Thursday, August 16, 2012

Column: God Bless You

The "bless you!" is almost as reflexive as the sneeze, I find. A few years ago, when two friends who happened to be priests were guests at dinner, I sneezed. They instantly responded (in chorus): "Bless you!" leading Math Man to wonder aloud if it meant more when they said it than when he did. The blessings set out in the Book of Blessings are not reflexive, nor are they intended for frivolous occasions (read Paul Ford's overview of the instructions here), but the habit of blessing what we see, hear and touch serves to blur the boundaries between the stuff of daily life and the sacred spaces and times. It's all holy ground.

(Photo is of Chris learning to drive my dad's 1930 Model A. How fast can you go? Only as fast as you can stop, no power breaks or steering on this!)

This column appeared on CatholicPhilly on August 16th.

I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground,
streams upon the dry land;
I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring,
my blessing upon your descendants.

– Is. 44:3

“God bless, God bless,” said the woman as she stood next to my car. While I appreciated the blessing, frankly, I think my car needs a more thorough benediction.

First there was the midnight text message from my oldest son, whose nickname is — rather ironically — Crash: “I got into a little fender bender leaving prom tonight.” Now I am in the middle of a left turn lane on Lancaster Avenue, my front bumper and side mirror bent and dented after being sideswiped by a minvan.

I’m beyond grateful that no one was hurt in either collision, and that my now slightly wrinkled Mini can still get me from place to place, but I’m ready to ask my pastor to get out the holy water and the official Book of Blessings and bless away. “All powerful God … [g]rant, we pray, that those who use this vehicle may travel safely, with care for the safety of others.”

We open and close sacred time with blessings. We bless ourselves at the beginning of Mass, the presider blesses us at the end of Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours — even when prayed alone — ends with “May the Lord bless us, protect us from evil and bring us to everlasting life.”

But blessings should not and are not reserved for sacred times or places, or even for sacred objects. We say grace, blessing what is on our plates, whether it’s pasta with jarred sauce or a festive meal.

British author G.K. Chesterton, as famous for his Father Brown mysteries as he is for his sharp, tightly reasoned defenses of Christianity, pushes us further: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

I’m reminded of all the Olympic athletes I watched this last week, making the sign of the cross before their heats, or holding up icons of the Blessed Mother as they rejoiced in their victories.

The Church teaches us that blessings are not protective coatings, making our lives and possessions less prone to getting dented as we are bounced around or assuring us victories on the athletic field. Nor are they offhand good wishes.

The introduction to the Book of Blessings makes clear that sacramental blessings must be driven by our faith in God. Blessings are a way in which God meets His people, not just in the times and places we have set aside as sacred, but everywhere.

Making sacred our everyday objects — cars, candles, or computers — draws us more deeply into the preeminent sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” notes “that almost every event in (our) lives is made holy by divine grace that flows from the paschal mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, the fount from which all the … sacramentals draw their power.”

Blessing my car may or may not result in fewer dents, but it is certain to remind me of the care I owe other travelers along the way and of God who has blessed me with a way to travel these great distances, without getting my feet wet. And yes, I prayed for grace “before I dipped the pen in the ink,” or rather, set my hands on the keyboard, to write this column.

Lord Jesus, you became a companion to your disciples on the road to Emmaus; bless us on our journeys and warm our hearts by your words. Amen. — From the intercessions for the Rite of Blessing of Various Means of Transportation


  1. If God has poured out God's blessing on us as you quoted from Isaiah 44:3, then all of life is sacred. We are blessed by the Creator of the universe. Thank you for reminding us of this.

  2. We end up, not necessarily through any ill intent, more "protective coating" oriented, don't we? But for those of us who hope to live intentional and sacramental lives, in particular if we live a faith that is sacramental, then it is important to remember otherwise.