Can anything in a Christian family equal in beauty to the sight of children who, from the youngest to the oldest, present themselves each night with reverence before their father and mother to receive their blessing before retiring to rest? This touching ceremony enobles a family and consecrates authority; natural affection :finites a spark of the love of God, and the domestic hearth becomes a threshold of Heaven! God grant that this pious custom may be ever maintained where it already exists, and be adopted where, either through neglect, or the chilling effect of a Protestant atmosphere, it has hitherto not been practiced!
A blessing imparted in the name of God is more than a good wish: it is also a prayer. Such a solemn invocation of the authority of God, made by a parent for his children, cannot fail to be efficacious. The Holy Ghost Himself makes Ecciesiasticus say: The father’s blessing establisheth the houses of the children (Ecclus. 2:11).
The sign of the Cross was still unknown in the time of the Patriarchs. The day had not yet dawned when the Man-God, by dying the ignominious death on the Cross, was thereby to change that sign of foolishness into one in which the great St.Paul, and all Christians after him, were to glory. The Patriarchs of old, in blessing their children, extended their hands over their heads. With such a rite did Abraham bless Isaac, and Isaac his son Jacob, and Jacob his twelve sons. Under the Old Law, only the fathers seemingly had the privilege of giving their blessing to their children; but under the New Law—ever since, through Mary, women have been raised to a loftier condition: and ever since one of their sex “blessed among all women” (Lk. 1:28) was found worthy to become the Mother of God, the right of blessing their children has been conferred also upon mothers.
The history of parental blessings presents many edifying examples, for our admiration and imitation. The fathers and mothers of the martyrs used to give their blessings to their sons and daughters as they lay in chains in their prisons; and these blessings filled them with a renewed courage to suffer more for Christ.
In the history of the Fathers of the Church, we read that the saintly Macrina daily blessed her grandsons: one lived to become the great St. Basil and the other St. Gregory of Nyssa. Norma, the mother of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also blessed her son; and since his childhood she consecrated him to Jesus Christ, by placing his little hands on the sacred Scriptures.
St. Louis, King of France, when about to die on the African coast, addressed the following words to his son who stood by his deathbed: “My dear son, I give you all the blessings which a good father can give to his son.”
St. Francis de Sales reverently knelt every night at the feet of his parents to receive their blessing; until the day, when, having received the episcopal consecration, these Christian parents knelt in their turn before their son, to receive his blessing.
The historian of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, speaking about the manner in which she educated her children, proceeds thus: “Shortly after supper, this pious mother used to withdraw with her children to make them say their night prayers, of which a De Profundis for the soul of the late Baron, their father, formed a part that was never omitted. After a few moments devoted to the examination of conscience, she made them say aloud and all together the short prayer: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum”—Into thy hands I commend my spirit (Lk. 23:46)—after which she blessed each with holy water and the sign of the Cross, and made them undress with modesty.”
The writer of the life of Saint Thomas More makes the following remark: “In our country, children are wont to ask on their knees, at morning and at night, the blessing of their fathers and mothers. This is the common usage in England. But I must confess that when grown up, married, or raised to some high dignity in the Church or in the State, children generally give up this pious practice, or at least it is retained by but few.” The more remarkable in this respect was the faithfulness of Sir Thomas himself. During the whole of his father’s lifetime, and even when he was holding the office of Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas never failed to come every night to ask him reverently for his blessing.
In monasteries, at night at the hour of Compline when the monks are dismissed to their cells, the Abbot, who stands to his subjects as a true father, making the sign of the Cross over them, pronounces the words: ‘May the Almighty and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, bless and guard us.” And in like manner, in the morning at the hour of Prime: “May the Lord bless us and defend us from all evil and lead us to eternal life.”
This parental blessing instils into the hearts of children a greater and purer love for their parents. Their filial affection daily grows by this impressive rite, in which the parent stands before the eyes of his children as the representative of God, and as the minister of His divine blessing. He performs essentially an act of authority. This Cross which you have traced on the forehead of your children, O fathers and mothers! changes their natural love for you into a more spiritual dutifulness, and helps to ensure forever their respect and veneration for you.
Under the influence of your blessing, the child will also learn to treat his body with respect. May it not suggest, in a critical moment of temptation, that it would ill-become this brow, which but this morning, or this night, was blessed with the sign of the Cross, to have reason to blush under the silent, but scrutinizing look of a father or mother, when the time for the next blessing has come round? The time of this blessing is also a most favorable time for acknowledgement of faults, for pardon, for solemn and serious advice; the blessing should be withheld in case no signs of repentance are shown for some fault committed in the course of the day.
Finally, the blessing is not without its beneficial effects upon him who confers it, for it must needs make him better, more Christian-like, more holy. When a parent sees his children bowing down before him, it brings home to him the great fact that he, also, as well as the Bishop of his diocese, or the Priest of his parish, has in a certain sense the care of souls, and that he owes his family the good example of a lively and practical Faith, and that he must be to them the pattern of all Christian virtues; for it is written: “The just that walketh in his simplicity shall leave behind him blessed children” (Prov. 20:7).
Let, then, this blessing recover the place of honour it held in all Christian times! Fathers and mothers! Confer it in the simplicity of the rite of old, and of better days. When after night prayers, or before retiring to their rest, your children are come to you to wish you a good night, place for an instant your left hand upon their heads, and with the thumb of the right hand trace the sign of the Cross upon each forehead either silently, or saying: “May God bless you, my child;” or, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
It is the “Goodnight” of the Christian, a goodnight eminently religious, which brings to their minds the wholesome thought of eternity!
Perhaps you are not rich; it may be you have no great fortune to bequeath to your children; but what you have at least to bestow upon them is the inheritance of your blessing; and far more profitable than riches is eternal salvation.