“Atchoo! Hello?” L. snuffled down the phone. “Bless you,” I said, before telling her who I was. She recognised my voice anyway. I asked how long she’d had the rotten cold. More than a week, came the answer. Her visitors, a young mum and a baby, had brought it with them, shared it around, and they were all laid low together. Selfishly, I was glad of the 200-mile separation as another sneeze catapulted down the phone into my ear. In an unstoppable, spontaneous gesture, I rubbed my ear next to the phone; it was dry. “Bless you,” I said again, force of habit – and one of our better habits, I think.
Sneezing was one of the symptoms of the plague, and it is said that Pope Gregory encouraged the blessing, ‘God bless you’ after a person sneezed, in the hope it would protect them from an otherwise certain death. Generally, we’ve dropped the ‘God’ from the blessing after a sneeze these days, but it’s still a lovely tradition. I think those two words beautifully encapsulate the sentiment: “Sorry you are feeling unwell and may you recover quickly.” K. has another theory for its provenance. She says her swimming instructor told her that your soul gets loose when you sneeze and by saying ‘bless you’ it is protected while it finds its way back to wherever it is ones soul resides. I think he should stick to swimming instruction!
Besides blessings for a speedy recovery from the cold, what are the blessings that we wish for ourselves and for others? Sometimes we envy others because we might think they are blessed with wealth and fame and we would love a little taste of it ourselves. We might point out that so-and-so is blessed with good looks, with a prodigious talent – to play music or paint or dance or play football with the grace of George Best. One of the dictionary definitions of a blessing is: ‘a special favour, mercy, or benefit’. I’m in danger of sounding frustratingly like Pollyanna, but isn’t it better to count ones simple blessings, aim towards modest blessings? Things like: may we all be blessed with enough to do us; may we be blessed with good friends and much laughter; may we be blessed with short-lived sneezes.
In his poem, ‘A Prayer For My Daughter’, W.B. Yeats – I think –m follows this line of reasoning in hoping for simple blessings for his daughter: beauty (but not too much!), kindness, good judgement, and friendship.
“May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.”
Meanwhile, back on the phone, L. is still sneezing. “You’ve said ‘bless you’ so many times that I’m going to be instantly cured!” she told me. “I don’t know about that”, I said dubiously, “My blessings are all well and good, but they’ll probably be most effective when supplemented with honey, lemon and definitely some whiskey.”