We all live with constricted hearts. There is a tightness, an unfreedom, a timidity, a tangle of constrictions, inside of each of us that blocks warmth and intimacy. We try things to get at it, to dissolve it, to free ourselves up.

Thus it is no accident that we are so obsessed with therapy, with sex, with achievement, with intellectual and artistic pursuit, and with quick solace in religion. We are trying to free up our hearts. Sadly, for the most part, we are not succeeding all that well. Why? Because the heart is not set free by the intellect, the groin, nor even the hands. It is set free through blessing. Blessing deconstricts the heart.

And blessing has various components: To bless someone is, first of all, to see them, to genuinely see them, to look at them so that they sense that they are truly being recognized and given adequate reality to. Then, and this need not always be put into words but can be present right in that seeing, to bless someone is to take delight in them, to give them the gaze of admiration, to look at them in a way that says: “You are my beloved child, in you I take delight!”

But that is not all. If I want to really bless someone, I must, in some way, give my life to that person so as to enable him or her to have more life, to really bless someone is to, in some way, die for him or her. Let me try to explain that by an example:

We see this aspect of blessing powerfully portrayed in Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Miserables (both in the book and in the recent musical production). At one point in that story, Jean Val Jean, who is by then an old man, goes in search of Marius, the young man who is in love with his adopted daughter. Initially his motivation for searching out Marius is mixed. He wants to see who this young man is, what he looks like, and form an opinion of him. He is also, at this stage, understandably threatened by this young man who is, after all, taking his daughter way from him. So he goes in search of him. 

He, Jean Val Jean, finds him at the barricades, with a group of idealistic young revolutionaries who, while trying to help the poor, have put themselves into a position where they are all about to be killed in a brutal attack from government forces.  Their position is hopeless. The almost certain possibility is that, tomorrow, when that attack comes, they will all die, including Marius. Jean Val Jean senses their idealism, but he also senses, beneath their bravado, a lot of fear. For all their idealism and courage, they are, underneath it all, still frightened boys.

It is in this situation that he finds young Marius, asleep. Jean Val Jean bends over him and says this prayer of blessing:

He begins by invoking God (“God on high, hear my prayer …”) and then, turning to young Marius, he continues speaking to God, repeating several times: “Look on this boy … he is young, he’s afraid … tomorrow he might die, but, Lord, let him live – let me die, let him live! Let him live!”

Those last lines are the prototype of deep blessing. They explain too why blessings work from the top down – from God to us, from old to young, from empowered to disempowered, from those who have full life to those who have not. They also show what is demanded in a deep blessing, namely, a giving away of life, a dying so that someone else might now have life. A blessing is not just simply an affirmation – “You are a fine young man! “You are a gifted young woman!” “I believe in you!” “I trust you!” These affirmations, good and life-giving as they are, are not enough. To bless someone deeply is to die for them in some real way, to really die, to give up some real life for them.

Good parents, good mothers and fathers, do that for their children. In all kinds of ways, they sacrifice their lives for their children. They die, but their children live. Good teachers do that for their students, good mentors do that for their protegees, good priests do that for their parishioners, good doctors and nurses do that for their patients, good politicians do that for their countries, and any good elder who truly blesses a young person does that for him or her.

Do you want to bless a young person? Give him or her your job! Give him or her some of your power. Step back and let him or her assume some of the leadership you’ve been exercising. Let his or her opinion overrule yours. Look at him or her and, like Jean Val Jean, pray to God: “Let me die! Let him, her, live!”