I’ve been asked to say something about the spiritual practice of blessing. I confess that I hadn’t given this a whole lot of thought, although, one of my favorite ways to sign off on emails has been with the word “blessings”. This has given me an opportunity to deepen my understanding of what I mean when I do that. Recently I have been opening to the influence of indigenous wisdom, and am grateful to Mia Kalef and Stephen Jenkinson for how this wisdom can inform a Christian practice of blessing as spiritual practice. In my book Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos and in If Darwin Prayed I have referred to this wisdom as post-modern animism. What I appreciate about Jenkinson’s work is that he is teaching how this wisdom can be lived in the 21st century.
Biblically, the act of blessing, or praising, is directed primarily toward the one God. The fear of idolatry, of confusing nature with God, is acute in the Judeo-Christian lineage. The indigenous ways, on the other hand, recognized that the whole world was in need of being praised, and was itself a blessing. It’s my contention that Christianity, along with the modern, Western world, will find its evolutionary trajectory by re-integrating indigenous wisdom, or a post-modern animism.
The post-sneeze blessing is probably the most publicly practiced blessing. We didn’t do this in our family when I was growing up. I’ve never quite got the feel for what’s going on here. I’ve started to offer up a blessing mostly because of social pressure. It just feels wrong somehow to leave a sneeze hanging in the air. Something must be said. God bless you is as good as any, but I wondered where this social custom originated so, naturally, I Googled it.
Blessing someone after they sneeze probably originated thousands of years ago. The Romans would say “Jupiter preserve you” or “Salve,” which meant “good health to you,” and the Greeks would wish each other “long life.” The phrase “God bless you” is attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, who uttered it in the sixth century during a bubonic plague epidemic (sneezing is an obvious symptom of one form of the plague). It seems that there might have been a superstitious element to this, stemming from a belief that the soul escapes the body through the nose. A blessing would stop the devil from claiming the person’s freed soul.
Another popular form of blessing relates to people whose life circumstances or ways of going about things are pitiable. There goes Jim, “God bless him”, doing his thing again. Sometimes we say this instead of how we actually feel which is that Jim is pathetic, stubborn, or ignorant, but “God bless him”, presumably because nobody else will.
And then there is the obligatory presidential blessing at the end of every national speech, assuring the Christian Right that he is a God-fearing man. Enough said about that cynical gesture.
Continuing my research I decided to do a little etymology. Old English bletsian, bledsian, Northumbrian bloedsian “to consecrate, make holy, give thanks,” from Proto-Germanic *blodison “hallow with blood, mark with blood,” from *blotham “blood” (see blood). Originally a blood sprinkling on pagan altars. Blessing was chosen in Old English bibles to translate Latin benedicere and Greek eulogein, both of which have a ground sense of “to speak well of, to praise,” but were used in Scripture to translate Hebrew brk “to bend (the knee), worship, praise, invoke blessings.”
A blessing historically has had something to do making holy or consecrating. This making holy came at a cost apparently—there will be blood. The least we could say about it is that it’s not a frivolous gesture. And finally, blessing is associated with speaking well of another, or praising.
When I put them all together I would define blessing as follows: To bless is to praise another into fullness of being. It involves that act of 1) seeing clearly enough to have your heart broken by the beauty before you 2) speaking to what you see with such clarity that your praise breaks the heart of the other 3) and thereby reminding the one you are blessing of their deepest potential. Or in evolutionary terms we could say that we see the wholeness in the other that they are in process of manifesting. Seeing, speaking in the form of praise, and in so doing reminding the other of their true nature and thereby participating in the full flowering of their radiance.
I want to speak to each beginning with seeing clearly what is before our eyes. I recently watched a German film called Wings of Desire. It depicts a band of angels who have been assigned the city Berlin to do what angels do, which seems to be to overhear the thoughts of the humans, to witness to what is going on in the human realm and to share this information with each other. As well, they provide comfort to those who are in despair. They are invisible, except to children, and their interventions are very subtle, mere whispers, or suggestions, or a slight touch. These interventions may or may not set the human on the right course. Humans are free to respond. One of the angels, however, grows weary of merely witnessing the affairs of human beings. He falls in love with the material world and eventually with a woman. He yearns to feel the wind on his face, smoke in his lungs, the taste of a buttery croissant, the scent of a cup of coffee, the feel of a lover’s touch on his body. The difference between this angel and his companion angels is that it’s not enough for him to impassively observe this world of beauty. He wants to be taken by it. His heart is broken by the beauty of it all and he wants to fully experience it for himself. But there is a cost, which is his immortality. Because he sees clearly the magnificence of incarnated existence, he relinquishes his immortality and his impassive witnessing of life on Earth. He dives in. He is unique as a mere mortal because he has, in the words of scripture, “eyes to see” the miracle of life everywhere, and cannot take them for granted. In fact, he cannot get over it.
We need to find our angel eyes if we are to be blessers of the world. I write about the recovery of awe or wonder in my book Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos as a precondition for the ecological repair of our planet. If we can’t see what it is we’re involved with on this planet, we will not be resourced—re-sourced—sufficiently to turn things around. To allow awe back into our lives is to allow our hearts to be broken moment by moment by the beauty of what is before us, both human and other-than-human.
So the practice of blessing another requires first that we actually see the awesome nature of the one before us, whether that is another human, a tree, a whale, an insect, or a field of wild flowers. It is to be brought to our knees by the sheer “isness” of the other, by the mystery of creation animating such a one. Before the poet, the artist, or I would contend, a follower of Jesus speaks a word, she must first fall silent and dumbfounded. We must become seers, that is see-ers, ones who see into the heart of reality. And while a blood sacrifice may not be required to confer holiness upon this beauty before us, a sacrifice is required. What need to be sacrificed is our egoic aloofness, our coolness, our caffeine-induced state of hyper-activity, and our refusal to be de-throned by beauty, and simply go to our knees. There is a cost to this practice. We must be willing to have our hearts broken by the beauty of what we see if we are to be, with Jesus, blessers of this world.
In the story of Jesus’ blessing of the children, nobody but Jesus truly sees their holiness. The disciples are trying to shoo them away from the great teacher. To the disciples and likely to most of society at the time (especially if the children were females), they were merely a nuisance. But Jesus sees them. He makes his face to shine upon them, takes them up in his arms and blesses them. So many of his teachings end with “for those with eyes to see”. For those with eyes to see, he says, the Kingdom of God belongs to these little ones. Jesus possesses the vision of the poet or the artist, making apparent what nevertheless seems hidden to most people. He is a seer, a see-er before he can be a blesser.
The second aspect to the practice of blessing is to witness to the beauty by speaking to what we see. And if this speaking emanates from a broken heart, it takes the form of praise of the other. It may be a human we’re praising, or G_d, or it may be the beech tree on 8th and Trutch. It doesn’t much matter. The impact of this mode of speech called praise is to actually bring the other into greater fullness of being in and through the words that are coming out of our mouth. “You beautiful, gorgeous creature, you who have been gracing this corner with your sleek grey beauty, the shade of your foliage, I bend my knee to you. Your roots have stored water for us, and your breathing cleans the air for us. You unspeakable beauty.” Is it possible that in our seeing and subsequent praising, the tree herself starts to become more radiant and trusting, and so begins to open up more and more of her beauty to us?
Just think of what happens when you praise a child. They light up. I remember one summer when my daughter Sarah would perform dives into our pool, and after emerging from the water, look over and ask how that one was. This could go on for an hour or more. What mattered in all this was that I was seeing her, and praising her. But I wasn’t praising necessarily the quality of her dives. I was praising the fact of her being, of her vulnerability in needing and wanting to be seen, of my delight in being able to see the joy on her face. She would become more and more beautiful the more I offered praise. It works the other way though as well. The philosopher, Sam Keen, once said that if sons (and I would include daughters) are not being praised by their fathers, they are being hurt.
Now, if you decide to take up this practice of blessing, of praising what longs to be praised, it will indeed be practice. This is because we’re unaccustomed in the first place to seeing deeply, then being broken open by the beauty, and speaking in such a way that breaks the heart of the one we are praising. The shorthand, “God bless you”, won’t likely suffice. And you will notice, if it is another human being whom you are blessing in such a way, there will be great resistance to hearing this, because it truly is heart-breaking to receive such a gesture of love and admiration. The resistance, in us, and in others on the receiving end of such a blessing, comes in part from grief. We have all lived for so long in what scripture calls “the exile”. This is a condition in which we have collectively forgotten our inherent blessedness. We have been exiled from the Temple of our own beauty. It’s not until we are confronted with praise that we notice its absence, and such a confrontation doesn’t come without heartbreak. Again, there will be blood, not blood sacrifice, but it will be the sacrifice of a contrite heart, in the words of the prophet.
We arrive into the world filled with the promise of joy and love, but what we more often than not encounter is deep ancestral trauma that ends up creating a condition of amnesia— a forgetting of who we are, a separation from our own holiness and the holiness of life. The poet, Alan Ginsberg got caught up in the ecstasy of holiness that he saw all around him.
“Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand
and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is
holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an
angel! The bum’s as holy as the seraphim!
the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is
holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!
Ginsberg received the gift of angel eyes.
This brings me to the final dimension of blessing. It is an act of reminding. We remind the one being blessed of what is too painful to remember—that we are made for love, made to honour and be honoured, and that underneath all the cultural definitions of what it means to be human, is a soul that is yearning to be fully alive, to be praised into fullness of being. What I mean by “the cultural definitions of what it means to be human” is captured in a Facebook post by Trevor Malkinson on the occasion of Halloween. He is quoting David McNally, ‘Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism‘ (2012)
“Capitalist market-society overflows with monsters. But no grotesque species so command the modern imagination as the vampire and the zombie. In fact, these two creatures need to be thought conjointly, as interconnected moments of the monstrous dialectic of modernity. Like Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, the vampire and the zombie are doubles, linked poles of the split society. If vampires are the dreaded beings who might possess us and turn us into their docile servants, zombies represent our haunted self-image, warning us that we might already be lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers”.
Modern expressions of capitalism would have us believe that we are either mindless, vampire consumers, living off the life-blood of Earth; or else lifeless zombies, mere units of economic production. This reduction of our identity and role to homo economos —economic man and woman—is a grotesque distortion of what it means to be fully human. And one of the ways out of this cultural conditioning is to change the mode of discourse to one of blessing—blessing which breaks the spell of the monstrous identities we’ve been given by the worst expressions of capitalism, and by the traumas we’ve endured by not being loved and praised.
The praise that constitutes a blessing is also politically subversive. It is, as theologian Dorothy Soelle, points out in her book The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, a form of political resistance. She writes: “We are all guardians of joy and responsible for making life’s beauty visible and audible”: for making life’s beauty visible and audible. In the act of praising another, we subvert regimes that de-personalize us, and make us forget that we are made to be lovers of the world, and to be loved. Blessing, because it makes life’s beauty visible and audible, and counters the narrative of modernity, is a radical form of political resistance.
By the time Jesus lifts those children into his arms and blesses them they might have already forgotten that they are made in the divine image and likeness. And truthfully, most of us have as well. When is the last time you found yourself on the receiving end of a true blessing—when somebody has looked close enough to see your beauty, and then perhaps through tears, speaks a few clear sentences describing the beauty and wonder that you are? When was the last time your own heart was pierced with grief because you had lived so long in exile that you almost forgot what home was like, and now you are remembering and your own broken heart is wondering why nobody cared enough to remind you? If you are not being blessed like this, my friends, you are being hurt. If a seer like Jesus, or your husband or wife or friend, has not metaphorically picked you up and shone the light of their countenance upon you, then you are being hurt. And this is your birthright of every human being. Because only the blessed ones are liberated to bless.
We are commissioned to be blessers of your families, your friends, your partners spouses, and this stunning creation. The writer of 1 Peter intuited that those who follow in the Way of Jesus are a holy priesthood. You are set apart, that is, made holy, not for privilege, but to subvert this lost and lonely world, by being seers of beauty, heart-breakers whose only weapon is praise. As a holy priesthood, we are encouraged to sacrifice all that would get in the way of remembering our holiness, and reminding this blessed world of a holiness that must be praised to truly live.