One of our family favourites is The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, with wonderful illustrations by Raymond Briggs. My children loved it when they were small and we all still pick up on anyone in a restaurant, shop or on TV who fails to ask politely for anything by chorusing, "But you haven't once said please! You haven't ONCE said please!" Now it is granddaughter Millie's turn to love the book. She doesn't understand about manners yet but she loves rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta all down the road, joining in with gusto as I turn the pages.
I know that Millie will go on to find more and more to interest and amuse her in the illustrations and that sooner or later she will think the Baby is naughty and then begin to wonder about the morality of the Elephant. (I have a feeling that this book might be responsible for the increase in interest in philosophy among young people, since 1967.)
I was used to speaking to groups of teachers and medical practitioners in my professional life but to speak about the gospel to a bishop and crowd of Catholic priests was a real challenge. Who would want to preach to preachers? The gospel reading I had to speak about was John 4:3-30, the story of the woman at the well. After tearing up all attempts at writing something spiritual or intellectual (and most of my hair!) I decided to speak from a place that would be entirely unknown to my listeners - my experience as a mother. And I used my battered old copy of The Elephant and the Bad Baby as my visual aid.
I picked out the words of Jesus to the woman, "Give me a drink" and said how my family, listening to this story, would have cried in unison, "He never ONCE said please." I went through the Bad Baby book, linking the demands of the baby with the many demands that are made on priests and teachers, who frequently feel unappreciated. They loved it! I wasn't challenging their position in any way, I was being a Mum, recognising their tiredness and hurts and comforting them with a story. And, like all good mothers, I finished with a message of hope, if they were to take time over the weekend to listen, even amid the sound of those 12 foot waves crashing onto the rocks outside, they might just hear a "Please."
I bet Elfrida Vipont never expected her children's book to provide the basis of a homily! Or, as the Episcopal Vicar for Formation referred to it - a homilette. Well, he had to draw the distinction, I am a woman after all.