Tesserae of My Faith

I had the honor of presenting during the Pillars of My Faith segment at Sunstone Northwest on Sunday. Below are my rough notes. Thanks to Mary Ellen Robertson and Molly Bennion for putting on a great symposium for a good community.

What are the pillars of my faith? My Mormonism is a community of Saints, a Zion of individual souls that come together to worship God and be saved through Christ. As such my fundamental image of faith is the mosaic, the wonderful art of forming a picture composed of countless individual tiles. I have in my mind the picture of God, the master Artist, placing each of us uniquely within his plan, cementing us together, ultimately forming a masterpiece.

I’m sure there’s nothing new to this metaphor — it even sounds cliche to me sometimes. But the symbol still resonates with me on a level that is hard to describe. The first time I thought of the Church in this way was shortly after finishing my mission, when I was touring through the Loire Valley in France with my parents. We came to the town of Germigny-des-Prés, which today is a fairly unremarkable farm village, but back in the year 800 it was a nexus of art and learning. Bishop Theodulf, who was one of Charlemagne’s closest advisors, had his country residence in this town, and he built there an oratory chapel, which looks at first blush like your garden-variety Carolingian chapel, but upon inspection you see influences from ancient Rome, as well as from Byzantium, Armenia and even Moorish countries. It is an Eastern chapel found smack in the middle of the West. But the real masterpiece of this little chapel is a mosaic tiled ceiling in its east wing. It has no equal in all of France and rivals the great Byzantine mosaics of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and San Vitale in Ravenna. The mosaic shows the Ark of the Covenant, flanked by cherubim on either side and featuring the hand of God, reaching down to touch the Ark from a starry sky. At the bottom is an inscription in Latin that reads, “”See and contemplate the holy oracle with its cherubim and the resplendent ark of the divine testament. Before this spectacle, beset the Thunderer with your prayers; and, I pray of you, remember Theodulf in your prayers.”

Theodulf himself is a character worth remembering. He was bishop of Orléans and was a major figure in the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of amazing arts and culture. Theodulf was avant-garde in publicly admitting that he read and enjoyed pagan poetry such as Virgil and Ovid; he believed in public education; and perhaps most importantly, Theodulf famously advocated a culture of hospitality, preaching that those who turn away the stranger or the poor traveler have no hope of finding a spot at God’s banquet table. Theodulf embodied a spirit of intellectual and spiritual curiosity, cultural inclusion and personal piousness that rival the best of us today. But in his little private chapel, beneath the stars of his mosaic, Theodulf asks us to strive to touch the Master of Thunder with our prayers and to contemplate the holy oracle.

When I first visited Germigny-des-Prés I only knew a little about Theodulf, and I couldn’t read the Latin inscription below the Ark of the Covenant, but I still remember me, this weak, tired 21 year old, staring up at this glittering scene of the stars and the Ark of the Covenant and the Hand of God, and I felt the presence of God, the Master of Thunder. I almost felt like Elijah, in Kings: I stood in the chapel and saw this mosaic, but the Lord was not in the mosaic. I saw the stars, but the Lord was not in the stars. I saw the Ark, but the Lord was not in the Ark. And after the Ark, a still small voice. I’ve been to many of the great cathedrals and religious shrines of the West, and in many of them I’ve felt the Spirit of God, confirming the reality of the Creator in my heart. But this experience in that little mosaiced chapel remains one of the spiritual highlights of my life. I’ve often thought about the history of that place and the beauty of those little gilded cubes of glass; it is amazing to me that such little things as those, when put together, could form a masterpiece that has such potential to bring us closer to God.

My view of Mormonism as a mosaic of Saints also stems, in part, from my upbringing. Like most great comedians and Mormons, I was born in Canada. I spent my youth between the cities of Vancouver and Calgary. If you’ve ever visited those cities — and every traveler should — you’ll recognize that there is an immense cultural divide between the two places: the first has a west-coast vibe coupled with a liberal metropolitan feel, akin to San Francisco. Like Seattle, Vancouver is a town of some quiet graces. It is encircled by old, green forests while the city itself is often shaded in mist. Calgary, my second city, is the Dallas of the North: an oil town, home to rodeos and a sense of frontier machismo. There is nothing subtle about Calgary. In the summer, it sits in the middle of a golden prairie with the Rockies in the distance. But the thing to remember about both of those wonderful cities is that they are both Canadian cities, and as such they are inherently superior to any American city, and also: they are chock-full of socialists. That’s right: Canadians, that cheery, helpful lot of Godless Communists who believe in things like high taxes and public options and libraries. Canadians are also desperate for immigration to fill up their frozen wasteland territories, and as such Canada embraces a multiculturalism instead of any single national dream or identity. In fact, in 1971 a federal law was passed to promote and enhance the distinct cultural identities of all Canadians. If America likes to speak of its “melting pot,” Canadians speak instead of — you guessed it — a mosaic. And so we see ourselves as a community of individuals, with distinct identities but the common and distinctly Canadian goals of peace, order and good government. Now that I think about it, I view my own cultural identity as a series of mosaic tiles as well; there’s hints of the Vancouverite, shades of the Calgarian, and of course a deep dark shadow over it all from when I became an American citizen.

And of course Mormons have been in Canada for hundreds of years, from the days Charles Ora Card was sent by John Taylor to stretch the polygamous stakes of Zion Northward. A Canadian Mormon is an odd thing, because we preserve much of the traditional Mormon culture even while remaining decidedly un-American. We make funeral potatoes, but don’t really care about freedom of speech. We attend early morning seminary, but have little problem with socialized medicine. From what I have seen, such is the experience of many Mormons outside of the United States — we are creatures of two worlds. From the standpoint of religious devotion and piety, we tend to be very conservative, often protective of the institutional Church even as we don’t quite understand some of its action. But from a political and social standpoint, international members are almost uniformly liberal compared to their American counterparts, often embracing policies and politics that would make Skousen drop dead (again). Of course, those students of history in the room will no doubt recognize that Cleon Skousen was in fact Canadian himself, but I digress. My point here is that members of the Canadian Church, and members of the International Church already innately feel something that it seems to me the American Church is only beginning to discover — that Mormons can be, and are, a widely diverse group with views from all over the political spectrum. Indeed, all God’s critters got a place in the choir already, whether or not the institution is prepared for it.

So what then do we sad Mormons do, when our Sainthood is composed of all sorts of characters with all kinds of crazy views? How can we reconcile the confines of a fairly rigid centrally organized religious institution with the intense contrasts between individual members?

There are two key attributes to a mosaic, which may seem obvious. The first is individuality: a multitude of separate, distinct and unique tesserae are needed. If all of your tiles look alike, you will have uniformity — and there can be beauty in uniformity — but you don’t have a mosaic, you have have a monochrome fixture, which might work as a tiled backsplash but is certainly not high art. You need contrasts, complementary colors and shades along the spectrum if the collective work is to have any artistic purpose. It is the ultimate harmony of the individually unique that brings power to the master’s plan.

The second attribute is cohesion: those distinct tiles must come together and adhere to form a larger tableau, in which the distinctiveness of the individual tiles merges together in favor of the overall vision of the artist. And so in my faith I feel a dynamic between these two compelling forces; my natural tendency towards individuality and unique identity, contrasting with the need for community and the obligation to be part of something larger than myself. In Mormonism this is a classic tension, as members feel torn between individual quests for knowledge and identity on the one hand and the demands of the group to conform and to shoulder each others’ burdens.

In similar fashion, I find that I mostly think about myself, my individual freedom and my self-determination when I consider our relationship to the Gospel. While this isn’t wrong, I’m missing the bigger and better picture. Others prefer to look at the functioning of the group and the overall directives that bring us together as a community. But I’m not sure that’s right either. So it is when you are facing a piece of mosaic art; you can focus on the single tesserae, or look at the big picture. But neither is seeing the reality of the mosaic, and neither way is the whole truth. We cannot be either myopic or hyperopic if we want to see things as they really are.

A friend recently pointed me to the novel Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg. One of the recurring themes in the book is the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or healing or perfecting the world. One character explains, “the mystics believe that in the beginning of the world God’s divine light, containing all that is good, was enclosed in sacred vessels. But because there was already sin in the world, these vessels could not contain the light and shattered into countless pieces… it is our job to locate these shards and to mend them through good deeds, so that God’s light can be whole again.” The fixing of the world entails bringing all of these small pieces of light together through our good works. But let me clarify something: these shards of light are within ourselves and in all those around us. We are engaged in the cause of healing the world by becoming at one with our fellow Saints and by being examples to the rest of the world — we are the salt of the earth, the leaven of the world. The task of Mormonism is literally to save all the earth by bringing all of us together in Christ. As our leaders are fond of telling us, Mormons are a peculiar people; the essence of Tikkun Olam is that by being and acting our peculiar selves, together we can have universal consequences and help change the world.

This means that we must not deny our identity, either by giving up our individuality, or by hiding our Mormonism. I feel the temptation — some might call it stark reality — that to go into public life and be accepted by society, you must to a certain extent downplay your Mormon culture or hide it entirely. I remember the first time this happened to me as an adult in college. I was out getting a burger with a couple of friends, when the discussion turned to how culturally insular Mormons are and how they lack real ‘bite’ and self-awareness because of their piousness — actually, I believe what was said was more like, “Mormons are so lame.” One particularly cool guy said to me, “Come on, I bet you’ve never used the F-word.” I replied with a good deal of blustering about how I really was hip and edgy, a real rebel. To prove my point, I looked him in the eye and cursed at him. The man’s reaction was, “see, now you just look stupid.” And he was right.

Conversely, I’m sometimes tempted to overplay my Mormon identity as opportunities arise, to seize upon stereotypes of social conservatism or piousness, however inaccurate they might be. This is a pressure I feel almost daily within the world of Mormon blogs and internet interactions. It is far easier for me to act as an easy stereotype than to represent myself in a genuine and complex way. But we must also refuse this path, and instead be nothing more nor less than our honest selves. I can say this much, echoing what one Jewish author has said: non-Mormons respect us when we respect our religion, and non-Mormons are embarrassed by Mormons who are embarrassed by their faith. If we are to bring together all these diverse shards of divine light, we must be true to ourselves and respect what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks refers to as the “dignity of difference.” Joseph Smith introduced to us the challenge of bringing all of humanity together, sealing generation to generation through our particular faith. Only by respecting this particularity can be come close to achieving that goal, and this means being proud of our Mormonism.

More than this sense of external pride, though, is required if we are to accomplish anything. For me, it means we must also live our Mormonism. We can’t pretend to aspire to bring the whole world together if we get hung up on the differences among our own people. Sometimes this means swallowing those parts of being Mormon that taste a little bitter, whether it’s dealing with pronouncements from Salt Lake that we might not agree with, or lessons that bore us, or sitting next to a brother or sister at Church whose personal politics offend us. Recently I have felt tested and torn by the incredible polarization among us on issues relating to the rights of gays and lesbians. How can I respect the dignity of being a Mormon, being different, when those differences sometimes make me cringe? I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I still feel that we cannot just simply pick and choose what relationships we form — because if we do, we tend to end up with self-resembling relationships, when what we need are connections to the Other. Like the tesserae, God needs the contrast for His work; we need something different from ourselves, even if sometimes we don’t like it. I am incomplete alone. So each week I get plunked together with you lot and we worship together, forming connections, when we might never otherwise choose to connect.

I feel cemented in my Mormonism. I am just one miniscule piece of it, and feel squished in sometimes; sometimes I feel out of place, and sometimes I wonder what this is all about. But I have confidence in the artist, the Master of Thunder, who is arranging us and placing us all together in His intricate design. I don’t know what form this work will ultimately take — it may be that I never get to see the entirety of the tableau. But in the meantime I rejoice in our differences and in our sameness, seeing the wonder of our individuality coupled with the amazing potential of our collective efforts. I believe the best blessings of Zion await us when we come together and embrace the distinctiveness that makes God’s mosaic possible.

Comments

  1. PS thanks to Brian J for showing up and for an interesting take on this idea.

  2. Publish this in print, old boy.

  3. “Cleon Skousen was in fact Canadian himself”

    Birther! Skousen was a red-meat American, True Red-White-&Blue, through and through! Produce his birth certificate and prove his non-American-ness!

  4. Steve,

    I don’t often comment here – but this is just beautiful. Thank you.

  5. As I said at Feast Upon the Word, this was the talk that affected me the most on Saturday. This was at least partly because J.’s earlier reading of his paper (where and when will that appear?) had me considering what appeared to me a paradox: Mormonism as Open Source religion, with spiritual gifts and power given to all, vs. the hierarchical nature of the modern Church. Your mosaic analogy was most satisfying to my mind.

    Thanks, Steve.

  6. You presented strongly, Steve. I think we were all fortunate to have heard you.

  7. Yup. It was a great talk, and despite you thinking the metaphor was cliche, you presented it well. I enjoyed it.

  8. All who want to read more personal essays from Steve, say aye.

  9. Well done Steve. Thank you.

  10. Ronan, I’m sure Sunstone has the rights to print this if/when they want to. I’ll probably rework some sections to amp up the Canadianness.

  11. Wonderful, Steve; thanks for sharing.

  12. Thanks guys. It’s intimidating to present something like this – Pillars has a legacy of outstanding authors and presenters.

  13. I’m sure glad I didn’t know that before I bumbled up there!

  14. Steve, I loved this line:

    “I have confidence in the artist, the Master of Thunder, who is arranging us and placing us all together in His intricate design.”

    Just sorry I couldn’t hang around to hear this in person.

  15. Kevin, I was sorry to have missed you!

  16. Beautiful, Steve. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful presentation with us.

  17. Bring the Queen into it and you have a WINNER!

  18. Its a nice read, really. But I think you could use an editor! (what’s a blog-editor paid these days)

  19. Thanks. I second the motion to publish. and Aye!

  20. Doug Evans says:

    Your mother and I sincerely regret not being able to attend Sunstone last Saturday to hear your words. Our obligations at the temple came first.

    So often you are an amazing son. Your thoughts are frequently breathtaking. The thoughts in your presentation make me feel very humble. I remember vividly being with you when the three of us cautiously and reverently entered this beautiful historic small church in the Loire Valley. I have carried a vivid image of the mosaic ceiling in that simple structure in my mind and even refer to it often.

    Two distinct impressions of the mosaic were left with me – first was the painstaking creative effort that some gifted artists had made in carefully placing each of those thousands of tiles on the soaring ceiling. Second was the fragility of the ceiling, as though if one mistakenly touched a single tile it would come off in your hand. Sort of like a sign that says do not touch. Perhaps there a similar fraility to be considered when each of us reflects on our personal faith and understanding in and of the Lord’s great plan. Collectively there is great strength and completeness when all the tiles are firmly composed and sealed into one impressive picture of what God has in mind for each of his children. On the other hand there is often the fragility of the human testimony which sometime waves like a field of ripe grain, bowing to the wind but hopefully staying firmly rooted in the soil provided by our divine maker.

    I thank you for the reminder of a happy time in our lives and one part of the life journey we took together. I hope we never forget the wonderful impression some events make in our walk together through life. Thank you for your great faith and impressive understanding of his marvelous plan.

  21. sam, you seem to forget that I am an editor, primarily of commenters such as yourself.

  22. This really is cool, Steve. I enjoyed reading it a lot. Unity in the Gospel is one of the most fascinating subjects.

    On an unrelated note….. why did the thread about charity get closed? I didn’t see any reason why the conversation should have been shut down.

  23. Steve,
    Wish I lived closer to Seattle so I could have heard you deliver it. But beautiful, even on the screen.

  24. Really great, Steve.

  25. Steve–thanks, this is beautiful.

  26. Well done, Steve. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Nice description of oceanic feelin. Though I find it interesting that a highly Roman Catholic artwork initiated the feelings described here. CoJCoLDS has never produced great art or architecture and no mosaics of any note that I’m aware of.

  28. Beautiful Steve, I’m glad there are bright pieces like you in the mosaic of my faith.

  29. Nice job, Steve. Wish I could have been there.

  30. This was great. I wish I could have been there to hear you deliver it. Your words will stay with me, I think, for a long time. Now I know why I’m so different from those around me. I must be the sparkle in the donkey’s eye that’s come laden to the feast down there in the bottom right hand corner or something. Thanks for a great image.

  31. Steve — I loved this, and the others as well. It was great, and I’m glad to have this chance to shamelessly steal it if I can find the energy to cut and paste it to someplace I’ll remember (the cut and paste is the easy part).

    10 — Then you should say “eh” more, and maybe “hoser,” “back bacon” or “toque.” HTH

    29 — I am also part of the donkey. We have so much in common! But I don’t think I sparkle, and I’m not close to the eye.

  32. It is interesting that Bishop Theodulf enjoyed pagan poetry. Thunderer (Βρομιος) was a popular epithet for the god Dionysus, and oracles were at the heart of Ancient Greek religion.

    Personally, I do not find the metaphor of a mosaic satisfying. The individual tiles have no value except insofar as they contribute to the whole, and many different arrangements are possible. If one tile cracks or falls away, there are others to take its place.

    Closer for me is the tapestry, where a loose thread cannot be fixed without reweaving the whole, and so a wise rugmaker leaves it intact, flaws and all (cf. wheat and tares), until the rug has run its lifetime.

    Better yet music, where occasional dissonance is not a flaw but itself an essential (if hopefully not too common) part of the harmony, lending interest and originality to the piece.

    Or perhaps a blog. Though trolls who endanger the free flow of ideas are censored, the Editor strains to accommodate a near cacophony of agonistic disputation, in the hope that wisdom will emerge from the chaos unchoreographed, where the soft-spoken will find a voice and the overly-certain humility.

    In the New Testament, it is the 99 who are left behind while the shepherd seeks the one lost, the Prodigal Son who is embraced. I believe that the tiles were not created to form a mosaic, rather the mosaic is there to give meaning and purpose to the tiles. At the risk of sounding too solipsistic, what need would there be of God if there be not Man? The planets know full well how to orbit the sun without guidance, and meteors are not mourned as they crash.

    I want to be part of something beautiful, but I am more than a tile. And I like not fitting exactly into a preconceived picture. Rather than chip my edges into place, perhaps the Artist can just use a little grout?

  33. Steve Evans says:

    Dan, compared to the artist, we are less than tiles.

    Unlikely that Theodulf was reading from the Greek, though.

  34. Antonio Parr says:

    Steve:

    This is great. Masterful. Thanks for sharing.

    I see wisdom in your observation regarding the need to live our Mormonism and to swallow those parts that may be a bit bitter. I also see limits, especially as it relates to the inherent need that we all have for authenticity. To that end, I find myself quoting Frederick Buechner twice in the same day:

    When you and I fail to embody what happened at that moment in the church when Maya Angelou and the white man embraced each other, when the church fails to embody that moment, all that we do in church becomes sort of empty, a kind of ecclesiastical vaudeville and the laughter is bitter laughter.

    When the church does not embody that kind of forgiveness and love, it becomes in so many ways like a dysfunctional family which consists of sort of a superficial togetherness and yet a kind of inner-loneliness, hidden agendas, ministers who are out to hide their humanness behind their sermons and parishioners who are out to hide their humanness from their ministers. Where the church does embody what happened in that moment of grace that I have been describing to you, when it does embody that, then the laughter and the laughter room is, of all laughter, I think, the holiest, because we have not only the “good news” but in a sense we have become the good news. Like lepers, we are cleansed by the love of God working among us and within us. That is what healing is about and what wholeness is about and what the church and the kingdom of God are all about.

    ~~

    http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/Buechner_3601.htm

  35. Antonio Parr says:

    (The irony of the prior post coming from someone using a pseudonym does not escape me . . . )

  36. Steve Evans says:

    AP, you can quote Buechner all day to me. The man’s a genius.

  37. Steve Evans says:

    PS Dan I take it back, Theodulf knew how to read Greek just fine. But his access to pagan Greek writing is questionable.

  38. Good stuff, Steve. I’d also really like to hear about the pillars of your faith sometime. Maybe I just did, but I don’t think so.

  39. Steve Evans says:

    Picky, picky.

  40. Yeah, maybe. But it is a sincere request. I feel like you’ve touched on some important issues that affect how you live your faith. I’d also like to hear what you have to say about that faith — where it has come from, what supports it, etc. Again, maybe I’m wrong and I just heard that from you.

  41. Steve Evans says:

    Yeah, I think you’re wrong. Besides, that is all you’re going to get for now.

  42. zehill, you mustn’t poke the oracle.

  43. Excellently done, and surprisingly reflective of my own life (prairie city and coastal city).

  44. Thanks for sharing some of your reflections here on what your faith means to you. There’s a lot to think about here. I enjoyed how you brought these elements of the mosaic and its history and meaning to you, your Canadian background/identity and especially the Jewish perspective with the tikkun olam together in this essay — each tiles in the mosaic of your faith.

  45. Well done, Steve. I think you have more than answered the question, “Can anything good come out of Canada?” ;-)

    You make me feel proud of my Canadian heritage.

  46. Steve, great post, and I wish I had been there to see it delivered in voice.

  47. A nice example of oceanic feeling.

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