As a child John Ames discovered the power and beauty of blessing when he baptized a family of kittens. He discovered “there is a reality in blessing.” He said:
I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.
Ames is the narrator in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. He is a 76 year old pastor who recently diagnosed with a terminal heart illness. He is reflecting on his life and writing a letter to his 7 year old son who he knows isn’t likely to remember him well if at all. Ames comes from a family of ministers, but he has a particular reason he became a minister. He says it’s because it gave him the opportunity to confer blessing. He experienced that sensation as a child, the experience of really knowing another, of feeling the other’s life and your own all at once. Ames knows that you don’t need to be a minister to offer a blessing. But he found that as a minister you’re more likely to find yourself in the position of blessing. As he says, “it’s a thing people expect of you.”
It is indeed a thing expected of religious leaders. In Christianity, blessing rites, such as communion and baptism, are considered sacramental and are officiated at by priests and clergy. In Catholicism and some Protestant denominations, sacraments are said to bestow grace and divine life. They carry special import and are an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” that is conferred on a person.
Other religions, including Eastern religions, don’t typically have what are known as sacraments. Yet they too have blessing practices. They bless marriages, births, houses, pets, new ministers, as well as communal activities. In Hinduism, for example, there is the mangala or blessing. The mangala offers a protective power and is imparted by the repetition of certain words in a mantra, by the sprinkling of water, and by being touched with holy objects or with certain hand gestures.
In Buddhism, there is a whole Discourse on Blessing by the Buddha, called the Mangala Sutta. The Buddha was skeptical of rituals that conferred blessing. In his discourse, he emphasized instead ethical actions, such as kindness and honesty (Life’s Highest Blessings, R.L.Soni, 1987. www.buddhisma2z.com). In the Sutta, he is asked: “Pray, tell me the greatest blessing!” And the Buddha responds in this way. He says:
… To have done meritorious actions in the past and to set oneself in the right course — this is the greatest blessing.
To have much learning … and to be of good speech — this is the greatest blessing.
… To be generous in giving, to be righteous in conduct, to help one's relatives, and to be blameless in action — this is the greatest blessing.
To loathe more evil and abstain from it … and to be steadfast in virtue — this is the greatest blessing.
To be respectful, humble, contented and grateful … — this is the greatest blessing.
To be patient and obedient … — this is the greatest blessing.
Self-restraint, a holy … life, the perception of the Noble Truths and the realization of Nirvana — this is the greatest blessing.
A mind … from sorrow freed, … from fear liberated — this is the greatest blessing.
Those who thus abide, ever remain invincible, in happiness established. These are the greatest blessings. (trans from Pali, Narada Thera)
As a minister, I may have more opportunities to bless in an official capacity than most of you. I bless marriages and dedicate children. I lead Unitarian Universalist rituals of blessing in our worship services. For example, we officially marked the beginning of our church year earlier this month with the Water Communion, in which we gathered and blessed water. The gathering and blessing of water recognizes the gifts and blessings we each bring into this community.
But, even though I have more opportunities to bless, in our UU tradition, we recognize that everyone has the capacity to bless – even in formal communal rituals. For example, in our Water Ceremony, we invited the children to bless the water, to bless our community and the world, by stretching out their hands and sharing their good intentions and kind thoughts.
This is also evident in our ordination practices. When I was ordained at Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pennsylvania, the act of ordination and blessing was made by the congregation. Only a congregation can confer ordination in our UU tradition. No individual – no UU minister – has that authority. The ordination service includes a ceremony called extending the hand of fellowship. While mine was led by a colleague of mine, everyone was invited to participate. In fact, the first people to place their hands on me were my parents and other family members. Everyone else was invited to touch either me or someone else closer to me, forming a big web. I felt especially blessed to have my parents lay their hands on me and offer their blessing on the start of my ministry. I also felt especially blessed by my lay committee, who presented me with a beautiful stole, which they placed on me.
Formal rituals of blessing are significant ways we mark important occasions in our lives. The reality is that blessing is also part of the fabric of our everyday lives. Blessing is around us all the time. It is part of our greetings of one another – whether we bow to each other or say “peace” or “Namaste” and whether we do this in the grocery store, on the street or in church. The same is true of our farewells. We commonly wish someone “Good Luck” when they are going to take a test or complete a big project at work. “Bless you” is a common response when someone sneezes.
There are the people and experiences we count as blessing. Most of these are an acknowledgment of what is already right in front of us, the gifts of our ordinary lives, gifts which are anything but ordinary. Our families, our friends, our spouses and partners, the work we do, especially if we feel blessed with a vocational calling, our good health, our ability to think, the beauty of the natural world – all these are blessings.
Blessings in my life are friends and family members who care about me and support me. The earth is a blessing. I’m grateful for the crisp evenings we’ve been having and the bright sunny afternoons. The turning of the season toward autumn reminds me of the turnings within myself. The animals, both the wild ones and the three cats I live with, that grace my life, bless my days. The food, especially that shared with friends and loved ones, nourishes my body and spirit. This community of faith, which I serve, is a continuous source of blessing – all of you, a blessing in my life.
All of these and many others as well express something of my connection to the holy, to my understanding of God, the very fabric and ground of existence. They acknowledge a deep interconnection with human beings and with all creatures. Blessing affirms and nurtures connectedness. Our opening hymn, which is also our hymn of the month, “Earth Was Given as a Garden,” invokes connection. In it, we sing: “Bless the earth and all your children, one creation: make us whole, interwoven, all connected, planet wide and inmost soul.”
We can feel that we are interwoven almost anywhere and at any time. A person doesn’t need to say: I bless you. They don’t need to place their hands on us. Even wild creatures can bless us by their presence and beauty. Blessing brings us closer to the person or creature blessing us and to the person or creature we are blessing. It also ultimately brings us closer to our true selves and helps to make us whole.
When I was in my early 40s my favorite aunt was ill, and I visited her. I had lots of cousins, and I think she was everyone’s favorite aunt, at least in part because she didn’t have children of her own. She always had a way of making me feel special. That day, my aunt surprised me by saying, “you have always been very special to me.”
I thought of myself as showing up at her bedside to offer her comfort. As is so often the case, those we set out to bless or comfort or care for provide us with profound experiences of love and nurture – beyond what we ever imagined. Her tender words were a blessing to me. Each of us wants to know that we are special to others - that we matter.
A few days before my mother died, she said to me: “Always remember that I love you.” I already knew she loved me but her words were a blessing. I was so grateful to hear the words. I felt so blessed. And once again the person who I thought I needed to be offering blessing to was blessing me.
A blessing is both given and received. It is by its very nature relational. It isn’t one-way, but rather as Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “a moment of meeting.” Remen describes it as “a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another. … Blessing life moves us closer to each other and closer to our authentic selves.”
Matthew Fox, has written extensively on the idea that we do not come into the world stained with original sin but instead as recipients of original blessing. He writes that “Blessing involves relationship. One does not bless without investing something of oneself into the receiver of one’s blessing. And one does not receive blessing oblivious of its gracious giver. A blessing spirituality is a relating spirituality.” To use John O’Donohue’s phrase, “It blesses the space between us.” It acknowledges, “the kinship we all share.”
I invite each of you to spend time in the coming days and weeks reflecting on your blessings. How are you practicing a blessing spirituality? Who has blessed you? Who have you blessed? Have you offered your children, your parents, your partners a blessing – in word or in deed or by your very presence?
We each have the capacity to bestow blessings by our very being. For truly, to be a blessing in the world and to others is to let the light shine through us. To be a blessing is to bow to the light in one another, to that divine spark in each of us. May we each be blessed and be a blessing. May we live our lives in such a way that we bless the space between us.