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Mercy Moments: Season Two, Episode One

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“Mommy loves you.  Daddy loves you.  Jesus loves you.”  My mom prayed using her thumb to mark a cross on my forehead, kissed me, and sent me to bed.  

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I have been #BLESSED my whole life.  I’m not implying my life has been easy or as if being blessed equates to being rich, happy, or carefree.  Ha!  Not at all.  I’m referring to the act of blessing.  Growing up, my parents blessed me every night before bed and blessings have been a part of my life ever since.

Whether it’s daily family rituals: like each morning before work when Tony forms a cross with his thumb and index finger tracing a cross on my forehead.  I kiss his hand, still in the shape of a cross, and repeat the steps as I bless him before we part ways for the day.

Or larger ceremonies with family and friends: like when seven-year-old Miley clearly read her one line, “With the love of God and our families, we bless these rings,” as she and an almost three-year-old Salome blessed our wedding bands using the greenery tied up with lace and dipped in water.  

Or Catholic Sacraments: like a few years ago when I attended a weekday Mass that was celebrated in memory of a longtime member of the parish and therefore had attracted a few elderly family members who sat in the front row.  As the Mass ended, the priest looked out at the congregation and said, “It looks like some of us could use an oil change.  So I think that’s what I’ll do.  Everyone’s welcome.  If you want one, stick around.”  I too was confused by this offer, but it turned out that “oil change” was just Fr. Mark’s way of referring to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  I certainly wasn’t sick, but I stuck around.  When he made his way to me, like he had done with the entire front row, he said “Tell God ‘Thanks for the good.  Sorry for the bad.”  Then he blessed my head with oil.  

Whatever the circumstances may be, I cherish the ritual act of blessing because we all have the ability to bless.  

“I told them, ‘You don’t need me.  Bless it yourselves!”  A priest once shared with me that a group of sisters had bought a new car for their community and asked him to come over to bless the vehicle.  While he seemed mildly annoyed at the invitation, he was pointing to this more expansive truth.  We all have the ability to bless.

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Early on during my time as a campus minister at an all-girls Catholic high school, I was driving home to Cleveland after spending the weekend visiting a friend in Michigan.  It was late at night and as I scanned the radio stations, I found an interview on NPR with poet, theologian, and philosopher John O’Donohue.  I was captivated (by his Irish accent obviously, but even more so by his message).  As I continued the drive, I’d lose a station to static and quickly find another one a few decimals up the dial.   I finished listening to the interview on three separate stations.  The next day, back at work, I looked up the transcript to remember my favorite line from the interview.  O’Donohue had said, “There is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness…and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.”  I also Googled O’Donohue’s work and immediately ordered To Bless the Space Between Us, one of his books of blessings.  My fellow campus ministers, Liz and Kathleen, and I couldn’t get enough of his blessings.  We found every reason to use them.  Co-worker got a promotion?  Bless it.  Friend about to give birth?  Bless it.  Loved one grieving a loss?  Bless it.  New home?  Bless it.  Students? Co-workers?  Guests?  Friends?  Family?  Bless it.  This went on for years. And while the three of us have since gone our separate ways regarding our careers, just a few weeks ago we met up in Chicago for the weekend and I brought a few books, a stack of printed blessings, and a stick of palo santo incense “In case we want to bless the heck out of each other.” I explained as I unpacked.  And so we did.  We blessed one another.

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“Hey G.  Give me a bless.  Yah?”  Founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, Greg Boyle, S.J. tells how, these days, the homies frequently ask for his blessing, always using this exact language.  But there’s a story Fr. Greg shares early on in his first book, Tattoos on the Heart, in which he is on the receiving end of a blessing.  A newly ordained priest who has been commissioned to serve in Bolivia, Boyle arrives in a remote mountain village to celebrate Mass with a community who hasn’t seen a priest in quite some time, only to realize he has forgotten his Spanish missal.  He barely makes it through the Mass fumbling through a Spanish bible to find a few verses he can use for the Eucharistic prayer.  In the end, he’s convinced he’s the worst priest ever, when an old campesino approaches him, speaks only a phrase of gratitude, and then blesses him with rose petals which he draws from his coat pockets.  He pours petals over the young priest’s head again and again and Boyle weeps.  

One of my favorite excerpts from the book, we used it as the premise for a blessing we created for a student retreat in Campus Ministry.  The girls stood in a circle and passed around a basket of brightly colored rose petals.  Each one turned to the classmate to their right and blessed them by name, saying “You are God’s beloved” as they dropped rose petals on each other’s heads. 

We all have the ability to bless.

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We don’t bless ourselves or one another or our houses and cars and rings and things to make them holy.  We bless the heck out of each other to remind ourselves that we are God’s beloved and that all is sacred.  Blessing one another doesn’t so much make us holy as it reminds us that we are whole – that there’s a place deep within each of us that is whole – or as John O’Donohue described it, “a place where we have never been wounded.”

“You are a blessing,” a client tells me after a difficult conversation discussing her family’s immigration options.   There’s a mutuality of blessing.  Our Catholic Charities clients share their lives with us and bless us with their trust, vulnerability, and stories every day.  We – each and every one of us – are a blessing.

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Today, within the Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations, we begin the Lenten season as we celebrate Ash Wednesday, appropriately named for the special blessing we receive as we are marked with ashes on our foreheads.  A priest or minister blesses us saying, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  The ashes are a symbol of who we are and whose we are.  And for a long time I thought that this meant we are sinners, because for thousands of years, covering your head with ashes has been a symbol of repentance and atonement.  Yes, we have all failed to love; but sinner certainly is not our identity. 

So instead of this common focus, today and perhaps for the first time, what if we let the ashes that bless our heads remind us of what God has done with the dust – that all life has been intricately formed from billions of years of stardust?

And what if we let the ashes that bless us invoke the belovedness of all of creation – that each and everyone of us is as Greg Boyle says, “unshakably good”?

And still, what if we let the ashes invite us to visit as John O’Donohue said, “our inner sanctuary”?

The dust creates, connects, and claims us.

May today’s blessing of ashes send us forth as a blessing to all we encounter, confident that:

We belong to each other.

We belong to God.

We belong.


Two Ash Wednesday blessings for lay people:

“Blessing the Dust” For Ash Wednesday

(Appears in Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons by Jan Richardson)

All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners

or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial—

did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust?

This is the day

we freely say

we are scorched.

This is the hour

we are marked

by what has made it

through the burning.

This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.

So let us be marked

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less

than we are

but for claiming

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world

is made

and the stars that blaze

in our bones

and the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.

Benediction: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

(adapted for a communal setting from The Lives We Actually Have, by Kate Bowler)

God, today our finitude

is rubbed on our foreheads.

The reality of our limits, our fragile bodies,

spoken over us like a curse:

from dust we are made

to dust we will return.

Some days we need to be reminded

that we are not the perfectibility projects

we set out to be.

We are full of bounce and

brimming with hope.

All woes, solvable.

All problems, a distant whisper.

When we don’t feel like dust,

Bless us, oh God,

in the ways we trick ourselves into believing,

that our lives are something we’ve made,

that all our accomplishments and

successes and mastered mornings

add up to something independent of you.

But on days like today,

when our heads hang low

Sunk with the grief of our neediness,

Bless us, oh God.

When our joints don’t work like they should,

when we grow sick or turn gray too soon.

when our bodies betray us…

or perhaps they are doing exactly what

they are supposed to do.

Tell us again

exactly how you made us:

from dust to dust.

Blessed are we, a mess of contradictions,

in our delusions and deep hopes,

in our fragility and finitude.

Amen.