Now that summer’s nearly ended, I find myself nostalgic for the start of it. Nothing else signals the full swing of summer to me as much as the Blessing of the Fleet. While other children of New England will readily recognize this ritual, for the uninitiated: it involves all sailboats, trawlers, and other vessels that do float upon the waters getting bedecked and festooned and staging a parade past a member of the clergy who imparts a blessing on each and every one of them. Depending upon the size of the fleet, it can be quite a production — a glorious, slapdash, exhilarating, and exhausting production.
A couple of years ago, some friends and I gathered one June weekend along a pier in Rhode Island, the Ocean State, for just such an event. It was perfect summer weather, temperate and breezy, but all the same, I don’t think my friends recognized the kind of commitment would be required of them that day, what sort of stamina would be demanded from start to finish. Midway through, one of them turned to me and in an astonished tone, asked, “How long does this go on for?”
“Oh, for a while,” I told her, “until everybody has got their blessing.”
And so it continued, this parade of great and small, the cruising yacht as well as the lobster boat, in a long line winding past us. Obviously, some of the sailors took it very seriously; their colorful and elaborate decorations crowded out decks already filled with friends and family. Others adopted a more casual stance, tying a sloppy bow somewhere. For a stray few, the whole thing was clearly an afterthought, and a sole pilot or two would offhandedly fall into line, maybe a touch curious about the fuss. As it wore on, the local parish priest seemed to be losing some steam, not that anyone could blame him.
Bringing up the rear, a fisherman and his friend pulled in front of the priest and received a pretty pro-forma blessing. But the zeal with which he received it was truly extraordinary. Instead of steadily moving along as everyone else had done, the fisherman brought his boat to a full halt, threw out his arms, and shouted in response, “God bless you!”
Ah, well then, you ask, who’s blessing whom?
Certainly that question crossed my mind at the time. Although some of my sympathies laid with the priest, the fisherman outshone absolutely everyone there in unabashedly embodying the spirit of the thing. On his own, he probably got blessing enough for the entire fleet. Some people, I’ve noticed, are gifted in this way.
Listen, it’s a good thing for all of us that these types are floating around, because imparting a blessing is serious work. I really came to appreciate this the first time I assisted at a Blessing of the Animals service one fall. We weren’t expecting such a big turnout on a Sunday afternoon, but that day, it seemed as if Noah had unloaded the entire ark into the church sanctuary.
The pews were overflowing with people, pets, and their carriers; it was the proverbial arrangement of cats and dogs together. The minister and I had to hope and pray that the dogs would not attack the cats, that the cats would not kill the little rabbits, and that the odd snake did not simply slither away. I tried to bring along my own pet for the fun, but Tucker decided for himself that he would be sitting this one out. He did not stand in much need of a blessing, apparently.
Yet most of us feel that we do stand in need of a blessing, whether we’ve got the dog on the leash or the Sunfish out for the season. Life is often trying and we all like it brightened at distinct moments in time. People will line up and wait long for a perfunctory blessing or worse, a reluctant one. I know because I’ve seen them do this time and again. Little wonder that some of the best loved stories in the Hebrew Bible center around those hard-heads who clamor for a blessing, or fight for it, or steal it. We might recognize ourselves in them.
Honestly, this summer – in spite of the heat wave, unlikely earthquake, and recent hurricane – has been largely favorable to me and I’m thankful for that, since other summers of mine have not been kind in such measure. But this summer has also been a harsh and unforgiving one for so many and I am very sorry for that. I open the paper and see flood waters still swirling around metropolitan New York and upstate, too. Yet my sincerest wish remains that each one of us is able to wrest blessing from the season, however paltry it might seem on the surface.
If it helps, try to keep the picture of that fisherman at the tail end of the fleet in your mind. I occasionally imagine him throwing his arms wide open, bringing in even a meager haul with a sense of wonder, wresting a blessing from even a stinting circumstance. When I think of him I remember that right there, in that very spot, lies the heart and soul of blessing, and alongside it, unembarrassed, the joy.