On Death, Discomfort, and Deity

Apr 30, 14 On Death, Discomfort, and Deity

 

Last July I attended a meeting on the dynamics of faith and doubt in Mormonism with presentations by Teryl and Fiona Givens and Richard Bushman. Toward the end there was a moment while others were speaking as Richard Bushman sat quietly, almost motionless, his legs crossed, a peaceful and relaxed look on his face. I became lost staring at the cap-toed dress shoe of his crossed leg. After a moment I noticed it moving, ever so slightly, gently bouncing almost imperceptibly. I realized what I was actually seeing was his heart beat. Watching it felt strange and intrusive, like I was seeing something I shouldn’t, like it was far too intimate for that crowded room and for a man I didn’t know. I wondered if he would he want me watching his heart beat? I watched it and I thought about his heart then I thought about mine. I thought about what hearts eventually do.

 

Bushman is an older, seasoned Harvard historian who, on his worst day, could likely run mental circles around me. Watching his heart beat brought me face to face with the reality that one day it will stop. Sooner or later all things that have a beginning must have an end. This is the expulsion from paradise. To my surprise a sudden sense of alarm and scarcity swept over me for this man I’ve only known from a distance. I didn’t want him to die – I wanted him to live forever, or at least to wait until I die. What would I do without him? I’ve enjoyed his books, his intellectual presence. Moving through From Puritan to Yankee I think I spent more time in the dictionary than I did in the actual book. I’ve warmed myself by his faith and honesty. In my moments of doubt I would often think “If someone like him can still believe then maybe I can too.”

 

Watching his heart beat I thought of my father whose faith has helped sustain mine and whose heart will sooner or later do what all hearts eventually do. What will I do then? With this thought the communal nature of faith was suddenly very apparent, the way we rely on each other. Someday all of the people who went before me, who led me to where I am now, will be no more. I won’t be able to call them and ask how they dealt with a particular problem, or ask them how their faith persists through new challenges. I won’t be able to rely on them. They won’t be around to spiritually cradle me and tell me everything will be alright.

 

This is a terribly lonely thought – the inevitability of the absence of everyone I’ve relied on. At 34 years old, as I stare into the mirror and notice the deepening lines on my face, Yeats’ famous words come to mind: “things fall apart.”[1] Life is flashing past and time marching onward and my memories seem so distant and surreal it’s easy to wonder if any of it really happened. I guess this is how life works. It’s taken me this long to believe it – the inevitability of aging and death, the sheer brevity of it all. It’s alarming to me but at the same time I realize it’s always been this way, and for me that brings comfort.

 

Recently, while watching the movie Life of Pi with my family, I found myself suddenly having to explain death to my 3 year old son. There was the lion that killed the goat, then the boy that killed and ate a large fish, which upon seeing, my son started to cry and shouted, “But he hasn’t found his family yet! He has to find his family!” a heartbreaking reference to Finding Nemo. I wanted to cry as I watched his little world get turned on its head. I’m not sure that was a good time to talk about death, but death doesn’t wait for the right time and knowing about it, knowing that it will come, kind of does mess us up. This knowing can enrich life as well but, one way or the other, it plants its seeds in our minds and colors our world with its brush – as it should.

 

As I contemplate the inevitable loss of these people who have served as pillars of my faith I think about Abraham who sought for the blessings of the fathers (Abr 1:2). It’s easy to assume that those who go before are blessed with something that makes them greater – something we are lacking that they will take with them when they die. I think we Mormons are all about this. It seems to me that there is always someone else in the chain who is perceived to have something greater – someone we pass on responsibility to – responsibility to receive revelation and sometimes even responsibility to think. “Moses,” we say, “tell me what you saw up there because I’m just a regular guy and could never make the trip.” We don’t know that Joseph Smith described Moses as “a stuttering sort of boy like me,”[2] and when we find out we give him a nod and a wink wondering at how humble he is as we have long ago placed our graven Joseph right next to the stone Moses[3], high on the sacred pedestal of mormon ritualized history.

 

As a child I took for granted that my father always knew just what to do. I assumed that once I had children I would as well. I let my 3 year old watch Life of Pi – Isn’t that proof enough that I don’t know what I’m doing? What’s funnier is that when I talk to my dad about this he tells me he had no idea what he was doing either. At times he felt inadequate and scared. This is often how I feel as well. My children look to me for answers but who am I that I should be looked to? Who am I that I should ascend the hill of the Lord? It turns out this is just what my dad wonders as he climbs and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what Richard Bushman wonders as well. And someday they will die and take their answers with them and I will be doing it on my own with my children watching on, worrying how they will ever be as in tune as I am.

 

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? As Adam Miller explains in his Letters To A Young Mormon, paraphrasing Annie Dillard, “There is no one to send but us. There never has been.”[4] Of course, in my universe there is no one to send but me, the individual. I now understand what the poet Rainer Rilke meant when he said, “ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone.” We may ascend the hill in groups, couples, parties, families, wards, but at the foot of the most jagged and sheerest cliffs of Sinai we each climb alone, uniquely alone yet still surrounded by a multitude of fellow climbers, each just as uniquely alone as the other. Onward I must go, invisible to the throng, ascending Sinai by myself. No one can pull me up. I was wrong to believe that anyone ever could. I go as I am and make my own mistakes and listen with my own heart because there’s no one else who can do it for me.

 

As I climb I feel exposed, vulnerable and insecure, and I hate to feel insecure. I acknowledge that flight from pain is an instinct that serves us well as a species, but unchallenged it will keep me hiding out safely at the base of Mount Sinai, quoting scriptures that describe the view from the peak. There is a kind of atonement in feelings of doubt and fear – a kind of union. As John Patrick Shanley explained in his play, Doubt, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost you are never alone.”[5] Not only is fully feeling this vulnerability the beginning of an atonement with countless others, but I believe with God and life itself. We should take it in. We should be faithful to it. Faith is a kind of commitment – It is not certainty. In fact, uncertainty is the only backdrop that gives faith any real meaning or beauty – without it faith is not faith. To deny the uncertainty we feel and call that denial ‘faith’ weakens real faith and stunts its growth.

 

Exercising faith can be incredibly uncomfortable, but I believe refusing to drink the cup we’ve been handed, excessively hedging ourselves against life, against discomfort, against the hard questions and the experiences God gives, while natural and understandable for sure, can become a kind of hardening of the heart. “Harden not your hearts” we are told. Stare pain and uncertainty in the face. Let it pierce your hands and feet. Try not to resist it. Let that pain drive you to search for truth “in the depths where it glittering lies”[6] as the hymn says. Let it teach you. Let it break down your assumptions and pay attention as it does. This is a process that has been paid attention to before. Let it knock you down. Be “sore amazed.” (Mark 14:33) Let it hurt as bad as it really does.

 

While hope is crucial, I think trying to snuff out the pain of every loss with a promise of some better future can sometimes be a way of hiding, of running, of recoiling from life – a way of not living where your body really is right now. I believe hope can coexist with pain without eclipsing it entirely, without cheapening it or rescuing us from the truths it would teach. Additionally, I’ve noticed in myself a tendency to let the idea of a better future rob the present moment. This is more obsessive preparation than hope, more of a response to pain. I can spend so much time preparing that suddenly life has passed. While Jesus did talk about preparation for an afterlife his methods seem to revolve around being present, of being firmly rooted in this life and in this moment. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matt 6:34)

 

Jesus lived in the now. I don’t believe he was faking it when he wept after finding out Lazarus had died, and I don’t think he knew he would raise him. I don’t believe he remembered a preexistence. I don’t believe he could see over the wall into the afterlife. “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.” (Hebrews 2:6) He wept when Lazarus died. He’s showing us what it looks like to be alive, to fully feel and acknowledge loss. He didn’t hide it behind a facade of faith. He was present. He felt the loneliness and let it be real and painful. It stung him and those around him saw and responded saying, “Behold how he loved him!” The people in the Middle East have a very expressive way of weeping over their dead, very different than the way we might weep here in the west. I picture Jesus crying like someone who isn’t afraid of what anyone else thinks and whose heart has just been ripped apart. He’s showing us how to be alive. He’s showing us what it looks like to be a God.

 

Not only is God to be found in that pain, so is everyone else. These pains are the underpinnings of our striving for at-one-ment. This hunger drives us to search. “Blessed are all they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) Often it is pain that draws us together. It’s hunger. It’s loss. In fact, the central act of Christianity, an act intended to connect us to each other, is one of suffering, of staring pain in the face, of discomfort, of insecurity, of faith amidst crushing doubt and fear of failure, of hope, of love, of empathy, and, in a word, of life.

 

This must be what it’s like to be a god – to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We stand in the fray. We remain intimate, open, and vulnerable. We tremble. We love. This is where I really learn. It’s where I find God hiding – when I’m out of my comfort, out of my habit, not safe, having to think hard thoughts because it suddenly matters. When I’m cold and away from my books and my stomach is growling. Where books seem empty and words lose their power. My eyes snap open breaking away cobwebs. Whether at my kitchen table or up in the mountains this raw hunger, this yearning, puts me out on the cutting edge of life. I find myself once again on the anvil of revelation to be pounded and hammered and shaped by truth, by life, by God. In these moments I begin to grasp what Jesus may have meant when he said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)


[1] Yeats, W. B. “The Second Coming.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2014. <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15527>.

[2] Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980. 381 Print. This was Joseph’s final sermon.

[3] Not to be confused with The Stone Roses. Wait, what?

[4] Miller, Adam S. Letters To A Young Mormon. Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2014. 46. Print.

[5] Quoted in Boyd J. Petersen. “Soulcraft 101: Faith, Doubt, and the Process of Education” Sunstone (2009): 47. Available at: http://works.bepress.com/boyd_petersen/4

[6] Jaques, John. “Oh Say, What Is Truth?” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Oh Say, What Is Truth? Web. 15 Mar. 2014. <https://www.lds.org/music/library/hymns/oh-say-what-is-truth?lang=eng>. In the line quoted I believe the author was making a reference to Joseph Smith’s letter from Liberty Jail where he states, “…the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.”

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David Nicolay

David Nicolay is the man and does man things. Also, he was born and raised in Kansas where he attended a community college almost long enough to obtain an Associates Degree. Almost. He and his wife have 2 children so far and live in Salt Lake City where he works for an internet service provider.

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6 Comments

  1. Corbin
    Corbin /

    What you have written moves me deeply, David. Thank you for that.

    You words remind me of Thoreau, who wrote, “‎In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.”

    And on a more personal note, I was going through some old things last night and found a letter I had written to my mom when I was 6. It said how much I love her, and concluded with, “I hope I die before you do.”

    She passed away fourteen years ago.

    “But she is in her grave, and, O!
    The difference to me!”

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  2. Jonathan Cannon

    This moved me, too. It crystallized many things I’ve thought or tried to say, but in a way I couldn’t do. You brought together emotion and relation and thought beautifully.

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  3. amanda tice /

    Thank you for this. It’s beautifully written and just what I needed to help motivate me to search deeper and work harder to re-connect with God.

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  4. I’m sitting here in stunned silence. So profoundly moving. It deeply resonated. Thank you for writing. And thank you for sharing.

    While the entire thing deeply resonated with me, your words about Jesus living in the now, and truly weeping/mourning and facing pain without thought of the “after”–that was something extra special.

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  5. Laurel
    Laurel /

    Just have to add my thanks. I have been one to try and shelter myself emotionally out of a fear of not being able to handle things, but I have found how much greater my faith increases when I am willing to live in and face the pain without giving into despair (which is often another way of not facing it.) I am stronger than I thought when I am present in Christ who runs away from nothing, and overcame everything be being present in it.
    Thank you again for this beautiful post.

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  6. Thank you. To me this is sacred text. Bookmarked. Printed. Kept.

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