In which I restore a forgotten nuance of a blessed life.
Earlier this year, I attended church services in a neighboring county where I was offered a novel window into the first few verses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, also known as the Beatitudes. To those unfamiliar with the term, it is from them that we first encounter the familiar phrase, “Blessed are the meek:”
Brandon Jones, a school teacher during the week and volunteer Sunday School teacher on the weekend, chose a simple but effective method for revealing the structure of the “blessings” that lead off the well-known sermon. Jesus has chosen this moment to begin his public ministry, one that in three-years time will end in his violent, public execution. In Carl Bloch’s classically staged portrait of the sermon, Jesus’ mother, Mary, is shown at his feet, head bowed, contemplating the end of the path now enjoined by her son. The only other person inattentive to Jesus’ words is a young boy whose model for the painting was Bloch’s own son. He is captivated not by the Master Teacher but by the orange butterfly, a symbol of resurrection, ministering to Mary.1
According to the King James Version of the Bible, Matthew records of Jesus that “he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” There are nine Beatitudes in all.
To engage the class, Brandon passes out yellow 3×5 cards to nine individuals asking them to read in turn the words he has handwritten on the front of each card, followed by the words on the back. The two sides of each card make up the complete Beatitude, separated front and back by the semi-colon between the condition of the person who is blessed—”Blessed are the poor in spirit:”—and the nature of the blessing they shall receive: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” After each card is read, Brandon retrieves it from the reader and posts it on the board at the front of the class, “Blessed” side up. As Brandon has given his ninth card to me, I read it last.
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exciting glad:” And then turning it over, “for great is your reward in heaven.”
Brandon retrieves my card and places it at the bottom of the vertical column formed by the previous eight. All nine Beatitudes in place, one has now only to glance at the yellow column to see the makings of an unfolding pattern. With apologies to Bertrand Russell, it’s “Blessed” all the way down.
Brandon teaches elementary school. Fourth grade, if I remember right. Perhaps his technique—the breaking up of each phrase, the visual alignment of each condition, the obfuscation of each back-of-the-card outcome—is one he uses during the week to help developing children discern simple patterns within complexity too rich to grasp in one go. Perhaps he is setting up us developing adults to ask why Jesus was so deliberatively repetitive. It might also be that Brandon has another goal in mind: that our minds hover first on the common state that unites every soul on the mountain that day—the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted for righteousness sake; they are all blessed, without regard to their individual reward. Whether by time box or design, Brandon will never turn over the cards that hour.
There is another pattern to consider here. When King James VI and Richard Bancroft, archbishop of Canterbury and James’ number two in the 1604-1611 translation of the Bible, kicked off their project, they spelled out 14 editorial rules to guide their 54-member team. Because the new text was “to be read in churches,” it was essential that it not bore its audience. Consequently, whenever the translators encountered an important word repeated in the original texts, it was to be translated “with variation” so as to hold better the interest of the listener. This is why, for instance, some scholars believe Joseph of Egypt’s “coat of many colors” might more accurately have been translated in Genesis as his “coat of many marks.” But since the same Aramaic word for “mark” in that instance had earlier been translated one way, the translators added a little “color,” so to speak, to their word choice. With such a rule top-of-mind, Brandon’s yellow column attests to the exceptional care the translators took to follow Tyndale’s earlier standard and begin all nine Beatitudes with the same Blessed mantra. And as I fixate on it in Sunday School that day, I am transported nearly half a century into my past.
It is 1976, and I am kneeling to pray in the home of a Māori wahine from the Kiwi family of New Zealand and a Swiss man from the Chatelans of Lausanne. Completing the prayer circle is teenage son Michel, a younger girl and boy, Kim and Anthon, an Italian friend of mine, Paolo Talà. In my French prayer, no sooner does my request that “Dieu blesser cette famille” escape my halting tongue, does a giggle erupt from Kim. When I finish, Monsieur Chatelan, knowing I had been in the country only a few weeks, gently corrects my error, doing so in English lest there be no misunderstanding.
“In your prayer, you asked God to bestow a blessing on our family. We very much appreciate your gesture. In English, to bless means to make holy, n’est-ce pas?“
“It does,” I reply, not knowing where this will end, although, from the children’s faces, I can tell in which direction we are traveling.
“But between French and English, to bless is a false cognate. Do you know this phrase?”
I do not.
“In French, when we say ‘to bless’, we mean ‘to injure, to wound’,” he continues. “It’s an unfortunate false cognate, n’est-ce pas?”
“I just asked God to injure your family.”
“In a manner of speaking, you did, but I’m sure God heard the English prayer that was in your head. Next time you bless our family, and I hope you will try to remember to use the word “bénir.” It is close to the English word Benediction. No?”
The children then proceeded to conjugate the verb bénir for me, just as they would in school; just as I practiced in college.
“Je bénis … Tu bénis … Il bénit … Vous bénissez … Nous bénissons … Ils bénissent.”
I never made that rookie mistake again.
BlessOxford English Dictionary
3. bless, verb
Forms: Also Middle English–1500s blyss(e, bliss.
Origin: A borrowing from French. Etymon: French blesse-r.
Etymology: < French blesse-r < Old French blecier to injure, wound.
To wound, hurt; to beat, thrash, drub.
Not that I had access to the OED during my time in Switzerland, but I learned years later that the French connotation of the word Bless—to wound, hurt, injure, or beat—while not its primary meaning in English, made its way into our language long before Tyndale’s 1526 translation of Matthew Chapter Five. After Brandon’s lesson, I found that in Thomas Shelton’s translation of Don-Quixote, published a year following the 1611 printing of the King James Bible, the word Bless was still being used to connote violence.2 Unaware of its etymology, repeating “Blessed” all the way down Brandon’s yellow cards stirs in me something ancient and not for the first time.
When the primary meaning of Bless first appeared in English in the 12th century, it came not from the French but from the Germans and meant “marked with blood.” Of all the ancestors of the German take on Bless, only for the English did the idea take root that blessings also harbor a dark side. Centuries later, Bless would blend with Bliss to give it its lighter, present meaning, that of holy sanctification. The question that mildly haunts me this Easter week is whether, by Tyndale’s poetry or Jesus’ intentional wordplay, the Blessings promised on the mountain were solely blissful.
If I am meek, poor in spirit, mourning, merciful, or persecuted—if I possess all nine virtues of the souls to the left of the semi-colon—might from the weight alone of these emotionally saturated traits I ever feel weighed down, even if only from the artifact of their devotion? Just as Bloch reveals Mary’s descent into mourning before his son reaches to touch the redeeming butterfly, might Jesus have also wanted his disciples to know, before he figuratively turns over Brandon’s yellow cards to reveal to them his promise of bliss, that he understands, empathizes with, wishes to validate, and will soon relieve their pain?
The last time I prayed with the Kiwi-Chatelan family was in a hospital in Lausanne. Since I first knelt with them, Madame Kiwi (Lily) had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was in a very low state. As I held her hand at her hospital bed, she asked if I might pronounce upon her another blessing—my term—before she died. As I did so, using the correct verb this time, I felt a quiet prompting that the benediction was to call for being not “marked with blood” but instead promise the brightness of healing and recovery. So, that was her “blessing.” In language plain enough for her family to understand the full measure of God’s hope that she would soon return to them, je l’ai béni. A few days later, I left Switzerland for France and never saw Lily or her family family again.
After living in France for almost a year after leaving Switzerland, I ran into Paolo, who had accompanied me on several visits to the Kiwi-Chatelan family when I was living in Lausanne and, lastly, to the hospital. He had just come from Switzerland, and I asked him about Lily’s health. He told me that within days of our last visit, she made a full recovery from her illness.
“Her oncologist was promoted to head of the department by dint of the ‘miraculous’ reversal of her condition.”
Sadly, Paolo went on to say that due to the long-term effects of a blood-borne hepatitis infection caused by the hospital, Lily had recently passed away.
She was wounded, and God blessed her, injured, and God comforted her. Having been a witness to even a flake of her goodness, I can heartily second what Matthew might have attempted to convey in recording the blessed words of Jesus. Injured are the pure in heart: and they shall see God.
- If I know anything about Carl Bloch’s Sermon on the Mount (or about Bloch in general) it is from time richly spent with Dr. Mark Magleby, Director of the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. (You can read about his nimble mind in Mark’s Bookshelf.
- T. Shelton translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don-Quixote: Pt. 1 iii. p.173, 1612.
“That of the Battle..when they bless’d your Worship’s Cheek Teeth.”