“Bless na, bless na” was a familiar command we heard over the holidays, from parents to their shy younger children.
The children then move toward their godparents, who offer their right hand for the kids to put on their forehead, with parents still coaxing their kids: “Mano po.”
Older children have by now learned that this ritual brings blessings in the form of a gift, now often an angpao or red envelope with cash inside, which the parents quickly take, supposedly for safekeeping.
“Bless” and “blessings” are examples of how words take their own life when moving from one language to another.
The original blessing given to the young by godparents or elders in general — the disappearing practice of making a sign of the cross on the child’s forehead — is clearly religious, much like the blessing of the priest to the faithful during Mass. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that “bless” comes from an Old English word and older Germanic languages with meanings of “consecration” and “making holy.”
A house blessing, done by Catholics and Protestants alike, comes close to this idea of consecrating and making holy, but for Filipinos, this kind of blessing takes on many other purposes. Last year I attended the blessing of Miriam College’s Henry Sy Innovation Center where Fr. Jeffrey Quintela, parish priest of Nangka, Marikina, offered Mass and a homily to explain what a blessing was meant to be.
He started out with humor by relating the story of a man who had brought his car to be blessed, which Father Jeffrey did. Right after the blessing, the man raced off in his car and, later, Father Jeffrey learned that the car had gotten into a mishap. He said he had shared the story to explain that Filipinos extend the idea of blessing, not just to protect from harm, but also to give objects and places supernatural power.
You can see this, too, in the sale of amulets and charms in front of Quiapo church. Ask the vendors if these objects have been blessed by a priest—the way it’s done for rosaries—and they will tell you that the priests will not agree to bless these objects.
The vendors are right; although sold in front of the basilica, the amulets are considered pagan. But not to worry: Filipino style, the vendors have all kinds of alternatives, like immersing the amulet in the church’s holy water fount.
A vendor of a naked Sto. Niño, used as a gayuma or love charm, gave me an exasperated look when I asked about the blessing. She blew three times on the figure, cupped it in her hands, and handed it to me: “Ayan, blessed na.” (There, it’s blessed.)
Father Jeffrey also observed how Filipinos think of a house blessing as exorcism, ridding the place of ghosts and malevolent spirits. Incidentally, he does perform exorcisms, but house blessings are not intended to serve that purpose. A blessing, he repeated several times, makes a place, and we hope its occupants, holy. I prefer to think maybe just being “good” will suffice.
The Online Etymology Dictionary reminds us that the English “bless” further evolved to mean “to pronounce or make happy, prosperous or fortunate.” Blessings then are the good that come into our lives.
In the Philippines, we tend to be more passive in the way we think of “blessings” (biyaya) as something given to us, by God, by godparents, by the priest, even, indirectly, through talismans, amulets, charms and religious objects.
But over the holidays, I thought of how we might think of blessings in a more proactive sense. My mother has been in hospital since Nov. 23 and I’ve mentioned that a coping mechanism I use is to walk a lot in the building, a mindful walk that gets me thinking of hospitals not so much in terms of suffering and death as in terms of healing and life. The first time I saw a summary of one local hospital’s annual statistics, I realized how rare deaths are compared to many recoveries in hospitals. One late and difficult night, I walked past the maternity ward and paused to listen to a baby crying, appreciating the way hospitals bring life into the world.
Shortly before Christmas Day I ran into an old friend in front of the hospital and he said his son needed a biopsy for a suspected malignancy. Days later I texted him to ask how the son was. He’s OK, my friend texted back—an exuberant OK, I could imagine. We are blessed many times over with a physician’s reassuring diagnosis, or test results.
Blessings come every day with my mother: pneumonia that has cleared, vital signs stabilizing, one surgical procedure without complications, a naso-gastric tube inserted without her gagging and protesting. (This latest confinement came about in part because of a nurse’s home visit and a careless insertion of an NGT.) Even the senior citizen discount becomes a blessing. And, the most bountiful: the kindness of physicians, nurses and caregivers.
My friends laugh when they ask about my mother and I say we’ve solved most of her problems … “kidneys na lang.” Of course, the kidneys can never be “na lang,” but when I think of how my mother has overcome one crisis after another, at 97, she herself is one great blessing. I think of her like the plant katakataka, whose leaf that falls can give rise to another plant.
The translation of katakataka is “surprise, surprise” with many exclamation points, and that’s what makes blessings more blessed.
Lost, found in translation
There’s one more local use of “bless” and “blessing” that I don’t quite like: the idea that we should do good so we will be blessed.
We do good because it’s the right thing to do.
Our complicated uses of “bless” and “blessing” may have come about with the way the Bible came to us. The New Testament was originally written in Hebrew, where the word “brk” (which means “to worship, to praise or invoke blessings”) was translated into the Greek “eulogein” (to speak well of or to praise), and then into the English “bless.”
A new translation of the New Testament from Greek into English by David Bentley Hart modifies the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount and uses “blissful” instead of “blessed.” In an interview with The Atlantic Monthly, Hart says “blissful” comes closer to “the original Greek, makarios, which suggests a special intensity of delight and freedom …”
Reading that made me even more uneasy about Tagalog translations of the Beatitudes that have used “mapapalad” and “Banal na Kapalaran.” If beatitude means “supreme blessedness,” it should be better translated into a word like “kaluwalhatian,” an outward moving joy.
Unappreciated, or explained away as luck or good fortune, as in “palad,” blessings cannot be blessings. We are blessed when we are mindful of the good around us and the effort, sometimes even risk, that goes into doing good. That fills us with bliss, and makes us blessed.
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