Ask and you shall receive
Many years ago I was a hospital chaplain. I was not yet ordained, but I was trusted to walk with people through the worst (and sometimes best) moments of their lives. During a Sunday night overnight shift I was called to the neonatal intensive care unit where I found a young couple at their child’s incubator.
They wanted me to bless a rosary to leave on that incubator while they drove many hours home to the jobs that keep a roof over their children’s heads, food on the table, and the hospital bills paid. It was the sort of impossible choice human beings make every day, quietly, and without the rest of the world taking any notice.
Of course I blessed that rosary. We held it, the three of us, like an umbilical cord linking our hearts and hopes, and we prayed. We poured all their love into that symbolic object that would have to watch in their place over their child. In the still darkness it was an honor to call down blessings on that sacred gift.
One I was strongly chastised for by an ordained person not long later. That priest was wrong.
Human beings bless. It is baked into us, part of our spiritual DNA. As a human giving blessing is your birthright, and perhaps even your responsibility. But in a world where everything is done by professionals the idea of creating a blessing prayer or ritual might seem impossible and intimidating. It doesn’t have to be.
To be human is to bless
Blessing something, or someone isn’t magic. And while we have often left blessing to the “professionals” (ordained folks) in the last few hundred years that’s a fairly recent development. (Warning: geekiness ahead.) Blessing has been part of human culture since the beginning. Between 1860 and 1909 Alexander Carmichael traveled the islands of Scotland collecting the vanishing songs, poems, and prayers of the Gaelic speaking islanders. The resulting collection, called the Carmina Gadelica (which is far from perfect but still a useful resource) is filled with examples that everyday people blessed their work, their fellow humans, the natural world, and just about everything else as a matter of course.
There are songs for blessing the sun as it rises, the baby as they are born, the ones we love, the work we do, and more. None of these were part of regular church worship (legend says some predate the church in Scotland but we have no proof of that), but they were part of the everyday lives of people who lived close to the land and their Deity.
Be generous, no be flagrant!
I first read the Carmina Gadelica while still a fairly shy college student from a fairly stiff (Protestant) conservative background. Its largesse bowled me over. Many (most?) of these songs and blessings were from women and they weren’t heading to the local church to have the duly ordained man bless their shit. They were throwing blessing around boldly.
I could almost feel the glee in their words of blessing at the birth of a baby. I hate to tell their clergy, but those babies had all been baptized long before they showed up in church. I was scandalized, and thrilled.
It was in that same wild college hayday (yes spent mostly in the library’s religion section I said geekiness was ahead) that I discovered the wild, love besotted poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, Mary Oliver, and more. It seemed to me their whole lives were overflowing with the sweet scent of blessing, that their worlds were suffused with it.
They blessed God, and their companions, and themselves (with due humor), and the food they enjoyed and the wine they drank. It was all so wildly outside my staid “blessings” over meals.
But my greatest teachers about blessing have been the denizens of the natural world. The way the Divine flirted with me in the winter woodlands among shining beams of sunshine and snow shower. There were the prickly roses that taught me how to get out of the way of beauty, and rewarded my halting attempts at care by flourishing when they should have withered up and died.
I once accidentally broke a cane off the rose I grew in honor of my (dead) grandfather. Full of guilt and sorrow at my own clumsiness I shoved that broken bit of plant into the soil and turned away. And the soil soaked up all my sadness, and feelings of failure and transformed them. Despite guiltily ignoring that portion of the garden, the next spring that broken bit of sadness had grown roots, and thrown up new canes, a flurry of leaves and a perfect red flower.
Plants will save us, if we can possibly listen. The natural world showers us with her blessings. If Mother Nature has a love language it is: gift. And really, there is no more to giving a blessing than what our world does for us daily. (Even while we abuse and neglect her.)
How to bless
So, how do you bless? The answer of course is diverse as the pattern of butterfly wings, as numerous as the stars in the sky. There isn’t really a wrong answer here. So what I give you are guidelines from my own experience.
One of the reasons blessing has become so confusing for modern Western humans is that we so rarely do it. And like all spiritual disciplines blessing takes practice. I have a few dear friends who are rabbis and I have always envied their in built-in blessing tradition (for everyone, not just clergy). During sabbath observation it is traditional for parents to bless their children. Ordinary folks, blessing their kids every week.
My own tradition has no such formal, and repeated blessing by everybody. But that doesn’t mean we can’t start getting intentional about practicing regular blessing.
If you are looking for start practicing blessing or creating your own blessing rituals perhaps we have a clue where to start: with the people closest to you. Do you have kids? How about offering them a blessing, you’ll have to decide when they might need it most; before school, or when they get home, or before their basketball game perhaps.
If you have a spouse, roommate, or best friend give them your blessing. This might seem a little more awkward at first because blessing is intimate and we’re not great at that. Do it anyway. (Suggestions on how to create a blessing further along.)
But do it regularly, make it a habit and part of your everyday life. This is how we transform the strange into the normal. This is how we dismantle the “professionalizing” of spirituality.
(For the really, really shy start with your pets. Then say silent blessings for the people you love as they leave for the day, or for distant friends and relatives. Get comfortable doing it before you speak out loud.)
Honor the other
While there aren’t really hard and fast rules as to how humans bless (individual religious traditions may have rules but these vary), there are some points that really matter. And the first is this: a blessing, to be a blessing, can’t be about you. A blessing honors the other, the person you are blessing.
And that means that when we bless we need to get out of our own way. That can look like a lot of things, it might look like letting go of our own anxiety and asking our friend what they need right now. It might look like not using your words of blessing to shame or guilt your kid into behaving the way you want.
To do that we have to be self aware enough to set ourselves aside for a moment. Sometimes this practice will help us see the people in our lives more clearly. And help us see what they truly need and want, rather than what we want for them.
I know that sounds horrifically new age and self help but what I mean is speak your blessing, not someone else’s. If you are not Jewish don’t go look up the Jewish blessing for children (at Shabbat) and just copy it. Doing that is not only taking something that doesn’t belong to us, it won’t serve you well anyway because you will be missing the rich context in which that prayer was created.
So bless out of your context.
You have one, you just haven’t been trained to see it. At the end of this article I will share some suggested blessings, they come from my context because those are the only ones I am qualified to share. If they fit you, great, if they don’t riff off them!
(Want to explore more about your context, your spiritual life, and how you can holistically integrate practices like this into it? I’ve got a class for that.)
Occasions for Blessing
As I noted above my ancestors were profligate with their blessing. They (seemingly) had one for everything. And I sort of love that. There’s rarely an occasion where adding blessing into the mix isn’t going to make something better.
I grew up saying blessings at meal times, you might have too. Often these were rote and wooden and no one really thought about them. Don’t do that. Not because it is somehow wrong but because blessings should be a moment for us to stop, step out of the endless cycle of busyness and productivity, and take hold of something else.
When we blessed our food what we were really doing was giving thanks, for the people we would never meet who cared enough to create food that kept us alive. To the plants and animals who died so that we could live, or who gave of their produce (eggs, nuts, berries) without demanding anything in return. Because of our tradition we thanked the Divine too, the root of all those other relationships that keep us alive.
Blessing, used this way can reorient us. It can help make us aware of the endless web of connection that links us to every other human being and living creature (eventually). It reminds us that our flourishing is tied to the lives of others.
But if you are just getting started with blessing here are some intentional places to consider practicing it in your life:
- The food at meals
- Your work (anything you produce, what you cook, knit, draw, or program on the computer)
- Your family and friends when they depart
- Your time together with others when you all arrive
- Symbols and items you hope to use in your spiritual practice
- The birth of a new baby
- The death of a loved one
- Someone who is sick
- Someone who has just recovered from illness
- A moment of joy
- Sleepless nights
- Your weekly planning session
- Someone who is struggling or in need (hear an ambulance go by? see a social media post?)
- An item you are gifting/donating or otherwise passing on to someone else
As you can see from the list above the possibilities are basically endless. Part of the practice of blessing is reorienting ourselves to be aware of the possibilities of blessing, which are myriad. The second part of this practice is the way it changes you.
Not magic, maybe
Blessing isn’t magic. (Probably.) It does not require any sort of special power or authority. It doesn’t have a set language you must use (though there are languages for blessing in many traditions.)
We will usually never know if our blessings do anything, if they have any effect on the lives of those around us, but what we can know is what the act of blessing does for us. Like many spiritual practices (like prayer) the work those practices do on the one practicing is perhaps their greatest gift.
When you practice blessing intentionally you will change. You will see your connection to others in a new light. You will begin to see ways you can be a blessing to others (not just by saying a prayer or incantation, but by acting in a way that will impact their lives positively). And you may very well begin to see the blessings in your own life more clearly. Blessing others teaches us gratitude, it teaches us to see the ways we have been blessed.
And it multiplies. The image of a candle is often used here. You can light an infinite (theoretically) number of candles from one candle and its own light will never be diminished. It loses nothing by sharing, the world gains much.
Your own theology of blessing may vary, as to whether or not you believe it makes a material impact on the world. (Live into that, I won’t argue who is right or wrong!) What I will assure you, is that no matter what your theology of blessing the world will become better when you practice it, if for no other reason then that you will become better, more mature, more grateful, more generous.
And that, perhaps, is enough.
The following prayers are all from the Christian tradition, specifically from the Book of Common Prayer (1979) of the Episcopal Church. I have edited them only by removing gendered language. These are not meant to be proscriptive, but as an example of one way of putting together a blessing. In general you will notice they address the Divine, they ask for something for someone, and they wrap up neatly. This is a common form for such things and infinitely adaptable.
O heavenly One, who has filled the world with beauty:For Joy in God’s Creation, Book of Common Prayer
Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works;
that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve
you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all
things were made, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Watch over your child, O Lord, as [their/her/his] days increase; bless and guide [them/her/him] wherever [they/she/he] may be. Strengthen [them/her/him] when [they/she/he] stands; comfort [them/her/him] when discouraged or sorrowful; raise [them/her/him]up if [they/she/he] fall; and in [their/her/his] heart may your peace which passes understanding abide all the days of [their/her/his] life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.Birthday Blessing, Book of Common Prayer