Healed Since Last November: My Blessed Journey from Grouchy to Gratified

This blog is not a place for sermons, and I don’t want it to be. Even as I acknowledge and embrace that standard of mine, I have been reminded this week of the reasons I take my faith seriously and cleave unto a church I view, as I think we all should, as far from perfect. I want to share that. I hope this is an appropriate way to do so.

Due to a strange and somewhat miraculous series of events – and I don’t use the term “miraculous” lightly – I have found great comfort and inspiration through the principle of charity this past week. Life has reminded me of the healing power of Christ’s core teachings, even in times of lingering anxiety and pain, and for that I am deeply grateful.

I have learned that while my opinions of the LDS church – and life, and politics, and the people around me – might be important and worthwhile, they are not especially helpful to my soul.

As much as I love thinking and analyzing and judging and considering myself “different,” it didn’t take me long to realize I was missing out on some of the most important aspects of Christ worship in my state of introspection.

Enter charity, reintroduced to me through a Book of Mormon lecture on YouTube, because this is 2016 and the Lord works in mysterious ways. It focuses on serving the poor and needy, which is absolutely a worthy goal we should all improve upon. But witnessing such a thoughtful interpretation of the book of Mormon, and the emphasis on treating every person in the way they deserve, as children of God, especially struck me. This lesson of charity as discipleship was exactly what I needed to hear, and I didn’t even know that until I found myself crying at my laptop at 10PM on a Saturday.

It arrived like an old memory, drowned beneath insecurity and spite for far too long, finally bobbing to the surface in an unexpected, though welcome, return. I suddenly knew with certainty that it is my duty, and every Christian’s duty, to acknowledge the worth of the human soul. It is my responsibility to see those around me as Christ might see them, even if that feels impossible at times – and believe me, it does feel impossible at times. With the light of Christ within me, I must ensure that my fellow men are treated with dignity, respect, and service.

I was missing that for nearly a year. I became deeply absorbed in the very real, lasting pain brought on by some of the church’s recent decisions, and the effects of that lingered even as I worked past the initial struggle. I disengaged. I went to church, but never wanted to. I performed my calling, but didn’t find joy in doing so. I distracted myself through Sunday school and Relief Society if I went at all, and felt bored or angry more often than I felt the spirit. I convinced myself I did not belong among those people who largely think differently than I do. I separated myself, in every way I could as an active member, and no longer felt joy in my place of worship.

And I don’t completely regret that. Contrary to popular belief, I could not have simply willed myself into feeling whole again. These things take patience, and help from divine sources who don’t always work as fast as we might like. Something within me needed to feel that emptiness, and work with myself to reveal more about who I am and what I value. As much as I prayed and read the scriptures, which admittedly was never quite enough, I never received enough comfort to restore all that had been lost. It had been so long that I almost forgot that I lacked anything. I merely existed, trying my best to remain faithful while slipping deeper into spiritual apathy.

But this week at church, not unlike any other Sunday, I felt different. Sacrament meeting sat well with me that day. The spirit touched me in one of those rare tangible-epiphany moments, and I truly felt like I was in the right place for the first time since last November. Of course every talk that day was on charity. It’s rare I feel smacked in the face by a gospel message, but what can I say; Heavenly Father is not always subtle.

As soon as I realized what I was missing in my disengaged state, I found within myself a renewed capacity for charity, both in my perception of others and my participation in the world as a follower of Christ. “Love them anyway,” has been my go-to mantra for the past several days, and while I can’t say how much it has impacted any one person, it has certainly helped me realize the places where I need to broaden my capacity for compassion.

Some examples:

Someone gives a talk in church and describes [insert literally any gospel topic here] in a doctrinally incorrect, potentially damaging way. Love him anyway.

Far more than a reasonable number of women in relief society nod in agreement when someone openly disparages feminism as a blanket anti-family concept. Love them anyway (and buy each of them a copy of The Feminine Mystique for their birthdays).

The Sunday school teacher has the nerve to be less engaging than a professional educator and/or inspirational speaker. Love her anyway, and pray for new Sunday school manuals with better lessons.

It works outside of church, too.

Your Geology professor asks a girl from Portland if she is a liberal, in jest. She says no. He says, “good,” diminishing increasingly-touchy campus political tensions not at all. He proceeds to make one too many cleavage jokes during his lecture. You feel weird. Love him anyway.

Your kitchen coworker repeatedly tries weighing liquids. This is frustrating. Love her anyway.

There is someone bicycling on the sidewalk beside you. There is a biker’s lane less than two feet away. Love him anyway.

I do not think that love itself is the same as charity, but the act of choosing to love is indeed one of the most charitable things we can offer. Christ chose to love us all, and we owe it to Him, and ourselves, to attempt the same. I have chosen to love in ways I would have thought impossible a few months ago. Instead of resorting to anger or frustration, I try – key word, try – to remember who I am, and who all of these equally-human people are: imperfect, good-at-heart, diligent, trying-their-best children of the same unconditionally-loving God.

In turn I have found many blessings, and the kindness of others has been revealed to me in new and beautiful ways.

I’m not particularly good at being served, and never have been. Visiting teachers often make me uncomfortable, I apologetically cringe if the compassionate service committee brings me soup when I’m sick, and I’ll hardly take a cookie from a friend’s kitchen table when it’s been offered to me.

But this week I have been witness to lovely, small acts of kindness that have remained with me since, to remind me that goodness truly is all around if you have the eyes to see it.

When I stopped by my professor’s office to discuss some Difficult Church Things, I was uncomfortable at first. I’m bad at reaching out to people, especially authority-type people I respect and kind of idolize (as if I’m the only person to have ever fangirled over a professor – there are DOZENS of us. DOZENS).

“This is weird, and I don’t normally do this kind of thing,” I began, unsure of what to say.

Without a moment’s hesitation she reached for a box of tissues and said, “Well I do this kind of thing all the time, and I love it!”

After we talked for a bit, she asked me if it would be weird if she gave me a hug. I laughed and said of course not. She gave me an excellent hug, one that I needed that day, and we proceeded to have a wonderful discussion that made me feel warm and fuzzy and validated.

Earlier this week I made a Big Social Decision at work. I’m going to remain frustratingly cryptic to avoid embarrassing myself, but as a socially anxious person I was already feeling weird about it immediately following said decision.

My boss, who knew exactly what was going on because that’s how things work there, responded completely appropriately when she said, “I know you’re not happy for you yet, but I’m happy for you.”

It was such a small, silly thing to say, but I needed to hear it, and I needed to be able to laugh about it because I take many trivial things WAY too seriously. Another tiny kindness, filed away for an unspecified time in the near future when it will be helpful.

When I donated blood a couple of days ago – for charity! – my phlebotomist was really friendly, and extraordinarily good at drawing blood. That’s a double-kindness for anyone who has ever been hematoma’d.

Yesterday my brother texted me and asked if I wanted some pulled pork. Of course I wanted pulled pork, so I drove to his house and spent a lovely evening eating smoked meat, relaxing with him and my niece, and even took home some beets from the garden. Family kindness is some of the best kindness there is.

Two of my professors brought food to class one day. I’m still not sure if this is a normal thing in college or if kind Mormon women are just especially good at providing refreshments, but I cannot begin to emphasize how exciting it is to get sugar from a teacher as a full-grown adult. I bestow major kudos upon professors with treats.

This morning my coworker saw my face and told me I was looking good. I wore no makeup, did not get enough sleep, and – as is typical when I work the morning shift – had spent the first two hours with a perpetually furrowed brow. But it was a nice comment, and I realized she was right. I was looking good. Something had been lifted, some gnarled, stubborn tension that existed within me for so long that I forgot it was there to begin with.

I know I still have a long way to go. So far I’ve made baby steps by reducing my judgmental tendencies and building more appreciation for small kindnesses directed toward me. I have been blessed with a sense of belonging in the church, and have done my best to act on that blessing. When presented with chances to serve more conventionally, I have tried my best to do so. I still need to join the ward choir and should attend more of the activities that my fellow LDS singles have so carefully planned.  I should figure out ways to serve in my community and help those who need it most. With diligence, this will become a lifelong endeavor.

I hope and pray that this upward trajectory leads me to bigger, brighter, happier things, because this year has been a challenge. I am not sure I will ever be comfortable with the LDS-Church baggage that led me to that dark place, but I have found ways to renew my faith in the good of Christ and the importance of His gospel despite that darkness. It is those deep-rooted testimony seeds that will keep me attending church and striving to remain tolerant in even the most trying of circumstances, and I believe that Heavenly Father has guided me here with His own hand, because he truly is a loving, merciful God watching out for every one of His children.

He created us with intentional differences, and He knows how to teach us as individuals, within the workings of our own minds and spirits. This narrative might not fit within the bounds of “things taught in Sunday school,” but I have felt it, and I know it to be true. It may have taken time, but I do not feel I have been punished, judged, or chastened for my upset; instead, I stand up today as a lamb of God who spent some time alone near the gate, welcomed back into the fold after a spell of seemingly-unshakable, necessary darkness. He brought me light, and has since illuminated a path ready to show me through the shadowed patches that undoubtedly await me in the future, and I am gratified.

He has been so charitable to me. I can only hope, within the bounds of my own imperfect humanness, to return that celestial favor.

DSCN3728.JPG

Advertisements

A Tribute to Mormon Girls’ Camp

Disclaimer: I stole all of these photos. All credit goes to facebook friends who actually took pictures at girls’ camp and tagged me in them. If you recognize one of your own and don’t want it here, please do not sue me and contact me directly so I can delete it. Thank you much!

camp10

“Well, lookie here. A little nest of estrogen.”

We pulled up in a minivan and stumbled out, one by one, into the dusty camp parking lot. We, of course, brought everything on the packing list (rookie mistake), which meant the trunk was full and our little girl arms couldn’t even begin to carry it all. I don’t remember who drove (it very well could have been my own mother), or which campsite the Youth Camp Leaders led me to. I do remember a handcart showing up somewhere during the process, which definitely helped with the copious amounts of “camp stuff.”

I also remember spotting a beloved leader upon arrival, and as I began to take in the overwhelming scene, she welcomed me with a smile and pulled me in for a big, tight hug.

“Girl’s camp is a place for hugging, then,” I remember thinking.

Twelve-year-old, first year me had no idea.

Though that was nearly ten years ago, I still recall some highlights; the theme, “Driving to Your Destiny” had us earning beads with a distinctive “Cars” theme. Definitively secular characters in the like of Lightening McQueen and T0w Mater somehow took over the camp for the week, and at the time I couldn’t imagine anything more spectacular. For years I claimed Cars as my favorite movie, largely because of its central role in my first year at camp.

As we took our seats at the amphitheater, the leaders and older girls welcomed us with a little skit and some very loud music. After the presentation, when they called the first-years up to perform the Cha-Cha Slide in some horrendous attempt at making us feel comfortable, I nearly burst into tears. I HATED that song. And I HATED dancing! I didn’t know these crazy girls! I wanted nothing else but to run away.

But I didn’t run away. I went back to my campsite, set up my corner in the very crowded tepee, and talked to all the other first years, none of whom I’d met before. I started bonding with my youth leaders and thought they were so cool. They were in high school! And were old enough to go to church dances! Living the dream, man. My camp mom also deserves a shout-out for embracing the antics of an anxious and unpredictable gaggle of twelve-year-old girls.

Soon we were headed to the massive slip-and-slide in the back of a pickup truck, and as the hot breeze blew through my messy blonde curls and the sun beat down on my bare shoulders, I knew that nothing could keep me from deeply, affectionately, and forever loving this place.

Every part of Girls’ Camp, even the less-than-pleasant bits, meant everything to me in those years where finding reliably great things became close to impossible. Camp was a refuge from school, stress, stupid boys, and summer boredom. It taught me how to love nature, and shaped the way I have come to view God even into adulthood.

But first, let’s discuss the weird bits:

Nothing at camp rivaled the Biffy in notoriety. The Biffy (a too-real acronym standing for “Bathroom In Forest For You”) incited fear, disgust, and weirdly enough, a little nostalgia. Yes, the port-o-potty is an unpleasant concept, blue liquid and all. Yes, cleaning them was a always a nightmare, but my first year camp mom made the chore extra fun by offering a biffy bead to whomever finished cleanup the fastest. I still have that biffy bead, and it remains one of the greatest in my extensive collection.

“Biffy fishing” also became a well-established concept as we returned to the ranch year after year. Without going into too much detail, the unwritten but oft-referred-to policy stated that if something went in the biffy that would not properly degrade in whatever hellhole biffy waste ends up in, you had to fish for it. Would they provide the pole? Nobody knows. I recall a sizable gas lantern ending up in the depths of the biffy one year, which was retrieved by hand and promptly discarded never to be heard of again. As you can see, biffy’s are the stuff of legend.

One year, biffy kicking became a fun trend, and it was most definitely not something I started. What do you take me for, some kind of monster who can’t respect the sanctity of the overused outdoor toilet?

Mostly it was fun to scare unsuspecting campers trapped in the dark, swampy, plastic enclosure because apparently we didn’t think it was bad enough having to pee into a funky blue hole. Long story short, a friend’s door kicking became so powerful that it INVERTED THE DOOR. As in, the door, which was meant to swing outwards, had gotten so precisely wedged into its frame, that it trapped the occupant without any hope of escape.

We laughed. She laughed, then cried, then laughed again. We got her out eventually without too much of a hassle. The short-lived biffy kicking tradition had come to an end, but not without a scarring final run.

“Bead” collecting, another unusual yet necessary facet of camp, functioned as a fun way to complete a diverse list of tasks, make new friends, and collect massive amounts of outwardly-meaningless objects on a string around your neck. While the bead tradition started long before my time at camp, and involved the distribution of actual painted wooden beads, it wasn’t long before Mormon lady ingenuity hijacked the concept and made it so much better.

It wasn’t unusual for crochet, leather work, metallurgy, shrinky-dinking, mod-podging, stenciling, needlework, clay-baking, or whittling to have some part in the year’s bead production lineup. I never had the pleasure of working with the bead lady myself, but I do know that by the time we got to camp, she had already put countless hours into beads symbolizing service, friendship, nature appreciation, scripture memorization, polar-dipping, and being a team player among other praiseworthy endeavors. Years later, I still remember the frantic, delightful journey of earning each of the tantalizingly gorgeous beads as quickly and efficiently as possible.

And those were just the camp beads! The possibilities for unofficial beads were literally endless. I already mentioned the biffy bead, but I also distinctly remember a boo-boo bead (for going to the nurse), a value bra bead (a phenomenon resulting from an unfortunate color scheme in the phrase “value bracelet” on a sign placed in dim lighting), and the ubiquitous mailbox surprise beads. Camp mail and sisterly notes, of course, also playing a crucial role in the sisterly camp ritual.

The Sisterhood of the High-Waisted Pants became a coveted fourth-year initiation ritual, and undoubtedly died out soon after my time at camp was through. Though the sisterhood had noble goals of nonsensical fashion choices to be practiced only among fellow dirt-encrusted women, high-wasted pants actually became stylish not long after. The girls of today have no choice but to come up with new equally terrible ideas that will inevitably become mainstream in due course.

We crafted masterful “camp cheers”, a blanket term for then-hilarious song parodies that incorporated camp culture in every conceivable way. We sang about needing showers, snoring, boy-deprivation, and exhaustion using melodies stolen from sources ranging from Katy Perry to Mulan. One year we used Les Mis tunes for literally every cheer, and I’m guessing most of the younger girls had no idea what was going on since that’s kind of an adult musical. We pushed the envelope in our songs and our pranks – don’t even think of providing teenage girls with a set of perfectly breast-sized coconut shells – often to the delight and chagrin of presiding adults. We relished in our creative freedom and rarely got in any sort of real trouble.

I also can’t discuss girls’ camp in scenic Eastern Washington without mentioning dirt. I’m only a few weeks into my geology course so I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but based on my own experience I’ve come to the conclusion that our camp’s foundation consisted entirely of miles-deep, loose, light brown, breathable filth. How do I know it was breathable? Ask anyone who has blown her nose within two weeks of returning home. That stuff knows how to stick around. Every pair of socks, every hem of every pant leg, every scripture case I ever brought to camp, became riddled with dust almost instantly. An unknowing young girl might go to the camp showers and notice, while undressing, that she has developed an impressive leg tan. It will wash off, then miraculously reappear within minutes of leaving the flushies (our affectionate term for civilized toilets actually connected to semi-modern plumbing).

And you know what? I loved that dirt. Whenever I hike or drive through that part of the state, I can’t help but enjoy the unmistakable musk of woodsy dirt smell. Whenever I use a port-o-potty, I gag, then some weird conflicted part of my hippocampus lights up and reminds me of smelly, wonderful camp times. My beads still hang on a wall at home, and I occasionally take the time to search through them, most distinct memories of earning them long gone, but that euphoric feeling of accomplishment alive as ever. I cannot hear “Castle on a Cloud” without remembering “there is a tepee in the camp – I like to go there when I sleeeeep! Three to a bed is very warm! It is a mess, and that we warn.”

Camp allowed us to grow, as women, among friends and nature. In a world where makeup, flat-irons, and expensive shoes dominated, those six days per year reminded us that sunburned, mosquito-bitten complexions can be just as attractive as carefully-manufactured appearances. Smiles began to replace pubescent scowls, embarrassment about our bodies melted away as even the chubbiest of us (ahem) scaled walls and joined in trust falls at the ropes course. We learned that our bodies are sacred as well as a tremendous source of fun as we rode horses, flung ourselves down the massive slip-and-slide, and spent lazy afternoons canoeing and floating down the river.

I won’t claim we didn’t experience drama. It’s impossible not to experience drama under those conditions. Tears were shed often; happy, hormonal, homesick, sad tears, sometimes all four at once. Smiles happened, both in delight and malice. Some mornings I was just tired, and wanted to stab whichever leader was tasked at waking us up at an ungodly hour with some insufferable camp tune. (Did I mention camp songs? They existed. I embraced them several years in. They never really leave you. Enough said.)

Above all, camp became a refuge. We sang sappy EFY songs meant to make teenagers feel spiritual. We bore testimony. We learned from others like us about the challenges of peer pressure, doubt, and making mistakes. We learned that God cared about us even through our greatest struggles, and that we had value as strong, independent, devoted women. We learned that no sin or mistake was too great for the power of the atonement. We learned, above all, that we were loved; by our leaders, by each other, and by our Heavenly Father.

In return, we learned to love. I learned to love new friends. I learned to love myself. Since my family didn’t camp much, I learned to see nature as a sanctuary through my experiences at girls’ camp. I found a passion for the trees, wind, mountains, rivers, sky, a love that hasn’t faded since growing up and leaving organized religious camping events behind.

It was that time in nature with God and our awkward, growing, learning, believing selves that made so many of us LDS women who we are today.

Things have changed of course. Life gets complicated, we all go in different directions, camp isn’t quite what it used to be. I’ve seen many women who found themselves at camp lose themselves in the stresses of post-youth-program LDS life. I know many who’ve left the church, for a wide variety of reasons. I hope they still remember their times at camp fondly, but I can never be completely sure.

The amphitheater is now known as the “outdoor gathering center” and the camp is slowly replacing the beloved tepees with cheaper, more reliable wall tents. This year my stake joined with the entire region to put on a super-camp of over a thousand girls. I spent a day at the unfamiliar BSA camp, and it looked like everyone was enjoying herself – but it wasn’t the camp I remember.

Since going to college and hearing other ladies’ camp experiences, I realize I might be in the minority in my passion for Mormon girls’ camp. Whether due to lackluster leaders, unpleasant campsites, or general snobbishness, a lot of LDS women I know never really took to camp in the way I, and a lot of my friends, did.

What I do know is that thanks to the service of longsuffering leaders, a holy outdoor space to pitch our tents, and an overwhelming sense of love and devotion, I left camp for the last time with a set of values destined to guide me through rough times for the rest of my life.

I might have a hard time with my fellow Mormons at times. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I regularly feel like an outsider among the general population of Utah County. My worldview never ceases to change and thereafter cause disappointment in my day-t0-day life, but I will always have that crucial foundation to fall back on. Doubt has trouble erasing those sacred feelings I had while sitting around a campfire, studying the scriptures in the woods by myself, or singing a meaningful song among friends as the sun set above us.

I’m not sure what the original goal of Young Women’s Camp must have been. If it was an attempt to give girls a scout camp replacement, I’m afraid the church has failed. Sure, I can light a fire, fashion a tourniquet, tie a couple knots, pee in the woods, make a bedroll, build a raft out of milk jugs, protect against bears, perform CPR, leave no trace, and identify several types of plants, clouds, and animals, but that stuff (as useful as it is) seems trivial compared to the lasting effect of camp on my psyche.

Leaders, realize how important this is, and that your work will indeed be worth it. I don’t care if every one of those girls you serve leaves the fold someday; it will always be of importance that you gave them a positive experience. Girls, remember to thank your leaders, and try to see beyond the grime to find the beauty just below the surface. I might be a sentimental, nostalgic mess, but I would like to think that every girl can find at least something to like about camp.

In the end, we’re all just trying to find our place in the world, and I for one am glad my world has included a healthy portion of stargazing, joke-playing, song-singing, bead-collecting, self-loving, tree-hugging, God-feeling bliss.

Thank you, Mormon girls’ camp, for giving me hope, and helping me navigate a world that doesn’t always tolerate silly song parodies or coconut boobs.

Thank you for teaching me that “woman” is not an insult, but a term encapsulating raw human strength and perseverance despite all odds.

Thank you for showing me light in a world that is so often dark and full of uncertainty.

Thank you for making me the complicated, passionate person I am today.

Thank you for bringing me closer to my God.

And perhaps  most of all, thank you for the hugs, because I needed them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Latter-day Envy

Note: I first wrote this essay for a creative nonfiction class I took last fall, and my professor suggested I submit it to a campus-wide essay contest. To my surprise, it placed second in the undergraduate category, and I was honored to read an excerpt of it back in April at the awards ceremony. I’m posting it here due to popular demand, and I hope it helps open a conversation regarding the LDS relationship with ancient Christianity and the ways we choose to use art and music in our worship. It is a topic I am passionate about, and I am blessed to have lived the experiences that led me to come to these conclusions.

If you enjoy the essay, have questions about my beliefs, or want to have a nice, drawn-out argument on the subject, please do not hesitate to contact me at emma.croft95@yahoo.com 

church2

Salisbury Cathedral, England

I sit and watch General Conference on TV one Sunday morning, like a good Mormon should. I’m in Rexburg, Idaho, spending the weekend with my cousin and her highly-enthusiastic roommates. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir begins to sing, a sunshine song of all things.

“Oh my gosh, you guys! MoTab is the best!” says one roommate.

“I know! They’re my favorite,” says another.

What I want to tell them is this: “You’ve probably never heard King’s College Choir at Cambridge. They’re actually the best. And they don’t sing stupid sunshine songs that aren’t even remotely about Jesus. Get a life.”

I don’t say that. I would never, ever say that. But I do think it.

There’s nothing wrong with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and though I’m not happy admitting it, there is nothing particularly wrong with the sunshiney parlor music published in our hymnal either. I would never decry the popular assortment of nostalgic Janice Kapp Perry tunes we’re raised with, or the jubilant Mormon anthems like “Carry On” and “The Spirit of God” that give our meetings a bit of protestant flair. These are part of my religious tradition, in a way as authentic as my religious tradition ever gets.

But that’s what hurts a little. We’re so new.

***

When Tennyson composed his poem, “Tears, Idle Tears” at the long-ruined Tintern Abbey, he described “the sense of the abiding in the transient. . . the yearning that young people occasionally experience for that which seems to have passed away from them for ever” (Ricks 266).

I too have stood within the crumbling walls of Tintern Abbey and felt that ancient hum. I yearn for a similar experience in America, of understanding the fleeting ancientness surrounding you, and for a small moment, becoming part of it. Today the birds make Tintern Abbey their home, but in the past it stood a glorious monastery, housing holy Brothers within its sturdy brickwork once embedded with intricate stained glass. Henry VIII destroyed this Abbey and countless others during the Great Dissolution, but today, Britons remember it with honor.

Tennyson continues: “It is a way like St. Paul’s ‘groanings which cannot be uttered’ . . . . It is what I have always felt even from a boy, and what as a boy I called the ‘passion of the past’. And it is so always with me now; it is the distance that charms me in the landscape, the picture and the past, and not the immediate to-day in which I move” (Ricks 266).

“So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.”

***

Monasticism piqued my interest long before I understood its ancientness. Before I knew the difference between “Mormon” and “Catholic,” I knew Rue McClanahan, performing the role of Reverend Mother in Dan Goggin’s wacky musical comedy, Nunsense.

My father brought home the VHS recording when I was three years old. I watched it nearly every day. Of course I didn’t “get” the joke—the production abounds with gentle satire and innuendo completely out of reach to my toddler-aged self. What I did see were these women traipsing across the stage in black and white, performing songs ranging from the irreverent to the beautiful. They represented things too holy and complex for my young mind to comprehend, yet I knew there was something special about them.

I still do not know why I fell in love with the absurd production, consisting almost entirely of adults acting like children. I even wanted to be a nun when I grew up. My mom tried explaining to me why this wouldn’t be possible, but I never listened.

Even after I realized the absurdity of my childhood obsession, something about monastic life drew me in, begging me to learn from and understand the pious men and women who choose to devote their entire lives to Christ-like service. Their choices encompass self-sacrifice, humility, and love of the Savior. They give up every belonging, every chance for future worldly success, to live a chaste, poverty-stricken life out of choice. We Mormons have no lifelong equivalent; nothing quite so pious.

***

On display in my living room is my roommate’s favorite picture of Jesus. I really hate it.

The horrible thing about this painting is not Jesus of Nazareth’s apparent Caucasian complexion, though that certainly doesn’t help. It’s the smile. Jesus Christ is smiling. Not in an “I love God’s children and am about to sacrifice my life for them” sort of way. No. This is a “Woohoo! The Cougars just threw another touchdown! That pre-game prayer definitely worked” smile. It’s a “Wow, that baby duck is really cute” smile. A “Gosh. I just love chocolate cake” smile. A vulgar, commonplace smile.

And I understand that this is what some Latter-Day Saints need—Jesus looking like a friend, a person just like you and me, someone who sits and smiles for portraits. To many, there is nothing irreverent about this picture. But smiling, hunky dory Jesus? This is not what I need.

I need to see my Savior weeping with Mary and Martha before raising Lazarus from the dead; I need to see the empathy on his face when the bleeding woman grasps at his robe; his holy expression when healing the blind and the lepers; the pain in his eyes when the crown of thorns digs into his forehead as his atoning blood begins to spill. Jesus is more than careless smiles, and plenty of religious art outside of the Mormon tradition knows that. Medieval European Baby Jesus has the serious face of a full-grown man, often radiating light in halo form. Adult Jesus’ face embodies melancholy in many traditions, carrying the weight of the world and all its evils. I need a reminder of this bittersweet sacrifice, not an illusion of Christ’s regular-Joe friendliness.

In my bedroom hangs a picture of Jesus taken from Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1889 painting “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler.” He looks thoughtful, and maybe a little sad. I love it. This picture does show up at LDS bookstores and meetinghouses occasionally, but I wish we had more like it. Whenever I search for a new picture of the Savior, I find myself thumbing past several blue-eyed, teeth-bearing, saccharine-smiling Jesus prints, searching for something meaningful.

***

I used to say that, if I could, in good conscience, choose a different religion to follow, I’d become an Orthodox Jew. They’re about as old as it gets. And their faith is so deeply embedded with ancient wild traditions and beauty, derived from history in ways I had never known in my own religious practice: There’s the primal, bloody circumcision ritual; the life-disrupting family purity laws; the challah; the sung prayers; the bar mitzvahs and scholarly traditions. Their Hebrew language, older than Jesus himself, unites communities across the world in sacred spoken word. I loved that.

Then I got older and realized that I may appreciate Orthodox Judaism better from afar. I don’t think I would be able to keep track of all their rules, and as a woman I probably wouldn’t receive an adequate education. I am also impatient, and prefer a Messiah who has already arrived. They’re not really into converts, anyway.

***

Gregorian chant piques my spirituality in ways the Tabernacle Choir never has, and probably never will. Emerging from a time when music equaled prayer, the simple, unison tones embody much that I love about the religious experience. The medieval form uses Latinate texts of scripture, adding music as a means of meditation and communion—one rarely chants alone, after all. Scripture, meditation, communion, spirit. I feel the Holy Spirit when I hear chant, much more compared to those blasted Mormon sunshine songs.

The first time I heard chant, I sat in the candlelit King’s College Chapel for Evensong. The men’s choir sang in English, but the idea remained the same: recitation, communion, and pure, perfect male voices. No girls and their estrogen-influenced vocal chords allowed. I know it sets feminism back several hundred years, but grown women cannot sing like men or boys. The sublime purity of a trained male voice is physiologically impossible for an adult woman to attain. King’s College knows this. MoTab is gender-inclusive, as it should be—

But those men . . .

One soloist begins, chanting in the alto range, pure and piercing through the candlelit silence around him. The choir joins in after a phrase or two, filling the gothic hall with that sublime warmth, scripture, sounds that reverberate forever under the ancient fanned ceilings, and penetrate my ears with sweet serenity. I cry. I am not typically a crier, but this evening I spend at King’s College Chapel, I cry, and it feels good to shed tears in such a place of history, tradition, and ancient rites.

I want Mormon music to affect me in the same way, but it never has. I attend church hoping for meaningful musical experiences, but often must settle for the occasional tone-deaf returned missionary singing earnestly into the crooked pulpit microphone.

***

A senior missionary serving in the Hyde Park LDS Visitor’s Centre in London gave my mom and me an unsolicited tour one evening. We had some time to spare—and he seemed excited to escort a couple of fellow Americans—so we followed the earnest gentleman through the building I had already visited several times before. He led us to the chapel, quite similar to any other LDS chapel in its plainness, apart from the pipe organ.

“When we take local nonmembers here,” he told us with a saccharine grin and a flash of satisfaction in his eye, “the first thing they notice is the lack of icons everywhere. Most churches here in England are full of icons, and they can be very distracting. As you can see, this room is free from decoration.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Those icons he spoke of meant so much to me after spending months exploring them with admiration. Those icons were the bodies and relics of sacred figures, holy works of art, living history surrounding anyone who entered. Those icons drew me close to God and the people who worshiped him long before Joseph Smith came around, and surrounded me with beauty in ways I have yet to experience during a typical LDS Sunday. I don’t see Mormonism’s utilitarian, burlap-walled meetinghouses as a solution to the problem; I see them as the problem.

Astounded that the church let iconoclasts serve in the London Mission, we quickly finished the tour and headed to a beautiful parish church in Paddington full of icons; the church, no less, where my fourth-great-grandmother married before leaving England forever to join the Mormons in Zion.

***

In Krister Stendhal’s “Three Rules of Religious Understanding,” he encourages followers of every faith to “leave room for ‘holy envy’” (King). Seeing beauty in other traditions and acknowledging the places where their own practices fall short doesn’t always come easily to devout individuals, myself and several million Mormons included.

But as I have learned more about other faiths, I’ve developed a problem with holy envy. I do not merely leave room for it like Stendhal suggests; I fill my voids with it, search within it for a sense of beauty and history I sometimes cannot find in the faith I have already covenanted to uphold. I do not feel trapped; no, that is not the right word. But missing something? Yes, that is it.

I have a problem with holy envy.

***

While living in London, Victorian philosopher Thomas Carlyle remarked in his journal, “Why is the past so beautiful? The element of fear is withdrawn from it for one thing. That is all safe, while the present and the future are all so dangerous” (Froude 17).

The old fears of Anglicanism do not taint my admiration of it. I know of the social injustices, the harsh treatment of women, peasants, and those who dared to dissent to face their deaths or exile. Somehow the religion’s ancientness excuses the historically-shameful practices and controversies I would never tolerate in my own faith now. Time fades injustice, sometimes accidentally, does it not?

Mormonism is a church of the present and the future. We believe that its central gospel principles are drawn from Christ’s own past traditions—restored to us by the Prophet Joseph Smith—but the culture it has produced is one of the Latter-Days exclusively. No other faith is quite like ours, and we know it. We cannot know what the immediate future might bring to us. There is no history of experience to consult.

Prophecies guide us into our eternal futures of immortality, and spiritual leaders help us through the tumultuous present, but I often get a sense that we Mormons do not feel safe. We fear the ever-changing world and where it’s going, where it’s taking us. We haven’t been around long enough to look back several hundred years and say, “Look, we made it through the worst. Things will be all right.”

I tend to use Anglicanism as my safety net—proof that Christianity has struggled through hellish circumstances and made it out all right. Hundreds of churches in the UK remain unattended since the mid-twentieth century, as more and more Brits turn to a faith of the Christmas-and-Easter variety—yet the Anglican tradition, in all its history-rich glory, survives amid the declining active membership. It is inspiring to attend a High Anglican service today and realize that this—this form of worship—faced plague, iconoclasm, civil unrest, war, bombings, an onslaught of foreign immigrants, and the postmodern trend toward the secular, and it lives.

I don’t know many Mormons who fear the dissolution of the LDS faith, but as a Mormon I have concerns about our place in the world that I do not see Anglicans facing. Maybe Mormonism’s short history is not convincing in the same way. Maybe, like a child, Mormonism should look on its more-experienced Christian parents for comfort in times of fear and weakness. With history lies confidence.

***

The day I learned about the anchoress Julian of Norwich, I knew I felt a connection. As a Mormon, I am by no means obligated, or even remotely encouraged, to believe in her sacred narrative on a religious or doctrinal level, but I’m far too easily influenced by a good spiritual story to pretend it never happened or doesn’t matter.

It goes like this: Julian of Norwich lived in medieval England. Most of her friends and family died from plague, leaving her alone in a cruel and empty world which taught that humans are naturally evil and must feel perpetually shamed to accommodate for their lowly state. To medieval Englishmen, God was wrathful, ready to smite the imperfect at any moment.

Like many of her medieval peers, Julian fell very ill, and a priest arrived to perform death rites. Unlike many of her peers, she did not actually die. Instead, Julian witnessed a series of intense visions involving all of the senses, and heard encouraging words from a being she believed to be Jesus Christ himself. She saw Him bleed from every pore and orifice on the cross. She heard Him gently speak to her, saying that in the course of a difficult life scarred with sin, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian 354). Jesus told her that He loved all of His creation, symbolically like a tiny hazelnut, perfect and round, existing in its current state simply because of His love for it (Julian 352). She learned that this love held power, that it was not His anger that keeps the Creation functioning, but His beautiful, sacred, all-encompassing, unconditional love.

I have never heard Julian’s story at church, and I doubt I ever will, but it is beautiful to me in the same way ancient cathedrals, monasticism, and holy art are. I find comfort in her story of Christ’s love during a time in history many Mormons write off as the confused spiritual dark ages of the Apostasy. Mormons do not pray to saints in the way Catholics and Anglicans do, but if we did, I would give special attention to St. Julian of Norwich; that strange, prophetic mystic who found Christ’s love when all others thought it lost.

***

Twice I have prayed in the shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey. Each time I felt so right in doing so. As a Mormon I am not supposed to believe in intercessory prayer, but I like to think St. Edward was at least listening in from the other side of the veil as I recited the holy lines repeated twice each day in his honor.

Mormon sainthood is communal, and achievable by all. When we’re not judging each other like we too-often do, we’re holding each other up and serving like we know we should, and I like that. We are sanctified in our Christ-like love for each other and through sacred covenants we make with the Lord.

And whether we like to apply the principle using Catholic terminology or not, our living prophets and apostles serve as intercessors by reaching God and receiving revelation in ways most of us cannot. We hear stories and miracles from their ample life experiences, and learn from them periodically. We choose which ones we like best, those who connect to us and our unique lives most deeply. We pray for them. One man’s St. Augustine might be another man’s President David O. McKay; it’s not really that different.

***

When I was sixteen years old, I rode in a charter bus full of fellow LDS teenagers for over twenty-four hours. Our destination, Martin’s Cove, Wyoming, means a lot to those of us descended from Mormon handcart pioneers. It was there they sought refuge, and many found peace, both beneath the grave and above it.

This Pioneer Trek, often criticized as a spirituality-manufacturing exercise for the youth of the church, surprised me in the ways it impacted me. Sure, there were several heartfelt (if not forgettable) devotionals under the stars, sermons offered in the godly solitude of rural plains. We sang a great deal, dressed in period costumes, and pushed our handcarts for miles, but these oddly-endearing rituals did not impress me so much as simply being there.

Walking where my grandmothers and grandfathers walked—some from the Eastern and Southern parts of the United States, others from England, Ireland, Wales, and Scandinavia—taught me to feel history in the air I breathed and the dust I touched underfoot. I wept at Martin’s Cove without reserve. The place felt holy. We visited an unmarked grave where children, mothers, and fathers ended their journeys, never making it to the Mormon Zion promised to them. I wept in sorrow, and I wept for sacrifice. The words to a triumphant LDS hymn rang softly through my mind:

“And shall we die before our journey’s through? Happy day, all is well! We’ll then be free from sin and sorrow, too. With the just we shall dwell.”

***

If there is one sound Christians love above all other earthly sounds, it is ringing church bells. LDS buildings seldom, if ever, contain these fixtures, but most Mormons I know delight in chiming belfries. I remember hearing the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral for the first time one Sunday morning, calling Londoners to church in the same way they always had since 1675; a clamorous, chaotic song, producing no particular melody, yet enveloping its surroundings with jubilance and warmth often absent in the grey city streets.

BYU built its own bell tower during its centennial celebration in 1975, three-hundred years after the construction of New St. Paul’s. It plays “Come, Come Ye Saints” on the hour, and I know this is a rather odd tradition, but I like it. It suits us. I don’t remember the first time I heard it ring; I must have been a young child, visiting my parents’ alma mater on a family vacation and appreciating the loud, exciting sound it made. I couldn’t have know that fifteen or sixteen years later I would be exploring England’s cathedrals and their grander, older, louder bell towers, just as astonished and in love with the joyful noise as I had always been.

***

Another piece of Krister Stendhal’s advice is “don’t compare your best with their worst” (King). I usually have the opposite problem.

I compare ancient Anglo-Saxon wall paintings hidden in the stonework of thirteenth-century cathedrals to the brown burlap wallpaper embellishing brand-new Mormon meetinghouses. I compare eloquent vicars and archbishops delivering beautiful sermons on love and hope through the war and tragedy that marks our current world with 65-year-old high priests preaching the imminent dangers of gun control and gay marriage over the pulpit during testimony meeting. I compare devout Catholic nuns with those LDS sister missionaries who serve, unprepared, due to peer pressure. I compare the stunning Rubens painting in King’s College Chapel to my roommate’s smiling Jesus. I compare holy Anglican chant with obnoxious, simplistic sunshine songs.

Are these fair comparisons? Not at all. But I notice these idiosyncrasies, this huge gap in aesthetic expectation between Mormonism and older forms of Christ worship, and I hate it. I know that we have beautiful temples, decorated down to the very last door hinge and bursting with sacred symbolism. I can appreciate that our holiest places are rife with intentional beauty and historical significance. But in our day-to-day worship—the chapels and meeting halls accessible to all, the services and music shared among congregants—I miss the beauty found in even the humblest of old British churches.

***

My father is an organist for a local Lutheran church, and every Christmas Eve I attend their 11PM service with my family. LDS churches don’t usually offer Christmas services, instead opting to leave the time open for families to celebrate with their own traditions.

Our Lutheran-for-a-night tradition closes with the lights completely dimmed, candles lit in unity, and a singing of “Silent Night” as the clock strikes twelve and the day we celebrate our Savior’s birth arrives. The next morning will bring presents and rich foods, but for that brief moment, the time between the sacred and the worldly, I feel peace. We are as Mormon as can be, but only a tradition outside of our own gives us this opportunity for midnight contemplation. That night we will return home and my father will read from Luke 2, with our heirloom King James Bible used for that purpose alone, and I will remember. These things never change.

***

My ancestors, not so long ago, left their compulsory membership in the Anglican church to join the Mormons in America, finding in the New World a life that offered better than backbreaking factory work and terrible mining conditions available to them in Britain, and I do not doubt that they believed in the teachings of the Restored Gospel. If they could hear my complaints now, I’m sure they would think me ungrateful for their sacrifice and silly for wanting a revival of the very traditions they fled.

I know I am being judgmental and—some would say—highly unorthodox when I bash our LDS idiosyncrasies in favor of more deeply-rooted Christian traditions. I become so easily distracted by people in the church who see beauty differently and appreciate artistic movements I find completely unappealing. There is no question a large population of Mormons hates icons as much as that Hyde Park missionary, and when it comes to outside worship, comparatively few of us have ever set foot inside of a cathedral. It seems to me that most of us do not know what we’re missing.

But I must admit that beneath this comparatively rough exterior lies eternal truth. Because of my LDS faith, I am connected through time and eternity to those Englishmen who lived before me and practiced Anglicanism, and that is something the Anglican Church, in all its envy-producing grandeur, could never offer me. I may have a problem with our sunshine songs and smiling Jesus pictures, but even more than I hate their droning optimism, I love our Plan of Salvation and its requirement of both bitter and sweet. It gives meaning to life in a way not even ancient monastic traditions or hauntingly-beautiful Renaissance paintings can. I must remember to humble myself, to love my newborn strand of Christianity not in the way I love the ancient variety, but in a way of faith, hope, and charity—the love of Christ, and the eternity of family. I hope for cultural change that reflects my passion for Christianity’s awe-inspiring past, but do not depend on that for piety or supplication.

It isn’t always easy. I have sometimes been tempted to give up, put this all behind me—forsake my spiritual investments in the church in favor of something more aesthetically pleasing and historically gratifying. But then I remember the mountainous pioneer trails, and stories of ancestors who, just as stubborn as I, sacrificed everything so that my family could know the truths of our Restored Gospel generations later. For this, I am grateful, and in this, I find peace.

***

I walk to campus in the cold Utah air one morning, trudging through snow and watching new flakes fall upon the domineering Wasatch Mountain Range. For a moment, I feel the “passion of the past,” not in a ruined abbey or an ancient piece of art, but in the natural world around me and my place within it, here, in Utah. This snow, these mountains, and the icy chill that reaches through my coat belong not just to me, but to the family who so bravely came before. This place is home to its own kind of beauty; my own piece of history.

And I have learned that being Mormon does not keep me from appreciating more nuanced, traditional Christian beauty. It simply drives me to find it in other places, explore traditions of the past, and develop gratitude for Earth’s remarkable history in the process. Had I been born Anglican, I might have learned to take antiquity and its accompanying passions for granted. Perhaps it is the very sappiness of Mormon culture that forces me to value and perceive beauty in older, differing practices that I wouldn’t otherwise seek out.

Perhaps this is a blessing.

 

Works Cited

Froude, James Anthony. Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London. St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly, 1970. Print.

Julian of Norwich. “A Revelation of Love.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Concise ed., 2nd ed. Eds. Black, Joseph et al. Vol. A. Peterborough, Ont. Broadview Press, 2011

King, Dana. “Stendhal’s Rules.” STL Today. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 Apr. 2008. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.

Ricks, Christopher B. Tennyson: A Selected Edition. Harlow: Longman, 1989. Print.