I have just finished the last chapter of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. It has been a rewarding book and the last chapter is a fitting conclusion. The chapter’s title reveals its focus: “The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings.” I very much like the fact she uses the plural, blessings. While blessing may happen one at a time, there is no doubt in my mind everyone is multiply blessed. And I join Taylor in feeling called to be one who blesses, too.
I appreciate the epigraph Taylor uses in the beginning of the chapter. An epigraph is something written that underscores something central to the chapter. Often an epigraph is a quotation that an author uses to begin her own thoughts. The epigraph Taylor chooses for this chapter is drawn from the Talmud, the Jewish collection of commentary on the Torah or the Hebrew Bible. Probably most Christians know nothing about the Talmud.
The epigraph (quotation in this case) says, “It is forbidden to taste of the pleasures of this world without a blessing.” I appreciate the wisdom of the Jewish sages. In this context the commentator is not saying we cannot have the pleasures of the world. No, that is ok. But you can’t have the pleasures without giving a blessing. That makes sense to me and seems fair. After all, so many of the pleasures of the world are gifts; I did nothing to create or deserve the pleasure.
If you are not sure, think of the last beautiful day. You did nothing to create it. I am not sure what basis you offer if you think you deserve it. Think about the sunshine on your face or the warm breeze blowing gently on your skin. Look into the blue sky. For me even the color blue, which I see in the sky is a gift. These are all pleasures, which are free to you and me. All that makes sense is to offer a blessing for the gift of this day. And for me, this means offering the blessing to God who is the Giver of such gifts.
I like that Taylor is sufficiently aware of the Jewish tradition, she can share that knowledge with us. She talks about how meaningful the Jewish tradition of brakoth has been for her. Again, it is noteworthy the Hebrew, brakoth, is plural. The singular is brakha is a “blessing prayer.” These are the prayers to be offered for beautiful days and even days that are not splendidly beautiful---the rainy, snowy, cloudy days.
Taylor talks about learning the Ha-Motzi---blessing prayer for bread---when she went to seminary. While she cites the one-liner in Hebrew before translating it, I’ll just share the English. The blessing prayer is this: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” I realize how easy it is to type those words. It is even easier to read them. In fact most people can read that sentence in about twenty seconds.
So we can read it, understand it and dismiss it by paying no attention. What Taylor calls us to do is pay attention and, then, practice it. That’s why I like her book. It is a good reminder to do what I say I really want to do. So I return to the blessing prayer for bread. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe. Can I take twenty seconds to utter these words---or at least think the thought---before eating my toast in the morning? Is it ok to say a similar version over my yogurt?
What I like about this blessing prayer is its versatility. The first half of the sentence remains the same. I am always addressing God---the blessed God, King of the Universe. The second half of the prayer changes, depending on whatever it is that we are thankful for. It might be the day itself. It might be for my friend, my health, and the list can go on. I think the details may not matter. What does matter is my awareness is cultivated.
This reminds me of the famous one-liner of Socrates, uttered long before the birth of Jesus. That wise philosopher said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates meant by this that we should not live life solely going through the motions. We ought to be aware, pay attention and reflect---think about life and the meaning in life. It seems to me this is close to what the Talmud affirms.
I do want to be aware today---be aware of myself, my life, my gifts and all that comes my way. I want to be thankful. I want to cultivate gratitude. I don’t need a Hebrew word to do that. I don’t even have to use a fancy phrase like, “blessing prayer.” What I will need to do is somehow reflect---to know and appreciate that I have been gifted. And I want to bless---to express that gratitude and thanksgiving.
And I want to live with that deep awareness throughout the day. I want to be able to use blessing in the plural---blessings. I can do this because I am sure there will be multiple opportunities. Life will come to be blessings upon blessings.