When I was little, there was something I positively loved about Vacation Bible School. While some kids were forced into attending, in my opinion there was nothing more fun than a morning of snacks, song, crafts and the occasional religious debate.
For reasons I do not fully understand myself, I typically attended my father’s (Baptist Church) VBS week. In fact, I was nearly in junior high before I even realized my Catholic School HAD a summer VBS program (which goes to show how well it was advertised in the 80’s) so…I went over to my father’s venue. I didn’t mind. When you break it right down, the theology was the same in both locations. I understood that Jesus loved me, he died for me and one day I would live with him in heaven. There was no conflict of interest in denominational doctrine.
As an added bonus, my grandmother was one of the teachers, which meant I got to go home with her in the afternoons and play in her basement while she talked to her friends on the phone until my mother came to get me. My grandmother was very active in her church congregation and not exactly a “let-me-entertain-you” kind of grandparent…so I was left to my own devices. If I was exceptionally clever, I would wait until she was on the phone and hold up a Coke and wave it at her in hopes that she would agree to let me drink it rather than end her conversation. (It usually ALWAYS worked!) But I digress….
So this one year, the Pastor’s wife came up with a challenge to the kids at VBS: If they could memorize the Beatitudes, they would win a genuine, imitation, gold-plated bookmark with the Beatitudes printed on them. (This of course defeats the purpose of memorizing them, but I am assuming that wasn’t the point.) I took a gander at the Beatitudes and quickly ruled out my chances of scoring one of these bookmarks. Unlike the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes are not short, simple and easy to memorize. These things are long, complicated, repetitive and, in my opinion, proof-positive that JC needed a good speech editor!
“So how are you coming on Mrs. Chapman’s challenge?” My grandmother asked, setting a box of Town House Crackers in front of me for lunch. (I swear I could have eaten my weight in those things back then…nothing else, just the crackers.)
“Yeah, about that…I don’t think I am going to do it,” I replied.
My grandmother looked horrified. How could her own granddaughter not even TRY to make her look good in front of the pastor’s wife? Here she was, a VBS teacher with a granddaughter in the program and she wasn’t even going to ATTEMPT it? “Why not?” she wanted to know.
“Grandma, they are too long,” I told her. “I know there are less of them than the Commandments, but I just can’t do it.”
The woman narrowed her eyes at me. “You mean to tell me that you don’t know them?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Nope. They’ve never come up.”
See, us Catholics…we aren’t really “chapter and verse” kind of people. We don’t memorize where to find things in the bible or rattle of the book and numbers when quoting something like a walking citation and this fact, literally boggled her mind. She could not believe that a girl with my education, who went to a religious school for heaven’s sake never had to memorize the Be-Like-Jesus-Attitudes. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.
“No grandma, I am not kidding you. I do not know the Beatitudes…I do know how they elect the Pope though and I know all of the mysteries of the rosary,” I offered.
She was unimpressed. More importantly, she was determined not to let this hole in my education go unfilled. “Well, you are just going to learn them, young lady, starting now.” I swear she looked just like Dana Carvey’s SNL character Church Lady as she grabbed her Bible (stuffed with every church bulletin since the Johnson administration), opened it to Matthew, stood me in front of her and said, “Go.”
I knew I was sunk. I knew the lyrics to the song “Blessed Are They” but every Catholic knows that the composer took creative license with the original text and will not help you when it comes to memorizing the real thing. I shifted my weight from foot to foot and stammered, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of God is theirs.” I said as if I were asking a question.
“Good, go on..” she prompted.
“Blessed are the….peacemakers…because….”
“Blessed are they who mourn…”she corrected.
“Blessed are they who mourn,” I repeated. “For they shall…stop crying?”
“For they shall be comforted,” Grandma sighed.
I am in hell, I thought to myself, reciting her words back to her before going on to what I hoped was the next one. “Blessed are the peacemakers…”
“Blessed are the meek,” she interrupted.
“Can’t we just give peace a chance?” I asked.
Needless to say, my joke fell flat and I spend the next millennium (or what felt like a millennium) sorting out who inherits the earth, who will be called the children of God and who will receive His kingdom. (By the way…God has a LOT of beneficiaries in his will.) I was tired. My poor grandmother looked exhausted. It was a valiant effort on her part, but there was no way in the WORLD I was going to get this. Not in order. Not in a few minutes and certainly not within the next couple of days. It wasn’t going to happen.
“Continue…” she said, staring at the text in her hands.
“Fine,” I sighed, narrowing my eyes and letting the wheels turn in my twisted brain. “Blessed are the cross-eyed for they shall see God twice!”
To explain the look my grandmother gave me would mean nothing in the English language, but suffice to say the woman was stunned that I could be that blasphemous in front of the King James Bible. Her jaw dropped open slightly and she seemed slightly bewildered as she slowly closed the book, and whispered that I could go play. I skipped off happily knowing that she probably wouldn’t push the issue for the rest of the week. (I suspected she would also spend considerable time praying for my soul as well.)
Funny thing…at the end of the week, we were all given the Beatitude bookmarks…not the gold kind of course, but we were still given them which of course made me question the idiocy of the challenge once again. In the decades that followed, both of my sons had to memorize them for religion tests but somehow I never did. In 1996, my grandmother passed and in his eulogy, her pastor talked about her deep religious convictions and mentioned how “blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”
I’m pretty sure I was the only person choking back laughter in the middle of a memorial knowing that somewhere, my grandmother was trying to get those things committed to my memory one final time. It didn’t work, but I can say with complete certainty, “Blessed are the grandmas who had the patience not to kill me, even though I probably deserved it at the time.”