Partially nude bikini shot? #Blessed. Christmas card professional photoshoot where the laughing family wearing matching chambray shirts is piled on a couch in the middle of a wheat field? #Blessed. (Did I recently see a bazillion dollar yacht christened with the name “2 Blessed 2 Be Stressed”? Yes. Yes I did.)
A decade ago I wrote a historical account of the modern American idea that, with the right kind of faith, we can get what we deserve. I titled the book Blessed, not knowing that #blessed would become one of the most popular hashtags on Instagram. #Blessed would be cross-stitched on pillows, hand-lettered in whimsical fonts for living rooms, and tattooed into the tender skin of so many forearms. It is the catchphrase of the self-help age.
American culture has enduring theories about what makes someone successful, enviable, and whole. Much of this stems from its understanding of being #blessed. In this account, a blessed person has conquered difficult circumstances, mastered emotions, and overcome obstacles. A blessed person expresses gratitude to others but secretly understands that she deserves the good fortune she has earned. A blessed person is that perfect combination of luck and hard work.
But so often, we are not #blessed. Instead, we need a blessing.
What happens when our lives are proof of very little except that things have come apart? We get divorced. We get diagnosed. We care for an aging parent or little humans clamoring for our last bit of energy. We want to feel masterful and loving and complete, but we are threadbare.
When I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35, I realized how much I needed a richer kind of blessing. All my beautiful plans (More books! See the pyramids! Another baby!) had been reduced to rubble. And in the devastation of the weeks and months that followed, I would need to learn to bless my beautiful, terrible life as it was.
Madeleine L’Engle describes the posture we need to begin this hard work in her book A Stone for a Pillow: Journeys with Jacob (H. Shaw Publishers). “We must bless without wanting to manipulate,” she writes. “Without insisting that everything be straightened out right now. Without insisting that our truth be known. This means simply turning whoever it is we need to bless over to God, knowing that God’s powerful love will do what our own feeble love or lack of it won’t.” So we begin with the impossible work of surrender.
God, this blessing cannot solve me. This blessing cannot control the outcome. This blessing is nibbling around the edges of a realization: I am too human again today, so God must be God.
A blessing comes to us like a gift. No prerequisites. No “deserving it” or preparations needed. To give or receive a blessing, we must simply be ready to ask God to show us where to look to see anything remotely divine. Our eyes would otherwise skip over it.
Jesus says, blessed are you when you are at the end of your rope. When you are exhausted and despairing. When tears are your food, morning and night. When your stomach grumbles and your mouth is dry. Blessed are you who forgive the person who never said sorry and who definitely didn’t deserve to be forgiven. You who are ridiculed and humiliated, left out and left behind. You who are timid and soft-spoken. You who work toward peace.
On ordinary days, the blessings we give and receive can be awfully mundane. Blessed are you who do dishes and pack lunches. When you are taking kids to hobbies or calling another 1-800 number about an overdue bill. Blessed are you who listen to customer complaints and stare blinking into an inbox that never ends. Because blessed are your eyes as you open them to the sound of the alarm and your chest as it rises and falls when you sleep. You are beloved, even when there is no reason to believe it.
Blessed am I when I lose sleep over what troubles me. When my worries keep me watching the clock tick by. When I have no energy to do anything but fret. The kingdom of God is here and now.
Blessed am I when I am drowning in grief. When wave after wave after wave crashes over me. When I start to feel OK, then something reminds me of what I’ve lost and I’m pulled under once again. God promises to comfort me.
Blessed am I when I feel silenced and afraid to speak up. When I’m forgotten and left out. When I feel small. When I feel like my work, my presence, my life doesn’t matter. The whole world is mine.
Blessed am I when I am starving for justice. When the world around me feels so unfair that I could scream, but no one seems to be listening. No one seems to care. Justice will flow like a river.
Blessed am I when someone hurts me, when someone wrongs me, when I feel offended, when I don’t return insult with insult. Instead, I forgive. Recognizing the number of times I’ve needed forgiveness too.
Blessed am I when I strip away all the extra. When I see the world as it really is—broken, tender, fragile, beautiful. These are the same eyes that see God in everything too.
Blessed am I when I take the hard road. The windy one that doesn’t opt for the shortcut of rage or resentment or unkind words. That doesn’t pave over with trite niceties but walks toward peacemaking. For God’s love shows us how to love.
Blessed am I when I face hardships of all sorts. Insults, hurt feelings, lies, and vindictive neighbors. (Why is loving your actual neighbor so hard, God?) Blessed am I who work to usher in God’s kingdom of love and compassion and justice and forgiveness and peace even when it seems impossible.
These blessings don’t qualify us for the kingdom like a new rule we have to follow to earn God’s gifts. They are not new guarantees of the blessed life. Rather, this is the upside-down kingdom: The kingdom is directly available to those of us who cannot master our own worlds. We must be saved from them, every day.
Sometimes the only thing that’s possible is to bless life’s every present moment—even, and especially, the hard ones. Blessings in those moments fall like a summer rain over the driest times and places in our lives. And though a blessing seems counterintuitive to moments of grief and sorrow, that’s when you need to be reminded the most of the presence of God. The God whose kingdom is available to all of us.
The world looks a bit strange from here, upside-down. But maybe it’s how it’s supposed to be, our feet rooted in heaven.
This article also appears in the February 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 2, page 15-16). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Elisa Ventur