A good many years ago I was at a meditation conference and, as usual, browsing the book stall. I picked up The Gentle Art of Blessing by Pierre Pradervand.
“Be careful if you’re thinking of buying that book!” said a man beside me, similarly browsing. I looked up and smiled at him and he smiled back and continued, “It may change your life, you know!” before moving on.
Well, of course I bought it and if it didn’t exactly change my life, it certainly enlarged my spirituality and is one of my best ‘go-to’ books. It is about blessing everyone and everything as a daily, constant practice. For me, it tackles the most difficult conundrum of the Christian way – the command of Jesus to love our enemies.
Very briefly, among other things it shows that you don’t need to start from the impossible thought of loving or even forgiving people. You are simply asking God to bless them, which you know He wants to do – even though sometimes you can’t imagine why! By starting with blessing it takes ‘you’ out of the picture and lets you move on. The author has worked on the practice for many years and runs a retreat centre.
It certainly threw up questions for me. For instance, how had I found it in myself some years previously to forgive an unknown assailant who had struck me on the head with vicious intent in broad daylight, causing me to fall 10 feet down a muddy bank with serious, but luckily transient, injuries? He was never caught. And yet I had always found myself completely unable to forgive a friend of many years who had fooled and, I felt, used me.
So, I still need and use the practices the book suggests and try to give silent blessings in all sorts of places and moments. There is much wisdom in the book; here is a piece I wrote some years ago about this.
Reading it in lockdown gives me a nostalgic feeling for a time when one could actually go for a bus ride or a long walk through Cardiff without thinking twice about it – and not wearing a mask!
A Walk in God’s Garden
I set out at lunchtime to walk over from my home in the centre of Cardiff to collect my car from Penarth Road. The bus journey home after I had dropped it off had seemed so convoluted that I thought it would be easier to walk than try and decipher the tiny bus print on my map, not to mention better for me. Walking is too uncomfortable for me ever to find it a pleasure. My heart condition means I have to go slowly and it was very hot; the mile and a half took me well over an hour.
After I had left the pleasant leafy streets and the little shops of Riverside, my route took me for almost a mile along Clare Road, a concrete artery for the city, the traffic echoing noisily under the railway bridge. Not really a place for walking: dusty, fume-filled, graffiti on the walls, hard pavements.
I became aware of God speaking to me. Not with words. He speaks always in thought forms that in memory can be readily clothed in words, often with subtle humour, always with gentleness and absolute approval, no matter what my response.
“Would you like to come for a walk with Me in My garden?”
My response was a simultaneous blend, in one brief instant, of pleasure [“yes please!”] flattery [“who, me?”] and surprise [“where is it?”].
Then I realised that we were already there. This was God’s garden. Clare Road. It was wonderful in its very ordinariness. It wasn’t even some dramatic slum where people live colourful and exotic lives, but an ugly piece of unplanned urban neglect.
I began, in God’s company, to see it through His eyes. I became aware that it had once been an attractive, wide, residential road. Little houses still lined it, covered in dust, and many in poor repair. There were parking lots with the usual litter of used tyres and metal junk among the weeds and sinister and unidentifiable boarded-up shops.
I found myself using my new hobby of blessing everyone I passed, having read a delightful book outlining this method of constant prayer by Pierre Pradervand.* Only silently within my heart, of course, I didn’t want to get arrested. The stream of passers-by created a rainbow collection of ages, races, colours. Blessing them each, in turn, was quite manageable, with time to look at them for a brief moment as we crossed paths.
According to Pierre, the words of your blessings are always positive, never aimed directly at changing others or yourself. If someone seems negative, maybe angry or sad, even acting badly, you bless them all the more for whatever they seem to be lacking at that moment, on the basis that it will be there, deep inside, in God’s template for them. And of course, this includes how you bless yourself.
The Muslim men hurried past, careful not to catch my eye, so I blessed them in their friendliness and in the depth of their faith. The women with pushchairs and children looked tired and worn, so I blessed them in their freshness and beauty and for their loving hearts. It’s very easy to bless young children. You just wish them well in their Divine Perfection and take a moment of pleasure in recognising that whatever happens, God will be holding their hands throughout life.
A few of the elderly people looked at me as we passed and we instinctively smiled at each other. I silently blessed them in the Divine Perfection of their eternal youth, health and joy. Maybe older people recognise blessings more easily, having lived through curses and survived. Maybe they just have more time and less to lose by smiling at an eccentric stranger.
I began to see signs of human beauty in this concrete wasteland. A man was painting a house front. Here and there were signs of habitation as if a shy race of hobbits had moved in secretly. One window had creamy lace curtains and a china dog. Another allowed me a glimpse of a sofa and flickering TV, with a child’s pram in the porch, a little treasure chest of plastic toys, bright as jewels. I blessed them all.
In one bare stretch, there was nothing but a couple of pigeons strutting and cooing on the pavement, so I blessed them in the Divine Perfection of their pigeon-ness and God was very pleased.
The whole earth is God’s garden and we walk in it with Him, knowingly or unknowingly, every moment of our lives. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” says the psalmist.** Or more simply, “Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden.”***
* The Gentle Art of Blessing. Pierre Pradervand. Cygnus 2010.
** Psalm 24, v 1
*** Genesis, 2 v 8
I’ve added a short poem I wrote, also some years ago, as it references the natural landscape within us, as well as outside. It was written on one of the wonderful ‘storytelling retreats’ I used to go on annually in North Wales.
There is a fruitful land wherein I dwell,
My home is here, within a garden fair.
The house is small, but suits me very well,
Come in, converse. I’ll find fine fruit to share.
Come, taste my flowers, listen to my birds,
Enjoy my sunshine. Yours not to see the earth,
The cesspit, hard-worked compost, dung and turds,
That bring my lavish roses into birth.
The night bird gives a tortured cry of warning,
As darkness over land and garden falls,
And trees grow to the light, to touch the morning.
This is the fruitful land which in me dwells.
Written by Elinor Kapp at Ty Newydd. October 2015