This past week has been designated as the Week of Prayer for World Peace. Since 1974, 11th – 18th October has been set aside as a week of prayer. Originally a Christian initiative, it now embraces people of all faiths and none. I take heart that faith communities and individuals have been praying for our world – but I hope this continues, not just this week – but every week – because the world needs all the prayer it can get right now! Whether we believe in the power of prayer or not, I think we’d agree at least it can do no harm and studies suggest it is good for our own well-being. And at best, prayer may make a difference beyond our ability to comprehend. In these challenging times when many are struggling to make sense of a world that seems in so many ways broken, as the pandemic surges, the future so uncertain, amidst a climate emergency, with political and social structures in turmoil, I confess I too, find it hard to remain hopeful. As I watch the news, I’ve been tempted to give into cynicism and despair – asking: ‘what’s the point?’ Whatever we do as individuals or small groups is not enough to stand against the seemingly endless tide of bad news and human misery. But I realise by falling into this swamp of negativity, I’m simply adding to the misery! So, in an attempt to dig myself out, I’ve been rereading a book which inspired me some years ago – ‘The Gentle Art of Blessing’ by Pierre Pradervand. It contains wise words that speak to my condition – about the power of intentional blessing to make a difference to our own lives and the lives of others – and includes true stories about how silently offering up blessings in the midst of conflict has transformed situations quite miraculously. The author explains how his project to bless, first began as a response to a difficult situation where he was driven out of his job. Filled with an all-consuming resentment towards those concerned, Pradervand had a wake-up call on reading the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, “Bless those that curse you” – and decided from then on to bless his ‘enemies’ in every way – every day, whilst going about his daily tasks. The key factor was the intention. Slowly the blessing moved from ‘an act of will to an act of the heart’ and led on spontaneously to Pradervand blessing others – in the street, on the bus, in lines, on planes or trains – silently blessing strangers: “This gentle art of blessing became a silent song, the driving power of my spiritual life. Little by little, blessing people became one of the greatest joys of my life and I have found it to be one of the most efficient ways of staying spiritually centred. I never received any roses from my former employer nor even the slightest expression of regret. Rather I have received roses from life by the armful.”
Pradevand’s book draws on ancient spiritual wisdom and contemporary research that suggests the thoughts and attitudes we hold over time towards people and situations – can, in ways we don’t as yet understand, effect outcomes for good or ill. This is where my understanding of prayer comes in. I’ve been challenged by Pradevand’s story – trying to make it my intention to bless difficult situations and pray for my ‘enemies’. I’ve been fortunate not to have many real-life enemies – but I’ve realised how much of late I’ve been pitting myself against people I don’t know personally – politicians! When I see world leaders evading responsibility which will impact on millions, covering up their failings, blaming others, or spinning lies, strong anger rises up in me – particularly when it comes to climate change. As I see it, some of our world leaders are as good as consigning this planet to annihilation. But even if the outrage I feel towards their actions is ‘righteous anger’ – the vitriol I feel towards them as people, is more likely to harm me than it is them. So, a couple of weeks back I made a decision to start blessing world leaders every time I saw them on TV – to take a step back from my knee-jerk reaction to cuss – and instead, open my heart towards them as fellow human beings. In the past I’ve intellectually consented to the words of Jesus: to “love your enemies” but reasoned that surely those in power who are screwing up not just my future, but the planet’s future, deserve contempt? But I’ve realised if there is to be any chance of peace in the world, it has to begin with each of us – that includes me. If I call myself a follower of Jesus, then I have to at least try put his teachings into practice. It’s still a work in progress. Through an act of will I make it my intention to bless – because if I believe there is that of God (or good) in everyone – then this of course includes politicians I strongly disagree with! Some may think this attempt to bless is naïve and condones wrong-doing – but we bless the person, not their actions. It’s easy to feel magnanimous towards those we love, or people who don’t push our buttons, but those on the spiritual path are called to go further. As we read in the Gospels: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy…’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have…?” The same message is implied in the Buddhist Metta loving-kindness practice; we seek to bless ourselves, those we love, those we feel neutral towards – and our enemies – with the same level of loving intent: “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”
Can blessing someone really make any difference to the behaviour of that person? Anecdotal stories and research suggest it might, but ultimately I entrust the outcome to God. All I know is that cussing isn’t good for my own blood pressure, karma or spiritual wellbeing! Blessing those we struggle with, is not about generating warm fuzzy feelings, but about our intent. And not just blessing difficult people, but difficult situations – even life itself. However bad the news seems right now, I’m prone to forget there are people of integrity on both sides of the political spectrum, and it’s not all gloom and doom. I’m also prone to overlook the many ordinary blessings that rain down on me every day. By making it our intention to notice the blessings we already have, it seems to be a spiritual principle that we draw more blessings to us. And we in turn can be a blessing to others. What if enough people went round silently blessing politicians, personal enemies – as well as strangers we meet in the streets – a silent wishing well – “may you be happy, at peace”? Our planet is facing challenges as never before. We may feel inadequate – helpless to effect change. But in Jewish tradition there’s a concept called ‘Tikkum Olam’ – which translates as repairing or healing the earth. This involves taking responsibility for our actions and our thoughts. Perhaps we have more power than we think? So at the end of this Week of Prayer for World Peace (which leads neatly into ‘One World Week’) let’s choose to bless this broken yet precious world, to bless those we love and those we find difficult to love – not just once but over and over – and see what difference it might make.
In faith and hope, Sheena