Monday, April 30, 2012

Baby Blessings

Baby blessings are weird.

They've always weirded me out.  When I was growing up I thought they seemed weird, but, like so many other times, I ignored what weirded me out in favor of focusing on how awesome being Mormon was because it was all true and shit.

And, like so many other times, I've realized from my new ex-Mormon perspective how close I was to really being onto something during my time as a faithful Mormon.  I thought baby blessings were weird, and I even occasionally managed to form coherent ideas in my mind about why they were weird...but I couldn't make that final jump between passively formulating the thought and actively latching onto the concept.

My first memory of thinking something was off about a baby blessing was when one of the lesser-perfect families in the ward gave their newborn a blessing in sacrament meeting.  These were good people, I'm sure, but they weren't Ad-Campaign-worthy LDS faithfuls.  The father was a reformed badass who'd given up his boozing and smoking and such to join the church, but he was still very blue-collar in his demeanor.  He struggled to find work and it was no secret in the ward that the family's money was tight.  The mother was nice but perpetually frazzled, probably because their oldest son (who was probably around eight at the time) was a rambunctious brat and the younger ones seemed to be following in his behavioral footsteps.

Does that mean they were bad people?  No.  But stick them on a pew next to my comparatively perfect family, and they did not look like they belonged in the same chapel.  We were (nearly) perfectly-behaved and comfortably-middle-class...and we were intelligent and attractive to boot.  We were one of our ward's power families.  These people were not.

(On a side note--I'm no longer proud of my family's ability to match the Mormon ideal.  But I was proud of it then, and I only brag now to emphasize the church's focus (intentional or unintentional) on its members' image.  It's kind of sarcastic anyway, like bragging about being really terrible at something.  I swear I'm not full of myself.)

Anyway, when this hairy-armed trucker got up to give his newborn daughter a name and a blessing, I listened intently, wondering what good future he could possibly promise her.  I mean, I knew she was going to grow up in a  household with plenty of fighting, probably some verbal abuse, and not much in the way of material comforts.  Honestly, her only shot was to get herself married to someone from a much better Mormon pedigree.  Of course, my thoughts weren't quite so callous then, but that was the basic idea that my mind was working toward.

This guy gave her a wonderful blessing.  He promised her the things that every good father wants for his daughter--health, intelligence, beauty, love, happiness.  He kinda mapped out her life for her, and it sounded pretty damn good.  I have no idea where that girl is now, but I wonder how much of the stuff her father told her actually happened.

About a year ago, I attended a Mormon church service for my nephew's baby blessing.  I almost didn't go--it's the only time I've been to any church service since I left Mormonism.  But I allowed myself to be talked into it because the entire family was getting together for it (my parents' first grandchild--kind of a big deal, I guess) and my absence would seem a little too harsh.

When my brother-in-law pronounced the blessing on his son, it came off as very generic.  He promised him the same things that I'd heard in a dozen other baby blessings.  It didn't sound like the Spirit was whispering things for my brother-in-law to say, it sounded like he was thinking of all the good things he wanted for his child and mimicking the things he'd heard other fathers bless their infants with.  It was a greatest hits of other people's baby blessings.

And that made me think--what exactly is the purpose of a baby blessing?  Is it a pre-patriarchal blessing?  "This is how your life is probably gonna go, more details to follow?"  Plenty of children who receive these wonderful blessings get some horrible illness at a young age or even die.  Unlike the patriarchal blessing, you can't chalk that up to a failure to live the gospel, because the kid hasn't even reached the age of accountability yet.  In those cases, what causes the nullification of the blessing?

The other thing that seems weird about baby blessings is the ritual surrounding it.  You'll get like ten guys up in front, huddled around the infant with some poor schmuck of a deacon shoving a microphone in there somewhere, all for the father to intone some hollow, unoriginal blessing that promises a rewarding life for the child.  Do the additional priesthood holders amplify the power of the blessing?  Did my life turn out so contrary to plan because my dad only invited four men to assist in my blessing?  Maybe if they'd roped in one of the ward missionaries they'd have had enough mojo to ensure I stayed on the straight and narrow.

Why does the ritual have to be public?  Why do we make sure we set aside sacrament meeting time for our babies?  You'd think a father's blessing to his infant would be something a little more intimate, perhaps performed at home in the presence of only family and friends...or done one-on-one, like a father's blessing is when the child gets a little older.

The whole thing is just bizarre.  And I can't really put my finger on why, but it seems positively cult-ish.  I'm not just trying to throw that word out, but for some reason it really seems like a ritual that would be at home in a cult.  I'm not sure exactly why that is.

Baby blessings are weird.  And they don't seem right to me.

5 comments:

  1. I'm Mormon and not on the same path you are, but I agree... baby blessings are weird! I just had a baby a month ago and people keep asking when the baby blessing will (although its supposed to be a non-essential ordinance) I tire of the whole mormon culture expectations that say I have to invite everyone I know just to show the rest of the congregation how popular I am by how many seats we can fill with friends and family. And lets see how big we can make the prayer circle cause you know we'll need 20 guys to hold up the one baby. And many fathers in their blessings address their infant by name as if they are talking to them and somehow miraculously the baby can understand every word they are saying. And when its all done we're going to ditch the rest of church and have a big bbq at home to celebrate. ugh! I really wish it could just be an intimate thing at home.

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  2. You can do a baby blessing at home if you prefer, you just have to get approval through your bishop. I think people like doing it in church because that's the way it's been done for so long, and so people can see their cute baby. However, it is not mandatory that it be in sacrament meeting.

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  3. It definitely can be done at home--we did it. The luncheon afterward is optional. ;) Also, I find it odd that you consider it cultish. Most religions (Christian and non Christian) perform some sort of religious ceremony for infants: infant baptism, Christening, the Jewish Bris ceremony, etc. as a rite of passage. Nothing new there!

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  4. Anything ritual can seem weird, and there is much of a social dimension to it, and a genre, if you will, that inadvertently (or consciously gets developed). As a Mormon who has blessed 3 of my children and am about to bless my fourth, I have to say that I've felt some of the concerns you raise here about the "authenticity" of the blessing (I don't think you use that word). But I have to say that I really have felt a power that was not my own telling me things to say when I gave a blessing. I remember when I blessed my daughter, I had a strong impression about the type of person she would be and the way that her loving nature would help others and that she would be a friend to people others might not treat kindly. I really was overpowered by the emotion of that feeling, and I know that it didn't come from me and wasn't just something that I was hoping she would be. Of course, if you don't believe that there is anything other than this life and that no God exists you could explain my feelings as some kind of desire or social performance, but I did not feel that way about it.

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    1. Just like you, all I can really claim to know about are the experiences that I've had. I've never given a baby blessing, but my impression from giving other blessings and from seeing other people give them is that, generally, there's not much substance to them. Even though I don't believe there's anything after this life and I doubt that God exists, I have no right to tell you that your feelings were wrong.

      I guess all I can say is I hope you're right about your daughter turning out to be such a kind person. We could use some more of those!

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