When Anna was handing out the "assignment" of writing a newsletter on one of the spiritual practices as outlined by Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World, I knew immediately that I wanted to write on the practice of blessings, because a phrase from Marilynne Robinson's novel, Gilead, came to mind. The novel is told in the first person, the musings of an old Iowa preacher, who, living with a dodgy heart, is writing his memoirs, addressed to his very young son. I've skimmed the novel, looking for that phrase, but I haven't found it. It was something about the joy the old man felt when he blessed little children. However, I did find this priceless little bit, where he remembers, as a little boy, he and his friends decided to baptize a litter of kittens: "I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand... There is a reality in blessing... 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."
Barbara Brown Taylor says the same thing in her "first piece of wisdom" about blessing: "A blessing does not confer holiness. The holiness is already there, embedded in the very givenness of the thing." Blessing is recommended as a spiritual practice because the act of blessing a person or a thing has a way of changing our thinking, a way of making us aware of the sacredness in everybody, and everything.
Priests and bishops pronounce blessings, at the beginning and at the end of the service, during communion, confirmation, ordination, before a meal. What about the rest of us? Do we pronounce blessings, aside from grace before a meal, or the "bless you" we say when someone sneezes? I think we do, but we could be more intentional about it. Taylor suggests we give it a try: "the best way to discover what pronouncing blessings is all about is to pronounce a few." She suggests we may want to take a look at the Jewish tradition of pronouncing blessings, "brakoth". There seems to be a blessing prayer for every part of a Jew's day, and they all start with "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe". An observant Jew says at least a hundred blessing prayers each day. We could try one or two, as a start... (Follow the links through the Wisdom Centre, www.wisdomcentre.ca/events.html to more information on Marcia Falk, who will be at B'Nai Tikvah, Calgary, in May, 2011. Check out The Book of Blessings on her website, www.marciafalk.com/blessing1.html)
Taylor's "second piece of wisdom" on the pronouncing of blessings is that "the practice requires you to ease up on holding the line between what is bad for you and what is good." Back to the Jewish practice of pronouncing blessings at all times: "Upon receiving good news, an observant Jew says, 'Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who are good and beneficent.' Upon receiving bad news, the brakha is 'Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, the Judge of Truth.'" When you start to bless all events in your life, good and bad, you "give up thinking you are smart enough always to tell the difference between the two." And inevitably you discover that neither is as bad or as good as you first thought it would be.
Her "third piece of wisdom" is that pronouncing a blessing "puts you as close to God as you can get. To learn to look with compassion on everything that is... to make the first move toward the other... to open your arms to what is instead of waiting until it is what it should be... - this is to land at God's breast."
Another thing about blessings, is the reverse blessing: "The key to blessing things is knowing that they beat you to it. The key to blessing things is to receive their blessing." When we pause to bless, we are changed; this comes with our awareness of the holiness of everybody and everything, as mentioned above. As Barbara Brown Taylor says: "The most ordinary things are drenched in divine possibility. Start throwing blessings around and chances are you will start noticing all kinds of things you never noticed before."
Something Taylor didn't mention much is the "blessing without words". The other reason I jumped at the chance to write about blessings is the memory of my mother. I can't remember ever being "blessed" by her in words, but I consider myself one of the most blessed kids on earth. At her funeral, more than one person spoke of her hands. She had hands made large from years of heavy labour on the farm, hands that milked the cows and kneaded bread, plucked feathers off the chicken and cut homemade noodles, quickly and without cutting her fingers (well, not always; she did keep the Band-Aid company in business...). She ironed the duvet covers just before I went to bed, and then tucked me in under the warm sheets. But best of all were the easy, friendly hugs and pats on the head that all of us remember, right down to the youngest great grandchild. Her hands were always busy "throwing blessings around", and none of us has ever forgotten them.
So give it a try. Try throwing a few blessings around at home, at church, at work, in traffic, or, if you're out in the woods, try blessing the trees, or a stick, as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests. (Curious? Take the book out of the library and read the last chapter...)