The First of All

I have to admit, I am not well-versed in the Bible  (pun intended :)).  For someone with a supposedly good memory, I can’t get Bible verses to stick in my head.  My mother was remarkably open to allowing me to go to other churches with my friends or neighbors starting even as young as elementary school, so one summer I was in Vacation Bible School at a local church.  I don’t know what denomination it was or even which friend I was with.  I do know it was not a Catholic church.  Our task that day was to learn a number of Bible verses.  The other children there seemed to have no difficulty with this, but at that tender age, I did not yet even know what the numbers after the names of the books meant.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we didn’t own a Bible.  We owned several, the one in our front room a large ivory one with gilt on the edges and a holographic (I kid you not) image of the Last Supper on the front.  Being the bibliophile I was already at that age, I would kneel at the coffee table, and carefully open the book, solemnly thumbing through the pages, and looking at the glorious pictures.  I felt the literal and figurative weight of that book, knew it was something precious, but had never thought of it as something one memorized like in school until after that encounter in vacation bible school.  I never saw my parents reading it, but I never saw my mother reading much of anything.  That required leisure time which she really didn’t have between the business, taking care of my father, and raising us 4 kids.   If she or my father read anything it was the newspaper, and frequently she was asleep within a few minutes of reading.  I don’t know how much of that had to do with the fact that growing up, there was no extra money for books.  Her toys as a child, she liked to remind us, were sticks and rocks. There is a great oral tradition in the Vietnamese Catholic church, and partly that is because women of my grandmother’s generation didn’t necessarily know how to read.  So prayers are taught by repetition, and the Gospel is preached, but in my grandmother’s house, prayer was the real emphasis.

And so, for the first time in a church, I felt inadequate and small.  The other children were called upon to recite bible verses that they had memorized, and I stood dumb, and quiet as usual,and knew not one Bible verse.  I did not even know where or how to find the verses.  I came away from that experience with a curiosity about the Bible, but also a feeling of it as something inaccessible and mysterious.  It had a code, and there were people who were in the know, so to speak, and I was not one of them.  Looking back now, I see it was a curious reaction for someone who loves books and reading as much as I do, but I can still vividly recall the way the afternoon sunlight slanted into that dim classroom, and the awkward silence that filled it when it was my turn.  Those childhood memories of embarrassment imprint on young brains, and persist long after our adult selves know better.

As I grew older, learned the code, that feeling of the Bible as being accessible faded a little, but I still did not see it as a source of comfort as some do, seeing it instead as a source of wisdom and knowledge.  At the age of 12, I set a goal to read the entire Bible.  In my innocence and desire to be more grown-up, I thought I could become wiser if I just read the whole thing.  So that summer, that is exactly what I did.  I had no plan other than to read it like I read all of my books-start at the beginning.

The bible I read was one I found on the mantel of our family room.  This was a smaller, lighter bible with an unprepossessing soft black cover.  It was nothing at all like the beautiful bible in the front room.  It had no pictures or gilt on the edges, and its pages were incredibly thin.  Every morning, after breakfast, I would climb up on the bricks of our fireplace, pull it down from its place, and curl up on the couch.  I read until I grew tired of reading, or until my grandmother called me for chores.  Then I would replace the bible in its place on the mantel for the next day.  It never once occurred to me that I could leave it next to bed or in a more accessible place like the Nancy Drew novels I read.  In my mind, it had its place and that was where it belonged.

I read every day, my mosquito-bitten legs growing hot and itchy against the rough wool upholstery of the couch. Summer days were interminable then, in a house without air conditioning, the hours stretched out before me without school to add some excitement and change.  I was captivated by the language, and the drama of the Old Testament.  Here was a style of writing that was very unlike Nancy Drew or Little Women, and I found it mesmerizing.

When I finally finished reading, ending with the puzzling and in some parts, scary, Book of Revelations, I felt proud of my accomplishment, and yet empty at the same time.  Other than being able to say I had read the Bible, I didn’t feel any wiser.  I still didn’t have any Bible verses memorized.  That is not to say I didn’t learn anything or wasn’t moved by it, but I had expected to be more grown up after reading it, and of course, I was not.

Over the years, I would gift many Bibles to kids and adults on special occasions, always the kind with the pretty pictures.  As my faith grew, I still felt the lack of biblical knowledge in my life.  As I was teaching my 7th grade Morality catechism class one day, it struck me that I knew more verses than I gave myself credit for.  All the years of sitting in church listening like my grandmother and her mother, had imprinted a few key verses. I felt compelled to share with my class my favorite verses, though as I have said I am no biblical scholar:

One of the scribes who had listened to them debating appreciated that Jesus had given a good answer and put a further question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one, only Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.       Mark 12:28-31

I wanted them to understand the simple grace found in these words.  By these words alone, it is possible to live a life of service and compassion.  This is Jesus’ message to us.  He was speaking of a new way, compared to the myriad of laws found in the Jewish tradition.  If we are motivated by our love of God, we aspire not only to avoid doing anything that would damage that relationship, but also to actively– because he uses love as a verb–act in ways that will strengthen that bond, just like in our love for our family or friends.

In conjunction with that, the second commandment he laid upon us is made even more powerful.  It is not just the Golden Rule, in which we treat others as we want to be treated.  We must love others as much as we love ourselves.  If we do not love ourselves, in all our faults and imperfections, how can we love others?  And if we do, how can we not accept others in all of their faults and imperfections?

Today I am grateful for my mother’s willingness to let me experience other faiths as it gave me an appreciation early on for the similarities and differences among us.  I am thankful for the opportunity to have been a catechist in spite of my dearth of Biblical knowledge, and I am thankful for all those I know who are shining examples of living these commandments.

Our family Bible, given to us by my husband's grandmother, along with a card filled with words of wisdom regarding marriage.  She was a truly special lady.

Our family Bible, given to us by my husband’s grandmother, along with a card filled with words of wisdom regarding marriage. She was a truly special lady.

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