I’ve been enjoying reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead (published 2004). It’s written as the reflections of a pastor, Rev John Ames, who knows he is soon to die. These reflections are offered to a son who has come late in the life of this pastor.
One of the features of this lovely book is the attention to simple experiences. As the narrator says at page, 32, ‘This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.’
What a remarkable statement, with profound ethical implications.
That ‘attention’ gives rise to another wonderful insight, the possibility of blessing.
At one point, the narrator (Ames) is reflecting upon a childhood experience of holding a cat, remembering ‘how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand.’ (p26)
In this passage, in fact he is recalling how he and some friends tried to baptize several cats! Another boy had said that this would have no efficacy, because they had not immersed the cats.
John Ames now reflects on the value of actions which seek to bring God’s blessing to others, through simple human actions. His insights resonate deeply with my own experiences and convictions.
‘There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. 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. I don’t wish to be urging the ministry upon you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not hat you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you. I don’t know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature.’ (p.26 – 27).
I delight in the idea that in a simple attentiveness to others, to the mystery of their lives and the mystery of my own life, I could pass on a sense of God’s presence and healing: a blessing.
This blessing is to be enacted. That’s the exciting thing. We can say something, and we can touch others, in ways which actually bring into lived and present reality the awareness of God: present, active, healing, deepening, challenging. This is blessing. Things like water, a drink, a touch of the hand, even a look, can be acts of blessing.
I am sure that I agree, ‘you don’t have to be a minister to confer blessing’.
I have come to wonder whether most pastors today engage in this attentiveness to the mystery of our lives, at all—let alone to the activity of blessing.
Maybe being ‘in the ministry’ makes this activity less likely, now, rather than more likely. I hope not.
In any event, there is a vital connection between the idea that this is an interesting planet, deserving our attention, and this sense of the mystery of our own lives, and of others’ lives. The spiritual reality of blessing is a thoroughly ‘worldly’ thing. It does not draw us away from things, but rather draws us to live in this world, this life, more fully and more deeply. And as it does, we sense more and more the depth of divine presence. Our lives, our days, our little things become opportunity for blessing, the giving and receiving of grace.