[This post originally appeared on Times and Seasons.]
Gene England (1933-2001), Mormonism’s greatest personal essayist, wrote “Easter Weekend,” his greatest personal essay, twenty years ago. I reread it every Easter, usually on Holy Saturday. The following are only excerpts. It was originally printed in the Spring 1988 issue of Dialogue, was reprinted in the Autumn 2001 issue of Irreantum, and is available in full in The Quality of Mercy, a collection of his essays long out of print.
I didn’t know Gene well. But even many of those who didn’t know him well miss him, and look forward to someday hearing his voice again.
[Stopping over on his way to a conference in Montreal during Holy Week sometime in the 1980s (his inability to remember the exact date runs throughout the essay), Gene is in New York City, where he plans on visiting a friend and some museums and seeing a couple of plays. While walking through the city, he watches, with a feeling of superiority, various black hustlers and their pathetic white marks along Forty-second Avenue. He finds himself drawn into a shell game, to show off and to "save" another hapless tourist, puts down progressive larger bets, and ends up losing a $120, before realizing that he was the mark all along. Filled with embarrassment, racist anger, and liberal guilt, he meets his friend, and they go to a showing of Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" in the old Manhattan Ward meeting house, but Gene is unable to focus on the play.]
It hurts very much to think of you. How could you suffer not only our pains but also our sicknesses and infirmities? Did you actually become sick and infirm or did you merely feel, with your greater imagination, something like what we feel when we are sick and infirm? But could you actually “know according to the flesh,” as you say, if you didn’t literally experience everything with your body? And if you did literally experience our infirmities, did you know our greatest one, sin? Everyone says you didn’t sin, that you were always perfect. But how then could you learn how to help us? And yet if you did sin, if you actually became sick and infirm and unwilling, for a moment, to do what you knew was right, how does that help us? I don’t want you to hurt like this, like I do now, to be ashamed, to hate the detailed, quotidian past. Yet I want you to know the worst of me, the worst of me possible, and still love me, still accept me–like a lovely, terrible drill, tearing me all the way down inside the root until all the decay and then all the pulp and nerve and all the pain are gone.
Can’t you tell us directly, without all the mystery and contradiction, if what I feel is right? Could it be that your very willingness to know the actual pain and confusion and despair of sin, to join us fully, is what saves us? It’s true, I feel your condescension in that; I feel your coming down from your formidable, separate height as my judge and conscience. I feel you next to me as my friend. Did it happen in Gethsemane, when you turned away from your Father and your mission for just a moment? I think so. So how can I refuse to accept myself, refuse to be whole again, if you, though my judge from whom I hide, know exactly what I feel and still accept me? Yet it hurts so much to hear you tell Joseph Smith of your pain when you remember that moment in the Garden. You say, “Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit–and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink–nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.”
Was that preparation so painful, even when you recalled it as the resurrected Lord–and so many hundreds of years later–that you still shrank and could not complete your sentence? Is that pause between “shrink” and “nevertheless” the actual moment of your atonement? And why did you also tell Joseph that you will be red in your apparel when you come, in garments like one “that treadeth in the wine-vat”? Why will you have to say then, “I have trodden the wine-press alone, and have brought judgment upon all people; and none were with me”?
Who is it can withstand your love?
[Gene continues his trip through New York and on to Montreal, eating almost nothing, counting every penny, trying to figure out how make it through the days to come on the twenty-nine dollars cash he has remaining, "without getting any more money or admitting my plight--and in a way that would make me suffer (that seemed very important)." He gets to the airport, travels to Canada, presents his paper, feeling hypocratical about his claims regarding Shakespeare and "Christian ideas about healing the soul." He abandons the conference, wanders Montreal, and is struck by the stark racial differences between the streets of New York and the attendees at the Shakespeare Association meeting. He attends a Good Friday service at a small Protestant chapel, lost in thought.]
In the mid-seventies I sometimes went fishing at North Eden, a tiny delta and valley, opening into the east side of Bear Lake in northern Utah….On a mid-August morning before sun-up, one of Dad’s clients, who insisted on taking his Jeep Wagoneer, drove us east from Salt Lake City to Evanston and then north along the Utah-Wyoming border through Woodruff and Randolph, down the long incline to Laketown on the south shore of Bear Lake, then up the east side. I was alone in the back seat, only half-listening to my father’s usual cheery commentary and story-telling. My own thoughts were dull, almost despondent: I had been released from St. Olaf College the year before in what looked to me (and some colleagues) like a decision to remove my influence on students, one of whom had joined the LDS church. Then I had been turned down for a position at BYU, apparently because of concern about what parents might think about how a person of my unorthodox views and background might influence students. But I was also turned down at the University of Utah, because, as one of my former teachers there confided with regret, “This department simply won’t hire an active, believing Mormon.” (Which was I, too devoted a Mormon–or not devoted enough? Where was my home, my vocation? In Zion or in exile?)
My family had moved to Utah and were subsisting on my part-time institute teaching for the Church in Ogden and Salt Lake and a writing fellowship in the Church History Division headed by Leonard Arrington–and a large garden at our home in Kaysville. And I had begun to lose confidence. Perhaps I didn’t have a job simply because I wasn’t good enough, didn’t have enough scholarship published or good enough teaching evaluations to overcome those other qualms administrators were having (after all, I hadn’t been accepted at the other places I had applied to either). I had felt the mantle leave me when I was released as branch president in Minnesota, and so spiritual security had replaced it. I found it hard to pray, to remember what it had felt like to bless my branch members and family with complete assurance and to know with certainty the Spirit’s response. I wondered constantly, in blank repetition through broken sleep as we drove, if I had lost my way, if the Lord knew anymore that there was such a person as me. I wondered where the deepest part of me had gone.
We had out boat in the higher lake by 7:00am and headed for the upper end, where the fishing just out from the stream mouth had always been the best in late summer….Using wet flies cast with a bubble, we each took our limit of three trout over five pounds and (by mutual agreement of those fishing on this private lake) put back the many others we caught. Two that my father caught with his own self-designed version of a double woolly worm that ended in a red turft must have weighed over eight pounds. We tried some dry casting in the early afternoon, and I watched a huge brookie rise to take my dragonfly and then, coming in, suddenly turn uncontrollably under the anchor rope and snap the delicate leader–close enough that I could see the rich scattering of blue and red-gold aureoles down its side. I felt it go, with no regret. By four o’clock the wind up the canyon off Bear Lake was too strong, and we left. Dad and I both offered to drive, but the client, who had taken a nap, insisted he wasn’t tired and for variety headed around the lake to Garden City and down Logan Canyon, with me asleep lying across the back seat and Dad dozing in the front.
When I came up out of unconsciousness I had my hands on my father’s head and could feel his hair and blood. I couldn’t hear the words I was saying but I felt it from the blessing part of me, the deepest part, before consciousness. Dad was more conscious than I but more hurt. I gradually began to see the ground, the fir trees, then the cars just down from us. There was a blue Austin impaled at a slight angle into the front of the Jeep. All of the Jeep’s doors were sprung open, and the freezer of huge fish was splashed across the highway. I kept my hands on Dad’s head and began to hear his moaning, then felt pain emerging in my own chest and struggled to breathe.
Police came over soon and told me our driver had fallen asleep and run head-on into a blue Austin, which had been driven by a German tourist whose legs were broken in the accident. Ambulences were on the way. Each new face asked me where we caught the fish. Our driver, who wasn’t hurt at all, kept apologizing, frantically. He knew my father was dying. When the ambulences came they put Dad in the first one and tried to get me to lie down by him, but that made it even harder for me to breathe. At the Logan hospital they made me lie down for X-rays of my broken ribs and I nearly fainted. Then the technician told me they had seen what looked like a bruise on the upper aorta in my father’s X-rays and were going to rush him to Salt Lake because the artery could burst at any moment.
I asked the technician if he would help me give my father a blessing, and he nodded and went for some consecrated oil. We found Dad on a gurney in the next room, barely conscious, the whole left side of his face, where he had struck the dashboard, going purple. The words I used blessed him with life, specifically with the five years he had told me that spring he needed in order to complete the arrangements to consolidate our family investments and transfer them into the Church’s missionary funds. The words were given to my tongue, beyond my mind. I phoned Charlotte and Mom and told them we’d had a slight accident, and asked to call Dad’s friend, the heart surgeon Russell Nelson, and to meet us at the LDS Hospital.
But all confidence left me on the ninety-minure, blarins sirens ambulance ride to Salt Lake. I sat in the front seat, Dad and doctor and a nurse just behind me through a curtain. As the driver radioed ahead, asking Dr. Nelson to be ready and describing the emergency, I was constantly sure someone would soon push through the curtain to tell me the aorta had burst and my father was dead. When we arrived, Dad was rushed into surgery and Charlotte stayed with me while I got us checked in and walked to my own roon. Then I couldn’t breathe again. Charlotte got someone to look at my X-rays, which I was carrying; they decided that my collapsed lung needed immediate attention and sent Charlotte out while an intern gave me a local, made an incision, and pushed a hollow needle between my ribs and began to evacuate the chest cavity so my lung would reinflate.
Charlotte came back to tell me my father was fine–except for some missing teeth and a broken jaw. The new X-rays they had taken for Dr. Nelson showed no bruise on the aorta. I thought of the fish, the brookie, and the part of me that moved to give my father a healing blessing before I consciously knew anything. We were alive.
[Gene returns to New York City, where he and his friend go to see Kevin Kline perform in a less than satisying production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (Gene continues to come up with excuses for not eating with friend, and for putting off paying him for the tickets he has bought). Afterwards, walking down West Fourth Street, they pass a pair of black street musicians, and Gene, after waiting until no one is watching, furtively puts five dollars in their tip cup, just about all the money he has remaining. He catches a bus to the empty apartment of another friend, lent to him for the weekend, and tries to fall a sleep, but is troubled by strange dreams. Here, the narrative of the essay breaks off, and we instead find ourselves reading a communication, written in a very different voice, between one of Gene's ancestors and the Lord.]
This is my report. I have been assigned to George England, one of my descendants, for thirty years now. He carries my own name but does not use George often, though that is his first name. I have protected him well, but I do not understand him. I think I should remain on this assignment for at least one more ten-year term.
The main problem is that George understands what is right to do but does not do it. He knows more about the Atonement than I did when I was branch president in Lyme Regis–or even when I became a patriarch in Plain City after the crossing to Utah. He writes constantly about it, even when he is writing for the Gentiles about literature. Many people praise him for what he says. They write letters to him saying how he has helped them live the gospel better and helped them understand repentance. But he still does terrible things. It is still hard for him to be honest. He covers over his mistakes with lies. He pretends he knows things or remembers people or has read books when it is not true. I think he loves to do right, but he has a hard time being honest or kind when the chance to do so is sudden or embarrassing or when he is painful or lonely. If he has time to think, he is very often good, but is not when he is surprised.
When I helped him marry Charlotte Ann, you know much better he was for a while. He began to learn from her to be generous before he thought about it. He even began to be honest like she is, without toting up the cost. But after all that self-pity when he lost his job at St. Olaf ten years ago he began to be a hustler, to cut corners, to take advantage. I was able to use that car accident to help him know he was good. And when you arranged for him to be a bishop, that was fine for a while. But he seems to have lost contact with Charlotte Ann. He isn’t listening to her very well, and he isn’t telling her what he really feels. I think she is getting tired.
Perhaps he is writing too much. I am certain he is not praying enough. He is worried, though, and wondering–sometimes frantically, I think–why there is not someone to help him as he has helped some who have needed him. He does not seem to be able to ask for help. Perhaps something will happen that we can use. I hope so. My heart reaches out to complete the circle. I think some good chances will come now that he is in a bishopric again and working with the Primary and the Cub Scouts–and also when he becomes a grandfather in two years.
I am sorry about the language of this report. I know you want me to learn from him, but it is hard when he talks so very little. Please excuse all mistakes.
[Gene sleeps late. He awakes and goes to the Metrpolitan Museum of Art, where he finds himself drawn to the Manet painting, "The Dead Christ with Angels," a painting that, unlike many other depictions of Christ, captures "the dark time of struggle as Christ's divine spirit is still creating the resurrection from within his still-dead mortal body, with the angels still sorrowing, holding him up, urging life to return." Afterwards, he leaves the museum, and takes the bus across Central Park to attend sacrament meeting at the LDS-owned office building on Sixty-fifth and Broadway. It is a testimony meeting.]
After the choir’s “Easter Hymn” and a women’s quartet singing “The Lord’s Prayer,” the choir leader (Andrea Thornock, I see from the program) sang “He Was Despised” from the Messiah. She had dark hair and wore a long surplice-like overdress. It was made of what looked like velvet and was dyed a striking grape red. Her somber alto voice reminded us of the costs of salvation: “He was despised, rejected, a man of sorrows”–in that three-note dying fall on “sorrows” her voice pronounced exactly the grief that must have come from Handel’s own pain. She looked straight into our eyes as she slowly turned and looked across the congregation: “He hid not his face from shame, from shame and spitting.”
Then Liz Hodgin, in a lovely floral print and a pink hat, sang the soprano solo, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” that has been called, by Kenneth Clark and others, the greatest piece of human music. But it is that, I believe, only when it is sung by someone, like Liz, who believes, who sings her own testimony as well as Handel’s. And our hearts were lifted from the depths Andrea had properly taken us down to. I blessed Andrea for planning such a program and for being part of it, for remembering, though we Mormons don’t often notice Good Friday, what that somber day is meant to recall: that Christ was suffering servant as well as glorious victor, that, like the sinners the rest of us are, he had to die before he could be resurrected.
The bishop bore his testimony, not about the Resurrection but about the power of repentance, which he had experienced personally. A brilliantly dressed businessman picked up the theme by confessing, in a careful, broken voice, how Christ had changed him twenty years before, suddenly, completely. A short man with a beer belly, thinning long black hair, and a black leather jacket, almost a caricature of the aged hippie, spoke softly of his long, slow, still backsliding conversion. And a young Puerto Rican on the bench in front of me, who had been clearly struggling for courage to get up, spoke last. He told how a few weeks before he had made a Saturday trip to see this strange part of New York, had wandered into the LDS visitors center on the main floor just below us, and had met some missionaries and had joined the Church. He tried to describe his former sins and how he had changed. “I’m sorry in all the world,” he kept saying. “I’m sorry in all the world.”