I’m practicing saying “God bless you.” Practicing the phrase as a conversational form of the expression, much like the tiny remnant of quotidian religious life that is in the blessing we give someone after a sneeze. The after-a-sneeze blessing shares a borderline with the impulse, still visible in our culture, of knocking on wood when you don’t want what you have just said to become concrete—but is also different from superstition in that you can still hear in it something that attends to the heart, something that attends to a perceived shared humanity. That something, that attending to the heart, that allowing for the perception of a shared humanity—that is what I am practicing.
I leave in 10 days for Romania. I am going to a part of the world where someone, seeing her neighbour for the first time that day, would say, “God bless you.” I will hear children say it to their friend’s mother as they leave to go home for dinner.
And so today, on a day when one friend is opting not to shop for the next 40 days and another will be in the world with ashes on her forehead, I am adopting a new practice. To consider each greeting and parting a cause to invoke the divine.
Once I get to Romania, I will try the practice out loud. I will do it in English. I want my colleagues and neighbours to know I know what I am saying, that I am not mistaking the Hungarian equivalent of this to be the word “hello.”
I will learn if it is said to family members in the morning. I feel confident it is said last thing at night, perhaps even between spouses in the dark.
Some time ago, I made a declaration that I would be more public in the practice of my religion. Kind of like a declaration of a New Year’s resolution.
Two things make practicing my religion publicly difficult. The first is theological, the second psychosocial.
On the theological front, the problem is my theistic framework. Is this a capital G Judaeo-Christian God, a capital S Shiva lower case g Hindu god, a capital A Muslim Allah, a pantheon of archetypes, or a pantheistic sense of nature?
None. My theistic framework is lower case “a” for atheist.
Being a religious atheist is a tricky social conundrum. My atheism is very important to me. It is, as a theistic framework is for many people, central to my identity. So to come out publicly as someone with a religious practice puts a part of my core identity at risk. Let people know you pray and, sure as shootin’, they think you’re talking to a deity.
As a friend, it can take some getting used to. If, that is, we get to know each other that well.
Because I hide it. Mostly. Partly because of the nature of religious practice. It really doesn’t work to talk about it. It’s really a very, very private thing.
And partly because I’m shy about it.
You need to be brave to be religious in public. Especially these days. These days, say “Al Hamdulilah” when the person in the seat beside you on the plane sneezes and you could end up in detention.
I will be in Romania until June 9. Three months. Time enough to get used to saying “God bless you” as a greeting. As a good bye.
If you’ve read this far, “God bless you.” I meet you here, at the end of this post.
In my leaving, too, I say, “God bless you.” It will be a while before I see you again in person. Where one of us will say “hello” and the other will inhale the air with which it was said.