When I was a teenager, my mother would send me off to school every morning with the words, “Be a blessing!” While these words bore little immediate fruit, by the time I was in my early twenties, they had come to form the basis of my sense of vocation, of who and how I am called to be in the world. While this often gets expressed in simple ways, like making sure I offer a seat to someone on the subway, or putting in my best effort at work, there is more to blessing others than this. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and writer, once defined blessing as “to affirm another’s core identity, to say yes to a person’s belovedness.” And so for me, to bless someone is ultimately to say to them, or better, to show them that I see them.
While our English word ‘blessing’ has its roots in Germanic pre-Christian religious practices for sacralizing persons or things (it is related to the word ‘blood’), our conception of blessing in English has Semitic roots, in the Hebrew sense of fundamental favor bestowed by one for another. While certainly the paradigmatic idea of blessing is about the bestowal of God’s favour, there is an equally long history of that blessing being manifested by one person to another. Perhaps the most famous story in the Hebrew Scriptures about blessing is the story of Jacob and Esau, where the younger brother tricks his father into giving him an irrevocable patriarchal blessing intended for the older brother. While we might rightly question the particular theology involved in this kind of blessing, the story demonstrates just how important an idea it was in our primordial traditions.
In the Christian tradition, blessedness is connected to happiness. The Beatitudes — the series of blessings that Jesus offers that form the heart of Christian ethics — are often translated as “Blessed are …” but could equally be translated “Happy are …” It is those who are blessed, who find favour with God, who live happy and fulfilling lives. It has also been strongly associated with priestly ministry and is one of the core liturgical functions of the priest. Yet, as the sacramental priesthood is but a formalized and iconic manifestation of the vocation of all Christians — all Christians are to give thanks, to serve, to offer their lives as a sacrifice, etc. — all Christians are called to bless others.
What is it?
This practice for me was about going through my days with the specific intention of blessing people in my interactions with them, whether it was raising up their achievements in meetings or correspondence, a smile and silent prayer while passing them on the street, or any other way that came to my mind and attention.
It was an interesting week for this to be my practice, as unique opportunities seemed to present themselves. For example, a planned lunch with a colleague took a turn when she was informed of a death in the family just a few minutes before. Another friend was dealing with extreme stress at work and needed to vent. And the week ended with a travel day and my mother’s birthday celebration. So, in addition to the normal everyday interactions I was expecting, life provided me with other opportunities to try to go the extra mile in blessing people who crossed my path.
The main reflection I have about this week was that it was a nice reminder that this is really how I feel called to live my life. Being single and living alone, it’s easy to get trapped in the bubble of my own thoughts, life, feelings, and predilections; whereas my friends who are parents, for example, have neither those luxuries nor temptations. It was a helpful reminder that small interactions with others matter as much as the big ones, and that blessing looks different in different circumstances.
On a slightly different note, my time away reminded me of the so-called Platinum Rule, not treating others as you would like to be treated, but going the extra step to treat them as they would like to be treated — not to make assumptions about what they want or what is best. Most of the time that in itself — listening, hearing, and understanding another’s perspective and desires of their heart — is the biggest blessing someone can offer.