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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.