On Blessings

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.”[1]

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.”[2]  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.”[3]

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?

 

[1] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004),  23.

[2] Robinson, 23.

[3] Robinson, 242.

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17 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think you do (need priesthood).

    I really like how you point out the tension between the idea that the priesthood is special so it must be necessary, and the idea that all are alike unto God, so anyone’s blessing should be as good as anyone else’s. It seems like the Church is trying to navigate that tension, arguing that priesthood is really important when men are being addressed, but that it’s not that big a deal when addressing women.

    • Emily U says:

      Yeah, Elder Oakes’ talk from the April 2014 General Conference (I think it was) was an example of that tension when he said women employ priesthood authority in their callings (what other authority could it be, I think is how he put it).

  2. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this post, Emily U. I’m actually listening to Gilead right now, and I’m enjoying the thoughtful, slow-paced, reflective narrative.

    Regarding your question about blessings, I just did an oral history with a woman who was a RS president three times. She described instituting, with the bishop’s permission, prayer circles, in which groups of women would go to sick or troubled women’s homes, hold hands, and pray for the woman. I thought that was a wonderful way to in essence bless a person, and it even had that physical touch component that I think can be particularly moving. If a woman wanted to stay within the spirit and letter of the (current) law, this practice seems like a great way for women to bless one another. Like Ziff, however, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a woman laying hands on another person and pronouncing a blessing, though I personally would not to invoke priesthood.

    • Emily U says:

      Caroline, I’m glad you’re listening to Gilead! I’ve never heard of prayer circles like you mention, but they sound wonderful. Logistically getting a group together sounds tough, but I’m filing this under “things I’d like to do some day.” I’m glad you captured that in your oral histories.

  3. I am not sure what (if any) would be the difference in spiritual power of a Mormon woman’s blessing versus an ordained Mormon man’s blessing, but I do see a lot of practical differences. Because Mormon men are ordained as priesthood holders, they are instructed, trained, encouraged, and supported by the church to give blessings. Their capacity to give blessings is not questioned and other members of the Mormon community are encouraged to seek them out and ask them for blessings. They have regular opportunities to practice their skills at administering blessings throughout their lives, starting in their late teen years. Women are not taught to give blessings, discouraged from doing so (or even threatened with punitive action for doing so), and not openly sought out for blessings, although they may perform them furtively. I assume that some people, both male and female, are naturally spiritually gifted and don’t need support from the church and community to be comfortable giving a blessing, but others, like me, need this kind of support to feel comfortable enough to be effective as an instrument in God’s hands.

  4. Naismith says:

    I had a visiting teachee who passed away a while back. During one of her many hospitalizations, she asked me to pray for her. She said that all kinds of priesthood had given her blessings but it was not the same.

    I put my hand on her shoulder as I prayed for her. The physical connection is valuable, as others have noted.

    On another visit to her, I was there with my husband, who has served as a bishop. After I had done that, it occurred to me that he may find it questionable. But he was entirely supportive. He said that I had not invoked a priesthood to which I had not been ordained, so no problem. He was very supportive.

    • Emily U says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Naismith. It’s wonderful you were able to be there for your visiting teachee, especially since it seems she needed something she wasn’t getting from priesthood blessings.

  5. Jason K. says:

    April’s point about institutional support is really important. I absolutely believe that women have the spiritual capacity to give efficacious blessings. Priesthood wasn’t the issue in the 19th century, and it need not be the issue now. Nevertheless, cultural and institutional norms make the exercise of these spiritual gifts seem–out of place. That’s a problem. When part of the body can’t fully exercise its strength, the whole body suffers.

  6. Emily U says:

    April and Jason K – I completely agree. Institutional support would mitigate the hesitancy I feel in participating in blessings. And yes, when part of the body can’t fully exercise its strength, the whole body suffers. Absolutely true.

  7. Neva says:

    I am curiously excited as to the historical and doctrinal background behind the rescinsion of women giving blessings with the backup of priesthood authority after it had been practiced and condoned for 100 years. who, when, how, why, and by what/whom? was it a reactionary kneejerk, official revelation or social concensus? what is “needed” to renew its practice and approval?

    • Emily U says:

      Neva – The blessings are well documented in journals and in some cases meeting minutes, and there was a particular set of words used for confinement that closely resembles the initiatory. I heard a presentation on this at a retreat and I’m trying to get the presenter to write up her research! The story of why women’s blessings went away is basically one of women (stake and general Relief Society presidents) asking their priesthood leaders for clarification about what exactly was appropriate, and each time they asked, a little latitude was taken away until gradually over time the answer was to just call on the elders. This also correlated with the transition of birth from homes to hospitals, so the context in which many of these blessings were given was also disappearing. The retreat presentation was so stunning because this part of our history is so unknown. It seems like an absolutely tragic loss to me.

  8. Laura Penn says:

    I am more and more convinced that “ordination” is very much like (and nothing more than) the feather Dumbo was clutching that supposedly gave him the power to fly.

  9. Quimby says:

    I’ve never spoken openly about this before . . . but I gave a priesthood blessing to my daughter before she was born, when I was far, far away from anyone who held the priesthood and I was bleeding and I didn’t know what else to do. I prayed first for forgiveness if what I was doing was wrong; and then I laid my hands on my stomach and gave her a blessing through the power of the Melchizedek priesthood which my father holds. I told my mom about it not long after it happened; she told me she didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, but not to tell my dad. It was 8 years before I told my dad; he told me he was proud of me and he felt I had done the right thing. I’ve never done it since; but if the situation was life-threatening – and I feel that was for her – and I was far away from anyone who held the priesthood, I would do it again.

    That was the preamble to the single-most spiritual experience of my life, which I am still very hesitant to discuss openly. But I fully and firmly believe that everything that happened after that is a confirmation that there was no sin or error in giving my daughter that blessing.

    • Quimby says:

      I should probably also point out that I grew up with a different and perhaps unconventional understanding of priesthood blessings. When I was 3 I fell out of a car and cracked my head open. (Yes, yes, you can joke that that explains a lot, ha ha.) My mom rushed me home and demanded that my dad give me a priesthood blessing. He said he couldn’t, because the only other man in an hour’s drive that had the priesthood was living with his girlfriend, drinking and smoking heavily, and not worthy to give the blessing. My mom said, in effect, ‘I don’t care and neither will God, you get him over here and give our daughter a blessing.’ He did; and I was healed. I grew up with that story and must’ve internalised the message that God wouldn’t with-hold a blessing because of the worthiness or lack thereof of the person giving the blessing. If he still saw fit to bless me when one of the two men involved was breaking just about every commandment there was, I didn’t see how he was going to punish my unborn child just because I don’t have a penis. And yes, you can certainly argue that technically it wasn’t a priesthood blessing anyway – no anointed oil, etc. etc. – but I felt, in that moment, that I needed the priesthood; and so I called on it the only way I could think of.

    • Emily U says:

      Thank you for sharing that here, Quimby. My take-away is that what really matters in blessings is faith.

    • Melissa says:

      I know this is old, but thank you so much for sharing it!

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