instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

A very unpopular post

There's one last distinction about blessings: What it means to say, "I am blessed."

Sometimes, "blessed" is the past participle of the verb "to bless," in which case "am blessed" is a statement using the simple present passive voice. The implied meaning is, "I am blessed by God," or "God [has] blessed me."

Note: To this point, how have you been pronouncing "blessed" to yourself? As "blest," or as "bless-ed"?

But sometimes, "blessed" is an entirely different word. Sometimes it's an adjective rather than an inflected verb, in which case it means "fortunate" or "happy indeed." Think of "the Blessed Virgin Mary," or, "Blessed are you who mourn," which is sometimes translated as "Happy are you who mourn." To be "happy indeed," for a Christian, is to be saved, and so we speak of the blessed saints in heaven.

English fails to distinguish between these two ideas -- being the object of an act of blessing and being in a state of happiness -- to the impoverishment of English speakers. The Greek Scriptures had no such problem; eulogeo was the verb, and makarios the adjective. The distinction was preserved by St. Jerome, who used benedicare and beatus. (The English word "beatitude" is derived from beoare.)

If there are two different-but-similar ideas conveyed by homographs, how do we know which is intended? The context sometimes helps: In Scripture and liturgy, for example, God is almost always the object of an act of blessing by His creatures and almost never described as being in a state of happiness. "Blessed be God forever," then, is an invitation to bless God, not a statement that God will always be happy. (A look at the Latin confirms this: "Benedictus Deus in saecula.")

It's a bit trickier with human persons, though. Consider Elizabeth's greeting to Mary:
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.... Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."
If you check the Latin, you'll find that the blesseds are benedicta, benedictus, and beata, respectively. That is, "Most blessed are you among women" means "God has blessed you the most among women," while "Blessed are you who believe" means "Happy indeed are you who believe." (In Mary's response, the Magnificat, she says that all generations will call her happy indeed ("beatam").)

Okay, so you may go off and ruminate on what difference, if any, this distinction makes, but one question remains: How do you read the above passage aloud?

I'd bet many if not most Catholics would pronounce each "blessed" as "bless-ed." After all, isn't that how we pronounce the first two when we're reciting the "Hail Mary"?

But in the first two instances -- which is to say, in the "Hail Mary" -- "blessed" is a past participle of the verb "to bless." We don't say, "God bless-ed me with good health." Why do we say, "Bless-ed are you among women"?

I don't know, but I suspect it's due to confusion with the adjective "blessed," pronounced "bless-ed." If you can think of another English verb ending in "ss" whose past participle is pronounced with an "-ed" sound, please leave a note.

It's a minor point, I suppose, but most priests and congregations also mispronounce the "Blessed are You, God of all creation..."/"Blessed be God forever," saying "bless-ed" for a word that should to be pronounced "blest."

"Should" can be a strong word to use regarding language, but I think it's justified here. If we did pronounce the past participle as "blest" and the adjective as "bless-ed," we would have the eulogeo/makarios distinction in spoken English, at least, which might help us make the distinction in written English as well.

Not that it will ever happen.