Benediction

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I remember my first reading of the lines from “Little Gidding” in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:   

What we call the beginning is often
the end.

And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from…

At the time this didn’t make much sense to a high-school junior. But it doesn’t take too many years of human experience to reveal the depth of these lines. Later still in life we may come to know more of the lines that follow them: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started, /And know the place for the first time.”

I’m thinking now of our distracted lives as we go through changes, whether personal, institutional, or cultural. Most of the time we are unaware of the connection between endings and beginnings. Perhaps we don’t want to know. Endings can so easily bring sadness or nostalgia or the stab of grief for what is over. New beginnings seem to bring excitement and hope until we lose that first enthusiasm when the task or the journey proves more complicated than we first thought. Pastors and chaplains face endings and beginnings in the flow of ministry. Pastoral care is often focused on alleviating grief or coping with negative reactions to life changes. Every time a new appointment or change of job interrupts a settled pattern—sometimes unexpectedly—we have to face an ending. Often our biggest challenge is regret over things unfinished and left undone.

It is not simply that things change and good things (or bad) come to an end. That is obvious enough. The issue is how to live wisely in the midst of our negotiations with time and change. This is more than “letting things happen.” This wisdom comes with the sense of not having done or become what we had hoped for in our various beginnings. How do we gain wisdom instead of regret? How do we gracefully acknowledge endings? The “what might have been” can haunt us.  This is where we need a sense of benediction, of “blessing,” of being able to receive all that has been given when we reach the end. I remember it being said of someone’s life that he always sought a blessing from his parents that never came. This is a form of suffering, a disconnection.

A true benediction is more than a closing rite, a final word. It can contain the mystery of having been sustained through time. If someone says, “well done, good and faithful servant” it opens the possibility of seeing what was there all the while, through thick and thin. The beauty was there, but the beholder wanting, to paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkins. So we need benedictions that reconnect our origins and our endings.

In the concluding scenes of the film Babette’s Feast the old general, now wise from battle and lost love, stands at the great unexpected banquet prepared by the mysterious Babette, and says to those gathered, “All that was lost has been restored to us in this feast.” He speaks what the feast makes manifest…that the true grace of that occasion was to receive all that has transpired—the good and the unpleasant, the tarnished hopes and the lifetimes at the table—as the whole feast of life, now reconciled and made clear.

True benediction is like that, for it is an ending that is a new beginning. It is a gathering in of all the mystery of what God has given and not fully recognized—the quality of Eternity that pervades every finite moment. This is the power that makes all things new.

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On feast days, Don Saliers loves the preparation and anticipation, the first taste and final dessert, with lingering conversation and long goodbyes that seal the sharing with love.