Blessings and Prayers for America

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The last episode of Sweet Tooth (2021-2024) includes openly the message that humankind is worthless, that Nature will prevail and replace people with hybrid human/animal children, and that the resulting transformation is an Edenic return to innocence, goodness, and rightness. That didn’t need a spoiler alert; the message is obvious from the first season, first episode. Although the series is rated for children, it is often dark and frightening—no gore but lots of death from many causes including suicide.

Suggesting humans aren’t worth saving is nothing new. A novel that I found unforgettable is The Bridge (1973) in which a date has been set for any remaining humans to kill themselves. The world has gone “back to nature,” so flora and fauna run rampant. Our hero (well, protagonist anyway) sees the light, seizes the reins, and restores us to our natural place in the pecking order. Forgive the string of cliches; the conclusion is rather too brutal to recount. D. Keith Mano had a twisted sense of humor.

Why these works? The tenor of the times, generally, is that humankind is a waste of time and effort, so why bother. Our country in particular is taken to be egregious in its warped response to almost everything. Our politics  reflect how low our standards have sunk. “Truth, justice, and the American way” was Superman’s original motto, but these days all the elements deserve exploration. In 2021, in fact, the mythical hero received a new motto: “Truth, justice and a better tomorrow.”

Not that I agree with any of this. Rather the opposite. My belief system places particular importance on the American Constitution as divinely inspired, its creation essential to the restoration of principles of the gospel.

Now to a prayer and a blessing. They are alike yet different. A prayer is an ask; a blessing is an answer. We could use both today.

If you haven’t heard of the late Irish poet John O’Donohue, you’re not alone. He died in his sleep a few days after turning 52 in 2008. He served as a Catholic priest from 1979-2000, published three books of poetry before leaving the priesthood, and then became a writer and popular speaker. His last book, To Bless the Space Between Us (2008), doesn’t contain a poem by that name, oddly.

Here is a paragraph perhaps from an interview that resonates with our nation’s high ideals:

“Part of understanding the notion of Justice is to recognize the disproportions among which we live…it takes an awful lot of living with the powerless to really understand what it is like to be powerless, to have your voice, thoughts, ideas and concerns count for very little. We, who have been given much, whose voices can be heard, have a great duty and responsibility to make our voices heard with absolute integrity for those who are powerless.”

This is the conclusion of the introduction in To Bless:

“We enter the world as strangers who all at once become heirs to a harvest of memory, spirit, and dream that has long preceded us and will now enfold, nourish, and sustain us. The gift of the world is our first blessing.”

He can be much more pointed. Here are the opening stanzas of “On Citizenship.”

In these times when anger
Is turned into anxiety
And someone has stolen
The horizons and the mountains,

Our small emperors on parade
Never expect our indifference
To disturb their nakedness…

The blessing this poem ends with suggests that anxiety should be turned back into anger and that anger should prompt us to do better.

Unexpectedly, his blessing “For the One Who Holds Power” ends without that sharpness:

“May integrity of soul be your first ideal, /The source that will guide and bless your work.”

My favorite, easily, is “For a Leader.” The blessings here are really advice all the way down. While “integrity of soul” is lofty, this list seems grounded in practicality. I work on each one. (Yes, I first wrote “try” but dare not because I say there isn’t such a thing so often.)

May you have the grace and wisdom
To act kindly, learning
To distinguish between what is
Personal and what is not.

May you be hospitable to criticism.
May you never put yourself at the center of things.

May you act not from arrogance but out of service.

May you work on yourself
Building up and refining the ways of your mind.

May you learn to cultivate the art of presence
In order to engage with those who meet you.

When someone fails or disappoints you
May the graciousness with which you engage
Be their stairway to renewal and refinement.

May you treasure the gifts of the mind
Through reading and creative thinking
So that you continue to be a servant of the frontier
Where the new will draw its enrichment from the old,
And you never become a functionary.

May you know the wisdom of deep listening,
The healing of wholesome words,
The encouragement of the appreciative gaze,
The decorum of held dignity,
The springtime of the bleak question.

May you have a mind that loves frontiers
So that you can evoke the bright fields
That lie beyond the view of the regular eye.

May you have good friends
To mirror your blind spots.

May leadership be for you
A true adventure of growth.

So, yes, how great it would be to expect these attributes of our leaders. If they choose not to incorporate them—and it is their choice to be whatever they are—at least we can know what they should be doing.

If blessings often begin with “May,” then prayers begin with a multitude of verbs. In “America the Beautiful,” some of those are grant, mend, confirm. This is the story of the poem, with some commentary. It was written in Colorado Springs in 1893 at Colorado College, where I have just been. Here is a relevant prayer from the second stanza: “God mend thine every flaw, /Confirm thy soul in self-control, /Thy liberty in law!”

If you want to set aside “thoughts and prayers,” fine. That’s not the point. Rather, these sources say that action can be taken, not just empty platitudes. Read O’Donohue. See what some of those tasks might be. Better yet, read the Declaration of Independence so you’ll know for yourself what is there.

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