Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Passing on the Spirit”

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Eighteen years ago I walked out of our family home to begin life on my own. Minutes before I left my dad blessed me. It was short and simple. I doubt it took 30 seconds. He made me kneel on the stark and faded tiled floor of our simple living room and, placing his hands on my head, blessed me. My father was a fairly articulate man and might have said a lot. He chose not to. The gesture of blessing needs few words. Of itself it says what is important and imparts something beyond words, a person’s spirit. I was 17 at the time, an anomalous mixture of cockiness and piety, and the blessing meant little to me then.

Five years later, my dad died. I had seen him in those interim years, on vacations and during some of his own brief visits to the seminary, and we had talked, perhaps more deeply than ever before since he now considered me an adult and related to me in a new way. But, unlike the time previous to me leaving home, he no longer tried to instruct and admonish me, or run an audit on my values and prayer life.  What he had wanted to say to me had already been said, many times. I knew how he felt, what he thought, and what his values were. There was no need to say it again. He had given me his blessing. What had he given me? What is a blessing? What is implied in it? What is its power? Why is it important? Part of our current cultural and spiritual poverty stems from the fact that blessing each other is both a lost ritual and a lost reality. For most of us a blessing is little more than a pious goodbye, a quasi-superstitious gesture. We are poorer for that misconception.

A blessing is a way of remaining permanently present to someone. It is a way of giving someone our love, our insight, our strength, our presence, in a word, our spirit, in our physical absence. It is always based upon a prior relationship. We can only authentically bless someone we have shared something with and, the deeper and more profound the prior sharing, the deeper and more profound the blessing. This is best illustrated by an example: Imagine a mother and a father raising a child. For years they try to love that child into ever-fuller life, coaxing, encouraging, spanking, admonishing, trying to give their own strength, values, vision, and spirit to that child. The process is fraught with pain and setbacks, on both sides. There is the constant hopping back and forth between presence and absence, acceptance and rejection, learning and falling away, loving and hating. It is a long process. Everything needs to be said again and again, repeated, and there is the paramount need for physical presence, for the parents and the child to be together, talking, arguing, sharing, hammering things out.

However, at a point, always, the need for more words, more admonition, more physical presence stops. Symbolically, it is time for the ascension. Enough has been said. There has been enough physical presence. Symbolically put, the child is grown. This is true of all relationships, not just of those that exist between parents and a child. What is called for now is a blessing and a concomitant backing away which leaves the child both free and empowered. Further words and physical presence can now be suffocating and counter-productive. Values and love have been spoken, gestured and shown sufficiently. We need to give the other our blessing, through whatever gesture or symbol we might choose. Then we need to back away, continue to live our values and love that other, and let that other be free.

This is the mystery of the ascension and pentecost, of letting go and imparting the spirit. Jesus himself illustrated it. He came and he shared, but, at a point, it was enough. The child was grown. He left us with his blessing. His spirit, the Holy Spirit, is received by all who receive that blessing. Through that spirit, Jesus is present to us in a way that is far deeper than he was ever present to his disciples when he was physically with them. Today we badly need to bless each other. The disease of our age is that nothing seems to last. Love, friendship, what we accomplish through ministry, inevitably breaks down. Given physical separation, what we have shared with each other in friendship and ministry invariably crumples and falls apart. The vision, the values, the shared spirit, in a word, the love, we have so painstakingly arrived at, crumples and we go our separate ways. Why? We haven’t blessed each other. There has been no ascension and, accordingly, there can be no pentecost. We’ve shared each others’ physical presence, but we’ve never received each others’ spirits for, if we had, no amount of time or distance, not even death itself, could crumple the shared vision, the shared values, the shared love.