You already know basic LDS doctrine–the idea of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. And that PBS special gave you glimpses into our homes and our peculiarities, and introduced you to some of the controversies and oxymorons we live with. But I still want to answer your question, What does it mean to be LDS.?
My instant answer is that the core of the LDS religion is an eternal view of everything–from before birth to long after death. It is a series of enlarging circles.
I write this from my woman’s perspective, and in 2007. Some things may change over the next fifty years, but this is what I have seen and been in my nearly 52 years of life as a Mormon.
As an infant, my parents’ firstborn, I was taken in my father’s arms and given a name and a blessing. There, I was at the center of a priesthood circle. Other men (probably my uncles, though of course I don’t remember), joined Dad as he blessed me. They each put one hand under my little body and one hand on the shoulder of the person standing next to them. They literally and symbolically supported me, and joined their faith with my dad’s. This circle–a prayer circle, if you will–is a common one in our community.
Though Dad was in his early twenties when he gave me that first blessing, he had already served a three-year mission for the Church in Finland, during which he anointed the sick and gave other blessings by the laying on of hands and by virtue of the priesthood (usually referred to as the Melchizedek Priesthood, but actually called the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God). Dad was never formally trained in this priesthood, but was ordained to various offices in it from the time he was twelve, learning “line upon line, precept upon precept.”
I suspect my father was tearful at the miracle of my tiny body, and at the responsibility I introduced. He was a student, pursuing an advanced degree, and Mom was a recent college graduate. Though poor and struggling under the rigors of academia, it was nothing new for Dad to claim priesthood authority as he blessed me, and, knowing Dad, he did this with great faith. I’m sure he blessed Mom before her hard labor began (I have watched him bless her several times before childbirth), and he would continue giving priesthood blessings to me and to my siblings throughout our lives–the most difficult one being at my brother’s hospital bedside after we were told he would not survive the injuries he had sustained in an accident. That brother, Dad’s namesake (Bobby), lifted his arms as high as he could when Dad walked into the ER room. Bobby was threaded and tubed to monitors and IVs, and being transfused. He said one word: “Hug.” And that’s it–that’s the picture. Dad is maneuvering around the ganglia of wires and tubes to embrace his son, and then to bless him. It’s a godly scene. It expresses the image I have of God–a corporeal being who can reach around our mortal mischief and earthbound wiring to embrace us in the fullness of His glory, no matter how damaged we are.
Later, when Dad’s pancreas failed, it was Bobby who blessed him. That’s the Mormon circle.
Often, at the beginning of a school year or at moments of crisis, a Mormon father will place his hands on the head of his child or of his wife and say the words, “In the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, I bless you.” He will try to open his soul to whatever words God would have him say. His faith that God can reveal things to him magnifies his sense of a divine and loving Father in Heaven, and also magnifies his love for the one he is blessing. That principle–that everyone can receive revelation, and that everyone can be a priest (and yes, a priestess)–is core to Mormonism.
By the time I was five, I learned the words to the most frequently sung Primary song: “I am a Child of God/ And He has sent me here/ Has given me an earthly home/with parents kind and dear.” I grew up understanding before I understood anything else that God was the father of my spirit, and knew who I was, that he knew me by name.
At age eight, I was baptized, and again surrounded by a circle of men and blessed by my father. This time, I was confirmed a member of the Church and instructed to “receive the Holy Ghost.”
At age twelve, I began what we now call Young Women’s. It has changed somewhat since I entered the program, and I like the changes. Each YW class starts this way: One of the girls stands and asks, “Who will stand for truth and righteousness?” The others then rise and answer, “I will stand for truth and righteousness.” Together, they recite, “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us, and we love Him. We will stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things and in all places…”
Again, that communal circle of commitment, and the individual reiteration of a real and loving God embrace a Mormon’s world.
I was still twelve when I got my Patriarchal Blessing, given (as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob blessed their sons) in the spirit of revelation. My grandfather was an ordained Patriarch, so my blessing begins, “Dear grand-daughter, Margaret Jean Blair.” Almost all Patriarchal blessings contain yet another message of God’s love. Among many other things, my blessing says that because I am the firstborn in my family, I am to “be a guide and to set an example for [my] younger brothers and sisters, even as a star sets the course for the mariner.” It also says something which became deeply important during my teenage years: “Know that your parents love you.”
When I went to the temple at age twenty-four, I was introduced to other circles and embraces. I began wearing “garments,”–underclothes which remind me daily of the promises I have made to God. I live in a world of symbols and metaphors. I wear them, and I love them. If I could, I would dance the temple rituals with uplifted arms and jubilant music. I would bless and receive blessings; I would praise and thank God with every part of my body.
I became a writer, a historian, a sometimes scholar, and a teacher. But I always understood that my most important roles would be as my husband’s wife and my children’s mother–just as Bruce’s most important roles would be as my husband and as their father.
One of the most beautiful days of my life was when Bruce and I went to the temple with our oldest daughter and watched her marry a good man. Mormon weddings don’t have long aisles and cathedral-filling organ chords. In fact, there’s no music at all, and we can’t see much of the bridal gown, because it is covered by temple robes. In a small room, furnished with a cloth-covered altar and fifty chairs or so, the temple sealer (in this case, my uncle–though it’s not usually a family member) gives counsel to the couple, and then instructs the groom to lead his bride to the altar. There, they kneel facing each other, and a sealer binds them together for “time and eternity.” It is a holy and quiet ceremony. The coordinated bridesmaid dresses and perfect cake wait until the reception.
After I die, I will be dressed in my temple robes for burial. My daughters will cover my face with my temple veil before the casket is closed. One of my sons will likely dedicate my grave–again in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood. This time, my body will be supported by pall bearers, probably my sons and grandsons. I hope many of my posterity will have served missions by then, and that my sons will have blessed their own babies. I hope I will see it all. I hope I will enjoy one living circle before I am enclosed in the earth: the circle where my husband and I hold a great-grandbaby right before she is given a name and a blessing.
So the core of my Mormon life, Pastor, is Jesus Christ. My life began by being consecrated to Him in the center of that priesthood circle, and it will end with someone dedicating my grave in His name. I hope that His name will also be engraved in the marrow of my bones and in the eternal cells of my immortal soul. I fully believe that He knows me by name, and that my name–with yours and everyone else’s–is already engraved in his hands and in his heart.
Margaret is a celebrated author, professor of English, and is also a contributor to T&S.