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Lay for the Day
16th February

600: Pope Gregory the Great decrees that to say “God bless you” is the appropriate response to a sneeze. Also that the sign of the cross should be made over the mouth of one who yawns. The plague was raging in Rome at the time, and fits of sneezing and yawning were symptoms of infection.
In England, there’s many an atheist and Protestant who still obeys the papal fiat with a “Bless you!” This seems fitting, since it was the same pope, St Gregory, who is said to have seen some fair-haired captives in the Roman slave-market and asked what tribe they belonged to. When he was told they were Angles, he punned “Non anglii, sed angeli” – Not Angles but angels – and sent St Augustine to convert them to Christianity.
From the book of Praises.

72. Of the Nose

Tunnelled tower, spirit channel,
the face is arranged around you
like a feudal hamlet round its castle.

Beauty’s most difficult aspect,
you who keep the voice’s secret
resonance are therefore the heart’s trumpet.

You lend the deep eyes direction
and overtop the smiling gorge,
abrupt, broad-shouldered, fissured or pitted

like pumice, like snow or basalt
gleamed, rufous or yellow as dawn;
on whom the tears’ Niagaras, trembling,

shake the air around with silence;
from whose steamy caverns, distent,
erupts the surplus volcanic laughter;

inaccessible mountain home,
above all, of the pagan sneeze,
at whose outrush come forfending blessings.

Within the hill of spices, one
by one, the scent molecules are
given audience as the day is long.


John Gibbens
from Collected Poems


The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar