In Praise of the Benediction

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My husband’s parents had invited a revered pastor—or moksanim, in Korean—to participate in our wedding. “He’s known for his benedictions,” my husband said. I didn’t know someone could specialize in benedictions, the brief blessings given at the end of a service. I wondered what made his special. Was it the tone of his voice? The way he lifted his hands? His steady cadence?

The pastor turned out to be a bespectacled Korean American man, in his late sixties, who had a fatherly warmth and a comforting authority. At the wedding, his blessing felt long, but mostly because I was impatient to walk back down the aisle to our recessional, the piano line in Coldplay’s “Clocks.” The blessing’s final words were “ . . . and may the grace of God and the love of God be with you both now and forevermore.” Forevermore isn’t a word you hear very often in everyday life. It’s High Church language. Forevermore turned out to be six years.

Suddenly, I was a young mother standing in the front pew of another church, listening to this same moksanim give a very different benediction. At thirty-three, my husband had died abruptly and tragically, drowning in Lake Geneva while touring as a rock cellist. Most of the wake was dreamlike for me, but I do remember that, before I received a line of hundreds of mourners carrying single roses, I noticed that pastor again, the one who gave great benedictions, up at the front of the church at the end of the service. I admit that I was relieved to see him there, open to whatever strength his words might offer.

For many years after that, I hid out in the back pews at various churches. It was hard to be around smiling churchgoers who called themselves “blessed.” It felt like they were trying, through singing and sermons, to manufacture the starkness of our mortality, when it had become palpably real to me. After all, for almost a year a dead man’s clothes hung in my closet next to mine. His shoes, still in the shape of his feet, sat in our entryway.

When my daughter was five, her piano teacher held her recitals at a small church in our town. It met my qualifications: it was a two-minute drive from our house, had room in the back pews, and the congregation was mostly elderly people, who were staring down death themselves. The pastor quoted one of my favorite writers, Walker Percy, in his sermon. It was here that the benediction became a space of solace for me. It felt more generous than an aphorism and more true than wishful thinking. It was a striking alternative to the platitudes and prayers offered to grievers. Praying is hard after someone you’ve prayed for dies suddenly in an accident. You’re told two seemingly contradictory things: pray in faith, but also know that you shouldn’t lose faith if your prayer isn’t answered—which it might not be. The benediction makes no demands. To stand and receive it is a humbling, hopeful posture.

The word “benediction,” derived from Latin, means to “wish well.” The benediction doesn’t pray or plead; it pronounces, with no need for performance, effort, or improvisation. There aren’t too many occasions of formal pronouncements in one’s life. A wedding ends in a pronouncement. People are pronounced dead. Yet every week, all over the world, there is this less noted pronouncement—this declaration that we are blessed. John Calvin described it as a “pledge of God’s good will.” The late Irish poet John O’Donohue referred to the words of a blessing as “an invisible cloak to mind your life.” At a time in my life when everything felt uncertain, it was a small container of certainty each week.

I began to say the Aaronic blessing from the Old Testament, the oldest and likely the most well-known benediction, over my daughter before she went to sleep: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” It was God’s blessing over the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness. I learned later that this benediction is structured, in the Hebrew, like a poem, its cadences rising like a crescendo. A good benediction has the saturation of poetry, its meaning comprehensive, concise, and held in silence. Although it appears as an afterthought in the church program, it turns out to be the culmination. After a service of asking, God answers.

The other mainstay benediction, sometimes called the Apostolic benediction, comes from Saint Paul in the New Testament: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all.” It’s the end of Paul’s letter to the city of Corinth—a goodbye. The closing of a letter suits the liminal space of the benediction. The artist Jan Richardson, who published a book of blessings after she was widowed, wrote that a good blessing has what the Celtics call “a thin place.” “When our loss can make the boundary between worlds feel horribly solid, insurmountable, and permanent,” Richardson wrote, “this comes as a particular grace.” The benediction became a “thin place” for me. I hadn’t been able to say goodbye, but these parting words reached across the boundary and strengthened me.

The Moksanim died a few years ago, his gentle voice silenced by esophageal cancer. “Without your blessing, we cannot depart from this place,” he had insisted in his benediction, on the night of my husband’s wake. Such words hold two things in tension—the closing and the sending forth. They held me in an untenable time. Whether it’s a sombre Good Friday service or the trumpets of Easter Sunday—a wake or a wedding—the benediction confers both the promise of a future and a surrender to its uncertainty. “Blessing means laying one’s hands on something and saying, Despite everything, you belong to God,” the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, from a Nazi prison. To stand in the back pew every week and receive the benediction, despite my grief, despite my own wilderness, felt subversive. In the face of mystery, as we put on our coats and gather our things, we are wrapping this “invisible cloak” around us. It’s enough to keep us warm. ♦


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