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St. Patrick's Day: More Bless, Less Beer

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To bless someone, in the most literal sense of the word, is to confer your hopes to them.

That's why so many traditional blessings begin with the word "may."

Take, for instance, what is perhaps the best-known Irish blessing (or toast, as the case may be this time of the year):

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

The rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

"May" doesn't mean "so be it." May implies that something is possible, but not a done deal. May hopes that God puts it in play and that you get out of your own way and allow it to happen.

John O'Donohue, the great contemporary Irish poet/philosopher (and former Catholic priest), knew the power of "may."

"The language of blessing is invocation, a calling forth," O'Donohue, who died unexpectedly on Jan. 3 at the age of 52, said in his last book, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, published posthumously in the United States earlier this month. "[May] imagines and wills the fulfillment of desire. In the evocation of our blessings here, the word may is the spring through which the Holy Spirit is invoked to surge into presence and effect. The Holy Spirit is the subtle presence and secret energy behind every blessing."

For many of us modern-day Celts, O'Donohue, the author of the groundbreaking 1997 book Anam Cara (which means "soul friend" in the Irish language) became the catalyst for exploring the ancient rhythms of our faith, the meeting place where our collective past informs our contemporary spirituality.

In the introduction to an edition of The Confession of St. Patrick a few years back, O'Donohue described the Celtic spiritual concept of Anam Cara -- that God is a friend to our soul -- this way: "This relationship cuts across all other connections. In your Anam-cara you discovered the Other in whom your heart could be at home."

O'Donohue's editor at Doubleday, Trace Murphy, says the former priest (he left the ordained ministry in the late 1990s to pursue his writing full time) didn't intend the book of blessings to be his last. In fact, O'Donohue had to be coerced somewhat into writing To Bless the Space Between Us.

"His agent Kim Witherspoon asked him to write this book for a long time," Murphy told me. "He resisted. There were a lot of other books he wanted to write. He felt like this book could be a trifle. But I don't think he saw it that way when he finished it."

O'Donohue's book of blessings is far from trifle. It is a stunning tome -- both physically, with its cover of intricate Celtic knot-work, as well as in content. O'Donohue, who spent much of his life roaming the untamed, mystical landscape of his beloved Connemara in the West of Ireland, possessed an almost matchless gift for language, spinning words into vivid vistas and ideas into sounds that spoke directly to the heart. Even in prose, the man was a poet.

"[A blessing] touches that tender membrane where the human heart cries out to its divine ground," he wrote. "In the ecstasy and loneliness of one's life, there are certain times when blessing is nearer to us than any other person or thing. A blessing is not a sentiment or a question; it is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart. There is nothing more intimate in life than the secret under-territory where it anchors."

St. Patrick's Day should be a celebration, one that surpasses the kind of ecstasy reached with one too many green beers. This year, may it be an occasion to bless and be blessed, a moment to remember the Anam Cara that draws us to one another in celebration as in sorrow.

O'Donohue concludes To Bless the Space Between Us a poem titled "The Eyes of Jesus," which ends with the words:

Forever falling softly on our faces,

His gaze plies the soul with light,

Laying down a luminous layer

Beneath our brief and brittle days

Until the appointed dawn comes

Assured and harvest deft

To unravel the last black knot

And we are back home in the house

That we never left.

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