Bless this nest

September 5, 2008

Six months after settling into her new home in northeast Minneapolis, Susan Snyder finally finished the move a couple of weekends ago. No, she didn't just get around to unpacking the last box. She completed the task of making the place her own by having it blessed.

"The house feels complete now," she said. "It feels settled. It feels the way it's supposed to."

Home blessings are "the biggest shelter trend since feng shui," said Donna Henes, a shaman based in New York City who has been blessing homes for 35 years. "That was back in the days when eyebrows were raised [at the mention of a blessing]. But times change. Now people are embracing alternate spiritualities."

The blessings are conducted by a wide range of practitioners, from ceremonial artists to ordained clergy. Snyder's was done by the Rev. Katherine Engel, a Twin Cities interfaith minister who has been conducting such ceremonies for six years and insists that they are not a challenge to mainstream religious practices.

"It's not 'instead of' but 'in addition to,'" she said. "It's the 21st century, and churches are changing. The traditional ways are still there, but people aren't afraid to look at new ways."

Still, misunderstandings arise. "It's not a house exorcism," said the Rev. Shelley Dugan, a Unitarian Universalist who has been doing blessings in the Twin Cities for 12 years. "It's a way to deal with both the physical and emotional aspects of transition."

There are almost as many different reasons for home blessings as there are different styles of homes. Some people get them when they move into a house where something negative has happened -- a death, for instance. Other people do it to give their new home a fresh start.

And it doesn't even have to be a new home; more people are having their homes blessed every year or two, cleaning out the old energy the same way they clean out the garage.

A song in every room

Snyder was having her third home blessing. She'd had one after each of her previous two moves as well.

"You definitely get a sense of inviting some other spiritual energy into the house," she said. "It marks my living here. It's like putting a stamp on it -- a really, really nice stamp."

The blessing Engel did for Snyder lasted about a half-hour as she moved from room to room, excising the old energy and filling the space with new. At Engel's encouraging, Snyder invited a group of friends and neighbors to witness the blessing -- which, when it's Engel, also means taking part in it.

"I'm a big believer in group participation," she said. "I teach everyone a song beforehand and then, as we go from one room to the next, we sing it -- verse one here, verse two there, and so on. Each stage has a different prayer, too, that I teach everyone. And at the end, everyone lights a candle and says an individual blessing or their wishes for the home."

While home blessings are trendy, "they certainly aren't brand new," Dugan said. "They go back centuries. It's just that they aren't used very much anymore, in part because people don't know to ask for them."

Henes said that lack of awareness is a cultural issue.

"Every culture in the world has blessings -- except ours," she said. "They have home blessings, baby blessings and retirement blessings. Our culture is bereft of ceremony."

Dugan agreed that for many of her clients, the ritual itself often is as important as the benefits it promises to generate.

"I believe that rituals are vital in our lives," she said. "Many of the calls I get are from people who do not have a church home. People who belong to faith communities get rituals [during weekly services], but those outside the church don't, and I think they feel that void."

Because of the interest in ritual, there tends to be a lot of flourish to a modern-day home blessing. "Drumming, chanting, censing, smudging, ringing and singing" are all part of Engel's services, for instance.

That's a far cry from the ancient rituals, Dugan said. "Most of those were pretty short," she said. "You stood at the threshold of the front door and said, 'Bless this house.'"

Belief is optional

Believing that a blessing can bring fresh energy to a home isn't necessary for benefiting from one, Dugan said.

"I happen to believe that you can feel a positive energy after a blessing, but I also realize that there can be a psychological benefit," she said.

"One of the things I do to prepare a blessing is sit down with the homeowners in each room and say, 'What do you want to have happen in this room?' If we're in the kitchen, for instance, they might say, 'We want to eat meals as a family instead of gathering around the TV set.'

"A lot of people haven't thought about things like that. And just saying what they want for each room helps give them a focus for that room."

As for now, home blessings are strictly a word-of-mouth affair. The practitioners have websites (see accompanying list), but most of their business comes from referrals or people who attend a ceremony as a guest. It's all very low-key.

"You can't hit people over the head with this stuff," Engel said. "You have to respect them and accept them where they are."

Jeff Strickler 612-673-7392

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