On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

(‘Beannacht,’ John O’Donohue)

When my grandmother slanders someone, she always follows it with benevolence. “He’s dumb as a rock,” she’ll say, “bless his heart.” “She ain’t worth a plugged nickel, bless her heart.” I think it’s a Southern habit.

It’s a funny pattern, but it makes sense. After something unpleasant, we need a pick-me-up. A blessing is an inversion. We seek a blessing when we want bad made good, something dangerous made safe. But what we find in etymology, in theology, and in everyday experience, is that before we even receive that happy reversal of fortune, a blessing, a true one, is already inverting itself. You might get more than you bargained for.

One striking example is from Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s novel of letters from a dying minister to his young son. Meditating on baptism, the father, John Ames, recalls christening a whole litter of cats as a child. He laughs at himself, but he still finds the act compelling:

There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance the sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. (23)

Gilead reads like a gracious eulogy for life, for Ames’ own but also for life itself. Which is why blessing stays at the forefront of his mind. A little later, he recounts another early memory, of his father’s search for his grandfather, a violent abolitionist:

When my father found his father at Mount Pleasant after the war ended, he was shocked at first to see how he had been wounded. In fact, he was speechless. So my grandfather’s first words to his son were ‘I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.’ … He told me once that being blessed meant being bloodied, and that is true etymologically, in English—but not in Greek or Hebrew. So whatever understanding might be based on that derivation has no scriptural authority behind it. It was unlike him to strain interpretation that way. He did it in order to make an account of himself, I suppose, as most of us do. (35-36)

Being the reverent Reformed minister he is, Ames wants to stick close to scripture, but he can see the sense in his grandfather’s words. In both origin and experience, blessed=bloodied.

Ew. Nice in the abstract, but actually gross. And still true. “To bless” is cognate with “blood.” As the OED explains, the English term first meant “to mark (or affect in some way) with blood (or sacrifice); to consecrate,” but the sense developed as Anglophones used it to translate Latin and Greek scriptural words, which in turn had translated Hebrew ones for “praise” or “worship.” It’s a complex history of meanings, made more complex by popular association, in English, with “bliss.”

So we’ve got a whole constellation of senses here: worship, protection, happiness, but all because of blood, the naming of blood in language. Not surprisingly, one of the earliest uses of the word involves “blessing” someone with the sign of the cross. It’s a defense against harm, but as always, blessings are slippery. Case in point: from the late 14th to the early 17th centuries, “to bless” could also mean “to wound.” Those uses might have been ironic or just uninformed, but regardless, they get back to what Ames’ fiery elder knew. After all, whose blood are we talking about? the sign of whose cross?

Certainly one of the most gorgeous engagements with the perversity of blessings is Derek Walcott’s Omeros, an epic that begins on the island of St. Lucia but leaps across spacetime to the Yoruba and Christian underworlds, colonial naval battles, a Lakota massacre, the poet’s own travels, and beyond. The language alone is worth the read: overwhelmingly allusive in every line, a lush, loose terza rima (aba bcb cdc…) carries the whole poem, reverberating with Homer and Dante in Afro-Caribbean vistas.

The poem begins with a wound, as Philoctete (feel oak TET) chops down a native tree he’ll craft into a canoe. He calls the felling a murder. Then he shows the gawking tourists his foot, with its puffy lesion from a rusty anchor. Like the chopping of trees, this sore is more than itself:

He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles
of his grandfathers. Or else why was there no cure?
That the cross he carried was not only the anchor’s

but that of his race, for a village black and poor
as the pigs that rooted in its burning garbage,
then were hooked on the anchors of the abattoir. (III.III)

The Transatlantic slave trade, European colonialism, racism, genocide. An anchor did not maim Philoctete. History did.

But when he sits with Ma Kilman, a folk healer, he tells her something surprising. “Moin blessé,” he moans in creole. “I am blest / wif this wound, … / Which will never heal.” For those who don’t speak St. Lucian patois (me), the wordplay isn’t obvious, but it’s witty. “Blessé” looks like “blest” but means “injured.” Philoctete realizes what Ames’ grandfather knew, too. Pain and grace intermingle, in life and in false cognates.

Although the poem features all that an epic should—Helens, contests for her love, naval fleets, quests for fathers, supernatural interventions—it is these wounds (individual, ecological, ethnic) that lie at the poem’s heart. Where does it hurt? And what on earth can make it stop? This strange character Philoctete lives these questions and can offer no answers, only groans. But the speaker himself reassures us: “Like Philoctete’s wound, this language carries its cure, / its radiant affliction” (LXIV.II). Somehow, the poetry and the agony already point to their healing.

Which is because Philoctete’s wound is a cross—“not only the anchor’s // but that of his race.” The speaker shows us crosses rippling throughout the poem, from the mundane to the global, as signatures on checks, sunbathers and soldiers sprawled on sand, stingrays and palm creases, fishnets and latticework and strikethroughs. (Reading Omeros, I finally made some sense of Justin Martyr’s wild claim about God and Christ, that “He placed him crosswise in the universe,” so that cruciforms are in “all the things in the world.”)

But how do we get from a rotting gash to a healthy person? And how does Roman execution cross that divide?

Before getting there, a brief interlude about the prosperity gospel, because no treatment of “blessings” is complete without it. In her exhaustive history of the movement, Kate Bowler notes,

It represented the triumph of American optimism over the realities of a fickle economy, entrenched racism, pervasive poverty, and theological pessimism that foretold the future as dangling by a thread. Countless listeners reimagined their ability as good Christians—and good Americans—to leapfrog over any obstacles. (7)

More than hope, it promised absolute, present victory. However, Bowler warns readers against merely scorning “word of faith.” For one thing, we all want to live comfortably, and many middle-class American Christians (me again) already experience extraordinary health and wealth, whether we name it and claim it or not. And for another, we all still suffer, and we want out. As Bowler was finishing Blessed, an unknown illness crippled her and confused every kind of caregiver. Three years later, doctors diagnosed her with Stage IV cancer. Of that former time, she remarks, “It is a strange occupation to be a historian of divine well-being as your own is getting away from you.” And she recognizes how her pain locked her attention on these peddlers of hope. Among Christians who avowed miracles and disowned suffering, she wondered, “What is it like to be healed?” (10). And if not healed, could she have hope, at least, that was sustainable and true?

Here, the poem seems to disappoint. In the end, Ma Kilman heals Philoctete with a witch’s potion, made from a root the ants in her wig led her to. A nice story, though hardly the existential support Bowler or any of us needs.

At first glance, that is. The poem’s magical realism does not preach or allegorize, and its spiritual register remains humanist, though exquisitely versified. But readers can hardly miss how its meaning rests in the alien imagination of grace, of blessings and crosses carrying their cures. Because two more crosses resound in Omeros. We hear it as the Middle Passage and as the swift, a bird native to black Caribbeans’ present and ancestral homes. Priests bless things with “the swift’s sign,” and even God calls it the bird “whose wings is the sign of my crucifixion” (XXV.I). That tuber Ma Kilman brewed had grown from a seed that a swift carried across the Atlantic, tracing the route Philo’s enslaved family came, and when it finished its task, it died. When Philo finally bathes in Ma Kilman’s cauldron, he is born (again):

as he stood like a boy in his bath with the first clay’s
innocent prick! So she threw Adam a towel.
And the yard was Eden. And its light the first day’s. (XLIX.II)

Thick scriptural gestures, and beautifully wrought. Still, is it just a fantasy?

The speaker doesn’t think so. Immediately, he cuts to himself—“And I felt the wrong love leaving me”—and we know that the speaker, likely Walcott himself, believes in healing, too. For Walcott, the whole “self-healing island,” its verdant mountains and embracing shores, or simply the light and fragrance after rain—they are elixir for his exhausted emotions, his thrice divorced love. The miraculous denotes ordinary hope.

Ma Kilman promises us that

‘We shall all heal.’
                              The incurable

wound of time pierced them down the long, sharp-shadowed street. (LXIII.II)

So is it incurable, or will we really heal? Harold Bloom, who rendered the Hebrew “blessing” (brk) with the primal expression “more life,” suggested that “the Blessing is always partly ironic, and frequently attended by fraud” (211). He has in mind the family drama of the patriarchs, stolen birthrights and so on. But he speaks more existentially: “in the clash of incommensurates, a new irony emerges” (204). What could be more out of proportion than the propositions of blessing in scripture, declaring both comfort and demand? “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” a claim so frequent in my fundamentalist childhood. Yet as prosperity evangelists insist, “by his bruises we are healed.” Incommensurate, indeed.

In the clash of continuing pain and blessing, even of divergent visions of Christian life, the new irony is “the swift’s sign.” Where we perceive only pain, in Jesus’ wounds for and with us, we are told there is health. Besides that ironic hope, all I see is sincere nihilism, suffering without a glimmer of restoration. I’ll take the former.

Image credits: Aneil Lutchman, Washington University of St. Louis, Brian Nelson, Dirk Ingo Franke (modified), Martin Tuchscherer