The words that my self-importance dictates I use have exceeded my actual vocabulary. I can only hope that the title of this post means what i think it means. What I have in mind is how we understand the message of a blessing. Are the actual spoken words God’s message or is it the spiritual impressions of the elder who was speaking on God’s behalf, not always perfectly expressed?
In an important sense the contents of a blessing don’t matter. The Lord directs that when a Saint is sick “the elders of the Church, two or more, shall be called, and shall pray for and lay their hands upon them in my name; and if they die they shall die unto me, and if they live shall live unto me.” (D & C 42:44) From the Lord’s perspective at least the primary purpose of a blessing is not to find out whether he is going to heal the person of their illness or relieve them of their distress. He already knows. Indeed, as if to rebuke the undue emphasis we put on the results of a blessing, He specifically states “they who have not faith [to be healed], but believe in me, have power to become my sons . . . .” For the Lord blessings consecrate our sufferings and our needs. They invite Him in. In some senses the divine purpose of a blessing is done once we decide to receive one. Blessings have some human purpose too apart from their contents. In Liberty Jail the Son of Man consoled Joseph with the prophecy that “the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.” I read in this the truth that the giving and receiving of blessings was a tie between Joseph and the pure in heart, etc., and can be a tie between us.
And yet the Lord wishes us enough to know the contents of a blessing that he inspires the elders to speak them and directs them to speak in his name. We too wish very much to hear what the Lord has to say. Blessings are very much like the Book of Mormon. According to Givens the early Saints were delighted to have it regardless of its contents—its mere existence was a visible proof of God’s continued presence. He was not content to produce a golden nullity, however, so He rebuked this indifference to the book’s actual message through Joseph Smith in the early days of the Restoration and through Ezra Taft Benson in modern times. We as individuals would likewise be fools to shut our ears to the individual messages that blessings bring, happy merely to know that there was a message.
If we care about the substance of the message, than we have care about how to interpret it. Is the content of a blessing what the priesthood holder says, or is it the impressions that the priesthood holder receives and imperfectly tries to capture in language? We’d have these same issues with scripture—blessings themselves are a form of scripture—but the prophets of the canonical scriptures are dead so we don’t have to worry about what they meant to say. We can confine ourselves to arguments about text v. context and be happy. Priesthood holders, on the other hand, remain very much alive after giving a blessing. They themselves have an intent and an understanding to be queried, if needs be. Need it be?
The answer depends on how it is that the Lord guides a blessing. Does he give impressions to the blessers and rely on them to convert them into human tongue? Or does he guide them to making specific word and syntax choices that often produce a meaning beyond what the blesser is contemporaneously aware of ? I see evidence both ways. My wife’s patriarchal blessing had an obvious misstatement in it—the patriarch meant to say ‘eldest’ but he said ‘youngest’ instead. Clearly the intent, not the text, was controlling. I myself have had the experience of giving blessings where I felt that my statements didn’t exactly capture what the spirit was whispering. The Church’s request that members not record blessings word for word would also indicate that God isn’t in the details of the language. On the other hand, I am aware of other blessings whose fulfillment was technical. The exact language of the promise was met though the blesser and those in attendance had all understood something else. I myself, and my wife, have a very important blessing in some of our private affairs where the language I used unintentionally didn’t exactly reflect what I was understanding from the Spirit (afterwards, talking to my wife, I realized that the language I used was more ambitious than I felt warranted) but, though the jury’s still out, the promise of the language appears to be the one that holds good. I’ve also experienced blessings where frankly I was very little involved, as if the Spirit shoved me aside and opened my mouth. I couldn’t say what the words *meant* more than anyone else, or perhaps even remember them. This is not uncommon. Look at D&C 130:14-17. Joseph prays to know the time of the Second Coming and the Lord responds, “Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou are eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man . . . .” Joseph notes that “I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face.” Joseph didn’t have any better understanding of the meaning than we do, reading it.
So, as Sherlock Holmes used to say after his conversion in the Sign of the Four, ‘if two contradictory things are true, whatever remains must be Mormon.’ I’d say that the divine content of a blessing sometime consists of the actual uttered text and sometimes of the impressions to which the speaker tries to give utterance. I’d say too that there are divine reasons for this. When it is the text that speaks, above and beyond the capacity of the speaker, we are reminded that revelation may come through man but it comes from God. Subtract the man and something still remains. Likewise, giving the speaker impressions and allowing him to articulate them means that his participation is real. Subtract the man, and something is lost.
There’s an implication here for the debate over how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. I leave it for the reader more astute than I to tease it out.