1886.
We learn about vast changes in perspective. Unsurprisingly, the subject of blessing weapons is raised. Similarly, the nature of gay and lesbian relationships is brought to light. There is neither dogmatic urgency nor lazy fudge.
Sensitive attention is given to the close association between blessing and celebration, which leads the reader to do his or her own thinking. This is an original approach, and may well promote fresh, even surprising responses; it might encourage fruitful group discussions, too. Furthermore, we are offered multiple tools to help us express these with others, and, of course, with God in our prayers.
There may be some readers who are itching to get stuck into some liturgical nuts and bolts, and they will not be disappointed. We cannot go deeper into the theology and practice of blessing without looking at them square in the face.
Dr Davison highlights a loss of theological confidence found in some prayers — such as in the blessing of oils at the chrism mass. This is troubling, particularly because, at the core of Anglican liturgy, is the motto lex orandi lex credendi (“Liturgy leads to theology,” or “Prayer leads us to belief.”) For others who may need encouragement, there are multiple suggestions, spanning the liturgical year, more for inspiration than instruction.
Extensive footnotes and a substantial bibliography help, but they are by no means essential, nor of interest to all readers. Not everyone needs to know how the finger placement of a bishop when blessing differs from that of the rest of us.
All these extras provide valuable signposts for those who are keen to go even deeper. Ultimately, we discover that going deeper does not mean only that we know more, but also, more importantly, that we desire God more profoundly. The book on blessings becomes a blessing in itself.
The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain at Goodenough College, London, and an Assistant Priest at St Giles’s, Cripplegate.
Blessing by Andrew Davison is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-84825-642-2 (Books, 19 February).
BLESSINGS — SOME QUESTIONS
If “the Christian faith is now known profoundly poorly”, how can blessing help Christians to reverse this state of affairs?
How did you respond to the book’s grounding in the physical world?
Did you agree with the book’s presentation of the implications of blessing for politics and environmental stewardship?
How close a relationship does blessing have with cursing?
Did the book change what you thought about prosperity and “the prosperity gospel”?
Did you agree with Dr Davison’s analysis of blessing’s relationship with redemption?
What aspect of the book did you find most challenging?
What might “seeing the business of everyday life as a blessing and an opportunity to bless” look like in practice?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 June, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Society of Timid Souls by Polly Morland. It is published by Profile Books at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-84668-514-9.
The original Society of Timid Souls was a group of Manhattan musicians, formed in the 1940s to help each other conquer stage fright. In a world full of reasons to be fearful, Polly Morland takes the Society as a starting-point for an exploration of courage, and where and how it can be found. Her search takes her from war zones to hospitals to the circus, as she seeks the people and stories that might teach us how to be brave. First published in 2013, The Society of Timid Souls was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and was named as a book of the year by The Sunday Times.
Polly Morland was born and grew up in Glasgow. After a degree in English at Oxford, she worked for 15 years making television documentaries — on subjects ranging from biblical history to the love life of the Duke of Wellington — before embarking on a literary career with The Society of Timid Souls. Her third book, Metamorphosis: How and why we change, will be published on 19 May. A faculty member of The School of Life, she lives in the Wye Valley with her husband and three sons.
Books for the next two months:
July: The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald
August: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins