Sunday, October 31, 2010

Making it Home: A Place We Bless

In Garden State, one of the characters say, regarding the idea of home, “Maybe that’s all family really is: a group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”  The name of that “imaginary place,” it seemed, was “home.” When I was twenty, this line resonated with me, and for a time I considered “home” an impossible concept, a site of perpetual deferment, the place I wanted-to-be-but-was-not. At twenty-six, I have far less patience for that kind of angst.  
Of course I still experience disorientation, longing, dissatisfaction, anger, and all the feelings associated with my twenty-year-old confusion. In fact, in many ways my life is far lonelier than it was at twenty, and my idea of “home” is certainly more complicated. At the same time, cynicism has lost its adolescent charm, and I am increasingly determined to fight against disillusionment.  
Are our ideas of home imaginary?  In many ways, yes, though “imagined,” or “imaginative” would please me better. Regardless, I have no shame about committing myself to an imaginary place. In fact, I’ve been inhabiting imaginary worlds my whole life. As a child, I knew my Narnian geography quite well, but couldn’t tell you which street in my hometown led to the grocery store. As a teenager, I decided the world was ugly, and that I preferred to dwell among less trodden ways: poetry, novels, and daydreams. But those were childish ways, and I began to put them aside when I realized a funny thing about being human: we have a habit of imagining things, and then making them real in the material world. We see through a glass darkly, but for all our dim-sightedness, we have strong hands.  
When we are children, our parents, teachers, and others are usually responsible for creating the places and relationships in which we feel “at home.” As adults, not only do many of us leave home (physically and relationally) , we discover that we are now largely responsible for creating our homes. 
I think that it is in the recognition of this responsibility (or the failure to recognize it) that much of the disorientation of young adulthood arrives. 
Especially during my first year of living on my own, the fact that I had complete control over my living space and time was exciting, but it also contributed to my sense of homelessness.  Home was no longer a place with familiar dishes in the cupboard or familiar faces around the table; now it was a place with a certain smell or a set of household customs.  
Once I realized that I was building a home for myself, this freedom became more joyful.  I began making daily resolutions about how my home would operate--everything from how often I would bake bread to how I would spend my money.  One day, when a friend visited my apartment for the first time, she said, “I forgot your apartment number, but then I saw that only one place had the windows open, and I knew that had to be yours.”  At that moment, I realized that I had, indeed, made this particular place home--so much so that even outsiders recognized it as mine. 
In these “Making it Home” posts, I want to discuss the particular, practical ways we can build and sustain our homes. Each post will attempt to demonstrate something about home. Today’s theme, for example, is that home is a place we bless. 
One of the oldest meanings of “to bless” is to consecrate, to set apart, to hallow.  This setting apart is, I think, foundational to establishing a sense of home in a place or season. My apartment, for example, is different from my office or classroom.  Even though I do much of my work from my kitchen table, that kitchen is fundamentally different from my office. It is a place where I act, speak, and dress differently. A place where I cultivate different kinds of relationships, for example, than in my classroom.  It is a place I can both work and rest. 
In the same way, this city is now my home in a way that most other cities are not. I have set Waco apart, consecrating it as the place where I work, live, vote, invest time and energy, and look for ways to be involved in God’s kingdom. 
I did not wait until Waco felt like home before I began to bless it.  I cannot say that deciding that I would set Waco apart as my home immediately banished homesickness. It still took the better part of two years before I really felt at ease here. However, by deciding that I would intentionally cultivate my life here--rather than simply enduring it for the time my degree program lasted--hastened the feeling of being at home.  
So how do we bless something?  Although I treasure the tradition of extempore, sincere and individual prayers of my Baptist upbringing, I often find deep veins of wisdom in the blessings and prayers others have written to set aside certain places as “home.” 
When I was in seventh or eighth grade, my mother gave me a little book called Praying with the Celts, selected by G.R.D. McLean (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).  I was fascinated by these prayers, which very specifically offered blessings for houses, beds, fires, and kinships. One, entitled “House Blessing,” prays
“God bless the house from ground to stay,
From beam to wall and all the way,
From head to post, from ridge to clay,
From balk to roof-tree let it lay,
From found to top and every day
God bless both fore and aft, I pray,
Nor from the house God’s blessing stray,
From top to toe the blessing go. (105)
I could imagine a young family standing in front of their new cottage, running their hands over the beams and walls as they offered this blessing. I could imagine, in that moment, the structure becoming home for them. 
The Celts seem to be particularly good at blessings of this sort, and I was delighted last year to discover a much larger collection, published in 1900 by Alexander Carmichael, entitled Carmina Gadelica.  This collection offered even more specific blessings, often tailored to the specific kinds of activities happening within the home: setting up a loom to weave cloth , bathing children, sleeping, starting a fire, and many more.  
The example of these marvelously particular Celts has inspired me to be more intentional in the ways I bless my home and the work I do in the places I call home.  For example, I try to begin all my academic work with this  rich prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas.  I pray for bread as I am kneading, collard greens as I am planting them, tea as I am drinking it. Maybe that’s silly, but those prayers remind me that I home is not a place I can wait for someone else to build for me. Other people are important. Community is crucial. Church--in good and bad ways--complicates all of this. But it is both my responsibility and privilege to create a home for myself (and, I hope, for others) by consecrating places and days.  
I think that realizing one’s own role in home-making actually heightens the creativity and courage needed to help others feel at home in their own lives.  I have already discussed the ways in which churches both succeed and fail in their duty to celebrate the important seasons in the lives of young adults, including those outside the traditional categories of celebration (marriage, parenthood, and ordination/commissioning). The same day I posted the second of those notes, I learned that The Simple Way community, in cooperation with many other faithful, creative people, will soon release a book that attempts to guide the church into some of these needed blessings. Shane Claiborne, a founding member of The Simple Way, was the first person I ever heard speak against “the loneliness of our culture’s vision of adulthood.”  From what I've seen, this book promises to continue their fight against that lonely vision.  Entitled Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals,  the book is available for pre-order here, but until it is realeased, you can read the Introduction and several of the prayers here. In addition to prayers for certain days or seasons, this collection has a number of prayers that reveal a deep and thoughtful commitment to blessing all kinds of places and seasons, including the bedroom of a single adult, an adoption, and even the furnace of a house. 
Home is a place we bless. The places and times we bless become home.  
 What time or place in your life would you like to bless? Do you have a certain prayer or blessing you use to consecrate your home(s)?  If you use or create a prayer, please post it here! 
What are the implications of these questions for the idea of “church”? Is the church also an imaginary place?


  1. I have never officially blessed our home, though I did pray in it shortly after we bought it. I would love for it to become more of a ritual/fun reason for a party.

    Also, let's set a Skype date and I'll read you some of the blessings from the book _To Bless the Space Between Us_ by John O'Donohue. If you don't know about this book, I *highly* recommend it for its multitudinous blessings on a variety of subjects.

    I want the church to expand its vision of things to bless....beyond marriages and small children. There's a lot more good stuff out there that I wish the church would recognize. I always get tingles when they bless the animals in New York city. So much of God's creation goes unrecognized. I think the church could become more concrete (at least in people's minds) by doing some of these things..blessing homes and new jobs and life decisions.

  2. Ever since I can remember, my parents and siblings have always said a prayer before a car trip. It was originally a prayer to St. Christopher (I think), which my mother modified:

    God be with us,
    Jesus be our guide.
    Enlighten our footsteps, O Lord,
    And guard our goings
    That we may walk in the ways
    Of your truth and your love
    Today and always.

    Now we're teaching it to our own children. Now you mention it, I should add a few more written prayers and blessings to household activities. The only other "blessings" we have are associated with bedtime. I've written words to one or two lullaby tunes, and we sing them regularly. (Personal gripe: most lullabies are [a] vapid, [b] vaguely disquieting, and [c] too short.) Our kids seem to enjoy the ones I wrote, as well as the many hymns we sing to them.

    I do also have a standard bedtime blessing, which I say to each of my children just before putting them to bed:

    "Good night, [name]. I love you very much. Sleep well, have pleasant dreams, and always be wise in the ways of the Lord."

    I change it up every so often, but that's the gist. It is also based on things my mother would say to me before sending me to bed each night.

    I must say, it feels a little odd putting these up here in public like this. Not that I mind having other people read them, but their use is normally quite private, and I'm not sure they will mean very much to anyone outside of my family history. I, on the other hand, cannot read them apart from their familial context at all. And, come to think of it, I do not "read" them at all. These texts have been developed and delivered orally, and the very act of putting them in print seems to deaden them somehow. And I don't have the slightest idea why.

  3. Thanks for your comments, friends.

    Emily, I don't know the book you mentioned, but I would love to hear some of them from you. Mentioning the animals in New York reminded me of being jealous when, as a little girl, I learned that the Catholic church across the street from our church blessed animals once a year. I spent months trying to convince my mother to let me take our cat or dog to prayer meeting.

    And Steve, I know what you mean about the strange translation from speech to script. My mother has a "snuggling prayer" that she has prayed for me my whole life--probably still does prayer for me, when I am home an within hugging distance. I treasure that blessing, but because I have only ever heard the words as I am drifting to sleep, it would seem strange and rigid to see the words typed out. Thanks for sharing nonetheless--I'm sure your girls already treasure those blessings.

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  5. (Sorry, I repeated myself in the last comment. Whoops!)

    Yes! I agree!

    And it occurs to me: In order to bless something properly, you must have some idea of its purpose, character, or destiny...even if it's a future purpose or a hoped-for character. I'm not sure I'm saying this in the best way. But I hope you'll understand what I mean.

    I think the simple act of blessing our homes can (and will) help us to better understand our homes. The time and energy we must invest to create a blessing or find a blessing that properly fits our home will help us better understand the purposes we have for our home or the character of our home.

    This is an exciting thought to me!

    When we first moved into this home, I immediately put a blessing on the wall.

    "May our home be warm and our friends many."

    For a couple of months now, I've been certain that our home needs a new blessing. Now I understand that it's true: our home does need a new blessing...because our home has an ever expanding purpose and ever-evolving character.

    :) Thanks for stirring these thoughts in my head!