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‘God bless you’

The words come easily after a sneeze. Why do we choke on them in other situations?

By Nancy Fornasiero

The only times I’ve ever uttered “God bless you” is after a sneeze. Absent an achoo, I can’t form the words without feeling hokey. Somehow, that kind of openly religious expressiveness seems suited to only specific categories of people: ministers, priests, nuns, TV evangelists, ethnic grandmothers and American politicians.

Nonetheless, I’d love to be one of those benevolent types who blesses people at random moments. Maybe to comfort a friend or to express gratitude. When someone who means it says “God bless you” to me, I feel like I’ve been given a little gift.

Some months ago, a friend and I launched a charity food drive. My friend received an email commending the initiative that closed with the words, “God bless you.” Talking about it at the time, my friend admitted that she had a “God-bless-you aversion” not dissimilar to mine. But inspired by that email, she decided to get over it. She tried tacking the phrase onto a few of her own emails, but it never felt authentic. She would end up giggling and deleting the words.

“Why in the world should writing that make me laugh?” she asked me.

“Beats me,” I told her. “Maybe you need to grow up a bit.”

But I understood.

I do like saying “God bless you” when, and only when, it follows a sneeze. I’m that person who interrupts a meeting or shouts over a loud party if someone across the room has achooed. I’m diligent. I say it after every single sneeze — whether produced by a family member, a friend or a stranger on a bus. My dog has even heard it a few times.

I know most people think it’s just a shallow knee-jerk utterance. But what if saying “God bless you” does somehow channel a spiritual je ne sais quoi? It seems like a lost opportunity if someone misses out on God’s grace because no one bothered to proclaim the magic words.

The phrase has been used as a benediction by both Christians and Jews for millennia. The earliest Bible reference is found in Numbers 6:24: “The Lord bless you and keep you.” No one knows exactly when the post-sneeze usage began, but it too has ancient roots. Writing in 77 AD, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noted that sneezes were omens of good or bad fortune, depending on where and when they occurred. People would cry out “salvere jusserunt!” (“save you!”) in response. Presumably, Jews and Christians eventually adopted the custom and modified it to the “God bless you” we use today.

Our medieval ancestors believed a powerful sneeze could cause the soul to be ejected from the body; a “God bless you” prevented the devil from snagging it. At other times, sneezes were thought to make the heart temporarily stop beating, and so a “bless you” offered protection at this risky moment. During Europe’s plague years, sneezing was a sign that the sneezer wasn’t long for this world — the phrase was almost a farewell blessing.

These antiquated ideas may seem silly today, but I do think those three simple syllables are more than empty sounds. Despite this conviction, I couldn’t bring myself to say them to my grandmother lying in her hospital bed or to my grieving friend at his mom’s recent funeral.

In the latter case, I think it was due to the awkwardness I feel about spiritual gestures in our increasingly secular world. Would my friend have welcomed the blessing? (I could picture him at the reception asking our old college pals, “So when did Nancy become a holy roller?” Cringe.) With my devoutly Christian grandmother, though, what could have possibly been awkward? We’d prayed together on many occasions; no doubt she would have welcomed a blessing in her last days. Could it be that I thought myself unworthy of channelling the Divine? Or maybe it’s just a matter of faith: a faith not quite strong enough to fully own an authentic “God bless you” at such a significant moment.

Here’s another weird wrinkle in the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-say-it debate: after I sneeze, I flip out on my sons if they forget to give me the blessing. Until I hear those words, I tap the table and fill the air with weighty, expectant “ahems.” One of the boys will eventually glance up from an iPhone, roll his eyes ever so slightly and mumble the requisite phrase. Funny thing, though: in spite of all my self-righteousness, it was one of my sons who finally set me straight on this “God bless you” issue.

My 11-year-old, Peter, and I were visiting Vancouver last Easter Sunday. On that drizzly day, we headed into a Starbucks to get our hot bevvies for the train ride back to our hotel. Outside the door, we nearly tripped over a homeless man sitting in a wheelchair, damp, begging for money to fix his faulty tire. Considering we’d just come from church, I suggested to Peter that maybe we should help this guy out.

“Of course!” said my kid without hesitation.

Frantically searching through my purse, I discovered I had no cash. Without missing a beat, Peter suggested that we buy him lunch on my credit card. We asked the man if he’d like to come in with us and get a sandwich or coffee.

“Thanks, but no,” he said.

He wasn’t hungry, he explained. He just really needed to get his chair repaired. So Peter and I continued into Starbucks. While waiting for my non-fat latte to foam to perfection, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for trying to help the fellow out, when I normally would have walked right by.

Then Peter turned to me and said, “Gee, Mom, even though he didn’t want us to buy anything, I thought you would have at least said ‘God bless you’ or something.”

“You know,” I said, feeling humbled, “you’re right, Peter. Absolutely right.” Next time, I vowed, I won’t miss my chance.

Nancy Fornasiero is a freelance writer and editor in Oakville, Ont.

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