Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Judith Valente on the Disappearing Art of Giving and Receiving Blessing

            Two of my best friends when I lived in Chicago were Gwen and David Clayborne. David worked with me in the Chicago Bureau of The Wall Street Journal where I was a staff writer and he was head of educational services. Both David and his wife practiced the Baha’i faith, which stresses unity among people.  Whenever I dined at their home or attended a Baha’i religious celebration, I was impressed with the diversity of the people I met.

            Gwen and David knew little about Benedictine monastic spirituality, but they were expert practitioners of the monastic value of hospitality. Every month, they invited guests to a luncheon at their home – people from different races and backgrounds, and even some folks they didn’t know well. They reminded me of the ancient monastic porters, who were to greet every stranger who arrived at the monastery door with either, “Thanks be to God” or else, “Your blessing, please.”

            To give thanks for everyone who comes into our lives can be risky business. It was even more so for those ancient porters who lived in a time when the stranger at the monastery door might well be a marauder. What the words imply, though, is that we expect something good to come out of each of those encounters, even if perhaps the blessing is hidden at first.

             For the monastic porter to say “Your blessing, please,” meant people living in monasteries considered themselves no more holy than those on the outside, no more capable or worthy of blessing. In reality, we all need each other’s blessing.

            Gwen and David understood this. They were not only outwardly hospitable, opening their homes to people who weren’t necessarily friends yet. They also practiced a hospitality of mind. To this day, they remain open to listening to the ideas of people who may not think, vote or worship as they do. As our country sinks ever faster into immovable blocs of people who refuse to engage with the “other side,” I like to think of Gwen and David -- and the monastery porters. Am I, like them, open to strangers around me? To new ideas or differing views that knock at the door of the mind?

            In welcoming others, Gwen and David were also offering their guests a kind of blessing. Outside of perhaps monasteries and churches, the routine giving and receivingof blessings is fast becoming a lost art, something I fear is about to go the way of typewriters and TV antennas.

            Norman Rockwell’s series of illustrations known as “The Four Freedoms” are among the most famous images by an American artist. My favorite is “Freedom of Want.” An extended family sits at a table just as the grandmother is about to set down a roast turkey. I imagine that family has just finished offering a prayer of thanksgiving. With both parents often working, and hectic after-school schedules for kids, it’s hard for many families to sit down for a meal at the same time, let alone say grace together on a regular basis.

            It’s lovely that every Catholic Mass ends with the celebrant offering a blessing at dismissal. But is church the only venue for giving and receiving blessing? I once had the opportunity to interview the late poet and theologian, John O’Donohue. He lived amid the rugged terrain of Connemara in western Ireland where the winds blow cold, the sea roils dangerously and the soil is hard and unforgiving. In this desolate land, you have to look deeply for blessing.

            Yet O’Donohue wrote a wonderful book called, To Bless The Space Between Us.  He wrote blessings for walking, coming home, time in solitude. He even found something to bless in passing a graveyard, in broken relationships, or retiring from a job. He understood that wrapped in the messes and disappointments of life, could well lie hidden graces. This is how we bless the space between us. We do it in the ordinary course of our day. We look to the detritus of life. We don’t have to be in a church or wear a cleric’s collar.

            What blessing can I offer someone today? Am I, like Gwen and David, courageous enough to say to the stranger – to the Mexican immigrant, the woman in a hajib at the supermarket, the homeless man on the corner, the mentally challenged teenager I meet on the street or the  coworker who annoys me at the office -- “Thanks be to God” or “Your blessing, please?” It might just be a silent blessing. Tough work to be sure, but as Benedictines, we are called to keep trying.

Judith Valente is an award-winning broadcast journalist who covers religion news for PBS-TV, a poet, author and retreat leader. She is the author of two poetry collections and co-author of two other books. Visit Judith's website.

Judith Valente offers this challenge: Are you "courageous enought to say to the stranger 'Thanks be to God' or 'Your blessing, please?' "

What would it take for you to make this a regular practice in your life? 

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