Kelly Ga-Lei Gilbert · Beatitude

Background

Kelly Ga-Lei Gilbert is a native of the San Francisco Bay area. “Beatitude” is her first published story, written while a student at the University of California – San Diego. She writes about this story:

I have always been deeply compelled by stories that take place in high school, that junction between adolescence and adulthood. I wrote “Beatitude” as an exploration of a teenage girl who finds her faith at an intersection with the reality of her daily life—the sublime and the eternal at a crossroads with her high school relationships, youth group, her family life.

In writing this story I wanted to treat the narrator’s faith as neither fairy tale nor some sort of magical cure-all, but something with which she engages on a deep and complex level and something that, along with her race and family background, shapes who she is. I chose repetition of “once” and the many biblical references and passages to create a liturgical, incantatory tone, almost a confessional, that reflected the narrator’s internal monologue and her constant efforts to reconcile what she believes with the way she lives her life and perceives the world. Her tone falters slightly when she talks about Tyler, because in his ‘unbelief’ he forces her to consider, perhaps for the first time, some of the more devastating implications of what she has always believed.

I also wanted to make race an integral, if subtle, part of the story. The narrator gives only a short mention to her family’s background and immigration history, but the cultural expectations and environment surrounding her are very much a product of her race as well.

Beatitude

Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.

Once, before I was even formed in my mother’s womb, God knew and loved me; before I was born he set me apart to be consecrated for his purposes.

Once, when I was eight, I learned in Sunday School that no one knew the day or the hour that Christ would return to earth and so before I got out of bed each morning I used to say “I know Jesus will come back today” so that he wouldn’t.

Once, at an altar call after one especially moving Sunday service when I was twelve, I understood for the first time the magnitude of the sacrifice Christ had made for me and, accordingly, I pledged my submission to his will for my life.  I vowed that I would dedicate to Christ each relationship I ever forged, in the hopes that I could lead others to see and receive the same sacrifice and that I would thus prove myself worthy of my calling.

Once, with the consent of our youth pastor, I went out with Clay Fong.  It was for the eleven months that spanned the end of eighth grade and the first half of freshman year.  Clay was two years older, and the way he closed his eyes and lifted his hands during the more minor chords in worship, his boldness in sharing the Gospel, his steady devotion to church and family––and the way he managed to alloy those virtues with his invitingly crooked grins––made him something of an idol.  I was always slightly embarrassed at how the other girls coveted my status as his girlfriend.

Usually our dates were going to Fellowship or dinners or social nights together; sometimes we sat on opposite sides of his living room couch watching movies or we spent weekend afternoons window-shopping at the mall and holding hands.  When I was with him I wore cargo pants and high necklines, although occasionally, because his earnest chastisements evoked intimacy, I wore shirts around him that I’d never wear to church.  Clay kissed me after the Homecoming dance and it was disconcertingly aggressive, his tongue thrusting between my teeth and his hands grazing over and then past my hips.  The next day at church, cracking his knuckles and avoiding my eyes, he asked my forgiveness for having compromised my purity.  I forgave him.   We’d always been taught that our bodies were temples of the Holy Spirit, but I didn’t equate kissing with sex.

Once, I had a nightmare that I was pregnant with Jesus.

Once, I confessed to Clay that lately I’d been struggling to feel certain of God, that when I tried to find some resonant, compelling chord among all the verses and stories and passages I’d heard my whole life, it felt like sitting next to a fire and trying to piece together a puzzle made of ice.  He barely let me finish before delivering his imperative: Go talk to Pastor Don right away and get yourself straightened out.  I was irate.  After that I limited our conversations to the banal and in my diary I stopped punctuating everything I recorded about him with little hearts.  Still, I waited for him to break up with me; part of me loved him for his conviction.

Once, my friend Kim Cheng’s mom went in for a normal checkup and mentioned shyly to her doctor that she thought the shape of her breast had been changing.  He ordered a needle biopsy and several blood tests and when he called back two days later he was both apologetic and reproachful: she should have sought medical advice when she first noticed the change, because the cancer had already metastasized.

Someone made calls, and all our friends congregated at Diana Ling’s house to pray.  We enveloped Kim, our arms mingling around her and around one another in a fervent, imprecise embrace, and we prayed popcorn-style, meaning as the Spirit leads rather than in any predetermined order.  And for one crystalline moment while we prayed—however ephemeral, however ethereal—I could feel God, and I believed, and believe still, that he was there in our midst.

At the end of that week when Mrs. Cheng got a second opinion, she was told that her cancer had not, in fact, metastasized and that the tumor looked relatively manageable.  After a mastectomy and four months of intensive chemo her cancer went into complete remission.

Once, when I went to summer camp with my church, the girls’ craft for the week was embroidering miniature heart-shaped pillows.  The pattern we painstakingly stitched featured butterflies alighting on the verse Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.  It was the summer before my senior year, which was when I met Tyler.

Because our last names––Lin and Liu––fell together, Tyler was my lab partner in Bio AP.  The first time we met outside of class (ostensibly to finish a lab report) we talked for three hours, a conversation that didn’t cease to susurrate to some level of my consciousness the rest of that night.  Tyler was disarmingly transparent, and when he asked me about myself and I tried to give him the vague generalities I normally offered acquaintances he grinned, not fooled for an instant, and said dryly, “Hey, be just a little more guarded.”  I wasn’t used to his directness, nor the deftness with which he discussed sex and books and school and Cupertino and anger and God all in one brief, graceful interlude.  He was the first person from whom I ever heard the term agnostic.

Once, nervously, I showed him a poem I’d written, a sonnet that was supposed to be about doubt.  He read it and then in six minutes while I watched he rewrote my first stanza and his was vastly better: the rhyme was more exact and the rhythm more patient, the ideas amplified and distilled.Six minutes.  “Yeah, well,” he said, in answer to my abashed silence.  Then he grinned, a slow, lazy smile that kindled a telling color in my cheeks, and he said, “You’re easy like that.”

Once, in eighth grade, my Girls’ Small Group studied Philippians.  Our theme verse was I consider everything a loss compared to the all-surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  We talked about what we could give up for Christ’s sake and then fanned out across the sanctuary to emulate solitude and wrote lists that we sealed like time capsules in envelopes; these, we were told, would serve as barometers of our growth, and when we had spiritually matured we were to read and then rewrite our lists.  Four years later, after I’d grown close to Tyler and had begun to wonder to what purposes, exactly, I had been consecrated and how that fit in with him, I opened my envelope and in my bubbly eighth-grade handwriting were listed my non-Christian music, my non-Christian books, my spaghetti strap tops, my daydreams about certain boys who weren’t Clay, and my allowance.  I never made another list.

Once, when I was eleven, I woke up in the morning and my mother was gone and for the two excruciating hours before she returned, I thought the rapture had happened and that I’d been left behind because I wasn’t really saved.

Once, a year after we’d prayed for Kim’s mother, I tried to describe it to Tyler—our assurance that God was present, our quiet joy at the eventual, and almost expected, healing––and he shrugged.  “Doctors misdiagnose all the time,” he said, and that was all.

Once, shortly after that, I wondered why God hadn’t just stopped her from getting cancer in the first place.

Once, I made an unconscious habit of praying for things I knew I would receive.  I prayed that I wouldn’t go hungry, that my mother wouldn’t remarry, that I would wake up in the morning. The Lord answered each one.

Once, Tyler came over late at night to prep for an in-class essay but instead he told me his full story, the one that revealed to me the reason God had brought him into my life.  After the Silicon Valley dot-com crash his parents had returned to Taiwan temporarily to work and, as California’s job market remained stagnant, their expected month had turned into a year, and then two.  Meanwhile Tyler raised his ten-year-old twin siblings, Alex and Megan: he was the one who debated the morality behind letting them skip school when he knew they weren’t really sick, who fielded their questions about what happens to people when they die and what it means to be a family, the one who sacrificed himself daily for the dual sakes of love and duty.  When he told me, I was floored, and from then on I irrevocably—and rather unrequitedly—allied myself with him.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but Tyler was a truer representation of righteousness than anyone else I knew.

Once, in seventh grade Social Studies we watched Spartacus and the crucifixion scene at the end tormented me for weeks.

Once, after the Easter service at my church when I was thirteen, I tried to drive thumbtacks into my palms because I didn’t want Jesus to think that I took his sacrifice lightly.  But as soon as I drew blood I started remembering a Discovery Channel special that I’d seen on tetanus.  I went and found Neosporin and a band-aid instead.

Once, Clay confronted me after Friday Night Fellowship while Jen Chin was arranging rides for a boba run.   Tyler had given me books to read, Nietzsche and Camus and Rand and Sartre and—to be fair, he said—Kierkegaard, and so for the past three weeks I’d been immersed in and seduced by the substance and the deviance and the unflaggingly human quality of their ideas.  Clay had been reading the thoughts I posted on my Xanga, and he was concerned.

“You know how FBI agents learn to spot counterfeit bills?” he demanded.  “You think they try to find every single counterfeit they can and try to learn all the tricks?  Of course not.  They spend all their time studying the real thing.”

Once, my grandmother was Buddhist.  But that was when it was still considered vital to social mobility to be Americanized, and when she immigrated to Chinatown in 1938 the district missionaries won her over with their combined English/Bible classes.

Once, because of the way the Cantonese word we used for God translates, I thought God was literally an emperor, and until I was seven or eight I thought Jesus was Chinese.

Once, even though I knew it was a sin, I prayed to my dead grandmother.

Once, God guided the Israelites through the desert by creating for them a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and once he spoke to Moses through a burning bush.  I learned the stories from bright felt cutout characters in Sunday School.

Once, after reading about the golden calf, I used to tell myself that I would have exercised far greater fidelity to God and to his tenets than the Israelites did.

Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy.

Once, at a youth convention I attended halfway through senior year, ushers distributed rubber wristbands the color of traffic cones with the words his life, not mine embossed on them and the speaker, whose skin was slick under the spotlights and whose voice had gone hoarse twenty minutes into the program, yelled, “Who’s ready to take a stand for Christ?  Do it right here, young people.  Do it tonight.”  And everyone who was ready was supposed to stand, ceremoniously, in commitment; the wristbands were a tactile reminder that we were called to lose our lives to save them.  I stood along with everyone else and repeated the vows the speaker shouted into his microphone, and I remembered Tyler telling me that he believed organized religion is opiate for the masses.  When I got home I threw my band away, and for four or five Sundays afterward I felt so guilty that I abstained from taking communion.

Once, Tyler accompanied me to church and while he sat next to me, his expression inscrutable, I was hyperconscious of every minute detail of the service.  The sermon that week was on Jesus’ teaching on money and the text was sell all your possessions and give what you have to the poor and come, follow me.  I thought about the diamond cross necklace I wore and my ninety-dollar leather-bound Bible that had been a baptism gift from my mother.  After the service Tyler said, “So?”

“So?” I repeated.

“So,” he said, his eyebrows raised, “You do that?”  And I had to tell him no.

Once, without telling anyone, I went to a confessional at a Catholic church and afterward I doubled the amount of Hail Marys I was prescribed.

Once, God told his prophet Hosea to take for himself an adulterous wife.  When she was unfaithful to her husband God told Hosea to pursue her, and so he went and bought her back from the man she had lain with.

Once, I allowed myself to imagine marrying Tyler.  I envisioned nights where I’d make dinner and over the meal we’d talk about all the things I’d always wanted to, and yet in many ways conversation would be superfluous.  I would be gentle and submissive and feminine and as such, I would win him over to the Lord.

Once, Tyler told me he hadn’t turned in math homework for the past two and a half weeks because the twins had been unusually demanding; he was afraid he would fail the class.  I said, “You can’t do this on your own, Tyler,” and he looked sideways at me, tired, and said, “Don’t.”

Once—in fact more than once—I allowed myself to imagine Tyler as the rich man in hell who cursed his earthly stubbornness and begged of God the chance to return to the earth to warn his loved ones of his unrelenting agony.

Sometimes I would ask Tyler about his family when his mood courted reticence, or I would offer prayer despite knowing he didn’t fully condone the act.  He always saw through me and he would raise his eyebrows, saying nothing––his reproaches were implicit, and the times they were obscured, I would work at deciphering them; he knew that.  So once, when I confessed to him how utterly devastated I was by the knowledge that he would die without redemption and without grace––I couldn’t pray for anything else, I told him; lately I’d been besieged by such crippling panic attacks that my physician had begun recommending Xanax—he made a violent, impatient gesture with his hands and said I was a fucking idiot, and I wasn’t entirely surprised.

Once, the Lord allowed everything Job had—even Job’s children—to be taken from him.

Once, near the end of our senior year, Tyler called me at three in the morning, desperate.He told me that earlier that day Alex, with a ten-year-old’s scornful machismo, had spurned Tyler’s order to wear a helmet and when he fell off his bike he broke his nose, split his lip completely in half and shattered four teeth.  At the sight of him Megan went eerily silent, her eyes like little lakes, and even after they got home from the hospital five hours later she wouldn’t speak, or couldn’t.  Alex was groggy and disoriented from the blood loss and the Vicodin, so Tyler put both twins to bed.  Once they were asleep he went and sat in his car, and there he finally allowed all the horrible things he’d long kept festering to surface: he dreamed of starting the car and backing out of the driveway and disappearing along the highway somewhere; he fantasized about letting the twins fend for themselves and forcing his parents to move back.  He dreamed of turning on the ignition and letting the exhaust seep into the garage and into his lungs.  After that, he told me, he had wept until what felt like morning.

I told him that I was sorry, and that I’d pray, and that if there was anything I could do I wanted to do it.  If words weren’t so impotent I would be a better person.

He wasn’t at school the next day.  I failed a math quiz; I ditched the rest of my classes to hold a private vigil in my bedroom.  The school called my mother, and after that I wasn’t allowed out of the house except for school or church functions.

That night I called Social Services.  I told myself that even if my intervention somehow made things worse for him, the fact that I cared would be enough.  It wasn’t.  The next time I tried to talk to him he spoke emotionlessly, precisely, without inflection and without any acknowledgement of the past year we’d known each other, and when I frantically tried to apologize he said that I had acted out of immeasurable selfishness.  I deserved that from him, so I said nothing.I have always felt more at home in justice than in grace.

Once, when for a long time the only contact Tyler and I had had was a few cool exchanges that he deliberately truncated, leaving jagged sinewy remains of dialogue that I never quite managed to bury, I made a primer of all the new ways in which I’d learned absence.  It was comprised of the hollowness I felt each time his gaze glanced off me and then dropped away; the gradual realization that there was nothing more I could do for him and that, even if there were, he’d forsake it nonetheless; this new intimacy with regret.  And I thought that on a greater level this—the emptiness, the contrast between what I had and what I could’ve had—was something near what hell must feel like.

Once I was alienated from God and was an enemy in my mind because of my evil behavior.

Once, I heard someone speak in tongues and it felt like a thousand nails pricking my skin.

And once, after everything, just over a month after Tyler stopped answering my calls and responding to my emails, I implored God, who is omniscient and omnipotent, who is slow to anger and abounding in love and who desires all men to come to a saving knowledge of the truth, to ever so slightly alter the course upon which he’d balanced the universe.  What I prayed was that I could sacrifice my own salvation for Tyler’s: that I could be cursed and cut off for his sake, that somehow I instead of he could bear that which would surely befall him, just as Paul longed to do for his people and just as Christ did for me.

Once, Daniel was thrown into a den of ravenous lions and because he prayed, the Lord protected him from any harm.

Once, because Abraham pleaded with the Lord, the Lord promised to spare Sodom from destruction for the sake of only ten righteous men.

Once, Peter walked on water.

Once, two thousand years ago in Israel, a virgin girl was visited by an angel in a dream and the girl learned that she would conceive a child.  And that child would perform great miracles and then out of perfect love would die on a cross to save the world, so that none should perish but would have eternal life.

Once, the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it, in the hope that the creation itself would be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Analysis

One of the most challenging themes to address in the classroom is religious faith. While many fiction writers approach questions of faith metaphorically, Kelly Ga-Lei Gilbert’s story “Beatitude” offers an opportunity to explore more directly the role that faith can play in shaping the consciousness of a teenage girl struggling to make sense of desire, racial identity, and the complex demands of adult life. One might pair this story with Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” to examine two very different fictional approaches to questions of faith and salvation.

The story’s first paragraph catches our attention with a confession as strange and elusive as anything in John Donne’s religious poetry: the speaker admits to an unnamed sin and tells us of her own death, but in a voice of innocence and an intelligence that’s very much alive. She asks us to comprehend a spiritual mystery: how can one die and yet live on, or be innocent of your own sinfulness until the moment when the law is spoken and so creates the sin? The story is structured as a ritual of confession, but spoken in a voice filled with irony and doubt. One might see these opening paragraphs as a progress of the soul: the sin our narrator confesses in that first paragraph is original sin, and the death she suffers is the knowledge of sinfulness that her uncompromising faith imposes. By this doctrine, we die long before we’re born, and the task of our life is to be reborn by faith. But how does a young girl, struggling with her identity, her sexuality, and her complicated racial identity, make sense of these mysteries?

In the second paragraph, the speaker recites the faith she’s been taught: “Once, before I was even formed in my mother’s womb, God knew and loved me; before I was born he set me apart to be consecrated for his purposes.” This is the promise of spiritual election that her faith offers to balance the awareness of sin, but the sense of a soul divided between sin and faith will frame her life and give the story its two distinct voices. And in the third paragraph, her humanity emerges like a bitter punch line: when she was a child, she reveals, the faith to which she longs to submit was really a source of terror, and she created her own rituals to avert the miracle for which she’d been taught to pray.

The speaker is torn between these two impulses and speaks in these two voices throughout the story: she wants to believe, to submit to the language of faith, but she can’t escape from her own humanity. In this sense, it’s a story about the innocence of desire, both erotic and spiritual. The story’s repetition – that recurring “Once” – gives this conflict a scriptural tone but also reminds us that we’re looking back with an adult sense of irony at the loss of that innocence:

Once, I made an unconscious habit of praying for things I knew I would receive. I prayed that I wouldn’t go hungry, that my mother wouldn’t remarry, that I would wake up in the morning. The Lord answered each one.

One of the story’s most surprising moves comes in the final paragraphs, where the first-person narrator vanishes altogether, and we’re left only with expressions of faith. One might read that moment as the narrator’s act of self-sacrifice offered up for her boyfriend’s salvation, as if by surrendering herself to faith, the narrator can will that promise of salvation to be real. The resolution isn’t narrated, but enacted. Yet the last paragraph reminds us that faith can’t be willed: the narrator remains suspended between frustration and the promise of “the glorious freedom of the Children of God.” While it is hard not to see that phrase as deeply ironic, given the narrator’s struggle to force her mind to conform to her faith, this conclusion suggests that the narrator cannot give up on the promise of salvation any more than she can give up on love.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe the voice of this story? How old is the speaker? How does she view her experience of faith as a child?
  2. What is the effect of repetition in the story? How does the author’s decision to begin many paragraphs with the same word – “Once” – shape the story’s tone? How does that tone change as the story moves from describing religious faith to the speaker’s daily experience of life as a child and teenager?
  3. In paragraph eight, the speaker tells her first boyfriend, Clay, that she has been “struggling to feel certain of God,” and describes her search for “some resonant, compelling chord among all the verses and stories and passages I’d heard my whole life” as “like sitting next to a fire and trying to piece together a puzzle made of ice.” How does the story reflect this struggle for certainty? What is the relationship of scriptural language to the narrator’s personal voice?
  4. In paragraph 15, the narrator describes listing all the things she could give up for faith. When she reads the list some years later, she sees these vows differently and says “I never made another list.” Could this story be seen as such a list? If so, what might that suggest about the narrator’s state of mind at the time she writes this story?
  5. How should we understand the narrator’s “unconscious habit of praying for things I knew I would receive” in paragraph 19? What is here tone in the final sentence of that paragraph? (“The Lord answered each one.”) What might this suggest about her changing attitude toward her faith?
  6. What does Clay mean by his warning about how FBI agents learn to spot counterfeit bills? How might this warning reflect on her interest in “the unflaggingly human quality” of the philosophers she has begun to read, or her fascination with Tyler? How might it relate to the way she narrates her struggle with faith and humanity?
  7. What role does the narrator’s racial identity and family history play in her faith? How does this complex family history complicate her struggle with faith and her attempts to shape an adult identity?
  8. Should we agree that the narrator’s act of calling Social Services represents a betrayal of Tyler? What does she mean by saying “I have always felt more at home in justice than in grace?”
  9. Why does the tone of the story change in the final paragraphs? How might this return to the language of faith provide a resolution to the narrative about her relationship with Tyler? What “sacrifice” does the narrator perform for Tyler?
  10. The story’s final paragraph is split between a feeling of frustration and “the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Given the narrator’s struggle with her faith throughout the story, does the story seem to be more about frustration or freedom? Is it possible to find freedom within frustration? How might that paradox express the narrator’s state of mind at the story’s conclusion?

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