Our liturgy of lives and deaths

WP_20130714_016I served a mission in France and Belgium. Though I have seen blessing gowns in the Church History Museum, my family has not made a tradition of the infant’s clothing. At the end of my time, I walked with my parents not far from the Grande Place of Brussels, and they found a white lace dress. It was not meant for me, but death and life sometimes intercede without expectation.

We learn to participate in Church liturgy. It is only relatively recently that Church handbooks carried ritual texts—the 1968 handbook to be precise. For the entirety of the nineteenth century there was only proximate example. In a way, that is how I learned as well. With church demographics, I think that there is a significant proportion of the church that learns how pray or how to bless by reading a book; but I grew up seeing a particular way of doing things.

My oldest is now in middle school. Since his birth I have read thousands of liturgical texts. Years ago I sat next to my father as he struggled against organ failure. I read materials on our deathbed. He defied my grave expectations, and he lived to see my work published on the topic.

This year it has been the blessings of infants and children—hundreds of documents. And as I worked to integrate the sometimes disparate pieces into a coherent narrative, I held my newborn daughter in my arms to bless her. Newborn blessing texts are rare, but not absent from our records. It has been somewhat difficult to determine what these rituals meant to our church fathers and mothers. I think I have been able to approach them, and with time in those worlds my words have become decidedly old timey. May she be spared to one day read and understand what I write.

This was different. Perhaps because she is the last. Perhaps because she is our only daughter. Perhaps because I am different; proximity has most certainly changed how I see myself and others in the great patterns of creation that animate our worship.

Comments

  1. Awww, so beautiful, both the words and the little one.

  2. Antonio Parr says:

    Thank you for this.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    What’s the reason, do you suppose, that newborn blessings are more rarely found to have been preserved? Is that due to a rising importance of that particular liturgy in recent years, or due to infant mortality rates? Fascinating stuff (and of course whenever you get all emotional on us it is a very good thing).

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks!

    Steve that is a really interesting question, that gets into conceptions of record keeping and the nature ritual. As you can imagine, the most common extant blessing/prayer text is the patriarchal blessing, precisely because it was intended to be written. There were mechanisms to capture the oral text in writing from the earliest moments. The earliest baby blessing text I have is from 1846, though we know they occurred from the earliest moments. We have some early ordination texts. I don’t think have any early healing texts, and there are very few prayer texts. It is perhaps not surprising that people wouldn’t have written down a healing blessing verbatim (though particulars often end out being described in journals).

  5. Awwww, Stapes. She’s beautiful. And so lucky to have a father whose blessing carries such wisdom and faith.

  6. Blueagleranch says:

    Beautiful! When I was blessed in 1961, a member of the ward took the blessing down in shorthand and gave a typed text to my mother. She apparently did this for every blessing she witnessed. I’ve heard of others doing this as well. I wonder if that practice was widespread and when it began. Have you seen any hints of this?

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Blueagleranch, George Watt advertized his shorthand services in the Newspapers during the mid 19th century for similar services, but I haven’t found any examples. My sense is that your ward was quite extraordinary, especially considering how late it is. I’ve heard of people keeping transcripts in the twentieth century, but all of the examples I have in hand are from the 19th.

  8. Very interesting matters here. We’ve generally followed the Protestant patter from the beginning. Still dangerous to compete with canon, as it were. Great thoughts.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    Totally, WVS. Your work on the sermon and the cannon is key.

  10. Marjorie Conder says:

    I made notes of all our our children’s baby blessings, starting in 1960. I have continued to this day making notes (since I don’t do shorthand) of virtually all the baby blessings, confirmations and setting aparts where I’m in attendabce, whether I particularly know the people or not. I then give these to the person or the mother. I have never had anyone who was not surprised and delighted to get these notes. I started doing this because from my own babybook I had a record of everything I had worn, down to the diaper pins, but not one word about any blessings given. I have always wished I knew what was said. While my notes are just notes and writing as fast as I can, they are something.

  11. jlouielucero says:

    Long time browser. First comment. I have blessed three children and have had someone take notes so I could write the blessing down later to give to my children when they are older. Once in a while I re read them and it’s emotional and stunning to compare to my children and their personalities. Thanks for this post.

  12. Cynthia L. says:

    Stapley, you’re a treasure. Your daughter is beautiful.

  13. I recall, whilst growing up, there was a point at which members were asked not to take a note of baby blessings, precisely because they were not patriarchal blessings, which seemed very harsh to me. Prior to that there was someone in our ward who did take note for families.
    My husband recorded our children’s blessings as he gave them with a discreet tape recorder in his jacket pocket.

  14. well done — wish I could have celebrated her blessing with you. thanks for this.

  15. J. Stapley says:

    Me too, John.

    Now I’m trying to figure out now how to track down a sample of all of these apparently extant 20th century blessings.

  16. I never thought about it much, but if I had, I would have assumed that recording baby blessings was standard operating procedure, but now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t recall seeing anyone taking notes in my ward for the past number of years. I have the notes from my older children’s blessings in a file somewhere, but I don’t think we got the youngest’s; his blessing was in the hospital and we were probably more concerned that he would be alive the next day than that we had his blessing transcribed.

    I’ve also kept up the family practice of recording father’s blessings for the start of the school year, so I have those going back decades (mine and then my childrens’). I have no idea how the practice started.

    And, what a beautiful picture of your daughter, J. Congratulations to you and your wife.

  17. Molly Bennion says:

    She’s gorgeous, Jonathan. And your family deserves to be so richly blessed.

  18. Love to you and your family, J.

  19. Hedgehog notes: I recall, whilst growing up, there was a point at which members were asked not to take a note of baby blessings, precisely because they were not patriarchal blessings, which seemed very harsh to me.

    I know the Handbook of Instructions used to be clear, and probably still is, that blessings other than the patriarchal were not to be recorded nor detailed notes taken. I always thought that was kind of harsh as well. I know that I had my missionary setting-apart blessing recorded and transcribed, and having it was a great comfort to me on my mission. My stake president didn’t seem to have any issues with it at the time.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t recorded any of my kids’ blessings.

  20. “I know the Handbook of Instructions used to be clear, and probably still is, that blessings other than the patriarchal were not to be recorded nor detailed notes taken”

    I don’t know what Handbook 1 says, but Handbook 2 says about father’s blessings:

    “A family may record a father’s blessing for family records, but these blessings are not preserved in Church records.”

    It doesn’t say anything about recording baby blessings, confirmations, or blessings for the sick.

  21. Beautiful words, thanks, especially as my family too has a little girl about to be blessed.

    I know my grandmother recorded my baby blessing in shorthand and typed it up for me along with many other cousins (70s and 80s if not also 60s also). My husband’s family also recorded theirs.
    And thanks to the old iphone in the shirt pocket trick we’ve recorded our children’s blessings to type up later.

    I’m sure if you put a call for baby blessings on a few blogs that many of us would be willing to pass them along.

  22. J. Stapley says:

    I’m to the mid 1970s in my General Handbook read-through, so if there is something to find, I’ll get to it eventually.

    And thanks again. I’m also really excited about all of these extant baby blessings and very well may put out a solicitation for those willing to share!

  23. Touching story.. I wish I had records of my children’s blessings. I’m a convert from Belgium who has been in the US for 40 years. All 3 of my granddaughters were blessed, not in a Belgian lace dress from the Grand’Place but in a gown I made by altering my grandmother’s 1903 wedding slip, made by her on her Singer sewing machine.

  24. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Martine!

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