I remember the first time it happened.
We were all so young, partaking of literary glory as we sat, wide-eyed, in the London Centre classroom. Those thirteen weeks would teach us to live in the world and of the world: to taste, smell, touch, and read the history surrounding us with reverence and pleasure. It was too early to know the weight of the things we would learn – we’d only been abroad for two weeks – but we looked to the future with blind enthusiasm.
We sat that morning in plastic chairs, some of us wearing pajamas and disheveled hair. Sun beamed through tall Victorian windows as locals passed us on the streets below, reminding us of the living, breathing city we had the temporary privilege of calling home.
Our professor began class that day by asking us to find in our Norton Anthologies a name most of us had never heard.
“George Herbert is perhaps the best religious poet in the canon. His work is intensely devotional. One gets the sense he truly believed in, and loved, God.”
He spoke of George Herbert the man: a gifted orator who lost the monarchy’s preferment at court after Charles I ascended. Not wanting to waste his talents, he was ordained a minister and sent to a rural parish church near Salisbury – a far cry from his family friend, John Donne’s, famed position at St. Paul’s.
According to my professor, Herbert spent his last three years ministering to the poor and uneducated. Those he’d been called to serve could never appreciate his greatest talents, but that didn’t keep him from writing some of his best – and only surviving – works during that time. On his deathbed, he willed his collected poems to Nicholas Ferrar with instructions to publish them if they were any good, and destroy them if they weren’t.
Lucky for us, the man knew excellent poetry when he saw it. George Herbert’s The Temple is indeed marvelous. We carefully read from his greatest works one phrase at a time, tracing the lines with our fingers –
“Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.”
Our professor lectured on the metaphysical conceit: pure Christian love as host at a dinner party. The speaker in this poem, “Love (III),” considers himself entirely undeserving, but Love nevertheless insists he enter in all his unworthiness.
“You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.“
He ultimately accepts Christian mercy and grace, eating from Love’s perfect bounty even with the understanding that he’s better suited to serve than to partake.
We read from “The Collar,” in which the speaker, a minister quite like Herbert himself, stubbornly claims, “No more! I will abroad!”
He lists reasons to give up his place in the church – he has freedom to do whatever he likes, after all. Any religious obligations keeping him from celebration, gluttony, and happiness merely bind him with “ropes of sand” he has constructed for himself. His frustration is tangible and familiar. Our professor choked up as he read the last lines:
“But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.”
Our Lord calls out for us, even in our greatest moments of weakness, reminding us of our own fierce loyalty through the sharp and unexpected weight of His fatherly words. Many of us sitting in the classroom wept when we realized the immense implications of this poem, connecting George Herbert’s 17th-Century struggles to our young Mormon lives only beginning to grasp the eternal importance of doubt and spiritual tension.
This is the first time it happened.
When I realized that the “philosophies of man” could be as valuable as the scriptures I believe come from prophets of God. Even as I recalled a handful of youth firesides urging me to look in the scriptures for truth since it couldn’t possibly be found anywhere else in its purest form, even as I remembered countless General Conference talks warning me to avoid things “of the world,” I fell in love with this metaphysical poet who lacks a single mention in my church’s teachings. I looked to George Herbert for depth of Christian understanding I hadn’t known before, and he delivered.
I’ve spent over three years studying English now, and the role of literature in my faith journey has only amplified. I question if I’m wrong for choosing to memorize entire pages of devotional poetry without ever having the slightest desire to revisit scripture mastery. I wonder if turning to Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “Supernatural Love” to learn of Christ’s atonement is as religiously responsible as consulting Paul. Am I a bad Mormon for preferring Anne Lamott’s personal essays over anything Boyd K. Packer ever said? Maybe don’t answer that.
I do not know if basing much of my testimony on these “words of men” makes it less valuable in the eyes of God. I do know that it’s kept me firmly Christian in a world of postmodern thought that isn’t always conducive to sincere devotion. My professors have taught me to value wonder and awe; to read as far back as the medieval period and as recent as two years ago to embrace the inherent value of humanity – the wealth found in each of our stories, ripe for the picking.
And I wonder, is man not God’s greatest creation, as we are taught in Genesis? Are the talents bestowed upon our minds and lips not perfect examples of the power of His hands – scorching each of our tongues, like He did Isaiah’s, to preach His will and fortify the earth with our human words?
Reading godly, faith-affirming works written by men and women as woefully imperfect as I am gives me hope that our stories, words, and experiences mean something; that we live on this earth to learn from each other and share our stories just as the prophets of old shared their stories with us.
If I truly believe in a living gospel, it seems necessary that I also believe that the words of modern men, even non-prophets, (even non-Mormons!) carry meaning. If I want to believe in a Savior who loves women as much as He loves men – and God knows I do – I better believe that women’s stories matter just as much as Adam’s, King David’s, and Nephi’s; that those unwritten narratives so obviously missing from our scriptures can still be composed today and forever.
I find myself enraptured by words on a daily basis, and those words aren’t usually from sources endorsed by the LDS faith. It might be an especially poignant New York Times article or a poem I return to again and again. Sometimes it is the words of Christ from the New Testament, or one of my favorite bits of the Book of Mormon, but I have to admit I’m most likely to swoon when reading ordinary stories of ordinary people. Commonalities, in the end, show me grace in a way improbably large arks and vomiting whales probably never will.
Even now, as I reread poems from Louise Glück’s modern devotional text, Wild Iris, I feel God. I reach a fuller understanding of the nature of my Heavenly Parents, and love them more for it.The richness of thought I find outside the constraints of my religion breath life into my long-held beliefs, and I am made stronger in my faith.
You couldn’t pay any Mormon I know to claim the following words as doctrine, but nevertheless, they have changed me:
“You were always very young children,
always waiting for a story.
And I’d been through it all too many times;
I was tired of telling stories.
So I gave you the pencil and paper.
I gave you pens made of reeds
I had gathered myself, afternoons in the dense meadows.
I told you, write your own story.
. . .
You will never know how deeply
it pleases me to see you sitting there
like independent beings,
to see you dreaming by the open window,
holding the pencils I gave you
until the summer morning disappears into writing.Creation has brought you
great excitement, as I knew it would,
as it does in the beginning.
And I am free to do as I please now,
to attend to other things, in confidence
you have no need of me anymore.”
Maybe I’m beginning to believe in a God who’s left us on this Earth to learn from each other through the imperfect lens of human creativity. A God who loves us so much that He’s willing to watch us suffer as we attempt to reach glory independently through Christ. A God who speaks to us through signs we can never fully understand, whose compassion transcends all that we know. A God who has bestowed us with pencils made of reeds he gathered Himself.
I didn’t know this God before sitting in that London Centre classroom, realizing the intense spiritual thrust found in devotional poetry. I didn’t know Him before reading hundreds of poems, and sitting through hundreds of lectures and class discussions. I don’t hear about Him at church, and He’s rarely mentioned in the scriptures. He was missing at those youth firesides, and I’m not sure he’s ever come up during General Conference.
Even so, I believe.
I find him in stories; Mormon stories, Catholic stories, Jewish stories, Muslim stories. Books, poems, essays, articles, and blog posts. I find him as I write my own words, and feel Him when I tutor writers just learning to wield their God-given pencils with any confidence. I find Him in beautiful music and days spent among trees, those precious weeks when the daffodils bloom and I first note the sweet smell of honeysuckle as I pass by on the sidewalk.
My God does not limit His influence to visitations in sacred groves or dramatic burning bushes. He speaks to me through nature, through the kindnesses of others, and through the human lips he formed in the beginning. He knowingly blessed us with bodies that can speak and write; vessels inscribed with a burning desire to share, learn, and know. He’s given us the best of tools, and we are expected to use them fruitfully.
We must fervently quit bemoaning “the world” and the “philosophies of men.” I’d like to see a future when we teach Mormon youth to read widely and deeply, to seek God in unexpected places and learn to distinguish truth from deceit by consuming generous portions of each. I want to teach the youth of the church not to fear the views of outsiders, but to internalize them and empathize with them until the dichotomy no longer exists. I’d like to encourage scripture-reading, but also Shakespeare-reading, Beethoven-listening, and all sorts of poetry-memorizing. It will make us better people.
Maybe my ideal collection of Saints consists entirely of English majors. I understand why this could be problematic. But as I think back to that day in London, I remember that I was only one of two English students in the bunch, and an inexperienced one at that. I witnessed fashion design majors, communications majors, dance majors, and nursing majors feel the weight of Herbert’s devotion, and I truly believe that if properly exposed, we all can.
Now here’s the big question: when are they finally going to let English professors rewrite the Sunday school manuals? I’m waiting. Until that blessed day comes, I’ll gladly continue filling in the gaps by myself, and spilling my humanities-loving soul onto anyone who cares enough to listen. I may be insufferable, but at least I can recite some pretty decent poetry.