Early in her novel Gilead Marilynne Robinson imagines her protagonist, the Rev. John Ames, an elderly minister writing a letter to his 7-year-old son, recalling an episode from early in his youth. Ames tells of how he and some friends came upon one of their cats with a litter of kittens and decided that they needed to be baptized.
It was a unique experience, he says, to feel the warm little brows beneath the palm of his hand. “Everyone has petted a cat,” Robinson writes,” but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.”
For years, Ames reflects, “we would wonder what, from a cosmic perspective, we had done to them.” “It seems to me a real question,” he says. “There is a reality in blessing.“ It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, And there is power in that.”
I’m aware that among us there are different ideas about the nature and power of blessing. Some of us came of age in religious traditions where a blessing is viewed as something given by a person of some authority that, as Robinson’s John Ames suggests, has some “cosmic effect,” that through that act changes us in some way.
As we enter into this discussion, then, it is important for me to be clear on how I’d like us to understand what it is to bless and be blessed. And this passage from Gilead points to it. As Robinson’s now-mature Ames observes, looking back on that childhood episode with the kittens, “there is a reality in blessing. . . . It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it.”
What is important about a blessing is not who confers it or whatever status that person may have but the intention of the one conferring it and the openness of the other to receive it. As Rachel Naomi Remen puts it in her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” “A blessing is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth and strengthen what is whole in each other.”
In that sense I want to argue that the act of blessing connects with our Unitarian Universalist values, as one of the most effective ways I can think of to practice our First Principle, where we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. When we confer a blessing on another person, we give that person nothing more than she or he already has. But in doing so, we, the givers, can call attention to something that we, the receivers, may lose sight of: that there is a beauty, a wonder, a sacredness to each of us that is ours: no greater or less than anyone else, but ours, and yet not ours alone but something that we find in the web of relationship.
Remen puts it this way: “Those who bless and serve life find a place of belonging and strength, a refuge from living in ways that are meaningless and empty and lonely. Blessing life moves us closer to each other and our authentic selves.”
Remen, a cancer doctor, was acquainted with the language of blessing through her experience with her grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi. He was someone who she knew as a wise and gentle man, generous with words of care. But she says she learned from relatives that as a young rabbi in Europe he was a proud and demanding scholar who brooked no challenge or contradiction. His tradition was full of blessings but his ministry was focused on teachings with strict interpretations. His softening came later in life when, as she puts it, “the letter of the law” became “far less precious than the spirit,” and the spirit was something that resided in each of us.
On this Father’s Day, it occurs to me that many of us have had similar experiences with important men in our lives. We may even in one way or another have been those men: proud, demanding, stingy with praise, cards close to the vest when it came to our feelings. The models are many in our culture for that sort of behavior. And men are instructed in it from early in life. It is often only later as a parent or mentor we learn that the greatest gift we have to give is not our teaching but our blessing.
As an example, I think of a supervisor I once had in the middle of my newspaper career when I was an editorial writer. The shift from being a reporter was challenging, since reporting demanded that I take no side while editorial writing required that I write to persuade. It was work that required not just good research and capable writing but a strong ethical center: to call it fairly without fear or favor.
It was the guidance of my editor that showed me the way. The integrity that he modeled for me – day in, day out – despite pressure from some heavy hitters was a blessing that stays with me still.
Leo Dangel’s poem “Passing the Orange,” which we heard earlier, seems to me to embody a blessing of sorts, too. The men, those farmers in their overalls, are communicating something in that awkward game at a school Halloween night party. It was not some special skill – Who trains to pass an orange neck to neck? – but their capacity to make of themselves a team that confers the blessing. In this moment of meeting, these men affirm not only that they’re good sports but what it is to work together.
It’s a curious thing that often we are not even aware of our impact on others and the blessings that result. My editor was not seeking to make an impression on me or anyone else. He was simply living out what his own center taught him. He was, as Remen puts it, serving life by his actions. “The way we live day to day,” she said, “simply may not reflect back to us our power to influence life or the web of relations that connects us. Life responds to us anyway.”
Every one of us in this room affects each other in ways we can’t begin to fathom. What effect that is – whether it enlivens or discourages – depends on the intention we bring. The key, she says, is “taking life personally, letting the lives that touch yours touch you.”I know this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’re not always sure what will happen if we let others touch us. We’re not sure if they’ll accept us, or how we feel about accepting them. Some even regard being touched as a form of weakness.
So, perhaps we begin with a blessing. Barbara Brown Taylor is a capable guide. Begin with something simple. She chooses a stick. What will you choose? The key is paying attention. What can you say about this thing? What do you notice? What makes it unique? How does it fit in this grand world of ours? What might it teach you? A little silly? Maybe. Give it a try.
Then cast your eyes around this room. Focus your thoughts on some other person. It could be someone you know or someone you don’t Bring that person to mind. What would you like that person to know? How might you send hope his or her way? What blessing do you have to give? How might you strengthen the life around and within them?
Does any of this make any difference? Well, it’s up to you. The next time you meet the person you blessed it’s a good bet you’ll think a little differently about them. You might even share your blessing. And who knows what might come of that? Meanwhile, the connections you have made will deepen and a new flower of compassion will bloom within you.
This talk of blessing reminds me of an episode at the end of my father’s life. Years before, when his father died, he sent letters to me and my four siblings telling us a little bit about the difficulties that he had had with his father. It had long been plain to us that the two of them had a strained relationship. And he confirmed that, adding that in the days before his father died he had tried to draw him out a little, to have the kinds of conversations they hadn’t had before. But as you might imagine he found it no easier than it had been in the years before. He wrote us that he was sad about that and he hoped that things would go better with us.
i’d like to say that they did and that he and we did undertake to improve our relationships, but in truth that not much changed. Throughout our childhood years he’d been a psychiatrist in private practice, working 60 hours or more a week. So, he wasn’t around much for us to know him, and in our adult years we’d gotten busy ourselves and had scattered across the country. He wasn’t much of a phone talker and visits were brief and full of interactions with grandchildren. His death in a hospice in Naples, Florida, in the middle of a roaring hurricane in 2005 certainly made for a dramatic ending, though.
After the memorial service, I was surprised when my sister handed out envelopes to each of the siblings that our father had left behind, one for each us, with our names written in our father’s hand. What on earth could this be, I wondered?I looked for a quiet place and opened my envelope. Inside was one sheet of paper with three words that my father had written on it:I love you, it said; that was it.
In that earlier letter about his own father, my father had written that while he knew we didn’t talk much he felt sure we knew that he loved us. It was nice to say that, but in fact, it wasn’t necessarily true. It’s not enough to assume that another knows how you feel. You have to tell them. I am grateful to have as the last communication I ever received from him words that banished any doubt about that. In doing that I now see that he left me a blessing, one that only he could give, one that changed me and still leaves me smiling.
So, don’t hesitate, my friends. Cast your blessings widely. And don’t doubt the power that they can have. For each person you meet – it could for the first or four thousandth time – magine the blessing you might give. It doesn’t have to be some grand declaration, but just some word or gesture that connects directly with who they are.
Don’t fret about whether you’ll get it right. A blessing is a no-lose proposition. Try it once, then do it again and again and again. In this way, we have the capacity to make our very lives blessings to each other, not by being extraordinary but by being fully ourselves and by being fully present to every person we meet. Truly, as Barbara Brown Taylor put it, a miracle enough to stagger the stars.