Sacred artifacts and rituals

I had two unexpected spiritual experiences recently. I want to tell you the stories, but first I must provide a bit of background.

While I am still entirely Mormon, I’m not exactly a literal believer. I’m not going to be one of the people who get up in testimony meeting and tell everybody that they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Church is true (a remarkably vague statement, btw), and grab a tissue and dab away a tear. I don’t know, and I think that somehow this is the point. I doubt things, and I’m fine with that, because what is faith without doubt? Some of my issues go beyond doubts. Church authorities have said various things over various pulpits that I know are not true. I am perhaps a cheap seater, or maybe a new order Mormon. I’m a faithful skeptic, a doubting believer; this is why these spiritual experiences were so unexpected. I wasn’t expecting spiritual experiences in general.

With this background in place, I can tell you the first story. This happened a month or so ago. I had a big decision to make, a corresponding bushel of stress, and a Saturday afternoon to kill. I decided to go to the temple. I changed into my white clothes and wound my way up a spiral staircase and tried to center myself. I sat down in the chapel where some other people were already waiting for the session to start. I reached under the bench in front of me for a Book of Mormon, so I could think about a scripture that had recently been on my mind. I held the spine in my hand and was about to open the book when I suddenly noticed the yellowing of the edges of the pages, where thousands of thumbs had touched. I ran my thumb across the spot, and I was suddenly struck with a great sense of community, of continuity, of multiplicity. Look at how all these people before me have turned these pages, just like I am doing right now – and I was suddenly sure that they had found the comfort, the light, and the knowledge that they had sought, just like I had on so many occasions before. Those people are my people, their ways are my ways, and their book is my book.

The second story happened just today. I came to church as per usual. I sat down in my accustomed spot and sang a pair of commonplace hymns with reasonable gusto. I bowed my head as two of my friends knelt and said familiar words. I looked up and let my mind drift as I watched more of my friends carry the trays of broken bread around the chapel in the typical pattern. I was thinking of nothing in particular when suddenly I realized that I was feeling that feeling in my chest that characterizes for me a spiritual experience. It had stolen up on me unawares, while my mind was completely elsewhere, not thinking about anything religious in particular, and it turned an ordinary moment into something transcendent.

Stories like this are why, despite all my difficulties and doubts and concerns and disagreements, I still find myself in the community of Mormons.


Let me tell you a story: Doctrine, policy, and practice

So when I initially thought about this series of blog posts, I thought I was going to take a phenomenologist view and just recount the stories with minimal interpretive comment. Having thought about this some more, I’ve decided that a) I’m not sure it’s possible to tell stories that happened to you without introducing your interpretive framework and b) even if it is possible, it’s far less fun. Hence, the title of this post points toward the moral that I’d like you to draw from the story (which makes me no kind of phenomenologist, because phenomenologist don’t believe in stories having morals).

Once, when I was a zone leader (aside: I hate when stories start like this, because it sounds like braggadocio, but I promise it’s relevant here. Also, I know that it’s a mission story like a solid 78% of stories in Mormondom, but I promise it’s a good story), the assistants brought to zone leader council an idea for the restructuring of our multi-zone conferences. Previously we had had car inspections and training, a morning session of instruction, then lunch and an activity, then an afternoon session. The assistants proposed that we have no morning session, just the usual car training, followed by a brown-bag lunch and an extended afternoon session. The other zone leaders and I presented (I thought cogent) arguments against such a restructuring, but one of the assistants replied, “Well, will you pray about it? Because we have.”

The discussion ended then and there, because what do you say to that? What can you say? “Elder So-n-so, I refuse to believe that the Lord gave you revelation about when we should eat lunch at multi-zones”? I remember sitting back in my chair and seething because with these two sentences everyone’s concerns and counsel (and it’s not called zone leader council for nothing) were instantly quashed.

There are several morals I could draw from this story, but here’s the one I’m interested in right now. Sometimes we like to elevate practices to the status of doctrine (right, Professor Bott and/or Brigham Young?). This is on the whole a bad idea.  When we start speaking of practices as doctrine, frank discussion of such practices becomes socially inhibited. This chilling effect produces a sort of feedback, further elevating the perceived status of the practice and further inhibiting discussion, and suddenly we’ve institutionalized a thing that has no sound backing in the actual doctrines of the church. And then we start playing the eisegesis game, and then we get in real trouble.

Now, it’s true that (most) (good) policies and practices in fact have a foundation in the doctrine. However, some of them don’t, and these should be allowed to be the subjects of open and honest discussion about their validity going forward.

Let me tell you a story

Stories are incredibly powerful. They are the means by which we humans give structure and meaning to the sequences of events we experience. Accordingly, everyone is continually telling stories to themselves, and to everyone around them. (For instance, a little bug just flew past my desk lamp. That was a story.) I think that the ability to tell stories is perhaps the most important human faculty; without it, I think we would be forced to conclude that life is essentially arbitrary and meaningless, and this is not a world I’d like to live in.

Here’s an interesting question: Are stories true? This question is tricker than it appears, and there are several answers depending on what your philosophy looks like. Here are three possible answers:

If I put on my objectivist hat, I’d say that because there is an objective external reality, every story is either demonstrably true (when it agrees with reality) or demonstrably false (when it disagrees).

Alternatively, if I put on my constructivist hat, I’d scoff at the notion of an objective external reality. Instead, I’d tell you that the answer is always “yes,” because the story I tell myself is my reality; it is constitutive of reality as I experience it.

Finally, if I donned my phenomenologist hat, I’d tell you that in the strictest sense of the word “true,” we can’t answer the question. All we can do is tell the story – hopefully with as much detail as we can muster.

To this end, I’m beginning a new series of posts here, where in each post I tell you a story. Right now, I have two stories in particular I’d like to tell. I’ll do my best to tell you the truth, even though I believe this is impossible (I’m no objectivist). All I can really know is that the stories are true for me-here-and-now – and that’s enough to make them meaningful.

Hymns and stories

Today’s sacrament hymn was As Now We Take the Sacrament (lyrics by our own Elder Perry!). The third verse was particularly meaningful to me today. I want to tell two stories about why that is so; forgive me if the words get in the way of the stories.

The first few lines speak of the day’s blessings “linger[ing] in our thankful hearts,” reminding us of what we know but sometimes forget. The spirit that I feel during the administration of the sacrament is, for me, the best part about going to church, and the main reason I go every week. This feeling may not linger for the entire week, but I can remember, and look forward to its rekindling.

The second story began a week or so ago – you’ll pardon me if I’m fuzzy about the (somewhat personal) details. I was thinking about a thing that I wished could be a different way than it is, and how happy I would be if it was this other way. I got up from my desk and walked around, and suddenly I realized exactly why the thing is the way that it is, and what I personally stood to lose if it was the other way. Suddenly, with this increased understanding, it was okay that this thing is the way that it is, even if I sometimes wish it was not so.

The tension between the foregoing “okay” and “even if” is nontrivial. I think it has something to do with the sentiment expressed by the father of a stricken child in the New Testament: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” For the past week or so, then, I’ve been trying to find the best way to resolve this tension. That’s not entirely accurate; really, I know what the best way is, but I’m trying to find out what it looks like in my life. So, the next line in the hymn was particularly meaningful for me today: “silently we pray for courage to accept Thy will.” This sort of courage, more than anything, is what I think will help me resolve this tension. And I don’t think this tension is unique to me – it seems to me that lots of people will experience this sort of tension, this pull between a thing they want and another thing they want more.

Today, I felt like I gained a little bit of courage – enough, anyway, to say with Elder Perry:
“We love Thee, Lord; our hearts are full.
We’ll walk Thy chosen way” – even in our faithful unbelief.