Beati Immaculate

BeatiWhile sitting in church, half-heartedly attending to the liturgy, my ever-curious meandering mind free-associated to fantasies both secular and spiritual. My wanderings were reined in by the Psalmists words, and their unexpected confluence with thoughts of a former counselee.

My memory of BJ (not his real name) remains colorful. I met him when he was a sophomore at the high school where I’d taken a position as a school-based clinician. BeeJay, that’s how his mother told him to spell his name, “more sophisticated than BJ,” she’d said, and that’s what he did, obey her wish—an act of obedience foreign to him in most of the other areas and relationships in his life. His foul language and quick temper got him into trouble with teachers and peers alike.

After two years of working together, without much progress, or so I thought, he named my office couch the “BeeJay Memorial Couch” then proudly declared that aside from his mother I was the only person “whose opinion he gave a shit about, and the only man he’d listen to.” He bragged, to anyone who’d listen, that the only things in life he did more often than talk with me were to think about girls, drink Mountain Dew, smoke cigarettes, and fight—four habits for which he had an insatiable appetite. His self-declared white-trash upbringing made him “tougher ‘n nails,” he liked to say.

It was at this point in the worship service that the Psalmist’s words injected themselves into my thoughts.

“Blessed are the undefiled…” is the opening line of the 119th Psalm, the lengthiest of the Psalms, and the longest chapter in the Bible. In the Hebrew Torah the opening words of the chapter, “Ashrei temimei derecho,” mean “Happy are those whose way is perfect,” and the Latin phrase—Beati immaculate—refers to the first eight verses of the lengthy psalm, which read as follows:

1 Happy are they whose way is blameless,
Who walk in the law of the Lord!

2 Happy are they who observe his decrees
And seek him with all their hearts!

3 Who never do any wrong,
But always walk in his ways.

4 You laid down your commandments,
That we should fully keep them.

5 Oh, that my ways were made so direct,
That I might keep your statutes!

6 Then I should not be put to shame,
When I regard all your commandments.

7 I will thank you with an unfeigned heart,
When I have learned your righteous judgments.

8 I will keep your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.

I’m certain that when I knew BeeJay he had no familiarity with the psalm or the psalmist, but on this particular Sunday, the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, I wasn’t surprised by the convergence of my memories of him with the psalmist’s lyrics. I recalled the February afternoon, ten years before when he begged me to give him a ride home after school, a request that had less to do with our relationship than it did with my means of transportation—a fast and beautiful Porsche 911. He buckled up, his face flush with adolescent excitement and a macho “look-at-me” stare that he made sure classmates saw—especially those waiting for their buses in the driving snow.

The roads were slippery, and in spite of his urging to “let ‘er rip,” I kept a slow calculated pace as we traveled along isolated roads toward the trailer park where he lived with his mother and five siblings.

At the crest of a knoll, two miles from his home, I lost control of the car, and we went into a 360-degree slide down the middle of the two-lane road. When we came to a stop, I leaned over and asked how he was. All the brazenness and tough guy stance had left him. In place of the wiry fighter was a shaking, ashen-faced, and speechless sixteen-year-old young man. The silence lasted a minute or so, long enough for snow to cover the windshield, and for BeeJay to know his Porsche-riding days were done. “I can walk from here,” he said and exited the car.

I don’t know anyone who fits the psalmist’s description of being blameless, those “who never do any wrong,” or in the Hebrew translation, “those whose way is perfect,” and I suspect neither did the author of these verses. I know flawed folk who strive mightily to get it right, and good ones whose flaws, unannounced, bite them in the butt.

Several months after the winter spin-out, I drove BeeJay to Fletcher Allen Hospital in nearby Burlington to visit his beloved and dying grandfather. On that drive, his rage, created and nurtured by a life of isolation, brokenness, and poverty, exploded in streams of homophobic and racial epithets that I had never tolerated during our times together. I threatened to turn back if he didn’t stop, and when he paused to consider my warning, I posed a hypothetical scenario to him. I asked what he’d do if a gay couple had spun off the road, as we almost did months ago, and got stuck in a snow bank. Without hesitation or a hateful comment he declared that he’d help dig them out and make sure they were all right.

“But these are people you hate,” I said. “Why would you assist them?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, “I just would.”

Perhaps BeeJay’s response may have been an example of “Vermonter-ethos,” a culture of community that transcends the awfulness of inbred bigotry and hate. However accurate that may be, I believe there’s more to it. He didn’t want to talk about why he’d help, and I wisely didn’t probe, but I suspected that beneath the palpable anger and fear was a wellspring of sadness, a feeling capable of generating empathy and generosity.

What was apparent to my meandering soul on this Sunday was how the psalmist gives hope, and the memories of an angry young man remind me how multifaceted we human beings are—capable of being tough and tender, embracing and hateful, defiled and blameless—and, even if we live fully, the perfection for which we strive will always elude us.

 

 

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15 Comments

  1. JoAnne Kurman

    Beautiful story, Roger. I wonder how BeeJay is doing today, ten years later. He was blessed to have you help him navigate those rough waters. God bless you for the work you do, for all the broken winged souls you helped give flight.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      JoAnne,
      I appreciate your comments, JoAnne. I hope BeeJay kept “paddling” through the inevitable rough waters, and I’m guessing that his flight into healthy living met turbulence, life-chop that occurs for all of us. I haven’t seen or heard from him so I can only imagine what his life is like. What I do know is that I learned something from him–persevere, and when your “ride” gets bumpy, you can always get out and walk!
      Roger

      Reply
  2. Colette

    This piece flowed freely and spoke to me. I share your connection with your work of communication and relationship with counselees, aka students, and love your marvelous mix of memories mingled with other important spiritual guidance from as long ago and far away as the bible. And at the end, you bring it all home to looking into a mirror, to see and accept all that is, and is not……the ever hopeful, multifaceted flawed imperfection of every human being, Wonderfully written from the mind of a meandering soul. Write on, mon ami! Love the contrast in the photo of the fast and beautiful Porche parked in the snow.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Colette,
      Thank you for reading this piece. There are car enthusiasts who claim the Porsche is automotive-engineering-perfection, and yet it too gets “stuck in snow banks.”
      Roger

      Reply
  3. Roger

    Another friend of mine enjoyed this post, and stated that he could not identify “with the perfection of the verse but certainly [was] uncomfortably familiar with hatred and bigotry.”

    Reply
  4. yourrel4 (Post author)

    A friend of mine struggled with the verse’s mention of perfection, something she too found elusive, but was familiar with hatred and bigotry “more so now than ever before.”

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Sometimes my pursuit of perfection becomes a defense against looking into my prejudices and bigotries. Familiarity with that which I deny will shed light and understanding on those dark places. My lifelong learning curve.
      Roger

      Reply
  5. yourrel4 (Post author)

    A friend in California wrote the following:
    “I also come to church, hoping to have my questions and doubts “allayed” and it doesn’t often happen. I am not sure I would like it if they were, since “answers” dispense with mystery, and to me, mystery feels more true than facts. I also find there are gifts to unwrap, mostly having to do with an encounter with presence or Presence that is comforting and encouraging, which helps me feel I can find at least a bit of a path forward.
    So often, the sense of Presence rises out of words that both hold meaning, but also do so in a beautiful and engaging way. I have noticed lately the way beautifully crafted words create a sense of movement. That’s why I love hymns like “Lead Us Heavenly Mother Lead Us,” with the series of pleas: “Hold us, hide us, lead us, guide us,” providing pulsing forward movement toward, “For we have no help but Thee,” Or the phrase, “Thus possessing every blessing” delights me, lifts my heart and places my mind in a lighter (literally, more Light), more optimistic place. It also is what I find when I look at those verses you quote from the psalm. I noticed that the first four verses describe what the “perfect” might be. But then verse 5 marks a subtle movement, a turn toward describing why he–we–can’t get to that perfect place, though we yearn to do so. “Oh that my ways would be made so direct.” If only they might.
    It is also why I like your words. The embrace of BeeJay’s lonely and painful life, his stalwart attempts to be a “someone” he creates himself, your willingness to let him be close to you, your ability to accept but also set limits on him–and to talk about it with the symmetry of a series of contrasts: tough but tender, embracing yet hateful. Or the way you can use words to penetrate his hatefulness and richly describe that “beneath his palpable fear and anger is a wellspring of sadness.” The words help frame his experience in a way that I can dive in and hold him in my own embrace, and then notice that I also am embracing my own wellspring of sadness. This is Presence as well. Those are the gifts I unwrapped from your post. I liked it.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Thank you for this thoughtful response that, among other “meanderings,” reminds me that we are all on this journey of yearning and seeking. “Presence” gave me BeeJay for a spell, and in addition the courage to “unwrap” the gift, trying though it was I am grateful.
      Roger

      Reply
  6. Kay

    Roger
    It is a great gift and vocation to be able to bring one back to childhood, stripping away the facades whatever they may be. In Bee Jay’s case toughness and expressed hatred for others unlike him, but more likely self hatred.
    Children are not bigoted and hate (and love) only those who hurt them. That is why a “deep dive” can be so beneficial. a favorite hymn of mine is Come Thou Fount as I so identify with,”prone to wander Lord I feel it”. I enjoyed reading again these

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Kay,
      Thank you for commenting. I agree with you that children learn to feel love and hate, and if “instructed” in bigoted ways they’ll express prejudice in word and deed. I too enjoy this hymn, and like many others, paeans of yearnings and faith, they give us hope as we wander.
      Roger

      Reply
  7. Bill Doulos

    Happy are they whose way is blameless,
    Who walk in the law of the Lord!

    Happy are they who observe his decrees
    And seek him with all their hearts!

    These words of the Psalmist point to a time in Hebrew history when fulfillment in life came because of fulfillment of the law. And the law was either an endless series of decrees, or perhaps just following along with the 10 Commandments. This approach to life–one might call it sheer obedience–actually was the substance of how a people were to “seek him with all their hearts!”

    Today we rightly find a rich reward in relationships–with our God, and with our neighbors and our loved ones, even with the strangers in our midst. Loving relationships go far beyond the “Thou shalt nots” of the Hebrew scriptures. Today our fulfillment comes from our embrace of mercy and grace, shown by us and to us, rather than by the more primitive dutiful obedience to the letter of the law.

    The fulfillment for us comes through the murky waters of practicing the presence, and engaging with others at a deep spiritual level. Your merciful and gracious “embrace of BeeJay’s lonely and painful life” (words offered by another California contributor) is your fulfillment, no matter what happens in Beejay’s later experience.

    So you are right to treasure these memories of Beejay, to take great satisfaction from this relationship, and so to seek the Lord with all your heart.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Bill,
      Thank you for these words, a reminder that attention to the law is important, but that fulfillment comes through the embrace of “mercy and grace.” Frederick Buechner has recently become my “companion”–again. Mercy involves unimaginable forbearance and compassion even in the midst of judgment. He talks of grace as “something you can never get but only be given,” and that “Loving somebody is grace.” And then he gets my attention with the [to me] chilling comment: “Have you ever ‘tried’ to love somebody?” This forces me to reflect on love–how I give and receive it–too often with judgment-prone conditions that push grace aside. Thanks, Bill.
      Roger

      Reply
  8. Alan

    I have learned that perfection is unattainable but the pursuit of excellence is a worthy journey. “What ever you do in word or deed , do all as unto the Lord. ” ” Teach us to number out says aright that we may gain a heart into wisdom .”

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      ALAN,
      Thank you for reading, commenting, and reminding me that it is in the pursuit that we can find “gold,” and perhaps even a smidgeon of excellence!
      Roger

      Reply

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