One that Pisseth against a Wall

One thing I love about the King James Bible is the quaint language that can seem at times raw for modern ears.

I Kings xvi.11:

And it came to pass, when he began to reign, as soon as he sat on his throne, that he slew all the house of Baasha: he left him not one that pisseth against a wall, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends.

There are dozens of passages of psalms that cause sniggering in the choir stalls of many an English parish church, but I won’t go into those double meanings now. Some hymns have references to being firm to the end.

Now! Now! That’s enough superfluity of naughtiness! (cf. James i.21)

Why find amusement in this quaint expression that simply characterises human beings of the male sex? I was reading something (no need to link to the source) about Fr Yves Congar, the French Dominican theologian at Vatican II who was far too friendly with Anglicans for the taste of the Holy Office of his time.

The anecdote goes:

…[O]ne night after dinner, Congar and some friends were walking past Ottaviani’s Palazzo di Sant’ Ufficio. He proceeded to excuse himself for a minute, walked over to the building, peed on the wall and returned to the group with a satisfied smile on his face. A good story, but one I was reluctant to report, until now.

This old gentleman can’t have been the first to do such a thing!

There was once an organist of Dursley Parish Church in Gloucestershire, a veterinary surgeon, who took his choir to sing at a college chapel in Oxford. One bathroom was being repaired and was out of order, and some boys were going to the wrong places. He announced to his choirboys:

I am well acquainted with horse shit, pig shit and cow shit, but I cannot stand the human variety. So there are facilities at the other side of the quadrangle where you can all go and do it together.

Now, this is Anglican Patrimony, perhaps something Fr Congar understood well.

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12 Responses to One that Pisseth against a Wall

  1. Michael Frost says:

    Too funny! Thanks for the laugh. As for the “all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness”, 4th Sunday after Pascha’s Epistle, I recently pleaded with the Archbishop to do his sermon next year on that passage. I’ve never heard a sermon or preaching on it. No one ever wants to talk about it from the pulpit.

    I forget the specific passage, but thinking Paul uses some colorful excretory language somewhere that is usually cleaned up in translation.

    And the Reformation Era is replete with color. Luther’s Table Talk. And his troubles on the toilet. Or the way disputants hurled the most vicious insults at each other. I recently ran across a footnote where Melanchthon was peeved at someone. So he wrote about this person, Phallicus. Almost today’s language? Or does that mean we use their language?

    [Gordon’s bio has some interesting things to say, from Calvin’s own hand, about his medical problems. He suffered throughout his life from a variety of maladies, most stress induced. And his rigorous fasting didn’t help at times. Some others, like his kidney stones, make for painful reading today.]

  2. Patricius says:

    Better Anglican Patrimony than the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham! I was annotating my copy (bought cheaply from a private seller on Amazon) the other day and on Sunday afternoon took it to a splendid dinner party, where one of the guests, himself an ex-Anglican, described it as ”a dried up old onion.” Priceless!

  3. Fr. David Marriott says:

    Michael Frost, Here you are:
    Easter 5 Rogation 2008 SS P&P St Michael

    Three thoughts: Doris Day, St. James epistle, and bricks.

    More accurately, a song sung by Doris Day in the 1956 Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much: perhaps you may remember it: ‘Qué sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que sera, sera. When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, ‘What will I be – will I be famous, will I be rich?’ – Here’s what she said to me: ‘Qué sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, qué sera, sera’.

    Not quite the fatalism expressed by my Muslim friend Naseem, but close.

    The opposite, (or is it?), of the words of St. James (1. 21-23): ‘Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass…’

    Last week, the epistle from St. James ended with the first words above, but with an interesting change: the residue of wickedness in the BCP is the superfluity of naughtiness in the King James Version. Both are wonderful word pictures of wrongdoing: not major sin, but just silly and pointless stuff: the real harm of course lies in the first part of the sentence: ‘lay apart all filthiness’. But why, you may ask: it is harmless, and we’re having such fun: it’s really just a laugh and a joke, harmless, no malice aforethought, we don’t mean anything by it, anyway: is life supposed to be just all miserable hard work and no fun: Toronto the Good, they called it, just like Vancouver the Dull: get a life! Qué sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.

    Perhaps it is a pity that the words of St. James have become such a byword for a rather dour and austere style of life: words dear to the hearts of the Free Presbyterian, for whom hard work and strict observance of the Sabbath were the rule: and absolutely no frivolity: no way: can you hear the Scottish cadences of St. James: (perhaps he was really a Scot?) ‘But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.’ The way to heaven was paved with hard work and perhaps too much drudgery: and perhaps no fun at all: very far from the sense of humour – is it wry, or perhaps sardonic – we see expressed by Jesus: ‘Jesus saith unto her, ‘Go, call thy husband, and come hither’. The woman answered and said, ‘I have no husband’. Jesus said unto her, ‘Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly’. The woman saith unto him, ‘Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.’’ (John 4.16-19)

    So are we to hear the same thing in these words of St. James, ‘But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass…’?

    And what about justification being from Grace alone? So why do we need works anyway? In the 1st Epistle of St. John we read, ‘My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.’ (1 John 2.1-2) St. Thomas Aquinas comments on this, ‘And since He (Jesus) has received the gifts of the Spirit without measure, He has the power of pouring forth without measure all that pertains to the grace of the head, so that His grace is sufficient for the salvation – not only of some men only, but of the whole world…. and, we may add, of many worlds, if such existed.’ Light of Faith 1993, Sophia Inst. P.261)

    So why do we need to be doers of the word, and not hearers only?

    Well, here come the bricks: you may recall, I said I would talk about Doris Day, and her song, St. James, and the epistle, and bricks.

    This past week, Fr. Michael and I have been in a retreat at Rosemary Heights, in South Surrey. The chapel at Rosemary Heights is built of brick: quite high brick walls, with different shades of brick in a sort of random selection of colours: subtle shades of darker brown through to what might be almost a pink coloured brick: when you sit and contemplate things: God and you sitting together, you see the bricks, and look for all sorts of patterns as you think.

    But the most significant thing about the bricks is that they are in a most regular pattern: in a series of layers, one on top of the other, spaces alternating between layers, with precise amounts of mortar holding them in place, serried rows of careful work, allowing them to form a solid and enduring structure.

    And it was in the contemplation of these bricks, assembled so carefully by the work of men’s hands, that I realized the importance of the words of St. James. You see, the bricks could have just remained in a pile: a pile of bricks, heaped up on the ground: rubble ready for me to trip over, and perhaps hurt myself. But thanks to the fact that there had been doers of the word, not hearers only, the pile of loose bricks had been assembled in such a way that they became the House of God, and gave a place for men and women of faith to gather and bear witness of their faith: so that all those others standing around could see them and come to wonder at the marvels which were enclosed in that carefully arranged edifice of brick, so that they too might be enticed to see what was inside, and there find the pathway to their salvation in the arms of a loving Father, and His son, our Lord and Saviour.

    To be a doer of the word is to bear witness of the Glory of God the Father to all around us: let us all resolve to become even more committed to this life of the doer: and with thanks to St. James keep in our hearts his words, ‘But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.’ (James 1.25) and again, ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.’ (James 1.27)

    • Michael Frost says:

      Fr. David, Thanks! Good to know someone somewhere recently discussed the passage.

      [As regards the analsys–“…the epistle from St. James ended with the first words above, but with an interesting change: the residue of wickedness in the BCP is the superfluity of naughtiness in the King James Version. Both are wonderful word pictures of wrongdoing: not major sin, but just silly and pointless stuff:….”–is interesting to see the modern translations of the passage at this point, “lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness”:

      NKJV: “lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness”
      ESV: “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness”
      NRSV: ” rid yourself of all sordiness and rank growth of wickedness”
      CEB: “set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness”

      My Webster’s 3rd Intl (Unabridged) defines “superfluity” to include “a super abundant excess”, “an amount greatly beyond what is sufficient”, though it can also mean “unnecessary” and “dispensable”, and “immoderate living. And then “naughty” in the archaic use was “vicious in moral character, wicked”

      I’ve never had the sense that James was talking about silly or pointless sin. Which is why I’m surprised no one wants to talk about laying aside our extreme amount of wickedness. The depravity of natural man in his fallen state, which requires receiving with meekness the implanted word, which alone can save.]

      • Fr. David Marriott says:

        My comment about ‘silly and pointless stuff’ to be laid aside is the very fact that an addiction or preference for silly and pointless stuff in life is a predictor of the sin which is to follow. It is that the silly stuff sticks to our souls like the black stuff that sticks to the frying pan after you have cooked sausages, so that we are incapacitated by this from doing that which is right: and risk falling ever deeper into the slough of despond…..

      • Our big problem is that English has changed so much, and what we find amusing today had a much more serious meaning in the past. For this instance, the best thing is (for someone who has the time to take the trouble) to check up with the Greek version. Naughtiness and mischief nowadays are descriptions of childish behaviour, but four centuries ago, they meant real wickedness and malice. Superfluity is simply the noun derived from the adjective superfluous. We tend to understand it as denoting things that are not necessary. In other times it might have meant a way to emphasise and worsen the degree of malice described.

        Likewise, the word piss and to piss is nowadays quite vulgar and rude. In French, pisser is much less vulgar and I have heard it used in polite company. English centuries ago followed French usage to a great extent. Speaking French is a big eye-opener for me!

        I don’t think we need get to tied up about it – just take our English expressions as relative – and enjoy a little fun in the choir stalls!!!

      • Dale says:

        I always rather enjoyed chanting, “delivered from this naughty world…” in the exsultet!

      • You’re slipping! I think I only ever once sung the Exultet in English, in 1996. Other years, I have always sung it in Latin, and for the last few years, with the Sarum tone (which is quite tricky and needs practice).

      • Dale says:

        Yes, after learning that I am a “modern” Anglo-Catholic, I am becoming quite the modernist! Soon I shall also have dancing muppets!

      • Little Black Sambo says:

        Do you remember the notice one used to see posted in dark passages and under archways: “COMMIT NO NUISANCE”?

  4. Here is a comment I have just received by e-mail from Archbishop Haverland. I am intrigued by the etymology he gives of the word naughtiness, as evil has no ontological existence. It is non-being, what darkness is to light, an absence of light, as evil is the absence of good and love. The old meaning of naughtiness is therefore not merely childish levity and indiscipline, but serious evil and malice.

    * * *

    One advantage to the KJV phrase, ‘one that pisseth against the wall’ is that it accurately renders the Hebrew, which the modern translations almost all prettify as ‘male’ (as in I Samuel 25:34). This is an instance of what the great Robert Alter calls the heresy of interpretation – telling the reader what the translator believes the text means rather than telling the reader what the text says. Particularly in the Old Testament the KJV is often more accurate than modern translations, because both the KJV and the Hebrew tend to be very concrete and are not afraid to be earthy. In the case of the passage in I Samuel, one cannot imagine the enraged, furious David talking about ‘males’, but can easily imagine him saying what both the Hebrew and the KJV have him saying.

    As for the ‘superfluity of naughtiness’ it is ‘naught-ness’, nothingness, overflowing and seeking to swamp and drown the world of being. It is a frightening image: hell spewing forth its oblivion and destructive opposition to all that is.

    The language does change and sometime we have to work a bit to understand Stuart English. But ‘Who’s to blame? Those, old or young, / Who will not learn their mother tongue.’

  5. ed pacht says:

    My maternal grandmother always treated “naughty” and “good-for-nothing” as synonyms. At a very early age I learned that if Dad’s mother called me naughty that was a mild reproof, but if Mom’s mother used the same word I was in trouble. Insufferably brainy little guy that I was, I went to the dictionary and found out what the etymology was and understood the difference.

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