My talk from last night’s RS celebration in my ward:
I have mixed feelings about our yearly celebration of the birthday of the Relief Society, starting with the nitpicky wish that we called it “founding” or “establishment” or even “anniversary” and not something as redolent of frosting and froufiness as “birthday.” The rest of the country has Women’s History Month (which still isn’t enough) but we only have Relief Society History day. Any excuse for a party will do, and I love our gatherings, but it pains me that it’s not enough time to discover a thousandth part of our heritage of faith as Mormon women. And sometimes even this single evening can feel like too much: I have finally come to accept the fact that some people, even smart, wonderful people whom I love, just don’t want to hear more stories about “pioneer women.” And, although this sentiment is profoundly alien to me, I can imagine how it might arise.
First is the simple fact that these women’s lives can seem so utterly unlike ours that it’s hard to figure out how their stories should matter to us–it can be hard to find the connecting threads.
Second, and, I think more common, is the problem that we use these stories to measure ourselves by, and usually end up feeling that we fall short. It’s easy, with the benefit of hindsight and the record of so many concrete, tangible difficulties our foremothers triumphed over, to be sure that they did enough for their faith. It’s so much harder (maybe impossible), from the middle of our own lives and struggles with forces that are harder to see than drought, crickets, mobs, and diphtheria, to believe that we, too, might be faithful enough, that the small ways we give our lives away each day, for the gospel’s sake, are worthy and excellent sacrifices.
I want to tease out a thread that might help us with this difficulty, free us to turn our hearts to our mothers. There’s a truth they understood, that is perhaps harder for us to grasp. It’s in the 131st Section of the Doctrine and Covenants: “all spirit is matter.”
For our foremothers, sheer physical survival demanded heroic efforts, and it’s easy to see how those efforts contributed to building the Kingdom of God. They were, after all, building a literal, physical kingdom in the tops of the mountains. They raised new generations of Saints by birthing them, sometimes in appalling physical conditions, but with much greater assurance that if they could only keep their children alive, they would be doing their part to swell the ranks of the Saints. Housekeeping took on religious significance, as cleaning floors and killing flies, sewing clothes and finding clean water were all part of the project of civilizing the wilderness. Taming the desert was the collective expression of conquering the natural man and woman.
It is easy to think, as we buckle our hospital-born children into carefully engineered carseats while listening to the radio, setting the GPS, and trying to ignore the cell phone as we drive a pioneer day’s journey in half an hour, that it is different for us, that our physical and spiritual lives are separate, and that our challenge is to find time away from our material surroundings to practice our religion. But we would be wrong to think so. For us, as for our forebears, the ordinary dailiness of our lives is shot through with mystery and holiness–our love of God manifest in our love and care for His creatures and His creation. The rhythms of our spiritual lives are grounded in the same kinds of discipline as our physical lives. Like laundry and dishes, prayer and scripture study and Sabbath observance have to be done over and over again, until they work themselves deep into our bones and into our souls.
There are, perhaps, moments when the impossibility of extricating the spiritual from the physical is apparent: when you wake your teenagers for seminary or family prayer, are you (and they) performing physical or spiritual labor? It’s both, of course: you are helping them inscribe the practice of Mormonism in their bodies, even if their minds are still mostly asleep. Likewise, we’re promised that the physical observance of the Word of Wisdom will yield not just physical health, but also “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge.” When we labor over a healthy and beautiful meal, we know we are nourishing souls as well as bodies.
We can learn from the seamlessness of consciousness that is so appealing to me in the histories of Mormon women. Listen, for example, to a series of diary entries from Patty Bartlett Sessions, an early Utah midwife:
Thursday 4 My birthday. Fifty two years old Febr 4 1847 in the camp of Isrial Winter Quarters. We…drank a toast to each other desireing and wishing the blesings of God to be with us all and that we might live and do all that we came here into this world to do. Eliz Snow came here after me to go to a litle party in the evening. I was glad to see her. Told her it was my birthday and she must bless me. She said if I would go to the party they all would belss me. I then went and put James Bullock wife to bed [i.e. assisted at the beginning of labor] then went to the party. Had a good time singing praying speaking in toungues. Before we brake up I was caled away to sister Morse then to sister Whitney then back to sister Morse Put her to bed 2 o clock.
Friday 5 This morning I have been to see sister Whitney. She is better. I then went to Joanna [Roundy]. She said it was the last time I should see her in this world. She was going to see my children.* I sent word by her to them. I then went to the Silver Grey party. Eliza Snow went with us. I danced with Br Knolton Mr Sessions not being well. Joanna died this evening.
Saturday 6 Made soap. Visited some that were sick then went put sister Whitney to bed. She had a son born eleven o clock P M.
Sunday 15  Went to meeting then in the evening collected Zina Jacobs, Eliza Snow, sister Marcum [Markham} at sister Buels to pray for Sylvia and child that they might be delivered from bondage and Windsor and David come here with them. We prayed sung in toungues spoke in tongues and had a good time. Then went put Sister Oakley to bed. Child born 4 oclock A M.
Monday 15 I have been out all night had no sleep. Visited the sick all day.
Tuesday 16 We wash. Visited the sick. Sister Young died at sister Holmons.
Tuesday 23 Visited the sick yesterday I cooked for the widow orphan and poor that they might feast and have thier hearts made glad today in the counsel house.
Monday 15 Put sister Stilman to bed. Visited the sick. Sister E R Snow came here last night. She has done me up a cap and wrote me some poetry which she composed which I shall write here. [There follows the poem, "Composed for Mrs Patty Sessions By Miss E R Snow March 15 1847," the first stanza of which reads:]
Truth and holiness and love,
Wisdom honor, joy and peace–
That which cometh from above,
In your pathway shall increase.
[from Godfrey, Godfrey, and Derr, Women's Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, 186-189]
*Six of her nine children had died in infancy or early childhood.
The activities are strange to us, but we recognize the pattern: the mundane and miraculous, the holy and homely tumbled and swirling around and over and through each other, in the eternal round of a consecrated life.
One of my favorite contemporary writers on religion, Kathleen Norris, describes a more recent example:
When my niece Christina was a toddler…her mother worked as a stockbroker and financial planner. Her father, [a minister], would drive her to day care in the morning, and her mother would pick her up after work. And every afternoon she brought Christina an orange, peeled so that the child could eat it on the way home. One day, Christina was busying herself by playing “Mommy’s office” on the front porch of our house…and I asked her what her mother did at work. Without hesitation, and with a conviction that I relish to this day, she looked up at me and said, “She makes oranges.”
And that is what God does, I think, making oranges and wind and the ocean and green leaves and everything else that constitutes our earthly home. Christina’s mother had fulfilled a priestly role–priestly in the archetypal sense, the priesthood of all believers–by allowing the child to participate in a daily ritual, a liturgy of the delicious orange, bright as the sun, sweet with the juice that is the body and blood of this world.
The child who is thus fed by a mother’s love eventually learns to trust in others, and also in God. The fruit we are given is not always what we expect or want; it may even be bitter, but we are secure in knowing that it is given to us out of love. The capacity for trust that begins in such ordinary human encounters, as between a mother and child, can come to have deep religious significance, not only for ourselves, but for the entire community of faith.
[from Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work, 66-67]
Like Christina’s mother, we fulfill the duties of priestesses as we participate in the small daily work of belonging to Relief Society. We perform the liturgy of Jello, prepare the sacramental postpartum casserole, supply the oil of tenderness and the grace of a listening ear. From the very beginning, Relief Society has been about sewing shirts and being endowed with power from on high; the grand and glorious work of preparing ourselves and the world for Christ’s return is performed not usually in grand gestures, but in the daily work of writing God’s love into our own bodies and inscribing it on the fleshy tables of each other’s hearts.
And how could it be otherwise? We love and serve a God who made himself known to us in the particularity of an ordinary human body, who sweetly washed his disciples’ feet (and what is more weirdly and awkwardly human than feet?), and whose body was anointed both before and after he performed his saving sacrifice by women, who were his most constant disciples and friends.
May it be ever thus.