Embellishing Spiritual Experiences

It was the late 1980s. Las Vegas, Nevada. The Church had just completed construction of the Las Vegas Temple. I was in highschool at the time, and the leadership of my Southern California ward decided to plan a youth field trip to the Open House. I have various random, but vivid, memories from the trip: Flirting via CB-radio with the occupants of a minivan on the ride up, heckling a prostitute and her John at our motel, being handed anti-Mormon literature outside the temple, etc. Most vivid of all, however, are my memories of walking through the Celestial Room. Although I’d been inside a temple before (to do baptisms for the dead), I’d never visited an actual Celestial Room, and I thought it was pretty impressive. No, I didn’t have an overwhelming spiritual experience that changed my life, but I did think it was an amazing, spiritual place, and I was quite taken aback by its beauty. I also made a point of looking around at all the other people walking through the room, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, to gauge their reactions. It seemed that most found the experience similarly impressive, and there was very little conversation, except in hushed tones.

The following Sunday was Fast and Testimony Meeting in my home ward, and the Bishop announced that the bulk of the hour would be set aside for the youth to talk about their experiences on the recent temple trip. I didn’t go up to the pulpit myself, but several other youth did, including a Young Woman named “Jenny.” Through flowing tears, Jenny shared in vivid detail her thoughts and feelings as she walked through the holy building. The climax of her narrative took place in the Celestial Room, where Jenny said she was totally overcome by the Spirit. She apparently found the experience so moving that she cried profusely while walking through the room. Then, at one point, she looked around to gauge the reactions of others in the room, Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

“Brothers and Sisters,” Jenny exclaimed. “When I looked around me, I suddenly realized that everyone else in that room was also crying along with me! Everybody! Even the non-Members were brought to tears! Let me assure you that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house!”

Jenny closed by bearing her testimony, and sat down. All in all, hers was a very moving performance. Her testimony seemed heartfelt, and was rhetorically effective in conveying the meaning and spiritual intensity that she wanted to convey. I have no doubt that she was sincere in her recounting of the experience, and really related the event just as she remembered it. But unfortunately, much of what she said was completely false.

For you see, I was standing only a few feet behind Jenny the entire walk through the temple. The entire time that Jenny was in the Celestial Room, I was standing right behind her. And Brothers and Sisters, let me assure you that NOBODY in that room was crying. O.K., I can’t really say “nobody” — maybe somebody was. I didn’t scour the room for evidence of tears. But I didn’t notice a single person crying in the Celestial Room the entire time I was there, and since I was consciously observing the faces around me, it’s virtually impossible that I would have missed something that obvious.

Was Jenny lying? Was she intentionally exaggerating to spice up her narrative? Possibly, but I really don’t think so. I really believe that she believed that everyone in that room had been crying. Everyone. That’s what her memory of the event was. So that’s what she shared with the congregation the following Sunday.

I probably wouldn’t even remember this incident, but for what happened next. After the meeting came to a close, I was approached by my 12-year old cousin, Darcy. Darcy knew that I had gone to the Open House, and she assumed (correctly) that I had been in the Celestial Room at the same time as Jenny. Darcy was a very emotionally effusive person, and she knew me to be exactly the opposite: a stoic, unemotional robot. So she made the following statement to me: “Aaron, that’s soooo neat that you got to go to the Temple! And that’s soooo sweet that you were crying in the Celestial Room! I mean, you don’t ever get emotional like that!” Darcy then walked away before I could respond. I stood there a bit mystified by her strange comment. Then I remembered what Jenny had said, and realized why Darcy had jumped to the conclusion she did about my alleged sobbing.

At the time, I was simply irritated with Darcy. “Oh great,” I said to myself. “Now Darcy’s going to go falsely tell everybody in the family that I’m a “crier.” Just what I need!” However, as the years have passed, and I’ve looked back on that incident, it’s taken on a new significance for me: An entire congregation had been informed about an amazing spiritual experience had by one of its members. Certain of the details of that experience were crucial in giving it a quality worth remembering and possibly recounting. There was no obvious reason for the listeners to doubt the details of the story. Surely some in the congregation would reference this event to others, including the details about mass weeping brought on by the Spirit, just as Darcy did. And those details were totally and utterly false.

We have had recent discussions on the reliability of historical accounts of spiritual or visionary experiences in Mormon history. And as the critical historian turns his eye to the past, there are various questions he might ask: What is the evidence that Incident X, Vision Y or Transfiguration Z really occurred? Did the actual witnesses of the alleged event record their experiences? Or were they merely recorded second-hand by non-witnesses many years later? If the actual witnesses did record their experiences, did they do so immediately, or only decades later, after their memories have had time to evolve into something other than what they used to be? If the actual witnesses didn’t record certain notable details of their experiences, why not? What do their omissions suggest about the reliability of the traditional versions of these events?

These are all good questions. But I have an even more fundamental one: If a sincere, first-hand participant in a spiritual experience can get the basic facts of her moving experience so terribly wrong less than one week after having it, how reliable is anybody’s testimony regarding their spiritual experiences?

Aaron B

Comments

  1. Is this Sunstone Lite?

  2. Aaron Brown says:

    It may appear that my post merely raises the same issues that John H’s recent post raised, but I don’t think so. John H’s post goes to the question of whether we interpret our spiritual experiences correctly. In contrast, I’m speaking to the issue of whether we can trust anyone to accurately represent “the facts” of their experiences to others, or to themselves … never mind how they ultimately choose to interpret those experiences.

    Aaron B

  3. J. also may simply have been mistaken. She may have been projecting her feelings onto others in her memory. People sometimes simply remember things incorrectly…

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    Lowell — please expound on what you mean by “stuff like this.”

    Aaron B

  5. Lowell,

    Like my mama always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” or “If you don’t have anything to contribute, then…” or “If you don’t have a solution, keep your complaints to yourself” etc. etc.

    Not to be peevish myself, but – why are you obviously reading all this, not to mention posting (which, in and of itself is fine and appreciated) if you aren’t interested in what’s being said?
    “Sunstone-lite” is cute, but in implying the pretentious elitism (my interpretation) of those discussing, aren’t you automatically guilty of condescension/elitism yourself? Pride is such a tricky little thing.

  6. Oh!!! Yeah Bob!!!
    I want to see that movie. It could seriously be the most irreverent fun I’ve had since cheerio racing under the pews was banned at age five.

  7. Aaron Brown says:

    So, Dave, am I a charlatan or a pious fraud? :)

    Nate, I’m only “slightly” cynical? Please.

    Aaron B

  8. Sorry for my peevish comment. I just don’t get the fascination with stuff like this.

  9. We’re not sophisticated and European enough to call it Sunstone Lite. Actually, we’re just diet sunstone. All of the pretension, none of the intelligence.

    (This is our second literary analogy this week. Just a few days ago, Kaimi likened us to the New York Post and Steve to Rupert Murdoch. I personally won’t rest until we’re being compared to the Economist…)

  10. Yeah, memory is a tricky thing. I just love those PBS specials about the mind and how it works and how our memories are shaped. What’s the show called with Alan Alda?

    It seems we humans are totally unreliable creatures.

    I think you post is very fair to Jenny, giving her the benefit of the doubt, but I also think that you should probably acknowledge the potential flaws in your own memories.

    It is of course natural to give more weight to your own memory of the situation than to Jenny’s. It is your memory after all. Personally, I’d be more inclined to believe you over her.

    But that doesn’t necessarily make your memory of the situation the right one. Calling Jenny’s memory “Totally and utterly false.” gives more weight to your recollections than may be warranted, given the flawed nature of the human capacity to recall things correctly.

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    Yours, or other people’s?

    Aaron B

    :)

  12. “A teenager wouldn’t tell an outright lie in church, would they?”

    I know I did.

  13. “Misinterpret.” That’s a fairly vacuous term. Why don’t we borrow terminology from the JS biography industry and apply it to this experience.

    Was J (the young woman who made the report) a charlatan or a pious fraud? A charlatan means that one is more or less a knowing liar. A pious fraud means that one somehow believes fully what one is saying despite it being false, or perhaps one merely embellishes or exaggerates for better effect.

    I guess I’m leaning toward pious fraud. A teenager wouldn’t tell an outright lie in church, would they?

  14. “Was J (the young woman who made the report) a charlatan or a pious fraud?”

    Are those the only choices…

  15. Along similar lines, but in a more directly religious vein, I’d recommend the book Life of Pi. I’d quote from it, but my copy is loaned out. Perhaps the most profound thing I’ve ever read about the slippery relationship between fact and truth.

  16. As I am prepared to accept at face value the descriptions of meaning-filled spiritual experiences that have been received by persons under the effects of datura, and as described in Carlos Castaneda’s writings, I don’t doubt that parts of minds can be unlocked by LSD, too.

    But I wouldn’t recommend either of those approaches to spiritual opening. There are safer and more traditional ways of accomplishing the same thing through yoga and meditation.

  17. Aaron Brown says:

    Clark, don’t you ever go to bed?

    Aaron B

  18. Granted, there is a third choice: that J accurately reported what she observed–that everyone in the room was actually crying–and that Aaron is mistaken, either in his original observations or in his recollection. And thinking back to some of Aaron’s earlier posts about his adventures in the MTC, it seems he, too, can be quite a storyteller when he sets his mind to it . . .

  19. Great question Wouldn’t you like to know. I too have friends that have had this exact same experience.

    It is a question that deserves its own thread.

  20. Hmm… “stuff like this” fascinates me, personally. Have any of you seen the movie “Big Fish”? I guess I should make the disclaimer that the type of behavior Aaron refers to is in no way unique to Mormonism. But I’ve seen enough first hand to make a pretty good Mormon “Big Fish” movie. Of course, maybe I’ve just made up all of my first hand experiences with “stuff like this”. :-)

  21. Wouldn't you like to know? says:

    I apologize in advance for taking this topic on sort of a hard left turn, but I am curious as to what you might think of the “spiritual experience” scenario I’m going to present. (If anyone is reading this thread anymore anyway). I am sincere here and not attempting to be blasphemous.

    What about spiritual experiences while under the influence of drugs? Yes, you read that correctly. Let me explain:

    I have a close friend who was raised in the Church in a good, active family. During his adolescent years, he “rebelled” and became seriously involved in drug use, among other things. He had a good friend at the time who was not LDS and also very caught up in the drug scene with him. Well, (I’ve heard this story first-hand, whatever that’s worth) one time they were “tripping” on LSD together when they both had a very powerful spiritual experience (sorry, no details). Now, before you dismiss it as only the effects of the drug, read further. This experience had such an impact on them that they made significant life-changes. The member literally changed his ways, changed direction, and went on to serve an honorable mission. He is still active today. What happened to his non-LDS friend? After the spiritual experience (on drugs, mind you), his friend decided to hear the discussions. He was baptized, went on also to serve a mission and is still active in the Church today.

    What are we to make of this? For my friends, the experience was a very real one, and obviously had a positive and lasting impact. When one looks at the results and testimony of those involved (which admittedly, you readers can’t do – but you can believe me), it seems pretty clear that they had a powerful, real, spiritual experience while under the influence of LSD.

    Please don’t misunderstand this as encouraging or even tolerating experimentation with drugs. On the contrary, the experience led them both to completely abandon drug-use, recognizing its trapping harm.

    Maybe this event isn’t really all that strange at all. Maybe, despite (not due to) the influence of drugs, they were overpowered by the spirit etc. The difficult thing is, I think we experience the spirit in different ways, depending not only on our personality, but on our state of mind. I believe it was B.H. Roberts that said that revelation is and must be filtered through the mind of man and thus, immediatly limited or tainted on some level. So, even in an intoxicated state of mind, can a person receive revelation/knowledge with an artificially altered perception in a way that that altered perception can understand and acknowledge as true (even though the cause of the mind-alteration is presumably inherently sinful)?

    I know this is all pure speculation – but I’m curious what some of you might speculate.

  22. Judy Brooks says:

    I believe EVERYBODY’S spiritual experiences. I believe that they really experienced those things in some way.

    I have a good friend who “got to a real spiritual level” when she was investigating the ahsram and doing a lot of meditating. This LDS person was always feeling “spiritual” things more than I was.

    Another person I know prays about everything and tags a special “spiritual gift” line on everything that happens in her day. If she remembered to turn off the light before she went to bed, that was because there was a short in the cord, and who knows what might have happened if she’d left it on and been asleep. God was protecting her through her spiritual experience of remembering the light was on.

    I believe Joseph Smith really believed he saw God.

    I believe that people bearing their testimonies (for the most part) are recounting in a truthful way, what they have experienced.

    However……….that doesn’t mean that I have to change what I believe or how I act or what truths I cling to just because someone else has a feeling or a spiritual experience that seems to mean something to them.

    In fact, many of these people who have such spiritual experiences have no idea what to do with them. They are little bumps in their road of life that seem to confuse them more than anything.

    In fact, to take it even further—I’ve found that many people who experience grand spiritual experiences are a little out of touch with reality. But that’s another topic for discussion.

  23. I for one carefully aim for pretentious elitism in virtually everything that I post on the web. It is a way of distracting attention away from shallow ignorance…

  24. I think that the answer to John’s question must be that sometimes we misinterpret spiritual experiences. I think that the answer to your question must be that sometimes recollected events are inaccurate.

    On the other hand, my main reaction is “big deal.” All memories are to one extent or another inaccurate. How do I know that Aaron’s memory is accurate? Is it just that Aaron is a smart, slightly cynical guy, and Jenny is a silly, blubbering girl? Maybe Aaron was sobbing in the Celestial Room and humming Michael McLean songs to boot and has just blocked it out because it would be so damaging to his self-image. Note that his real annoyance was at the possiblity that his family would think him a “crier.” Remember the hermeneutics of suspicion goes both ways.

    All this tells us, however, is that spiritual experiences are . . . well . . . experiences subject to the same sort of problems as other experiences. It seems to me that the point of religious experience is not that it provides some umediated access to the transcendent. (Last I checked there were no Mormon Sufis, except perhaps for Clark.) Rather, the value of the experiences comes from their reality, which like all reality, is messy.

  25. In one sense, we never trust an other’s experience fully. That’s the point of gaining your own testimony, isn’t it?

    At a certain point, we tend to believe those classes of spiritual experiences we’ve experienced or had people we’ve trust experience. Those beyond that we distrust. (And probably appropriately so)

    As to whether we trust someone who claims an experience, we probably base that judgment on how well we know the person (i.e. prior claims) as well as what we associate with the consequences of the experience in question. You’ll note, for example, that people with, shall we say, purported strong spiritual experiences are very unlikely to believe people claiming the same kind of experiences but who go about blabbing it to everyone. Why? Because they tend to have associated with the experience a sense that one ought to be careful where one talks about it.

    But I think we’ve all known situations like Aaron mentions. I also think we all know at least one person with an overactive imagination who truly exaggerates all experiences.

    Should that be a judge to how we view various historical accounts? Most certainly. I think, for example, there are good reasons to doubt certain accounts of wandering Moroni visits told by a certain historical figure known for tall tales. (No — not Joseph. I believe him. The guy in southern Utah)

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