26 April 2009

The Cocoon

This morning I attended sacrament meeting at the chapel where Stuart Matis did. And where he left this life. I wanted to see the inside of the place, to see one of the wards there face to face. It ended up being ironic in several ways. I have to warn you, this post is calm but not always nice.

I arrived about 10 minutes early and sat in the rear pew near the chapel entrance. I wore khaki trousers and a conservative blue & white striped dress shirt. No tie, maybe that's what made the difference. If so, all the worse. Of the dozens of people who walked past me, including the missionaries, only one stopped to say anything, and he simply wanted to know if that was a Blackberry in my hand. The chapel was packed. Everyone busy talking and jostling babies and instructing fidgety children, ignoring the prelude music and the visitor in the back without a tie. The hymn singing was perfunctory and lackluster, as seems to be the norm in more and more wards. Even In Humility Our Savior, which is my all-time favorite sacrament hymn and profoundly moving when done right. You'd think that people who profess to have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ would sound more enthusiastic than that when singing a hymn whose melody is so beautiful and whose lyrics so perfectly capture the miracle of the Atonement.

I left after the sacrament was passed because I had another appointment and couldn't stay for the full meeting. But I probably would have left anyway. What is happening to me? Why am I more and more discontented with the weekly worship of the church I was brought up in and taught never to depart from because it was the ultimate repository of truth? Why do so many sacrament meetings strike me as more topic du jour seminar sessions than actual worship services? What's happened to the enthusiastic participation I saw and felt as a youth, both in myself and others?

Instead, where do I find myself as I write this? Where have I fled for actual reverence and inspiration and quiet reflection and real worship? Once again, Grace Cathedral. It's quiet now, evening services will start soon and they are likely to be small, not like the big set piece they have in the morning. I sit writing alone in the pew, pausing every few moments to gaze upward at the stone arches which soar at least 100 feet over my head. The sweet smell of incense still hangs faintly in the air, the same scent used at the ancient temple in Jerusalem. In the late afternoon sunlight the stained glass windows, which are everywhere--main level and clerestory--glow like tapestries of jewels and bathe the cathedral in a soft rich glow. A small choir starts to prepare for the evening service, singing a simple unison melody that rings up and down the nave, pure, sweet notes blending with an innocence and sincerity that I never heard this morning in sacrament meeting. The echoes take several seconds to die away. I wish they would keep going on and on. And now they're starting "All Creatures of Our God and King." Angelic.

There is a reverence here that I have not felt for years in any LDS chapel. A depth, a richness to the quiet. The stained glass windows are strewn with portraits of Christian heroes. The walls are frescoed with pictures of 100 years' worth of others who've built the cathedral and the Christian community. They all still seem to be present here. High along the transept walls are flags flown during the American Revolution. Another reminder of who went before, what they fought for and made possible for us. I can no longer deny that all of this resonates with and reaches me in ways that no LDS chapel ever does. The order of Mormon services, the designs of Mormon chapels, nothing about "the way we do things" on Sunday is divinely ordained other than the ordinance of the Sacrament itself. Everything else has been designed and designated by human beings. Our services have morphed over the years; having originally been designed by leaders who came from "Low Church" and ritual-phobic Protestant traditions, now they seem almost like business meetings sometimes, which I suppose is consistent with the evolution of the Church into a corporation and the ascendance of the power of the bean counters in Salt Lake.

As I sat in that comparatively ordinary LDS stake center this morning and looked about, I was struck by several things. One, the organist was a 20-something young man. Having been a 20-something young man ward organist, I always wonder when I see another one when he's going to come out. We are so anomalous. Two, one of the priests at the sacrament table was a dead ringer for Andrew Pankratz 10 years ago, it was astonishing. Both made me think of Stuart Matis who left his body on the stairs not 50 feet from where all those people were sitting, completely oblivious both to Stuart and to the statistical fact that there were more like him somewhere in their midst.

And I realized that in many ways Mormon life is like a cocoon. One I grew up in and frankly have learned to resent as I've gotten older. It is safe and insulated and looking out at the world through its diaphanous walls filters every perception you have about everything outside The One True Church. Mormon life places incredible demands on its members' lives, time, resources, and mind share. This perpetuates the tendency, often unquestioned, to look at everything in life through Mormon-colored glasses. Things that don't quite fit or make total sense in a Mormon cultural and theological model, like whether capitalism might actually have some drawbacks, or whether God might not mind so much about His gay children as some of His straight children seem to, well, those just don't compute so we'll just not think about them. We're too busy anyway.

But you know what? The world is HUGE, SO much bigger than it looks through The Mormon Cocoon walls. So much more complex, nuanced, filled with colors and grey areas and unanswered questions and astonishing beauty and achievement that has nothing to do with the Church. So much knowledge that doesn't flow through BYU or Correlation. So much faith and Christlike action that knows nothing of Mormonism. But growing up inside the cocoon, I never knew any of that. There wasn't time to learn it or be exposed to it. I had to stick to the map that The Church had laid out for my life, because The Church told me that was the only way I could get to the only acceptable end-goal in the celestial kingdom. Anything else was second-rate and therefore to be disdained. Lots of black & white thinking resulted. Lots of judgmentalism. Lots of us vs. them attitudes, lots of inflexibility, intolerance, obsession with statistics and performance and a loss of focus on the fundamentals. And lots of lost opportunities to go places and meet people and learn things that were out in the world just waiting to be explored, but all rejected out of hand because they weren't connected to The Church, or else The Map's dictates meant that I didn't have time for them. I had to stick to the schedule. More like the railroad track, actually. And I'll be honest. I resent it.

I can't help contrasting that with what I saw in the evening service at the cathedral tonight. I was surrounded by people of every race and color and age and orientation, all there in a Christ-focused service of worship to recommit themselves to following the Savior's example. It was simple and profound. The consistent focus of each message and song was the Savior and how we respond to His message. The cathedral is high atop a big hill in the middle of a bustling city. Getting there takes some commitment. But these folks were there because they wanted to worship the Savior and hear His words. I can't remember the last time I went to an LDS sacrament meeting and heard a "talk" like the things I regularly hear in the consistently Christocentric Episcopal services.

So why do I stay? Pretty simple. I can go to Episcopal services for inspiration whenever I want. But apart from my testimony of the Savior and His gospel, I stay in the LDS Church because, as one lady at Grace Cathedral told me, maybe it is my mission from God to increase tolerance and understanding of God's gay children, to break down and overcome prejudice and fear, to smooth the path for my brethren and sisters who come after me, to take some of the hits so that they won't have to. I hope that doesn't sound pathetically noble, it's not meant to be. But somebody has to do it. I have been struck by how close in time Scott and I felt prompted to come out, and then we end up becoming friends and both increasingly vocal in our lives and our blogs for greater tolerance and understanding of homosexuality within the Church. Our kids are friends now too. Maybe his timing and mine weren't coincidence after all. Maybe we are privileged to be part of a small but growing number of people who are poking holes in The Cocoon and letting in some fresh air and fresh perspectives, helping to pry open some rusted-shut doors so the LDS Church of a future day will be a little more like the loving embracing arms of the Savior it purports to follow. If so, I will count myself very blessed to have been able to contribute my widower's mite.


MoHoHawaii said...

Beautiful sentiments, beautifully expressed. Thanks for the post.

El Genio said...

"the organist was a 20-something young man. Having been a 20-something young man ward organist, I always wonder when I see another one when he's going to come out."

Wonder no more, apparently I need to add this to my pink notebook.

Lisa said...

Beautiful entry.

You've made me long for somewhere near home where I can just be. The ironic thing is that I find peace in the oddest places. I used to find it in the baptismal changing rooms (I'd hide there when I had panic attacks), but it's not where my feet take me anymore when I'm having difficulties.

Anyway, thank you so much for this.

Bart said...

Totally agree with the power of a cathedral. Every time I visit one, I can tell that every aspect of it, from the tall, vertical lines, tall windows, and arched ceilings to the quiet, candles, and feeling of massiveness is made to draw the eyes and thoughts to heaven. Most of the times, in an LDS chapel my eyes are drawn up to the clock to see how much longer the meeting is going to be.

Beck said...

"I stay in the LDS Church because, maybe it is my mission from God to increase tolerance and understanding of God's gay children, to break down and overcome prejudice and fear, to smooth the path for my brethren and sisters who come after me, to take some of the hits so that they won't have to. I hope that doesn't sound pathetically noble, it's not meant to be. But somebody has to do it."

I was reading through your post searching for the "but" line and I found it. I am grateful that you said this. Whether you are noble or not, I can't say, but I can see that the good you can do inside the church community instead of outside is priceless.

Sarah said...

I have no doubt that timing is everything here. I marvel at how my life has changed within the last year. God certainly works in mysterious ways.

BTW, our kids are counting down the days until your kids are here again.

I think God also had a plan with sending us the children he did. They are priceless. They are all going to continue this legacy that we are starting. When our daughter survived being a newborn, even though the doctors gave her a 50-50 chance of survival, I knew that she had an important purpose on this Earth. I now have no doubt that this will be one of them. She has such a strong testimony for a 12-year-old, and yet she does not bat an eye at the concept of gay marriage. She does not feel the conflict, somehow, that we feel.

I've rambled on enough, but you got my mind going with this and the part we all have at this particular time. Thanks.

Grégoire said...

this is such an interesting article.

You know what I think? Mormonism as a tradition is only now reaching a certain stage in its historical development which denominations like the Episcopal Church of the U.S. have enjoyed for decades.

Someday there will be mystical facet to Mormonism, possibly drawing from early pioneers like Orson Pratt. There will be an intellectual/secular school of Mormonism too. These are all many years away... but I'm convinced they'll erupt, possibly when they're least expected.

Guys like you and me were simply ahead of our time.

GeckoMan said...

I too have this feeling of being on the outside looking in. Thanks for putting into words many of the feelings and observations I'm having lately.