I worked as a hospital chaplain for several years, and one of the many perks of the job was that I had the opportunity to learn from people from a wide variety of faith traditions about their religious practices and beliefs.
One of my favorite moments occurred when a couple introduced me to a Jewish blessing called the Shehecheyanu as they prepared to receive a bone marrow transplant. The Shehecheyanu is a prayer that is meant to be recited on special occasions and on “firsts” — like the first day of a new school year, or when a teenager sits behind the wheel of a car for the first time — or, in this instance, a special occasion and a first, as the couple welcomed new life in the form of an infusion from a generous donor.
The Shehecheyanu goes like this:
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
The point of the Shehecheyanu is to give thanks to God for the experiences of our lives and the circumstances that have brought us to those moments, a sentiment that translates seamlessly to my Catholic faith.
As Catholics, we believe that God is active and alive in the world, and that God’s presence can be seen and felt in the sights we see, the sounds we hear, and the experiences we embrace. The Shehecheyanu is a way of verbally recognizing these beliefs, of calling attention to them in a spirit of awe and gratitude.
In other words, the Shehecheyanu helps me to put words to my deep-seated Catholic theology. Since first learning the Shehecheyanu, I have prayed the words regularly, though they have taken on new meaning as I emerge from pandemic isolation, a season in which many life events feel like “firsts.”
Here are a few moments when I’ve humbly and gratefully recited the words:
When gathering with extended family
Seeing my siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in any circumstance makes me happy, but gathering with them this past June for the first time in over two years for my brother’s wedding? Elation!
Beyond enjoying the celebratory meals, the intimate conversations, and the hearty laughs, I felt profound gratitude that, in the words of the Shehecheyanu, God had “kept us alive.” Life isn’t to be taken for granted at any point, but after a year containing over four million COVID-19 deaths, I am especially aware of the fragility of health. So even as my heart mourns the losses of the world, I pray the Shehecheyanu in thanksgiving for my family’s ability to be together, to hug one another, and to raise our glasses to love.
When reflecting on old and new friendships
This past year was a lonely year for me. Inspired (or should I say “backed into the corner”) by the pandemic, my husband and I relocated abruptly last May, and let’s just say that it wasn’t an easy year to make friends in our new community. But here I am, emerging from quarantine, realizing how much I’ve deepened old friendships over Zoom in the past 16 months, and feeling hopeful about the budding friendships that I’m making in my post-vaccinated life.
This past year was the most isolated one of my life, but here I am on the other side; as the Shehecheyanu puts it, God sustained me through the season.
As I plan my 1-year-old’s baptism
My second daughter was born at the end of July last year, and a month hasn’t passed since then without me thinking of and longing for her baptism. But since it was a priority for me to include both of her godparents in the ceremony, the sacrament was put on hold until cross-country travel was less prohibitive. Now, a year later, we at long last have a date for her baptism on the calendar, and it is with a heart full of gratitude that I recite the Shehecheyanu, praising the God who has “brought us to this season.”
As a Catholic, I embrace the idea that God exists within the context of my everyday life, and I welcome the Shehecheyanu as a verbal manifestation of that idea. It helps me put words behind my feelings of joy and gratitude, and moves me to verbally recognize God’s abundant blessings in the everyday moments of life. As I continue on in this year, I have a feeling that I’ll be saying the Shehecheyanu a lot more.