Henri Nouwen was a priest who taught at Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame. He was also a talented and popular writer. Over time, he became dissatisfied in his role as professor. He got an unexpected invitation to become chaplain for a community of people with intellectual disabilities in Toronto. He accepted, and soon had misgivings.
Henri quickly realized that the people under his care couldn’t care less about what he’d written or how much he‘d learned. They weren’t capable of reading and understanding his beautiful words.
Henri was going to have to change. He would have to start living those words in a deeper way. And that’s hard. (I know full well that it’s much easier to write about things in a flowing way than it is to let those words flow through me in how I live.)
He soon had an experience of blessing that drove the point home.
In his book “Life of the Beloved,“ Henri tells of a woman named Janet who lived in the community and was having a difficult time. So, she asked Henri for a blessing. He responded in a rote way, putting his thumb to her forehead to make a sign of the cross — something he’d done countless times in his role as a priest.
Janet would have none of it.
“No, that doesn’t work,” she protested. “I want a real blessing!”
Henri was taken aback. He didn’t know what to do. So he stalled for time and told Janet that he would give her a blessing that night at their community’s prayer service.
When the time came, Henri was still at a loss for how to respond. He told the members of the community that Janet had asked for a special blessing. At that point, she stood up, walked up to Henri and wrapped him in a tight hug. He held her and reminded her of the ways she is remarkable.
“Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s beloved daughter,” Henri said. “You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house, and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are.
“I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are: A very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.”
Henri noticed that Janet had a big, satisfied smile — she‘d received the blessing she needed. And as soon as she left Henri’s arms, another person raised their hand and said, “I want a blessing, too!” And then another, and another.
Each got a heart-felt hug and an affirmation that they are loved just as they are. And Henri came away changed as well.
“I recognized the importance of blessing,” he said.
Pretty cool stuff, huh?
We tend to think of a blessing as some rote movement and fancy words. A real blessing involves helping the other person recognize their worth and their value.
To bless another person is to remind them of what makes them special and loved. But here’s the thing: It has to be genuine. It has to come from the heart.
How often do we hear nice-sounding words that aren’t very heart-felt? Maybe you can sense that the person is saying something just to be nice. Maybe they’re just buttering you up. Or maybe they’re just saying it as a courtesy or out of a sense of obligation. There’s a sort of insincerity to it.
We also know when someone really means it. Their words are genuine, their hug is an extension of them. The other person has made the effort over time to get to know us. They recognize our many qualities and genuinely appreciate them. They accept our many shortcomings because they are part of us.
They love who we are.
Love involves getting to know another person and what makes them unique and special. And then having the courage to open our arms and embrace them and tell them what we see in them, not only with our words but with how we act toward them.
That’s a real blessing.
We all need such blessings.
We need to feel that someone truly considers us special — they’re not just saying it. We need to know that we’re worth the effort it takes to get to know us, worth the risk of trying to love us, worth the pain and the disappointment that will inevitably come from being with us.
We’re worth it all.
That’s a blessing. And the best way to receive it is by giving it back.