Holy, Holy, Holy

We speak so often of “taking” the Sacrament, and too rarely of receiving it.  Our discussions revolve around what we should do, what we should wear, what we should sing, when we should arrive at church, how we should quiet our children so that we can be certain to constrain the Lord’s Spirit to be with us.  It’s a little silly, really, to imagine that we are in charge, that a member of the Godhead might be put off by the shade of our shirts or the happy prattle of our children.  I’ve always loved what Annie Dillard had to say about such delusions:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)

Yesterday was a day I needed to be lashed to the pew.  I was visiting my brother’s ward, for the blessing of a sweet new nephew.  His ward is a funny pie-sliced wedge of city and suburbs, a sometimes awkward mix of suburban apartment-dwelling graduate students and inner city residents, mostly poor, mostly immigrants, many from Liberia.  The majority of the members are new(ish) converts, and many of them are therefore adult Aaronic priesthood holders.  And yesterday, several of them helped with the administration of the sacrament for the first time.  Or, better, yesterday they ministered to us–to me–in the Lord’s Supper.

The first prayer was in beautifully African-accented English.  I lost track of how many times it started; I only know it was enough for me to hear and feel every word.  “O God, dee Eternal Fader”–the repeated invocation more plaintive each time.  And when all the words (or nearly all, at least–in the end, we all shared a single soul, because the plural s just would not come out) were perfectly pronounced, there were no 12-year-old deacons lining up in white shirts; in fact there was no lining up at all, just a bewildered clustering around the sacrament table, a lot of whispered instructions, and a few young men leading their elders by the hand to show them which way to go, or, in one case, to steady an older brother who walked with some trouble.

There wasn’t a lot of quiet prayer or pondering among the members of the congregation, either.  We were all nervous to see what would happen; maybe a few people were scandalized by the hint of chaos.  I was mostly scrounging around for tissues to staunch the overflowing from my eyes.  After a few minutes, there was a motley parade back up to the table–servants of God in parkas, kente cloth, a bright orange sweater, and a necktie or two.  Another blessing, another confused outpouring of grace, and it was finished.  The cloth folded, our brothers returned to sit among us in the pews, as though they had not just been transfigured, as though they had not been–a moment ago–holy vessels of God’s surpassing love.

I used to think that people were all mostly alike, that if we learned the same things, and especially if we belonged to the same church, we’d eventually understand each other well enough to get along, to feel something at least vaguely warm and fuzzy for one another, and that we’d become unified by being more like each other (by which I meant, of course, that everyone would come around to my way of thinking).    I thought we could make ourselves into brothers and sisters by force of will (mostly mine).  To my shame,  I believed that I mostly knew how things should be done.  I knew what a well-planned, elegantly executed sacrament service was, and assumed that this was the goal of all congregations.  I thought that loving my fellow Saints, especially new-born ones, mostly meant helping them know how to do things the “right” way.  Once we had mastered the basics of reverence, I thought, we might touch the hem of God’s garment, might get a staid taste of mercy.

It is not like that at all, not at all.  I have nothing to teach, no help to offer.  I am small and broken, and it turns out that I know nothing of love.   Yet holiness rains down in wild, pelting torrents, without warning or reason, though we don’t expect or deserve it.  Because we don’t deserve it.  The mercy seat is right there, in front of us, the table groaning under the weight of Christ’s broken body, His love poured out like water, laughing at those tiny cups as it floods the room to cleanse and heal and refresh, to hold us all in the womb of grace, until we are reborn as true brothers and sisters.

Comments

  1. Torrents indeed, Kristine. I do not cry easily, but today the tears are wild and cleansing. Thank you, thank you.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    Wow.

  3. Wow, indeed. Thank you for sharing. I’m so grateful I stumbled on this – it was what I needed this week.

  4. Every now and then, when God is in one of His better moods, He deems it necessary to bless us with a glimpse of the marvelous workings that buzz about on the other side of life’s drab cloak. Yet, he always enlists a mere mortal to carry it out. Thanks, Kristine, for lifting up that cloak and showing us what holy things are at play underneath.

  5. belledame2 says:

    Thank you for this very insightful post.

  6. While we do have our share of white shirts, neo-cool three-piece polys, and giganta-knot ties that the kids all love these days, I feel spoiled every week to receive sacrament blessed in any permutation of English, American Sign Language, Spanish, Spanglish, or [insert nationality]-ish in a multilingual/cultural YSA ward. It’s a wonderful reminder that “the souls of all those who partake of it” are varied and are known.

    Wonderful post.

  7. If you will allow, the normal Mormon teenagers who “minister to us in the Lord’s supper” in your home ward are also “holy vessels of God’s surpassing love.” The power of Godliness is manifest in the ordinances of the priesthood, in every ward and branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. May God bless the young men of the Aaronic Priesthood, and all the members of the Church across the world.

  8. ji–I didn’t mean to imply otherwise; thanks for the clarification.

  9. I was there for the sacrament meeting. It was awesome. A few months ago a man sang a hymn in sacrament meeting. He was from Liberia. The Liberian congregation spontaneously broke into song with him as those of us who have been in the church our entire lives sat in aww. I started freakin crying becuase I’m a big baby.

  10. Gorgeous.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Lovely, thank you.

  12. Kristine–so beautiful. I have shared it with some friends. Thank you.

  13. Thanks, Kristine. Beautiful.

  14. I fear we (and by “we” I mean, I suppose, those of us along the Mormon corridor) have fallen into a rut of ritual familiarity and devotion-as-task-list, and when experiences like the one your describe break us out of that rut, it is indeed transformational. Thank you.

  15. Wow. Just… wow. Love you K.

  16. This is why I read this freaking blog. Tracy and Kevin and mmiles and Kristine back to back to back to back.

    This is a fantastic post that is pure poetry to me. Thank you for such a wonderful insight Kristine.

  17. This was just beautiful.

  18. The title of your post reminded me of Footnote to Howl by Ginsburg: “Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is / holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an / angel!”
    And I would dare add, your post is holy!

  19. I read this over and over today, that I might glean a little more. Beautiful.

  20. That essay by Dillard changed my life, especially the way I approach church and devotion. Thanks for the reminder.

  21. Latter-day Guy says:

    Beautiful. Stunning. Thank you.

  22. Mark Brown says:

    This is a great post, with a lot to think about. It reminded of what Pres. Hinckley must have meant when he said that new converts are the lifeblood of the church. I also loved the detail about the priest’s inability to pronounce ‘souls’ correctly, even after multiple attempts. The bishop’s decision to allow the ordinance to proceed anyway is a wonderful reminder that we are all ultimately saved by grace. It encourages me to remember that my own bungling, ham-fisted attempts to serve others might also eventually bear fruit. And it made me smile to think of the way we sometimes measure out our love to one another in teaspoonfuls, compared with the Niagara of love, mercy, and grace which God freely gives. I’m happy for you that you had this experience, and I’m happy for the rest of us that you shared it.

  23. I love the last paragraph. Beautiful! I think people are all really alike, it’s just that the differences we see are very overpowering, but inconsequential. We are focusing on white shirts and hats and basketball, when our hearts feel the same emotions and we struggle with the same kinds of things.

  24. What a tremendous final sentence, Kristine:

    “The mercy seat is right there, in front of us, the table groaning under the weight of Christ’s broken body, His love poured out like water, laughing at those tiny cups as it floods the room to cleanse and heal and refresh, to hold us all in the womb of grace, until we are reborn as true brothers and sisters.”

    His love pouring out from His wounds, His blood darkening our souls but making them light and clean at the same time. Grace indeed. You have such a gift for words as the means of conveying ideas of power, Kristine; I hope you never stop sharing it.

  25. I couldn’t tell from your beautiful post, but did anyone receive the sacrament by use of their left hand?

  26. Living in the backyard of the Church (southern Nevada) I and my wife have come to treasure the times we spent “in the mission field” (East Coast) where ruts had yet to make the mark. Thank you for reminding us of such times….

  27. Wonderful — especially the irony you repeat that we arrogantly think that “[o]nce we had mastered the basics of reverence, . . . we might touch the hem of God’s garment.” Thank you for this.

  28. Aah! Were you in P1?

    I can’t read descriptions like this without getting a desperate pang of longing and homesickness.

    This was stunning, Kristine. But it might make me mope for a few days with greatly missed memories.

  29. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of her that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!”

    That’s you, Kristine. Thank you.

  30. Thank you Kristine.

  31. Beautiful post, Kristine! Thanks so much for sharing it.

  32. Beautiful, Kristine. Stunning, really.

    Please don’t take this as criticism in any way, because it’s not meant as such, but I just want to point out that the same deluge of Spirit can happen in a congregation where white shirts are worn and intense silence occurs (in which the babies and young children can be heard and appreciated) and there is no obvious struggle with the wording of the prayer – where it is “normal” and “mundane” in every outwardly observable way.

    I have been blessed to attend two wards over the course of the past 14 years where the Bishops have made a concerted effort to focus on making Sacrament Meeting a true worship service (the type of “revelatory experience” Elder Bednar mentioned in the recent worldwide training) – and I have experienced what you describe in this post on a fairly regular basis. It’s astounding, and I count my blessings constantly – since I know it’s not that way everywhere.

    I just want to mention that it can happen – and that, for some congregations, what can appear to be an obsession with trivialities actually can contribute to the meaning for those who attend, which, in turn, can make these experiences occur more frequently than they might otherwise. It’s not necessarily the specific symbolism but rather the internalization of whatever symbolism works – and when the symbolism actually is internalized, what you describe can and does occur – and, as you say, changes one’s very heart.

    Again, absolutely amazing post. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  33. Kristine, I just read comments #7 and #8. I apologize for my redundant comment, which you have addressed already.

  34. Ray, that’s ok. I think it _is_ a particular weakness of mine that I’m prone to fail to appreciate the beauty in “typical” LDS worship services. It’s good that there are people in the world who don’t need quite as big a wallop on the head as I do to get it!

  35. This post was absolutely beautiful, Kristine. I have read it three or four times and enjoy it just as much each time I read it.

    While I do agree with Ray that the Spirit is definitely felt just as much during the Sacrament in wards that do concentrate on white shirts and stricter adherence to other formalities, it can and does often get carried away. My priest-aged son was talked to by the First Counselor of the Bishopric because someone complained to him that she could not feel the Spirit during the Sacrament because my son’s hair was too long.

  36. Sonny,

    comments like that make me want to live as the Nazarenes.

  37. er…Nazarite

  38. My son is an air force physician who last year did a six-month doctors-without-borders type stint in Liberia. The first time he attended the local ward, he walked in during the opening hymn. As he got seated, a counselor in the bishopric bounded out of his seat and came down to introduce himself to my son, all while the hymn was still being sung. Right after the invocation, this counselor stood up and almost shouted, “Brothers and sisters! I want to introduce you to Captain _____ _____ from Italy and the USA!” Everybody left their seats and came over to shake my son’s hand.

    They had no keyboard or CD player, so all music was sung a cappella. The chorister would sing a couple bars of the hymn and then say, “Just like dat. Okay, go!” And everyone would start singing. My son just loved it.

  39. I have been lucky enough to attend church in many countries and places. It is beautiful to see what is the same as well as what is different. I believe that it is an experience everyone should have. My children don’t get to move around, but they do get to travel and I drag them to church wherever we are so that they can see what it means to be a member of this church.
    I often have wonderful spiritual experiences in other wards. Part of it is being able to see other latter day saints whom I don’t know but I get a glimpse of their testimony and dedication.
    I have been to rich wards and poor ones. Well established or small. It is a wonderful way to step outside of our own ward and take a fresh look at what is supposed to be going on.

  40. Kristine, your experience reminds me of a comment made by (I think) Adam Greenwood a few years ago about how he found it valuable to read devotional writing by non-Mormons because their different ways of phrasing things jarred him out of his usual comfortable way of reading.

    (I can’t find the original comment–sorry if I’m misstating it.)

  41. What a wonderful piece of writing, Kristine. That last paragraph is so heavy with beauty and truth I can’t read it without tears gathering in my eyes. Thank you.

  42. Thank you all for the wonderful discussion and for your thoughtful post, Kristine. Yes, wards which pay attention and value the types of details mentioned (Aaronic priesthood in white shirts, standing in straight lines, etc) CAN feel an outpouring of the Spirit during the Sacrament, but may not if these ‘outward’ displays become an end in themselves. When practices or rules become unduly enforced, it seems we begin to forget the purpose of the ordinance and its power to transform. It reminds me of how the Law of Moses became such for our earlier brothers and sisters at the time of Christ, the Pharisees’ emphasizing the law as an end rather than the spirit and purpose of the law.

    Thank you for this reminder of the purpose of our practices.

  43. StillConfused says:

    I am really only comfortable in a Mormon church when it is non-traditional like the one described in the OP. I am still not comfortable with the lack of diversity in Utah. And that flows through to church as well. I would love to have some ethnic music sung or have someone give a talk that was actually interesting and fresh. But alas, such is not the case when I live a stone’s throw from BYU.

  44. Brenda Worden says:

    Finally, someone gets it and puts it to print. I’m a convert of 45 years. I have attended Church both in wards and branches. In branches, we don’t notice who comes in late to “disturb the reverence”. We look and hope people do attend. I have been in wards where people are upset with noise of children. I’m grateful for the faith of parents who bring their children to church. Mormon writes that he “loves children with a perfect love.” If we expect our homes and church buildings to be as reverent as the temples, then children would be confined. You don’t see toys or quiet books in the temple. Thanks for getting it right!!!!

  45. Ron Madson says:

    This is a keeper! A true sacrament fit for our King. thank you for sharing it with us…

  46. Very nice.

  47. Astonishing. Thank you.

  48. To me, Mormon ritual has always had something ad hoc/informal about it. At Sunstone, one year, I’d discussed baptism for the dead and how we could find some way to bring our personal experience to bear to feel engaged in the practice instead of just the agent of it. Afterward, Colleen McDannell commented that my take on ritual was based on my Protestant biases–a position which wishes to engage from individual to community rather than vice versa. At any rate, I’ve felt, somehow, I guess, that I suffer from a certain “ritual illiteracy” as a Mormon. Kris’s comments prove that this isn’t a necessary outcome. It also makes an interesting impression on me about the ways we press-gang our best thinkers into being editors. I suppose this would be an appropriate occasion to publicly share my testimony that Kris’s calling to edit Dialogue is divinely inspired.

  49. This was really beautiful and helped calm my nerves on a turbulent flight. Thank you.

  50. Great stuff — thank you so much for this post.

  51. Martin Willey says:

    This was really beautiful. I am eager to return to sacrament meeting. Thank you.

  52. Thank you, Kristine. My husband (Sonny) has been raving about this post for the past several days, and I’ve just finally sat down to read it. I need to spend more time on these blogs, your posts and comments here are like balm to my soul. I am a convert–though in the rather unusual position of having “grown up” in the Church, being baptised at age 8–but because my parents weren’t members, well, it’s a long story. But I came to activity by way of many, many Protestant friends who shared their love of Jesus with me– and over time I began to drink in the knowledge of the Gospel and see what I had truly been blessed with. And yet–I have never been completely comfortable within the constraints and formalities of the Church and any given Ward. I was always the one who talked too fast, laughed too loud, was a bit raucous and bawdy… And so here I am, an RN in my 40s, with my darling husband and 5 great but generally noisy kids. We are NOT the picture of “Mormondom”, at least not that I can see. And yet, in all our “imperfections” and non-conformities, we are all His children and perfectly as He made us. No matter what our differences of belief are, I see great faith and holiness practiced every day, and I am blessed for it. We have tried to teach our children that “spirituality” is not the same as “conformity”, and that acts of love and kindness, towards God and people, are worthy ideals. But your post made me miss even our “bland”, white-shirted Sacrament meetings. But I would love to see more often the parkas and orange sweaters that surely reside in most peoples deepest hearts. Thank you again — once again all you blogophytes have reminded me that I am not alone.

  53. This was beautiful. Thank you.

    Three sacrament meetings stand out for me above all the other 40 or odd years of meetings I’ve been to. One, a punk rocker friend blessed the sacrament in a small group (an authorized meeting outside of an organized ward). Somehow the contrast of his cultural choices with those of his religious feeling made the words sweeter. Another time was when a convert (who has since left) first blessed the sacrament. I knew of his struggles and so the holiness of his act was especially moving to me.

    And the other words that move me to sacred tears: when my teenage son speaks the holy words that invite us to sip by sip become more like the Son of the Man of Holiness. It gives me hope one day he will know how important this weekly ritual truly is.

    Your words made my heart light and joyous. We are blessed to have moments of insights shared with us. Thank you!

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