I blessed a house the other day. It was a wonderful occasion: friends and neighbours gathered as jovially as they could with religion looming; they followed me round the new home, squeezing into each of the rooms as I said prayers, wafting clouds of incense and splashing holy water with a vigour that can’t have been good for fine fabrics or anything electrical.
It turned out that quite a few of those present had witnessed house blessings before, though mainly as exorcisms, for the warding-off of what the Bible calls ‘evil spirits’. If things start to go bump in the night, or an inexplicable aroma of suet pudding lurks in the garage, then more people than you’d imagine send for the priest, hoping that prayer might prove effective where wishful thinking has failed.
In the Middle Ages, prayer was habitually used as protection: travellers might pay for masses to be said while journeying, just as we might take out holiday insurance. Lines from the psalms were repeated as a charm against the toothache, and holy water was in great demand as a substance to ward off wickedness and cure malady.
But in blessing a new home we weren’t shooing off any seventeenth-century chamber-maids or silencing a strange knocking in the back bedroom ― though plenty of people report that prayers confidently said do coincide with such outcomes.
We blessed the house to celebrate the fact that our world is made and sustained with God’s goodness at its centre. We can’t deny evil, sickness or mortality; but we can insist that the God shown us by Jesus is a God of blessing. God creates everything out of sheer abundant goodness, which we are called to imitate gratefully. When we ask God for blessings and thank God for them, it is not to insure against their loss. It’s simply because an attitude of gratitude is true to who we are, and helps us become who we will be. We enter and leave this world with nothing. Everything in between times is from God.
Of course we need protection, and the company of angels; which is why we need neighbours. Prayers won’t automatically save us from burglars or sickness or blocked drains. But good neighbours, imitating the neighbourly loving-kindness of God, are the best protection going, and a blessing beyond price.