In Gilead, a favorite novel of mine, a Congregational minister named John Ames recalls his life in a letter to his young son. Part autobiography and part meditation on ultimate questions, the book contains some interesting thought on blessings. As a minister, Ames has bestowed countless blessings, but his first experiencing of blessing was with kittens.
“I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays the mind” He and his lifelong friend Boughton had wetted the kittens brows with water to baptize them. He wondered what they had done to them, musing, “It still seems to me to be a real question.”
Ames tells his son, “I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that 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.” And at the end of the novel Ames blesses a man who has troubled his family and troubled Ames for years. It’s an act of repentance, forgiveness, and catharsis. “I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was absolutely true. In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.”
Regarding the honor of giving blessings, a friend of mine who converted to Mormonism as a young adult says the thing that confirmed his decision to belong in the Church was the transcendent experience of blessing others. It’s a daily reality for Mormon men that they may lay hands on someone and ask for blessings from heaven by virtue of their priesthood authority. I sometimes wonder about that experience, to give, not just receive, blessings. I’ve been a temple worker, and for some women administering the initiatory ordinance brings a singular spiritual connectedness, but for me it didn’t. I felt awkward and worried about getting it wrong. Instead of administering an ordinance, I wonder about blessing my own children, husband, and the women I might minister to as a visiting teacher. For the first hundred years of the Church’s existence women did confer blessings on others, especially for women in confinement. I wonder if any of my foremothers knew the pleasure and privilege of giving blessings.
Gilead made me feel that blessings do not have to come at the hand of an ordained individual, but that a simple touch or a prayer can be a blessing. The trouble is, I don’t know how to reconcile that with priesthood blessings. If there’s nothing special about them as compared with praying over someone, why do them at all? And the heavy emphasis on authority makes me feel paralyzed at thoughts of blessing others. But I hear my feminist sisters talk about not asking, just doing, and I realize if I wait for permission I’ll probably be waiting forever.
I have taken into account that “there are some advantages” to the priesthood. I suppose I’m as likely to find myself in proximity of someone needing a blessing as most other Mormons. So the question is, when I find myself in such a position, do I need the priesthood to lay a loving hand on someone and confer a blessing?
 Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 23.
 Robinson, 23.
 Robinson, 242.