The Meaning of "Bless You"

I once wrote a report about what it was like to stand in vigil alone for the initial minutes. On the first Sunday in April, 2002, at the weekly vigil at Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, I finally got to do the whole hour alone. At first I thought it was an April Fools’ Day joke—my fellow vigilers staying away for a short period of time to make me think I’d have to be there by myself. But the combination of other commitments and the change to daylight-savings time actually kept everyone away for the entire hour.

Of course I was not completely alone. I had steadfast companions who remained with me the whole hour: two members of the civil affairs unit of the Philadelphia Police Department who are now assigned to "guard" us and who sit in their car while we stand. I like to imagine that our message has become so powerful and we have become so dangerous that the police have to keep us under constant surveillance to be sure we don’t somehow create a full-scale outbreak of world peace.

I recall that last year, in the brief time I stood alone, an African American woman paused and looked at our signs, then looked at me and said "bless you." She seemed calm and peaceful. She wore a wooden cross on a string around her neck. Back then, I interpreted that phrase to mean something like "Thank you for doing this and being such a good person"—a compliment to me, if you will, a recognition of my spiritual goodness (though I know how inadequate my spiritual development truly is).

Now I’ve come to think of that phrase, and the woman, in a different way. A little book I picked up recently suggests that we start each day with a prayer asking God to give us his blessing. I start my day with a prayer giving thanks to God for the gifts I have received, which are many and varied. And I do ask God to help me be an instrument of his love that day. But I’ve never thought of that as asking for God’s blessing. I realize now that the rote prayer I sometimes say at meals starts off with the phrase, "Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts. . . . " And yet as often as I’ve mumbled that prayer, I’ve had no idea that I was asking for God’s blessing or even what that might mean. Now, the idea has great power for me.

To receive a blessing is, in a way, to be anointed, to receive a transfer of grace from someone of greater spiritual accomplishment. For a Catholic to kneel before the Pope and ask for his blessing is a natural act. (Having been raised Catholic, I know; I’ve done it myself, not to the Pope but at least to an Archbishop.) A Buddhist might with equal ease do the same thing to the Dalai Lama. Each instance would be a humble acknowledgement of our lack of spiritual development in the presence of someone who has accomplished more, and a request that some of that accomplishment, some of the grace and strength that led to that accomplishment, pass to us. To be blessed is not, as I thought, a recognition of spiritual superiority, but in fact quite the opposite: the passing of spiritual strength and compassion from one who has it to one in need.

It seems quite reasonable for me to ask God for that as I start my day. Give me your blessing. Give me your blessing as I try to lead my life this day as a true member of your kingdom. Let me carry your love and compassion into the world and to all I meet. Recognize my inadequacies and go with me in this endeavor.

I think now that if I were standing alone on the mall and the same woman gave me her blessing again, I would not stand there and nod my head as I did, seemingly acknowledging my spiritual goodness; I would put my sign down and go and kneel before her and ask her to place her hands on my head and give me her blessing, not just in words but with her whole being, knowing that it was she and not I who carried the spiritual strength. I might even kneel and bow in the Eastern tradition or even go so far as to stretch myself out before her, full-length on the brick pavement until my forehead lay upon her feet, letting her blessing, God’s blessing, flow down upon me.

John Gallery

John Gallery is a member of Chestnut Hill (Pa.) Meeting. Weekly prayer vigils for peace are held in Philadelphia every Sunday at 4 p.m. For more information e-mail: [email protected]