As I peruse my old journal reveries and recollections from the stacks of notebooks I have kept, I notice that, clearly, I’m a sucker for benedictions.
Page after page, it’s not unusual to find text I have written of well-wishes, inspiring quotes, and beautiful blessings spoken into my life – whether after a church service, a ceremony, the ending of a major life event, or from the mouth of a friend.
It makes sense, I suppose, to enjoy the intention, meaning, and tradition of benedictions. By its nature, a benediction is defined as, “a short invocation for divine help, blessing and guidance.” The words Latin roots are bene (well) + dicere (to speak).
I was spurred, along with other members of my Peace Corps cohort, with well-wishes, bravado, and yes, a benediction unto Rwandan communities across hills, valleys, and lakes as we began our service.
When I wrote about it later, I mused,
“…I, too, had tears in my eyes, knowing that the journey is young, like I am on the cusp of a life I have eagerly wanted to make. I’m closing my eyes. I’m jumping in. And I know without reservation, God is with me all of that way. He has to be.” – December 16, 2011
Each of us would take our bags, leave Kigali, and go.
I etched the words of the benediction given to us in my journal, too, hoping the reverberation would be a reminder for when I would need it. It was spoken ever-so-eloquently by a Peace Corps Staff member, notable for providing the same benediction each and every year to graduates – it was that powerful.
As we received it, my life changed.
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
There are moments in life that physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually touch you. Your skin becomes prickly, your belly turns upward, like a whale catching its breath. You lose words and gasp at the idea of articulating what you are feeling. These moments are brief, but certainly, they do come.
The rawness of Whitman’s hopes for humanity left tear-stains on my cheek. Could – and would – my life play out like the kind of poem he says?
Instinctively, I knew my life would be different after that day.
Turns out, I was right.
Benedictions are powerful because they combine what is so wonderfully mystical about God – one, entering humbly in a posture of receiving, and two, simultaneously (and boldly) proclaiming what you know to be true. In other words, benedictions encourage listeners to enter the world with eyes open and hands up. We recognize that we are not God. But, we are also not a doorknob, a sheet, or pomegranate lotion. The blessing, then, has potency. Active agent, if you will. Much like yeast in bread.
God may have all the love, grace, and peace for you – but you have to step forward to receive it.
This implies choice. This implies an intentional step-forward. We’re alive. My, how miraculous.
Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass has stuck with me for all these years because it outlines, I believe, what it means to be alive. Not quite a manifesto (it’s a bit gentler than that), Whitman captures the human spirit at its best.
And, I’m glad I copied it in my journal. That way, I can return to it – over and over again, recognizing my own need to be reminded of the soulful glaze it places upon my heart. Words soften me, reminding me that the gritty parts of our world don’t have to rule over all.
My hope for myself – and others – is that we seek often the benedictions life presents. Benedictions keep life fresh and relevant. The darker corners of life will tell us that “it’s all for nothing” or “we can’t change the way things are” or “it’s all to hell and hand-basket” or “there isn’t anything we can do.”
Those are lies.
I can say for myself, I did not reach 27 years of age unscathed. I believed some of these lies at times. I have believed worse ones as well.
Far more than a question of embracing an optimist or pessimist identity, I choose to see the world in a certain kind of way. It’s redemptive. Sure, it’s broken.
But I’m sorry, that’s not the end of the story. Benedictions exist to remind us that there is always more to the story.
Whether it’s gossip, fear, bills, stress, or anxiety that keeps you up at night, I sincerely hope your eyes will widen (with your hands placed upward) to receive the blessings present in the midst of all this…crap. Crap is injustice. Crap is hate. Crap is poverty. Crap is hunger. Crap is war.
Both are true: we’re alive, but sometimes, our lives are marred by the crap all around us.
Let’s redeem it together, even on the really, really hard days.
Laced between, I am sure, we can find soft whispers of benedictions all around us.