Several years ago, at a workshop in Los Angeles, John Shea shared a story that speaks of the effect of a deep blessing:

It’s the story of a woman whom he met while teaching in Ireland. During a summer school there, he had asked each person in his class to recount an incident of blessing from his or her own life and one woman, very timidly, shared the following:

The incident took place when she was twelve years old, on a Sunday morning. She came from a large family and, each Sunday morning to ready them for church, her mother would line up all of her children and then, one by one, wash each child’s face and comb each one’s hair. Each would wait patiently in line for his or her turn and then go out to play while the mother finished with the rest. One Sunday she, the woman telling the story, was second in line and anxious to get her turn over with because it would mean nearly a half hour of play time while the others were being washed and combed. Then, just before her turn, her mother noticed that the youngest sister, at the end of the line, was missing a shoelace and asked her to go into the bedroom and get one. But, not wanting to lose her place in the line and given that her mother did not ask her a second time, she did not go. Her mother said nothing as she combed her hair. When she was finished she went out to play. However after playing for about ten minutes she felt guilty and went back into the house to get the shoelace for her baby sister. When she entered the house, the mother had just removed her own shoelace and was bent down, putting it into her baby sister’s shoe. Feeling doubly guilty, she went into her parents’ bedroom and got a shoelace and, as her mother was combing her baby sister’s hair, she bent down and put the shoelace into her mother’s shoe. While she was doing this, her mother said nothing but gently stroked her hair.

When she finished telling that story, somebody in the class asked her what it meant and she, rather embarrassedly, said: “I don’t know … but it has just stayed with me all these years!”

A day later, Shea, who during this two week course had the habit of sitting under a particular tree every day during the afternoon break and smoking a cigar, had settled himself under that tree, but had forgot to bring a cigar. Out of nowhere, the woman appeared: “Where is your cigar, today?” she asked shyly.  “I forgot to bring one!” He answered. Immediately she produced a cigar, gave it to him, and without a word disappeared. The next day after his conference, Shea found her sitting by herself at the back of the room. He went to her and confronted her with these words: “THE CIGAR IS THE SHOELACE, ISN’T IT?”  “Yes”, she answered, “Ever since that day that my mother stroked my hair, through all these years … and long after she has died … I have had this secret covenant with her, I go through life supplying what is missing!” 

Blessing begets blessing. When we are treated gently, gentleness grows in us. We all make an unconscious secret covenant with those who have blessed us, who have stroked our hair gently.

Listening to Shea’s story, I was reminded of the words of Li-Young Lee, the fine Chinese American poet, who recounts a similar incident with his own father. In a poem entitled, The Gift, he recounts how, when he was a boy of seven, his father recited a story to him to help calm the pain as he, the father, removed a metal splinter from his son’s hand. He cannot remember any longer the story his father told that day, but he can remember his father’s tenderness, his gentle voice, and how it soothed the fear and the pain of a seven-year-old who was frightened of dying from a splinter: “Had you entered that afternoon, you would have thought you saw a man planting something in a boy’s palm, a silver tear, a tiny flame.” 

Now, no longer a boy, he, the poet, is taking a splinter out of his wife’s hand and what his father put in his hand that afternoon, all those years ago, is now inside of him: “Look how I shave her thumbnail down so carefully she feels no pain. Watch as I lift the splinter out. I was seven when my father took my hand like this, and I did not hold that shard between my fingers and think, metal that will bury me, christen it Little Assassin, Ore Going Deep for my Heart. And I did not lift up my wound and cry, Death visited here! I did what a child does when he’s given something to keep. I kissed my father.”

When we bless others, stroking them gently with understanding and forgiveness, we make secret covenants, giving them something to keep.