Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bless the Lord!

“Bless the Lord, O my soul!” cries the psalmist numerous times in his songs of praise. But what does it mean to “bless” the Lord? Scripture tells us that “it is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior” (Hebrews 7:7). Wait a minute! How then can we, the infinitely inferior, bless the Lord, the Supremely Superior?

It should be obvious that the term “bless” is used equivocally. It cannot mean the same thing when we say the Lord blesses us as it does when we say we bless the Lord. The Lord blesses us by bestowing his grace and bounty upon us, granting us what we could in no way provide for ourselves, since He is the divine Benefactor, as our liturgy often calls Him. Only God can bless as Superior to inferiors (when a priest blesses, it is not with his own blessing, but with the blessing of God).

There are two main things that we do when we bless the Lord. The first is synonymous with giving thanks and praise. Some translations actually say, “Give thanks to the Lord,” where others say, “Bless the Lord.” So, blessing the Lord is praising Him and giving thanks to Him—for blessing us! The other thing we do when we bless the Lord is to proclaim Him blessed. Here I think I’ll have to make a distinction between “blessed” and “blessed.” For clarity’s sake, this distinction is between “blessed” and “blest”—though I don’t really like that newfangled form of the word—the former in two syllables and the latter in one. The former is a state of being, the latter a consequence of something have been done or given to someone.

When we call God blessed, we are saying something about who God is. He is blessed, which is a synonym for “holy.” Blessed is God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! The Byzantine Divine Liturgy always opens with the glorious and magnificent “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, both now and forever and unto ages of ages!” When we speak of God as the recipient of our blessings (praises and thanksgivings), then He is blest. May the Lord be forever blest! Sometimes both meanings can apply simultaneously. When Our Lady said, “All generations shall call me blessed,” it means both that all generations acknowledge her holiness and that all generations acknowledge that she has been uniquely blest by God.

I have another reason for saying all this, however, besides explaining the difference between “blessed” and “blest,” and besides saying that it is fitting and right to bless the Lord. The reason is this: it is imperative that we bless the Lord, because too few people do it, and He deserves better that that from us!

I wrote a while back that when I was at the ocean I would pray by repeating a couple lines from one of our liturgical hymns: “Blessed are You, O Christ our God... O Lover of Mankind, glory to You!” I have continued to do this, and it is now a significant part of my daily prayer. I’m beginning to see that blessing the Lord is a vocation, and not merely and occasional prayer formula for times when one is feeling happy.

Let’s face it, for most people, the two main forms of prayer are Asking and Complaining. We come to God with a list of petitions, and if we don’t get what we want, we complain and grumble, or else we merely manifest our ongoing discontent with The Way Things Are. I’ve even heard stories of people who, when they didn’t receive some favor for which they asked, would “punish” the saints whom they asked to intercede for them—by turning their statues to face the wall, making them sit in the corner, as it were! Now most people don’t engage in such infantile behavior, but many still remain in that asking and complaining cycle (with occasional forays into the uncharted areas of repentance or thanksgiving).

Blessing the Lord, however, covers just about everything, and I find it to be a real “lift” in my prayer life. The Byzantine Liturgy, along with glorifying God, has a very strong emphasis on penitence and asking for mercy. We ask for mercy dozens of times a day in liturgical offices (hundreds of times if you include the Jesus Prayer). But asking for mercy, while indispensable, is still not the whole of prayer. What are we doing, anyway, when we seek mercy? We are imploring the Lord to enter into the sinful and suffering condition of the world, to heal and forgive and save. But blessing God can do the same thing, and it’s less depressing than focusing on the world’s miseries—or our own! To bless the Lord is ascend to a higher and more noble level of awareness, to gratefully recognize God’s universal providence, to honor his wisdom and his plan for the spiritual growth and salvation of all. It is a resounding “Yes!” to all God is and does. This does not mean that we are oblivious to the evil in the world; we simply acknowledge that God's wisdom, compassion, and timing are better than ours, and we bless Him in trust. To bless the Lord makes us “transparent” to God’s grace, an opening for his light to come in to the world, while we simply lose ourselves in Him. I like the image used by St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein): “…like a windowpane, which lets through all the light but itself remains unseen.”

We may very well do more good for ourselves and for the world by blessing the Lord than by asking for what we need. “For your Father knows what you need before you ask him… Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:8, 33). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever ask, for Jesus also said, “Ask, and you shall receive,” but I think that our asking ought to be balanced by (at least) equal amounts of blessing.

So, bless the Lord, O my soul, and you, soul, who are reading this, bless the Lord! Proclaim his blessedness, his holiness and infinite goodness, and make sure that He is forever blest by your gratitude and praise. Gather all your prayers—petition, penitence, praise, worship, and thanksgiving (and even your complaints, if you must!)—and send them to Him in a package labeled: “Blessed are You, O God!” It’ll get there faster than any other.