Little acts of public piety make me feel self-conscious. Am I just being English?
“Thank you,” I say, leaving the diner. “And God bless,” I add awkwardly.
“And God bless you too, sir!”
Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Twickenham anymore.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never felt entirely at ease with making these little displays of faith. It’s not that I don’t do it; far from it. I’ve been known to bring out a rosary (for some reason, it’s always a pink plastic one I find loose in my coat pocket) on the Tube. The ashes on my forehead sometimes make it longer into Lent than, er, impeccable standards of personal hygiene might permit. And I do, indeed, often append “God bless” to thank-yous and goodbyes.
What I mean is that, unlike my charming Texas waiter, I can’t seem to do them in a natural, unselfconscious way. They always make me feel like an aggressively in-your-face Bible (or perhaps Denzinger) Basher: a papist Ned Flanders.
This isn’t, incidentally, at all about fearing that people might take offence. Because seriously, who – outside the fevered dreams of “War on Christmas” warriors, that is – actually could? I feel exactly the same way when talking to people who I know are Christians, because, say, I see them at Mass every Sunday. Yet that doesn’t stop each sotto-voce “God bless” feel like I’m making some defiant, culture-warrioring statement.
There is, I dare say, something very British about all this. Overt expressions of Christian religiosity, however mild and inconsequential, are largely foreign to the culture. In 2012, reports that Tony Blair had once considered ending televised addresses with “God bless Britain” made headlines. Compare that to America, where a major politician once omitting to say “God bless America” is a real story.
Outside, perhaps, of certain subcultures, dropping Jesus into ordinary conversation, like saying grace in public (even if one does so at home), just isn’t a part of the ingrained social “rules”. It’s not that you can’t do it, or that anyone really minds when you do. But there’s no way to do it without it being noticed, either by yourself or others. If I say “God bless you” to a colleague, not only do I know that I’m doing something unusual, but so do they. Furthermore, I know that they know that I know it too.
This is not, I think, an especially new development. On my long flight to Houston yesterday, I passed several absorbing hours reading Clifford Longley’s 2000 book The Worlock Archive, which includes long extracts from the former Archbishop of Liverpool’s Vatican II diaries. Among much other fascinating material, it includes his worries over a draft of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity encouraging workers to “preach” to their colleagues, when and where opportune. For Worlock that sort of thing just isn’t very “English”, and is unlikely to go down well with anyone involved. (This was, note, long before such things actually could, and sometimes do, lead to people losing their jobs.)
Incidentally, in my British experience, the only group of people who consistently seem to use “God bless you” unselfconsciously are the homeless: a reminder of the unsettling truth of Matthew 25 if ever you need one.
As for the rest of us, I suspect that there’s value to be had in transgressing these minor social mores on a regular basis.
I don’t suppose that they accomplish anything much evangelistically, at least not directly. Just as I don’t suppose seeing one of those “Jesus fish” on the back of a Ford Sierra has won all that many souls for Christ.
Still, being unable to say “God bless you” in an unthinking and automatic manner isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means that when you do say it, you say it because you mean it. (Tip for American friends: on the rare occasion that a British person tells you to “have a nice day”, they probably really want you to have one.) Each little awkwardness is thereby transformed into little act of self-witness.
And as St Josemaría Escrivá – whose birthday is today – reminds us, “Great souls pay much attention to little things.”