Thou didst call and cry to my and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do not pant for Thee: I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.
-St Augustine of Hippo (Confessions, 10.27)
Mrs S kneels at the altar rail in the little wooden chapel where Latin chant reverberates even in the silence and a cloud of incense lingers like visible sancity. The mass is over. Ite missa est. But at the altar rail, shoulder to shoulder, the faithful kneel as the young priest, newly created, walks slowly up and down the row, stopping at each bowed head. He exends his hands, speaks holy words. Some kiss his hands in gratitude, laying chaste lips upon the palms whose intact skin hides the wounds of Christ.
The blessing of a priest in the first year of his Holy Orders, a First Blessing, is thought to bring with it a share in the rich graces of his new life in the sacramental ministry of Christ. This is why the faithful knelt, or stood in the queue that at first stretched from the crowded altar rail to the back of the sanctuary. Each blessed congregant rose in turn, giving his place to another, who waited in prayer for the priest to come with a silent sweep of his cassock. The imposition of his hands would tug aside one tiny corner of the veil, uniting heaven and earth in one otherwise unremarkable point in space and time, and his words call forth grace divine.
Mrs S’s faith is at times a heavy, earthbound thing. She is blessed with certainty, clarity and every assurance that intellect can give. In this peculiar spot of cultivation, this safe and ordered refuge amongst the tangle of indiscipline, intemperate desires and the unpruned bramble of fantasies, she is not a slave to passion. She does not grasp at the sensational or make a virtue out of strength of feeling. In faith — such a tiny patch of order in her soul! — she is impassibly serene. She knelt now not in hope of a sign or miracle, but in determination to be humble and obedient. This blessing she awaited was one small activity in the larger economy of grace, nearly meaningless in isolation. There is no magic in a blessing, nor, indeed, in a priest. But still, there is grace to be had, faith to be lived, obedience to be practiced: for it is in the greatness of God that he can be glorified through the humble just as through the magnificent. Touch the hem of Jesus’ garment in quiet faith; or wash his feet with your tears, dry them with your hair and annoint them with costly perfume and his grace will likewise be yours. Mrs S knows this, but she has never felt grace as it enters her soul, never been given to rapture or irrepressible exaultation. And this lack of feeling has seemed more a freedom than a loss, for she can practice her faith without reliance on the great emotions to confirm the truth of her beliefs, and continue without despair in their absence.
The priest placed his hand upon her head. He spoke her name and she felt a breeze on her face like feathered wings disturbed the air. His voice was deep and gentle, like the swell of a calm sea, quiet enough that only she could hear: “…may the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” the soft breeze became a wind, audibly bowing all around her. Mrs S caught her breath as the priest continued to speak slowly and reverently, oblivious to the whirling tumult that his words brought with them. “…descend upon you and remain with you forever…”
Her scalp tingled as the wind caught her hair. Every nerve reacted as it tugged at her clothing, blew cool and fresh on her face. The only still point in the room was where the priests hands rested on her head in benediction, barely touching her, but solid and real as Earth is not. “Amen,” said the priest, and Mrs S looked up, engulfed in an unrelenting gale. But while every palpable sensation testified to the reality of the wind, the incense lingering above the altar did not stir and the priest’s alb and cassock hung in elegant, unmoving folds. He lifted his hands from her head and the wind stilled.
As she had stood waiting for the blessing, Mrs S had resolved not to kiss the hands of the priest, believing that this could never be anything but an empty pantomime piety, and knowing that if she kept her head bowed he would simply move on to the next kneeling congregant. Now, as she looked up, the priest extended his hands and without needing to reflect she kissed each one, not merely knowing that reverence was proper, but feeling reverent, grateful and exultant. There was no awkwardness or anachronism in the ancient gesture of gratitude. The priest inclined his head and smiled benignantly. Then he was gone, standing before another kneeling supplicant, speaking the same words of blessing.
Mrs S rose reluctantly to relinquish her place at the rail. She paused before the altar in a moment of unplanned adoration. And as she drew in a deep breath it was as though she inhaled the whole of the gale that had moments before swirled about her. She felt it race through the wild untamed parts of her soul, shaking loose stubborn attachments, blowing away limp tepidness and preparing the passions for cultivation. Her chest swelled with joy and she felt her limbs vibrate with an unknown energy. Her mind rang in single voice with words from Scripture that she did not know she knew — “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” — and she trembled to hear them.