Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I was confronted with an interesting question, last Friday afternoon, in the class to which I had been invited as a guest speaker. It had to do with blessing. Students in the class had been asked to read my memoir, “While I Am Not Afraid”, and the question arose from a scene in the book in which I asked for a blessing from my father on his deathbed.

As I watched my father in what the family thought to be the last hours of his life (he fooled us all, living on for more than a week after this moment,) I recalled the days when I was a small child, and he the rector of a parish in the diocese of St. Albans, just north of London. Too young to partake in the eucharist--not yet, then, “confirmed”--I was always led to the altar rail by my mother and would receive, each Sunday, a blessing as my father distributed the communion wafers and the wine. He would lay a gentle hand on my head and say a quick prayer before passing on to the next communicant. I could think of no better way to bring our relationship to closure. Since he was by this time too weak to move his hand, I had to take it myself and lay it on my forehead, and to say for him the words that came back to me then--but which I have since forgotten.

It was a moving and a memorable moment, and the student was curious to know what that blessing meant to me. The truth is that, as an unbeliver, I was for much of my life somewhat embarrassed by the notion of blessing. It seemed to me to suggest a call to a spiritual authority in which I did not believe, a paternal, not to say paternalistic act of faith that my skeptical mind found impossible to accept. It is only in very recent years that I have found in myself the wish--and I might even say the power--to bless, though without recourse to a "higher power" for the authority to do so.

It has come about perhaps in part as a simple function of age, because in the work I do in The ManKind Project, younger men have asked it of me. At first I was as embarrassed by their requests as by the act itself. Who was I, of all people, to offer blessings? What right did I have to give them? By whose authority? But I found myself, despite those hesitations, responding to the requests, finding simple words that somehow felt right for me without suggesting in any way that they came from anywhere but my own heart. (I was also embarrassed, for most of my adult years, by the very word "heart," but that's another—if related—story.)

So the student's question went to the heart--there I go again!--of something I had struggled with for many years, and I found myself formulating an answer to in the light of what I have learned from the Buddhist teachings: the kind of blessing I can believe in comes out of compassion. It's not that I have earned any right to bless, by means of my superiority to other beings; it's rather a heart-to-heart exchange, what I described to the class as an "I see you" moment, an act of recognition and oneness. Our culture tends, I think, to associate blessing with a hierarchical sense that the blesser has some special gift or qualification which he or she imparts upon the blessee from that superior place. I have come to see it otherwise, perhaps more humbly, as more of an expression of compassion and goodwill. As I told the student, I can receive wonderful blessings from the least expected quarters.

The act of blessing, then, for me, is no more than the conscious opening of the heart to another being at some special moment, accompanied, perhaps--though by no means necessarily--with words of recognition and appreciation. To return to my father's blessing on his deathbed: what I needed in that moment, quite simply, was to know that I was seen and acknowledged. The fact that he was approaching the God that he believed in lent a special gravity to the gift, but the meaning of the blessing did not require me to share in his belief, but rather to accept it from his very human heart.

I googled “Buddhist” and “Blessing”, and came up with this poem/chant…

Just as the soft rains fill the streams,
pour into the rivers and join together in the oceans,
so may the power of every moment of your goodness
flow forth to awaken and heal all beings,
Those here now, those gone before, those yet to come.

By the power of every moment of your goodness
May your heart's wishes be soon fulfilled
as completely shining as the bright full moon,
as magically as by a wish-fulfilling gem.

By the power of every moment of your goodness
May all dangers be averted and all disease be gone.
May no obstacle come across your way.
May you enjoy fulfillment and long life.

For all in whose heart dwells respect,
who follow the wisdom and compassion, of the Way,
May your life prosper in the four blessings
of old age, beauty, happiness and strength…

…which speaks not of God but of the goodness of the human heart. Which is, perhaps more elegantly put, exactly what I’m trying to talk about.  I don't know who to thank or acknowledge for this poem, but may whoever posted it enjoy those same blessings he or she has offered those of us who read it.


John Torcello said...

Bless you, and thanks, Peter, for this sharing and insight; and for your sharing your blessings with others, when asked, in spite of your sometimes discomfort.

Richard said...

I entirely agree with you about the way our culture percives blessings, Peter.

I agree that a blessing is an act of recognition. For me the blessing is a heartfelt "Best Wishes"; a Namaste 'The light within me honors the light within you' moment; and a gesture of solidarity as well.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

This was a perfectly lovely post, Peter, one of your very best. I also cannot imagine a better way to bring a relationship to closure, and would have dearly loved to receive a blessing from my own father, to feel seen and acknowledged and if possible, even loved.

I grew up in an intellectually rich but emotionally impoverished home, so I was also embarrassed by blessings and indeed, by the word "heart." It has taken a lifetime to reconcile my mind with the vulnerability which opening ones heart brings, along with its considerable rewards.

Thank you for sharing this honest and beautiful story.

Donna said...

Poignant, touching and beautiful. Thank you......and many blessings.

Gary said...

Peter your vision has always been a blessing to us all and your desire to give back is the most loving expression of faith...thank you dear friend

robin andrea said...

Quite a beautiful post, peter. I like your perception of what it means to bless and be blessed. That acknowledgment of the heart. On my father's deathbed, he mouthed the words, "I love you," to me. It was a blessing.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks to all! Your comments are in themselves a blessing. Thank you!

ranofOP said...

I appreciate the gentle manner of addressing blessing. It is sensitive since it addresses the big issue of faith and what do we believe and know. I am too a buddhist meditator and also a 'believer.' I learned from your comment on the nature of blessing as compassion. It is the quality of the 'higher power' that I call forth in prayer and blessing. god for me is that energy i choose to open to in mind and body. This too is gleaned from the Mankind Project.