Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Borderlands marks a place of intersection, a liminal space where roads end but new paths begin, where [new] horizons reveal themselves but also where collisions do us harm. I'm a believing, practicing Mormon, and Mormonism is at its most essential a religion that preaches literally endless human possibilities, eternal progression, and growth. But we Mormons face tremendous pressure to conform, to fit in, to obey, to define ourselves in certain quite limited ways. It is, for many, a religious culture of public orthodoxy and quietly whispered rebellion. And so we carve out spaces for ourselves, and we meet in those spaces, and we come out to each other. We come out. Sunstone Magazine is one such space, where we brave the borderlands––this play came in part from reading back issues of Sunstone.

But where to set it? And then I thought of a used car lot, the one commercial space in American culture where prices are contingent; the one place we still bargain. The very act of car buying is also liminal, but also sort of sleazy: the game of salesmanship, the give and take, the creating of quickly disposable narratives strikes me as quintessentially and disreputably American. Cars represent the transcendent open road of Kerouac and Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. And Dale Earnhardt: go to any Christian bookstore in the South or Midwest, and see the two big displays on competing tables: the vulgar eschatology of Left Behind, and Dale Earnhardt––prints of him being raptured out of this wrecked #3 car. Cars represent mobility and portability and of course the possibility of instant death. And freedom, and life.

So I wrote a play about coming out, about cars and salesmanship, about death and God and sexual desire. And a space, perhaps a mini-van, where we dare to tell ourselves the truth, and where we are appalled to find how little it sets us free.

The foregoing is from the introduction to BYU professor Eric Samuelsen's new play, Borderlands, published in the March 2011 edition of Sunstone Magazine. Get yourself a copy of this play, Gentle Reader. You won't regret it. It's one of the best pieces of Mormon-themed art I've read in a long while.

The premier production of the play, by Salt Lake City's Plan-B Theatre Company, just closed this month, after being forced to extend the run another week to meet the demand created by rave reviews.

Samuelsen continues to be humane, insightful, and a force to be reckoned with.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday

The following is from an early Christian sermon, the text actually pre-dates much of the New Testament:

Something strange is happening––there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: 'My Lord be with you all.' Christ answered him: 'And with your spirit.' He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: 'Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.'

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, Whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on My Face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once ... stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. ... My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in Hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise. Let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: VI

This is Part VI. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.


Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua... [9]

Vespers begins to wind down, though you might just as well say it approaches the climax, as the brothers sing the doxology and antiphon to the final psalm. The Psalms are generally less familiar to Latter-day Saints. We don’t do much with them. In our Sunday School classes they get a grand total of an hour every four years, and it’s a shame. They are a bit wilder than our usual devotional fare, calling on God to pour out judgment on enemies, sometimes even railing at the Lord. Threaded through the lodes of hope and faith there are fine veins of anger and despair. The Psalms, in short, are emphatically not “correlated.” They have a certain emotional heft and gravitas, they bluntly admit to a messy spiritual reality I feel I could never share over a pulpit. That kind of thing just isn’t done; doubts are to be kept on their shelves in the back until they’ve been resolved, at which point we can bring them out, floating in their sealed and labeled jars, showing them briefly to illustrate a point in a talk or lesson. (It’s the confessional grille again though, isn’t it? It is alienating to see these displays, and know that back at your house the little bastards are still armed with teeth and spines and slow venom.) Perhaps this is why we do not engage the Psalms more fully, resistant as they are to the tidy endings and reliable deus ex machina resolutions we like.

When I began learning psalm chant, I was surprised by the sensation of joining in something larger than myself, even if I was singing alone. I think it was (at least partly) the effect of the unflinching honesty, like the rough hands and lined faces that tell the story of those who daily turned their backs on the rising sun and scorched a trail across a continent. You almost feel like you’ve jumped into a river of prayer that has cascaded down the craggy rockface of centuries. Never is that feeling keener than during the Lord’s Prayer.

While always familiar, I actually only memorized the words of the prayer as a fourteen-year-old. Every summer, my grandparents would hold what they termed a “Mini MTC.” All the grandsons between the ages of 14 and 18 were invited for two weeks of scripture study, farm labor, basic music lessons, talk preparation, Grandma’s home cooking, a little fishing, and the attendant insanity of a herd of teen boys under one roof. I will never understand what possessed two otherwise sane individuals, who had already raised and married-off ten children, who had each served missions in their youth and then two more as a couple, to decide that this was just what they needed to spice their golden years. It must have been a logistical nightmare, and an utterly exhausting ordeal for both of them. And that’s only considering the official schedule; rest assured, there was a whole other list of unsanctioned activities that we engaged in with equal enthusiasm. (One year, eight of us nearly drowned––long story––to say nothing of the eyes and digits we ought to have lost pursuing our aggressive, and fairly successful, firework-cannibalizing/bomb-crafting program.) When we weren’t busy making ourselves generally uninsurable, we also memorized a number of scriptures, among them, the Lord’s Prayer. After those summer sessions, I never really thought much about it much. I certainly did not use it in my personal prayer life.

Now, though, there is something moving about saying the same words that have been formed by so many lips, words passed from parent to child, words whispered at deathbeds, at burials, at weddings, at births. The same words in a thousand different languages, repeated in time of joy or sorrow, in the face of fear or with gratitude for averted disaster, or just to count away the minutes. Words of a long-gone Jewish mystic, or of God Himself, history buzzes with them. When wondering at the Restoration, puzzled by why, of all the searching souls in the world, this uneducated fourteen-year-old should have his (not uncommon) question answered with light and fire, I think perhaps it was also an answer to the billion pleas: “...thy kingdom come...” Even more encouraging, at the beginning of the prayer we find that in spite of all our weakness, in spite of the evil we commit and the evil we allow, Christ is still willing to say with us “Our Father...”

The whole atonement in two words.


[9] “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done...”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: V

This is Part V. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.


“Cristo ... brucia e trasforma il male ... nel fuoco del suo amore sofferente.” [8]

José had called the missionaries before the murders, telling them they were not welcome in his home anymore; he did not want them to come back. Newspapers later reported that his motive was jealousy of the time his wife devoted to the church. These descriptions, and what came after, still make no sense to me. I had been in their home, shared meals with them. With my questionable Spanish and Tiago’s occasional translation we were able to communicate pretty well, though there was frequent confusion and laughter. We saw them together at church meetings, peeking into the room where the elders in the Portuguese program taught their Sunday school class. José was fair haired and worked as a carpenter, bringing to mind occasional comparisons with Jesus that I never did say aloud. During the visit I used to wish I could forget, he had become wistful about his home, tearing up while showing us a video of his mom and the house he’d grown up in before coming to the States. He served us a jelly-like candy he had received in a care package, made––I think––from guava. Cutting translucent wedges out of the soft, dark wheel in the green tin, it was too sweet for me, but seemed to match the exotic flora surrounding the tilled fields of his native soil visible on the television screen.

When we left later that evening, I felt what had become, if not common, then at least familiar during the past year. Talks and discussions of Mormon missionary service frequently mention “loving the people,” which sounds like a general feeling of warmth for the segment of humanity you live with and attempt to talk to for two years. But that isn’t true. At least it wasn’t for me. You don’t love “the people,” you love Matt and Beatrice and Joshua, and worry and hope that the ward will be good to them when you’ve gone. You love Elder Robson both for splurging to go halvsies with you on a proper tree to decorate, and for that strange episode when you dissected the baseball together. (And for deciding that you would accompany him in a guitar/piano hymn improvisation for Zone Conference––which rocked, by the way. And for spending fully half of your MSF one month on parking tickets.) You love Elder Paulsen for eating balut with you which nobody had said needed to be cooked, and for not being vindictive when, after choking them down raw, he got so sick and you didn’t. You love Margie, the less-active sister who was always bubbly and sweet, and also completely out of her mind. You love Gary and Susan and wish they would figure out prayer. Much later, you’ll learn that you still haven’t figured out prayer, and feel a belated sense of sympathy, and hope that someday they’ll forgive you for all your impatience and certainty and immaturity. You love Brother and Sister Blanco for their perpetual kindness and for that amazing Christmas dinner that made you forget the waves of homesickness you believed you would drown under. You love a hundred faces you can no longer put a name to, even though you prayed for them and ached for them until you thought that you had finally run out of places inside that could hurt; a hundred men and women who opened up a sliver of their lives to you. And, God help you, you love José––who wept for his home, as you had––who got up morning after morning, took his tool-belt and his hammer to try to build a new life for his family––who, one day, by only two brutal strokes with the same hammer, shattered that life forever––who turned himself in the same night, cradling his baby son, hands and clothing still wet with blood.


[8] “Christ ... burns and transforms evil ... in the fire of his suffering love.” Homily of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 18 April 2005.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: IV

This is Part IV. Read Part I, Part II, and Part III.


Iuste iudex ultionis, Donum fac remissionis Ante diem rationis. [6]

The sun is bright for the graveside service, and most of us are melting. Beneath the layers of cotton and wool, my body attempts––unsuccessfully––to cool itself. Whatever heavenly engineer thought up the idea of perspiration must not have considered the effects of high-humidity. The discomfort is not entirely bad though. Like attending a Portuguese Mass with my Spanish-speaking ears, it has a certain blunting effect. I make brief eye-contact with some of the familiar faces around me; a few offer wan smiles. Several of us are surprised that the graves will not be dedicated, but the cemetery is owned by the parish. Their turf, their rules. A brother tells me in a near whisper that the dedication will happen later, very discreetly. The revelation is strangely (and inappropriately) amusing. There is something gothic and Van Helsing-esque about the thought of this genial, balding elder’s quorum member breaking into a graveyard to exercise his ninja priesthood in the dead of night, dispatching a zombie for good measure on the way to a home teaching appointment. Like sawdust on running water, the crowd moves away en masse, slowly separating into smaller and smaller companies. One of the more gregarious young women (her dad used to be our ward mission leader) greets me and Elder Latu, and we talk for a moment. All I can remember now is her confidence that God would mete out justice, and the hard set to her jaw and the gun-metal glint in her eye that this conviction gave her. She is probably right, but the thought is not comforting. Despite the heat, something inside feels cold.

Soon we are alone in the car; Elder Latu and I are quiet. The lull seems to dilate until I have to turn the key in the ignition, if only to forestall the hard thoughts, cauled and bloody, that would have been delivered of our silence. The streets here are always under construction. Cold, wet winters and hot, wet summers are hard on asphalt, keeping it in a perpetual state of crumbling disrepair. This, in turn, results in motorists with formidable skills when it comes to high-speed pothole slalom. Worse––for me at any rate, born with no directional sense whatsoever––is the fact that the foundations for the area’s city planning were laid down by cattle, who, even by bovine standards, were more than usually inept at civil engineering. Water and salt trails became major roadways, and then men, infelicitously touched by the same muse that guided their four-legged predecessors, filled in all the gaps with snarled ribbons of brick and pavement worthy of Gordias. (The only practical Alexandrine solution would involve mushroom clouds.) Slowly I realize that I have not been driving aimlessly. Making the few final, familiar turns, we pull in front of Father Simon’s house.

I had first met him as a result of a missionary set-up. An Elder called me one day during lunch to pass along a “referral.” At the appointed hour, we showed up and knocked on the front door of a handsome home in an older area of town. During the past several years, the neighborhood had begun to attract immigrant workers; one building on the street was little better than a flophouse, crammed to the rafters with many who wanted to send the largest possible share of their earnings to foreign family members. Simon’s house, however, retained much of the air it had exuded since its construction in the 1930s––wide pillared porch, white clapboard siding, double front door. We were soon greeted by a man a few inches shorter than myself, with close-trimmed dark hair salted with grey. He invited us in and offered glasses of glacially cold water, which we accepted gratefully, the insistence of thirst overruling the aching objection of teeth. Chitchat soon dispensed with, (they had ceased calling it “BRT-ing” by this time, and we had discarded [read: ritually incinerated] our copies of The Missionary Guide [7]) we prepared to move in for the kill, when Simon unexpectedly asked us if we’d like to see “the chapel.” Tinkling cymbals of alarm began to sound in my head. Following my companion, I ascended the pleasantly creaky staircase to the upper floor and we were soon ushered into a room dominated by a large white and blue altar with a carved “IHS” on the front picked out in gold. Framed stained glass (reclaimed from a renovated church) hung just inside the sash windows, splashing color on the wall opposite and on a small electric organ. There was a single pew, a crowned two-foot sculpture of Our Lady (much nicer than the ubiquitous examples in backyard shrines), and a small picture of our host. Danger, Will Robinson! Looking closer at the little photo, I could see he was wearing a roman collar... greeting a man who looked suspiciously like... the Pope. (Honestly, who else wears a white zucchetto?) Mayday, mayday! Abort!

Well, we soon laughed, and then finished a very pleasant visit admiring the lovely San Damiano-style cross which a friend had painted for him. So began the most important friendship of my life.

Looking at the house now, I feel something I am not able to fit a name to until much later: sanctuary. The Catholic (and particularly monastic) emphasis on the virtue of hospitality is one area for which I feel Stendahl’s notion of “holy envy” most keenly. That is not to suggest that the Latter-day Saints are inhospitable, but the open and unquestioning reception I have experienced when meeting Catholics called to the consecrated life feels like being blessed, like grace––holy as clasped hands and words breathed through woven white, commonplace and restorative as the smell of the bread Mom used to make in enormous sixteen-loaf batches that left every available surface covered with the steaming, butter-brushed mounds. We climb out of the car and knock on the front door, praying that he’s at home. He is, and invites us in. Soon ensconced in the same kitchen chairs with the same icy water I remember, we talk a little. He asks about the funeral, admitting some surprise that our ward mission leader gave the eulogy (technically not part of a Requiem Mass) reading words from the family members, scrawled on a creased and blotched scrap of paper. After a few moments of quiet, Simon tells us, gently, about some of the comments that have been making the rounds on the Portuguese Christian radio programs, how preachers have suggested that the whole tragedy could have been averted if Marta had remained where the Bible says she should have been: at home, in subjection to her husband.

The little ball of cold I felt earlier uncurls and stretches. Deep in the pit of my stomach its limbs reach and, finding purchase, dig in. My visitor is here for the long-haul, putting down roots. I am colonized.


[6] “Just judge of revenge, give the gift of remission before the day of reckoning.” From the sequence of the Requiem Mass.

[7] A more loathsome document I have rarely had the misfortune to read. Those who will never be forced to use it cannot understand why, for me and some of my companions, the term “more effective” raises hackles to this day. In the MTC we quickly discovered a foolproof method for identifying which of the canned series of responses to a given hypothetical situation was deemed the best: it was the one that made you most wish to knee the speaker in the groin. Every. Damn. Time.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: III

This is Part III. Read Part I and Part II.


Dies illa, dies iræ, calamitatis et miseriæ, dies magna et amara valde. [5]

I cannot stop looking at my watch, even though I know we’ll get there in plenty of time. It also seems that I have forgotten how to knot a necktie and must make a third attempt. This one doesn’t see much use, which is probably why I can’t get the length right, but it is the closest thing I have to plain black. The red paisleys are so tiny they look just like spots if you’re a few paces away. The telephone conversation of three or four days ago plays on a loop in my skull.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, Elder, but Marta’s husband, José, killed her and Tiago last night. We don’t know why. I’m sorry, Elder.” Pres. Lawson must have been speaking a foreign language, because I didn’t understand a word. While still trying to extract some meaning from those incomprehensible sounds, my autopilot whirred into action. I hung up and found the address and time for the funeral on the inside cover of my planner. It looked like my handwriting, but I couldn’t be sure.

I think it was a Tuesday, because Elder Latu drove us to the library to update the forms for that week’s correlation and Ward Council meetings. He went to work silently and completed everything, almost never asking for my input. He was good at reading people, and I was never more grateful for his instincts. I decided that a double homicide must be newsworthy, and so began to look up local newspapers online. Writing that sounds morbid, but the situation felt so unreal that I needed something solid, something like an anchor. It is tempting to think of this as a part of the “denial” stage in the grieving process, but it wasn’t that at all. It was just bewilderment. It felt similar to those moments while doing homework late at night, when a perfectly common word begins to look misspelled. You try to say the word aloud, thinking that will help the meaning and its symbols to coalesce, but they have become unstuck, and the idea, the sounds, and the little dark shapes on the page seem completely, disconcertingly unrelated.

Now, a few days later, the confusion has given way to numbness. Finally getting the tie length correct, I pull on the jacket of my borrowed suit. My father had it made on his mission in the Netherlands. It has worn remarkably well, but it seems strange that it should fit me. Dad is a couple inches taller than I am, but that really isn’t it. He is just so... big, somehow. It doesn’t matter how old I get, I think that I’ll always feel two feet tall in comparison. In this situation, he would know just what to do and say. He would exude, as he always does, a sense of solidity, sturdiness, shoulders squared to bear whatever burdens life presents. Though we disagree on occasion, sometimes profoundly, I have never been able to understand or sympathize when a peer has said, “My dad’s such an idiot,” or something similar. Don’t misunderstand––their dad may very well have been an idiot––I just don’t know what it feels like to think that. It is possible to be angry with my father, but dismissing him is inconceivable. And today, in many ways, I wish he were going to this funeral in my place. Years back, one of his seminary students killed himself; Dad gave the eulogy. An elderly woman in our stake later requested that he give hers as well, several years before she passed away. My funeral participation has been limited to singing, which is fine. I can believe there might be value in trying to infuse tragedy and suffering with a moment of beauty (though you cannot escape some degree of aloofness or artificiality in this; when a singer is moved to real tears, the result is maudlin at best, and an embarrassing, snot-streaked spectacle at worst). When it really works, the singer’s role is somewhat angelic––a brief moment of brightness, ephemeral but leaving hope in its wake. But no matter how nice the song, it cannot do what my dad can: remind us that there is still dirt under our feet, a sky over our heads, and a sun that will rise in the morning; make us feel safe. And in the aftershock of such incomprehensible brutality, that’s what they need to feel––God knows it’s what I need to feel.

Hours later, we make an odd little group, dark suits and nametags in a neat row, in a church with rather unfortunate 70’s styling. (Imagine the MTC with an A-frame roof, and semi-abstract stained glass.) They will have a Catholic funeral because of their extended family, but Marta and Tiago had been Mormon for years. Watching the caskets process toward the front of the church, I am glad that the service will be in Portuguese. I will be able to follow it generally, but there will be a slight language barrier, making everything (I hope) a bit misty, blurring the edges. The worst for me is noticing the surprisingly small dimensions of the second coffin. An eleven-year-old seems to take up much more space when alive. He is carried by some members of the deacon’s quorum he would have joined in a few weeks. It looks like nothing so much as a broken promise; I suppose the death of any child should look the same. Following Pres. Lawson’s lead, we stand and sit with the rest of the congregants, but eschew the kneelers. Sitting (sometimes kneeling) next to me is a man with rough hands in a t-shirt and ripped jeans. Somehow, he doesn’t look out of place––more importantly, he doesn’t look like he feels out of place. He reminds me a little of Sister Z from my first area, who wore slacks to church. The similarity, though, is not in their mild sartorial rebellion. I am sure that caring for her severely handicapped daughter was draining––imagine a young toddler in the body of a thirty-year-old––but when she would laugh and clap or blow bubbles, Sister Z’s face was suffused with a fierce joy, like she had bottled sunshine inside her. During the funeral mass, when it comes time to make the sign of peace, my rough-around-the-edges pew mate takes my hand and smiles in just the same way. It is bright.

I look away first.


[5] “That day, day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness...” From the responsory of the Requiem Mass.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: II

This is Part II. Read Part I here.


Domine labia mea aperies et os meum adnuntiabit laudem tuam. [2]

The sun isn’t quite down yet, but the placement of the windows keeps it dim in the little annex off the cloister. If you lean forward and look right, you can see the white-hooded brothers seated in the choir stalls. It doesn’t seem dusty, but the light that enters the nave has a misty, opal quality, which I can only assume is caused by the glowing shafts’ catching on motes that drift and sail on the viscosity of the air. There is an added amber hue of burning candles, some flickering on nearby stands. The only artificial light is supplied by a few spots focused on the large polychrome crucifix suspended above the altar’s bulk of concrete and masonry. He looks almost like Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross, floating impossibly in the void.

Visitors are not invited to join in the chanting. A bit disappointing to me, still fresh with a newly-acquired fluency at reading gregorian neumes, but understandable: the cloister is defined by rules as much as by gates and rails and discreet, painted signs. So we listen, borne upon the slow undulations of their prayer. Most of the buildings are brick, yet manage to suggest the austere nobility typical of old-world Cistercian monuments, temples as sere and still and pale as I imagine their builders must have been.

The air is deliciously cool here, and feels more so in contrast to the sticky heat outside. We had walked about the grounds talking, listening for the bells to announce vespers, and now in the quiet I begin to nod off. Chin dropping like it used to sometimes while teaching discussions that first summer in an endless succession of slummy neighborhoods. (We call them “lessons” now, don’t we?) The guilt is a different flavor though. I am being a bad guest. Father Simon didn’t drive us all this way so I could take a nap, but he’ll never say a word about it even if he is offended. Three years earlier, my companion would have elbowed me in the ribs and then laughed on the way back to the apartment. The guilt then was more focused, shrill almost, and it seemed to emanate from the dark plastic of my nametag and the small stapled handbook in the pocket behind it. I don’t think I was alone in that feeling. Why else would my first pair of Zone Leaders have been so adept at that little thumb-flick that sent the tags flipping over their shoulders to land at the back of their truck cab? They used to execute the maneuver in nearly flawless unison, just before making a rude gesture at another driver who’d annoyed them––Pinocchio stamping on that damn cricket. (One of that pair later went on to make the same gesture in a very quietly produced example of missionary cinema: The Second Vision of José [title redacted] was inappropriate, blasphemous, and incredibly funny. It also starred one of my favorite companions. The ZL played our mission president.)

The divine office continues to unroll at its own meditative tempo. When you are just learning, and sometimes later, it is difficult to quiet the pestering voice inside that demands efficiency. For me, I think that voice is part modernity and part Mormonism. It’s really no surprise that constant childhood reminders to be always “anxiously engaged,” followed by a two-year stint evangelizing under perpetual scrutiny, should have this effect. For all the emphasis on spirituality, mission life can hardly be called “contemplative.” There may be some evidence of this tendency too in 2005’s altered initiatory ritual. While changes to the lustration rites likely came in response to a number of different considerations, their streamlining character is undeniable, and something in me rebels at it. Ritual, liturgy, ceremony––these are absurdities, oriented along wholly different lines than the world of budgets and auto-mechanics and the forty-hour work week. Acts of prayer can seem almost seditious [3], undermining the realization of Huxley’s nightmare vision of “Our Ford” and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. [4] Being fair, it isn’t only Mormons who struggle with this. Even benedictine monastics cannot help but joke about their Rule, altering the Latin to better reflect their life’s reality: ora et labora, et labora, et labora...

Twenty or thirty minutes of prayer feels much longer than the same time spent in the rat-race. Those with religious vocations can only maintain such habits because their lives are ordered to enable that prayer, and as an outsider, it can be very challenging to adapt to their rhythms. Father Simon tells me, “These things bear fruit in repetition,” and he is right. For much of the prayer life of my youth, “repetition” was anathema, inseparable from its descriptor, “vain.” I would winnow my mind to find new words to carry my mostly unchanging requests and gratitude skyward: “...nourish and strengthen...” “...give us the energy we need...” “...at least not kill us...” (It depended on who had done the cooking.) But this focus on new verbiage was no reliable prophylaxis against artificiality, and my prayers bounced back off the ceiling no less often than usual.

With time, I have grown to love the traditional texts, never praying more sincerely for the grace of charity than when chanting Paul’s beautiful words to the Corinthians. One favorite, the Magnificat, both soothes and challenges. We sang Finzi’s larynx-slaughtering arrangement in choir, and light glinted off still new facets. Praying the line “as he promised to our forefather Abraham” remains thrilling. (It probably has something to do with singing the tenor part, which cuts through dramatically just then.) This openness to repetition also gives me permission to cherish other phrases. Because he has included it in almost every prayer I have heard him offer, only my father can ask correctly “...that we may discern truth from error...” Heard in his voice, those words are tied up with memories of warm hands on the last Sunday before each new school year, hands––less frequently––bearing a drop of consecrated oil, hands with one familiar slightly-too-short forefinger and a wicked zigzag scar (souvenirs left by a temperamental high-pressure paint gun).

My head pops up again, bobbing like the more sparsely-covered pates of a bishopric from my childhood, who on more than one occasion engaged in synchronized church napping when a High Council speaker was being particularly tedious. (“Studying Lehi’s dream,” an Elder I knew liked to call it.) Blinking, I gaze again at the crucifix. That image never loses its impact. How terrible those poor Brothers must feel if they sleep in! I only had a nametag and a handbook to answer to, but this? It is a slap in the face. An accusation. A reminder that these ritual “absurdities” are really a matter of life and death. A matter of Life Himself.

How strange, I think, not for the first time, that victory should look so like defeat.


[2] “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare thy praise.” Invitatory to most offices of the Liturgy of the Hours.

[3] “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

[4] Though heaven knows that I am not immune to the attraction of something so gloriously named as “Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy.”

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: I

Last summer, I was lucky enough to be invited to guest post at one of the bloggernacle biggies. The blog in question (apart from being my gateway drug into blogging) has, I think, the most consistently high-quality material in the 'nacle, so it was very nice to get the invite. I have decided to post the same essay here over the next few weeks, because my mind has been dwelling on the events described therein since Lent began. Unfortunately, it still lacks a conclusion, but perhaps revisiting the material will help with that. Here's to hoping.


Note: Among my many deficiencies as a missionary were my journal keeping habits. These habits were deficient mainly in that they did not exist. The events described are true to the best of my recollection, but there may well be some inaccuracies regarding certain details and timing. Also, names have been changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty.


Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris... [1]

Both too early and too late, the phone rings. It is after seven o’clock in the morning when Elder Latu picks up the receiver and mumbles a groggy hello.

“Yeah, let me get him, President.”

The magic words. I am suddenly awake. There isn’t much time, so with my hand covering the mouthpiece I run through a few vocal exercises (who knew those lessons would come in handy as a missionary?) making an attempt at not sounding like I just woke up. The success rate of these games is doubtless pretty low, but they are mission etiquette; pretending slightly greater obedience than we practice is really part of how we show respect for Pres. Lawson. He returns the favor by pretending not to notice, and we are both saved from the unpleasantness of chastening. Even now though, part of me wonders if this is what dropped the sheen of awkwardness between us during mission interviews, dangling there like a theater scrim or the grille of a confessional.

“You knew Marta Souza in the Williams ward?”

“Yes, of course. I know Marta.” Spent almost six months in that area.

Had we been up on time, would I have noticed his past-tense? Knew. Maybe the coming shock was part of God’s punishment for sleeping in.

Only three weeks until I go home.


[1] “Grant, O Lord, that I may bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow...” From the vesting prayers of the Tridentine Mass.