Sermon #5 (15th April 2012 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Some time ago I was chatting with Linda Hart, minister with Richmond Unitarians. When I mentioned the theme of this service she reminded me of something from one of my favourite books, ‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson, a novel which is told from the point of view of an elderly Congregationalist minister looking back over his life. In this passage he recalls that as an (unusually pious) child he had baptised a litter of stray cats:
“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. . . . . 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.”
So, if we begin by asking ‘what is a blessing?’, we might consider the dictionary definitions. To bless is to: ‘to make holy by religious rite, to sanctify’ or ‘to infuse something with holiness… or one’s hope or approval’… but for our purposes I think that notion from ‘Gilead’ is perhaps a better starting point: ‘blessing… doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.’
In the reading from Henri Nouwen we heard earlier, he said: “I am increasingly aware of how much we fearful, anxious, insecure human beings are in need of a blessing.” I couldn’t agree more. So many of us carry around a sense of ‘not being good enough’ that can creep up on us at any moment. Perhaps we heard too much criticism and not enough appreciation in our youth. It could also be said that in today’s socio-political climate there is increasingly an implicit message that people are only of any worth so long as they are economically ‘useful’ – God help you if you are poor, sick, old, or somehow don’t fit into the system – whatever you do, it can seem as if all you’ve got to give is never enough. No wonder so many people feel fearful, anxious, insecure, and have a shaky sense of their own worth. The practice of blessing can be an antidote to all this, reminding people of their inherent sacredness.
However, paradoxically, a lot of us seem to feel uncertain, embarrassed or awkward about blessings. Even if, at some level, we long for a blessing we might find ourselves shrinking back or unconsciously putting up barriers when a blessing is offered to us. In the piece by Barbara Merritt, speaking of her reaction when effusively praised by a friend, she said:
“I found a very complex internal process going on within me. I was touched, unnerved, and a little sad that I hadn’t heard these words as a child. But mostly I became conscious of enormous resistance. Something in me was not quite ready to let these words in.”
I find that rather sad… but I can also relate to it. I remember when I first started going to Essex Church – I found it really unnerving when all these Unitarians started saying nice, appreciative things to me. It was so unlike what I was used to hearing in the world at large, the sort of workplace ‘banter’ which can so often be critical and undermining. I felt this strange push-pull between the great hunger to hear kind words and the sense that I didn’t quite know what to do with them… I’d rarely experienced such kindness elsewhere.
Offering a blessing can be just as awkward, embarrassing, and anxiety-provoking as receiving one, so we typically save it for special occasions (births, marriages and deaths) and even then devolve responsibility to specially appointed ministers. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian minister, has written something about this phenomenon:
“I think it is a big mistake to perpetuate the illusion that only certain people can bless things. There remain a great many people who excuse themselves when asked to pronounce a formal blessing. They are not qualified, they say. They are not good with words. They would rather jump off a high diving board than try to say something holy in front of a bunch of other people. My guess is that even if you asked them to bless something in private – thereby separating the fear of public speaking from the fear of pronouncing a blessing – they would still demur. If you are one of those people, then only you know why. All I can tell you is how much the world needs you to reconsider.”
I wonder if this is because, on some level, we know how important it is – how powerful a blessing can be – and we don’t want to be the one who messes it up. But really we can’t afford to leave it to the professionals – we need all hands on deck! There are so many people in this world in need of a blessing – who are fearful, anxious, insecure and uncertain of their own worth – and there’s nobody but us to do it. To paraphrase Teresa of Avila: ‘(God) has no hands but yours… yours are the hands by which he is to bless us now.’
So… we’ve looked at the what and the why and now we can turn to Henri Nouwen to find out how we might go about giving and receiving blessings.
In the story we heard, the young woman, Janet, shows us how it’s done. She’s such a great example! Firstly, she knows she is in need of a blessing, and does not hesitate to ask for one. Secondly, when Henri offers a rather mechanical sign of the cross, she tells him off: ‘No, that doesn’t work! I want a real blessing!’ Janet longs for something significant, deep and real, and is bold enough to ask for it directly.
When he is called on it, Henri realises that he was just going through the motions but, at first, doesn’t know what is required of him. What is a ‘real’ blessing? He stalls and says that he will offer a blessing in the evening service but even when the time comes he doesn’t know what he is going to say or do… but he opens himself to the moment… and in the end it is a joint effort between Janet, Henri, and what we might call the spirit.
As Rachel Naomi Remen says (in the words on the front of your order of service),
“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 one another.”
Perhaps the most moving part of the story, for me, is the way in which Janet’s boldness liberates everybody else in the community to be vulnerable and show that they too are in need, as one by one both the cared-for and the carers come forward to receive a blessing.
Although each instance of blessing will unfold spontaneously and uniquely as the spirit moves we can learn something about the shape or attributes of a blessing from this story. I want to highlight three aspects of a blessing which we might do well to take note of.
The first aspect of blessing is simple human contact, in this case an enfolding embrace as Henri covers Janet in his big white robes. For me, this sort of gesture helps to convey something that goes beyond words – something of being enfolded in love, both human and divine – as we sang earlier: ‘Not just in spirit’s words we preach, in human touch love’s faith we show.’
Even though we are often literally pressed right up against each other in big cities, this sort of intentional human contact, offering a sense of comfort and acceptance, is rare for many of us. But in the words of John O’Donohue, ‘when one is in sorrow or pain, touch can be the silent language that says everything; it travels deeper than words can.’
The second aspect of blessing is an element of personal affirmation, specifically naming the good that you see in someone. In modern life, particularly in big cities, many people feel almost invisible so even to acknowledge that they have been seen or heard at all is a significant thing. To name the good that you see in another may enable them to see it in themselves, and even call forth that quality in them, as they try to ‘live up to’ your affirmation. Here’s an example from my own experience. Many years ago I took part in a women’s group. On one occasion we sat in a circle and each of us had to offer a single word to the person sitting next to them, naming a good quality they saw in them. The woman next to me offered the word ‘creativity’. That’s not how I saw myself at all at the time, but her affirmation really sowed a seed in my consciousness, and I have carried that positive notion around with me ever since. I have since lost touch with Jackie but with that word she did such a lot of good for my self-confidence and has inadvertently helped shape the course of my life. There’s a hymn in our green hymnbook, ‘Scorn not the Slightest Word’, which includes the lines: ‘No act falls fruitless; none can tell how vast its power may be, nor what results infolded dwell within it silently.’ One tiny affirmation such as this can be carried in another’s heart for the rest of their life.
The third aspect of blessing, for me, involves a higher dimension. I think of it as the ‘God’s Eye View’. When we bless, we somehow transcend the personal, just for a moment. Henri Nouwen blesses people with the phrase ‘you are God’s beloved child’ and that phrase holds a lot of power for me.
Barbara Brown Taylor says this:
“Pronouncing a blessing puts you as close to God as you can get. To pronounce a blessing on something is to see it from the divine perspective… this may be why blessing prayers make some people uncomfortable. A loyal churchwoman once said in my hearing, ‘I don’t want to be that important.’ Yet she relied on me, her priest,to say the blessings she was unwilling to say herself – because she knew they were necessary, because she needed to hear a human voice pronouncing God’s blessing on her… otherwise she might give in to the insistent idea that she truly was not important, that both she and the whole world… were without any significant meaning.”
If God-language doesn’t work for you, maybe there’s another way to phrase this ‘bigger view’, and it’s one that some of you will be familiar with as the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association: ‘to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person’. This is something quite apart from the specific good qualities we might choose to affirm…It is saying that regardless of the particulars of our life – whether we’ve been naughty or nice, as it were – we are ultimately worthwhile. It’s no accident that the UUA have that as their first principle. As far as I’m concerned that message is central to our Unitarian mission, our ‘good news’.
So… I think it would be good for us as Unitarians to make a practice of blessing. Maybe it won’t always feel quite right to include all three ‘dimensions’ of blessing – human contact, personal affirmation, and taking a God’s-eye view – we’ve looked at. But I encourage you to do it in a way that suits your personality and the situation at hand – there’s no need to be extravagant about it if that’s not your style – for example, I rarely feel brave enough to say ‘you are God’s beloved child’, but quite often say something a bit more casual and low-key like ‘you are a good egg!’… for a lot of people that message is going to be easier to hear. Please don’t ever think ‘it goes without saying’ because the value of your affirmation may be huge.
So, in the days and weeks to come, I encourage you to give and receive blessings freely. Like Henri Nouwen, we might not know exactly what is required of us, but let us cultivate an attitude of reverence, sensitivity, and openness, approaching each potential moment of blessing with courage and goodwill.
As we sang earlier: “We come as we are to worship and pray, unsure of ourselves, unsure what to say…to give life the best of the powers we have, as servants of life and clear channels of love.”
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: