There are times in a man’s life when his friends' wit outshines his own—when the mental agility of those around him makes his brain seem arthritic and sluggish. I find myself in that very situation daily. Much of my conversation is a frantic attempt to catch up with my friends’ speedy brains and get a pun or a quip-in-edgewise.
Why, just the other day Brandon M. Schneeberger (esteemed secretary and sometimes boss of Sam Snow) and I were sitting quietly with our classmates in Classical Rhetoric, waiting for the professor, when one of those classmates—a woman, if I remember by her high pitch—sneezed. I, along with a few others spoke a blessing over her in the ancient and time-honored way.
“God bless you,” I said. I meant it. The modern, with all his (I use “his” in the absence of a proper gender neutral pronoun) faults, has not yet anathematized public blessings of sneezers, so I declare them proudly and with vigor whenever I can and will continue to do so until the tolerance enforcers “problematize” me and my benediction. I await with dread the day moderns wake up to the absurdity of a bunch of atheists going around with blessings for fellow organic, meaningless blobs on their lips. I can see the academic journal titles now: “The Convention of ‘Bless You’ and the Patriarchy,” “‘Bless You’ Harmless Habit or Evangelical Agenda?” “‘Bless Who?’ The End of Outmoded Oppressive Speech Patterns,” “The Separation of ‘Bless You’ and State: Religious Creep in Public Discourse.” For now, most are blinded by the mysterious pagan pleasure they find in speaking divine words over their friends, and I welcome their blindness, for it reassures me the ‘old beliefs’ are not dead. The ‘old beliefs’ still live/hide in three locations: biology, human nature, and human habit. Academics in the humanities have tried to whittle the first two into oblivion, but the third has proved hard to break. As I mentioned, most still say or approve of, “Bless you” following a sneeze.
I say most, because I saw indications that day in Rhetoric class of an awakening. The jolly tolerant giant began to stir. One of our classmates piped up, following the nasal event and subsequent solemn benediction: “Oh, I don’t say ‘bless you.’ It’s just an outdated practice from the Middle Ages—people believing they needed to somehow force the spirit back into the body because it had been flung out by the sneeze, or something, and that they were going to die of the plague soon. Why would I do that?” It was at this point my friend’s wit out-gleamed my own. I was content to defy my classmate’s words silently with plans for future, louder, more solemn God Bless You’s. Not so Brandon M. Schneeberger. He looked thoughtful for a moment and said, “But if your soul was leaving your body, wouldn’t you want to put it back in?” As confusion filled the children of the Ironic age before us, peace filled my heart. Brandon, with a few voice choice words, had blown away the heavy fog of mixed positivism, pragmatism, chronological snobbery, post-modernism, and post-postmodernism (ironicisism) filling the room and choking its intellectual atmosphere. He had met absurdity with absurdity and, in my mind, come out the victor. He had defended the rationality of our ancestors with bravery by pointing out that, if one truly believed the soul could be hurtled from the body with a sneeze, the most rational action would be to bless that soul back into its body with a timely benediction.
Though I do not believe that a sneeze is the indication of a spirit leaving the body, I do believe it is an indication of pathogens—biological results of sin—inside the body triggering a violent, holy, cleansing ritual to remove those purveyors of disease. In its natural rejection of impurity, the body is modeling its creator’s revulsion of sin. As I said earlier, the old beliefs are still found in biology. The body has not yet overcome its antiquated belief in “good” and “bad” germs, and I have a suspicion it will hold onto its reactionary beliefs long after the relativists’ preaching has died away. A sneeze, therefore, is a old fashioned, deeply holy action and worthy of a blessing from any true believer.
After a moment of confusion, the others in the room decided Brandon’s question had been a joke and welcomed the modern fog back into the room—smiling as it shrouded them in irony, passing pleasures, and confusion.
The practice of public blessings may fall under attack soon and succumb to its injuries, but that deeper truth—the sneeze—will remain. It is a violent, daily reminder that the body will never be a pluralist and the immune system is populated with extreme traditionalists. Therefore, I’m afraid the only way for the modern to stomp out “dangerously outdated practices” altogether is not only to avoid blessing sneezers, but to never sneeze again.
R. Eric Tippin
Near the Industrial District of Kansas State University
March 14, 2014
Painting: Benediction of the Priests
Oil on Canvas - 1876