Benedícimus Te [“We bless you (God)”]

by Jahnabi Barooah

That serendipitous day in the spring of 2010 when I found myself on my knees in the cavernous St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was surely the beginning of a surreptitious love affair. I count it among my most powerful religious experiences. While I had been inside magnificent Gothic cathedrals before, this was the first time I was aware of being drawn to something sacred beyond the vaulted ceilings, ornate altars and stained glass windows. The cantor was leading the congregation in chanting the prayers and hymns of the Mass. As the prayers rose up commingled with incense, I prayed one of the few prayers I remembered from my days in Catholic school — the “Our Father.” I felt at peace and for even a brief moment, could call the sanctuary “home.”

Time has flown by since that memorable day, and I have been blessed to be able to explore and experience worship in many different Hindu, Christian and Islamic settings — usually meaningful, inspired, even blissful at times. Nevertheless, I invariably return to the Catholic Church. But this is no easy union as I often struggle to accept her teachings on sexual morality. Despite that — like the wedding guest who is unable to partake in the grand nuptial feast but comes hoping for a glimpse of the groom and his bride — I have been going to Sunday Mass faithfully for about four months.

As with many new experiences, the “novelty” tends to wear off after a while. As of late, I believe that unfortunately my prayers at Mass have been more perfunctory, less meditative, and heartfelt. (Of course I’m always grateful to be there, but that is neither here nor there.) This became blaringly obvious to me Friday morning when I began my day by listening to a Gregorian Chant rendition of the ancient Christian hymn ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ (Glory to God in the highest). The ‘Gloria,’ which is sung during the Mass, begins by glorifying God and praying for peace for all humans of good will. In the next line, after praising God, the singer does something incredible that I don’t recall singing in Church with intention even though I have sung the ‘Gloria’ multiple times — bless God! Benedícimus te, we bless you, God.

But what could it possibly mean for humans to bless God? In the context of the Hindu religio-cultural settings that I was raised in, that sounds downright bizarre, even impossible. It is God who blesses human beings. Of course, human beings may invoke God’s blessings upon each other (and also upon inanimate objects like food or implements). But it is typically older people who bless younger people. It almost never happens the other way around, except in the case of spiritual masters.

And yet as I have learned over the last few days, the Bible, especially the Hebrew scriptures continually exhorts human beings and in fact every created object including the mountains and rivers to bless the Lord and sing his praises. (cf. Dan. 3:28-68) Professor of Church history, Dr. Daniel Slyke notes in his paper “Toward a Theology of Blessings,” that the first instance of a human being blessing the Lord in the Bible occurs in Genesis 14:20. Here temple priest Melchizedek blesses God as the creator of heaven and earth: “benedictus Deus excelsus.” The literal translation from the Latin to English is “blessed be God most high.” This is the rendering used by the KJV, NTL, RSV, NRSV and other widely-read editions, but the NIV, the best-selling version of the Bible, translates it as “praise be to God Most High.” Additionally, the Latin word ‘benedicere’ from which ‘benedictus’ (of Genesis 14:20) and ‘benedicimus’ (of the ‘Gloria’) are derived, means to speak (dicere) well (bene). So, perhaps in this context, blessing means to praise, worship or give thanks?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) indicates that blessing is one of the five types of prayers; the others are petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise. This is how it describes blessings:

Blessing expresses the basic movement of Christian prayer: it is an encounter between God and man. In blessing, God’s gift and man’s acceptance of it are united in dialogue with each other. The prayer of blessing is man’s response to God’s gifts: because God blesses, the human heart can in return bless the One who is the source of every blessing. (CCC 2626)

As I see it, here we see a difference — human beings (and other created beings and objects) may not bless God of their own accord, but may bless God only because God has blessed them. And are we not all blessed abundantly? What a great joy it is to learn new things daily, and encounter the depth of meaning in simple words 🙂

ad maiorem dei gloriam