If you are determined to find an LDS practice that is genuinely unique from other Christian faiths, look no farther than the practice of “patriarchal blessings.” Not only is it the most mispronounced practice in the Church (most folks go with “patriarticle,” which sounds like a blog post by your dad), it is also one of our most biblical.
Flash back to the patriarchs of the Old Testament. Most of the book of Genesis is focused on following the bouncing ball of the “birthright,” which never seems to go to the oldest son. The birthright was tied closely not only with a material inheritance, but also the priesthood of God. Thus, Abraham’s oldest son is Ishmael, but the birthright goes to his second son, Isaac. Issac’s oldest son is the hairy-as-a-goat Esau, but he “sells” his birthright to Jacob for a “mess of pottage.” (Personally, I would have held out for cheese fries). Then Rachel seals the deal by dressing up Jacob in goatskins so that the aged and blind Isaac will think he is giving a blessing to Esau.
Then it gets crazy weird. Jacob becomes “Israel” and has 12 sons through a handful of wives. The Bible gives us some seriously strange stories (Reuben and Simeon convincing an entire city of men to get circumcised, then killing them “when they were sore,” Judah sleeping with his daughter-in-law (in his defense, he thought she was a hooker), that kind of stuff.) The reason for all of those stories is provided at the end of Genesis when Israel starts passing out blessings to his twelve sons and ends up giving the birthright to Joseph, because, well, the rest of them were pretty much schmucks. Finally, in the 48th chapter of Genesis, Israel (now blind like his father was) pulls another switcheroo with Joseph’s sons, crossing his hands to give the birthright to the second son, Ephraim, instead of to the older son, Manasseh.
Patriarchal blessings among the LDS are closely related to this practice in Genesis. In each of our “stakes” (kind of like a diocese for Catholics, or an “area” if you are running McDonald’s restaurants), one or two individuals are called and ordained as patriarchs, one of the few callings that lasts until death or a less mortal relocation. It’s basically your job until you go to Heaven or Fresno. The Stake Patriarch’s main job is to give patriarchal blessings. These are formal blessings that you receive once in your lifetime. You have to have a recommend from your bishop, and you set an appointment with the patriarch to receive the blessing, often at his home or at a chapel. The blessing is recorded, then later transcribed by the patriarch, and every patriarchal blessing is kept in the official records of the Church and is considered as personal revelation to the person to whom it was given. People are encouraged to receive their patriarchal blessings and review them frequently.
A patriarchal blessing is comprised of two main parts. The first is to announce the recipient’s “lineage” in Israel. In simpler terms, the blessing announces to which of the twelve tribes of Israel you belong, eithe by blood or through adoption by virtue of your baptism. It is a reminder that the gospel reaches back to the beginning of humanity, and that we are heirs to blessings promised by God to the faithful thousands of years before.
The second part of the blessing is intended to give a person insight as to their particular talents and abilities and give them guidance in how to live their lives. This aspect is too often described in terms that sound like fortune telling, which is not the purpose of the blessing, no matter how often people read them that way. I remember one sweet sister telling me years ago that her niece had been told specifically that she was going to be the interior designer for the temple in the New Jerusalem. I think that someone might have helped THAT interpretation along a bit. But I digress. The real purpose is to reveal to us that God knows us, that we have particular gifts that have been given to us, and blessings promised to us conditioned upon our faithfulness. Some of these blessings have very specific terms, others do not.
By the same token, some blessing are long and detailed, while others are very brief. Although we are encouraged to keep our patriarchal blessings private, when I was in the Mission Training Center way back in the day, missionaries tended to spend a fair amount of time reading their patriarchal blessings. I suspect this was in part because of a desire to get our arms around our missions and what God had in store for us, and in part because there is precious little reading material allowed in the MTC. Regardless, it wasn’t unusual to have two or three people in your room reading their patriarchal blessings at any time. What I immediately noticed was that several of the missionaries had really long patriarchal blessings. Giant, multipage, single-spaced personalized scriptures. On the other hand, mine spilled over to about three lines on the second page, if you counted the patriarch’s name. I was pretty concerned about this, assuming that this meant that I was going to amount to a big bag of nothing in the Church or, alternatively, I was going to die really young. I was obsessed with blessing envy for several months, until I gradually just stopped worrying about it. Now, I figure that I’ve cheated death at least 5 times, so that isn’t a big worry as I approach 50, and I’ve learned to embrace anonymity. So even if I was right in my worries, I just don’t worry any more.
But in all seriousness, a patriarchal blessing is not a crystal ball. It defines neither the upper nor lower limit of our destinies in this life or the next. It is one of countless tools that we can use to help us understand our place in our Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness. Personal revelation, the whisperings of the Spirit, personal scripture study, and the experiences of our lives all help us come to that understanding. Our patriarchal blessings are a unique and wonderful gift, but I cannot believe that our Father in Heaven would want their contents to be a source of stress or worry. I find that I understand my patriarchal blessing better looking back than looking forward. I use it as a means not of knowing what is around the corner, but a way of understanding the meaning and purposes of my earthly experiences, especially when they seem to make no sense at all.
It reminds me that I am a child of God and an heir of the blessings of Israel. Those two assurances alone can carry me through bleak and baffling days.