Barbara Brown Taylor and An Altar in the World book cover
Photos: Courtesy of HarperOne
In An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor promises to make you see the world in a new way—finding grace in even the smallest detail, helping to bring conscious awareness to your everyday. Learn how the practice of blessings will help you give thoughtful prayer to those you love and even some you will never meet.

It is forbidden to taste of the pleasures of this world without a blessing.—The Talmud

As someone who has been paid to pronounce blessings at weddings and funerals, at baptisms and house blessings, at soup kitchens and foxhunts—as well as at lots and lots of weekly worship services—I think it is a big mistake to perpetuate the illusion that only certain people can bless things. Not everyone is vulnerable to this illusion, I know. Plenty of people say grace over meals in their own homes, asking God to bless the food they are about to receive from the divine bounty. A number more bless their children at bedtime, asking God to bring those children safely through the night. Where I live, you can sneeze in line at the post office and receive half a dozen blessings from people you do not even know.

Yet there remain a great many people who excuse themselves when asked to pronounce a formal blessing. They are not qualified, they say. They are not good with words. They would rather jump off a high diving board than try to say something holy in front of a bunch of other people. My guess is that even if you asked them to bless something in private—thereby separating the fear of public speaking from the fear of pronouncing a blessing—they would still demur. If you are one of those people, then only you know why. All I can tell you is how much the world needs you to reconsider.

I think that the best way to discover what pronouncing blessings is all about is to pronounce a few. The practice itself will teach you what you need to know.

Start with anything you like. Even a stick lying on the ground will do. The first thing to do is to pay attention to it. Did you make the stick? No, you did not. The stick has its own story. If you have the time to figure out what kind of tree it came from, that would be a start to showing the stick some respect. It is only "a stick" in the same way that you are "a human," after all. There is more to both of you than that. Is it on the ground because it is old or because it suffered mishap? Has it been lying there for a long time or did it just land? Is it fat enough for you to see its growth rings?

The more aware you become, the more blessings you will find
If you look at the stick long enough, you are bound to begin making it a character in your own story. It will begin to remind you of someone you know, or a piece of furniture you once saw in a craft co-op. There is nothing wrong with these associations, except that they take you away from the stick and back to yourself. To pronounce a blessing on something, it is important to see it as it is. What purpose did this stick serve? Did a bird sit on it? Did it bear leaves that sheltered the ground from the hottest summer sun?

At the very least, it participated in the deep mystery of drawing water from the ground, defying the law of gravity to deliver moisture to its leaves. How does a stick do that, especially one this size? Smell it. Is the scent of sap still there? This is no less than the artery of a tree that you are holding in your hand. Its tissue has come from the sun and from the earth. Put it back where you found it and it will turn back into earth again. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes. Will you say a blessing first? No one can hear you, so you may say whatever you like.

"Bless you, stick, for being you."

"Blessed are you, o stick, for turning dirt and sun into wood."

"Blessed are you, Lord God, for using this stick to stop me in my tracks."

As I said earlier, the practice itself will teach you what you need to know. Start throwing blessings around and chances are you will start noticing all kinds of things you never noticed before. Did you ever notice the white and black striped stockings on the stick legs of that blessed mosquito before? Did you ever notice the tiny purple flowers on that blessed moss? One liability of pronouncing blessings out of doors is that it gets hard to walk on things. Once you become aware of the life in them, the kinship can really slow you down.

The same is true of other people. The next time you are at the airport, try blessing the people sitting at the departure gate with you. Every one of them is dealing with something significant. See that mother trying to contain her explosive two-year-old? See that pock-faced boy with the huge belly? Even if you cannot know for sure what is going on with them, you can still give a care. They are on their way somewhere, the same way you are. They are between places too, with no more certainty than you about what will happen at the other end. Pronounce a silent blessing and pay attention to what happens in the air between you and that other person, all those other people.

How events in life can influence your spiritual practice
No one's spiritual practice is exactly like anyone else's. Life meets each of us where we need to be met, leading us to the doors with our names on them. Yet because we are human, we almost never go where no one has gone before. I remember once when I went on a walk through the woods near my house. It had rained the day before. The path under my feet was soft. The air was fragrant with damp bark and leaf rot. I was glorying in my aloneness when I came to a wash in the trail, where yesterday's rain had deposited a fresh layer of silt. Looking down, I saw that it was really a guest book, signed with deer hooves, turkey feet, snail trails, and three paws of a raccoon. I was hardly alone. I was in the middle of a parade, with life going ahead of me and more life coming along behind me to lay down its print next to mine.

My father died after a small seizure caused by his advanced brain cancer knocked him for a loop two weeks before Christmas. After the seizure was over and the ambulance had taken him to the hospital, my mother and I followed in my car. Soon his small cubicle in the emergency room was full of my sisters, their sons, and our husbands, all crowded on a white bench set against the wall. The doctors and nurses checked my father's pupils, took his blood, rolled him over so they could replace his bathrobe with a hospital gown. They were in no hurry. No one spoke to my father, except one nurse who scolded him for wetting the stretcher.

Clearly, this was no emergency. These professionals had seen lots of old men die and this one was no different. Watching them do their work, the rest of us gradually realized that my father was dying too. Two weeks before Christmas, the hospital was full, or at least the floor where they put the people who were waiting to die. Because there was no room in the inn, the medical staff left us for long stretches. During these lulls, one or the other of us would get up and go to my father, standing over him so the harsh examining room light did not shine straight in his eyes. One of us would kiss him all over his forehead. Another would dip a pink sponge on a stick in water to wet his mouth. He was dazed from the seizure, but he knew who we were.

My mother and I lamented calling the ambulance. We should have kept him at home, we confessed to each other in low voices. But it had seemed an emergency to us. Watching him go rigid on the couch in the living room, we forgot that he was not ever going to get better. We did what we were taught to do when we were afraid someone was going to die. We called 911, forgetting that even they could not prevent him from dying. My sisters joined us with their own rehearsals of remorse, as the husbands and sons held our arms and rubbed our backs.

Blessings have healing power
While we were doing this, I noticed my husband get up and go over to my father, leaning down to say something in his ear. They had long loved each other. Years earlier, they had gone on a canoe ride meticulously planned, outfitted, directed, and concluded on schedule by my sometimes maddeningly compulsive father. Everything had gone according to plan—my father's plan—throughout which Ed had been uncharacteristically compliant. Then right at the end, when they were almost safe on dry land, Ed tipped the canoe as he got out of it and dumped my father in the river.

"I hope that was an accident," Ed said when my father surfaced, his Cabela's outfit soaked through with the same green water he was spewing out of his mouth. That my father had laughed at this memory was a testament to his love for my husband, who in the present was kneeling down on the linoleum floor by my father's bed to fit his head underneath my father's bony hand. As I watched, Ed reached up and put one of his big hands on top of my father's hand to make sure it did not slip off. Then he held still while my father's lips moved. After he stood up, he leaned over to say something else in my father's ear.

"What was that?" I asked when he came back to slump beside me again.

"I asked him to bless me," Ed said. "I asked him to give me his blessing."

This kind of blessing prayer is called a benediction. It comes at the end of something, to send people on their way. All I am saying is that anyone can do this. Anyone can ask and anyone can bless, whether anyone has authorized you to do it or not. All I am saying is that the world needs you to do this, because there is a real shortage of people willing to kneel wherever they are and recognize the holiness holding its sometimes bony, often tender, always life-giving hand above their heads. That we are able to bless one another at all is evidence that we have been blessed, whether we can remember when or not. That we are willing to bless one another is miracle enough to stagger the very stars.

Barbara Brown Taylor teaches religion at Piedmont College in rural Northeast Georgia and is an adjunct professor of spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur. She is the author of twelve books, including the New York Times best-seller An Altar in the World (HarperOne). Her first memoir, Leaving Church, met with widespread critical acclaim, winning a 2006 Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writers Association. A contributing editor to Sojourners, an at-large editor for The Christian Century and sometime-commentator on Georgia Public Radio, she lives on a working farm with her husband Ed and a yard full of animals.
Reprinted from An Altar in the World by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


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