Part 5 of 5.
Deaths and (Re)births Part 5: The Ascent
In the end, time–which had colluded with the physical world in our slow march toward death–also eventually served as an invaluable ally, and we slowly and gradually climbed out of the deep hole into which we had been buried. No dramatic rescue, no earth-shattering event on an epic scale. A series of small, grace-filled events helped keep us afloat. We were blessed to eventually move into a much larger and newer apartment. My Logic professor unexpectedly, at the last moment, decided to change the format of the class final to a written essay (which I easily produced) instead of a series of symbolic logic proofs (which I would have failed). The twins eventually graduated from their heart monitors and oxygen lines and we began to take them out after many months, first on walks, then to restaurants and malls. Gradually, we began to sleep again. Though it seemed an eternity at the time, the agonizingly slow but steady return to semi-functionality (of which I’ve been able to relate only the hundredth part) had lasted about 2 years.
But we weren’t the same. Physically and emotionally, parts of us had died, indeed, had died many deaths, as new selves variously grappled with our world, created from bodies and minds that could no longer endure, except for remnants, the ethereal, barely-there remains of the corpses we had become. Those remnants would become new bodies and new minds, with new thoughts and new ways of struggling to live. And they would eventually deteriorate into remnants themselves, and the painful birthing process would begin anew. As we gradually ascended out of the grave, our new selves could no longer know the selves that had died, “pierced with deep wounds.” I look back at prior versions of myself with the eyes of a foreigner, an alien, barely recognizing those incarnations.
And yet, it was difficult to tell where death had ravaged us and where rebirth into what we became replaced it. They seemed one and the same process, one and the same event. Our new selves felt stronger but. . . aged. We felt old beyond our years. For a long time we could only look at the people and the world around us with grave solemnity. We had arisen out of a private holocaust. Everything was new, without a history, because we, in the remnant of our old selves, preceded everything around us.
For a long time I could not talk about God, or really anything related to religion. Prior to this time, Doctrine and Covenants 122 had been my favorite scriptural narrative–a dialogue between Christ and Joseph Smith, leader of God’s chosen people, suffering unremittingly in the bare existence of Liberty Jail, crying out to God–where was He hiding while his people suffered and died? And God’s response: if even hell itself threatens to swallow you whole in its rage and pain, “all these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good.” I would quote this scripture all the time (often, I’m sure, quite insufferably) to members of the church I encountered on my mission, who were struggling with various trials. Now, I no longer knew what to think of it. Perhaps God was not all-powerful, or maybe God’s power was of a different sort than physical, interventionist power. I thought I could accept that power within a religious context might be qualitatively different than power in the contexts with which I was more familiar. But a God who would not speak to me in the midst of my worst moments? How was that possible? In this way, the question remained with me even after I had accepted that I could not (and, in fact, ultimately did not want to) rid myself of the core elements of my religious self. God had become a stranger to me, and yet, because I now had to reckon and wrestle with God, as I never had to before, in a way he had become more real than at any prior time in my life, much more present than those times that I recalled being in some kind of prayerful communication with him.
But this realization was of no immediate help. I could not see how to reconcile myself to this kind of God. Everything had been stripped away and the bare fact of God’s presence (silent and immovable) was all that was left. What was I to do with this?
The answer did not come for some time. In the meantime, I continued to attend church–by force of will and reluctance to accept the social consequences of inactivity–eventually holding callings and even bearing a testimony once or twice. But it was not because I felt some kind of prompting or yearning; I was curious about the possibility of my new self being able to carry on the practices of my old, dead self. A testimony was to be had in the bearing of it, right? But I did not feel anything–no spiritual confirmation, no witness of truth, no gift of comfort. I supposed, then, I had failed my test of faith, and this was the natural consequence.
More time passed. The twins grew older and a second daughter was added to our family. Another series of miracles and improbabilities (sure, why not? God existed–he just didn’t think enough of me to talk to me, and therefore all miracles and horrible tragedies were both totally mysterious and seemingly arbitrary and capricious), and I was in graduate school to study, of course–religion. Tormented by my experiences, frustrated with unsatisfactory conclusions, haunted by the silent God who incongruously would not leave me alone, I ironically sought refuge in a place where I would talk about, write about, and constantly think about God in some way or other. On Sundays I could then be extra unsatisfied with the way my fellow Saints spoke about and lived their religion. Uneasily, I would note that many of my professors were the same as me. Most of them were atheists, but they were “Christ-haunted;” they had (also with deep irony) devoted their godless lives to thinking about God all the time. In a way God was as much a presence in their lives as he was in mine, and in much the same way. Perhaps, then, I was an atheist after all. Of course, there were many other factors that also constituted my desire to become a teacher, but I was also going to figure this out, however long it took. I was under no illusion that simply “thinking” my way into a solution was possible or would even be sufficient if I could, but I had to find some way of explaining a phenomenon to myself that no other human being could apparently account for to my satisfaction.
For years I thought about, wrote about, took classes on, and talked about the problem of evil and suffering. (An early version of my written conclusions is here). But everything I brought to bear on the subject felt inadequate, even a betrayal of those who suffered greatly by offering reasons instead of comfort and mercy.
Then one day, simple as that, I re-read Matthew 27:46, traditionally known in Christian history as the “Word of Abandonment:”
“Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying “Eli Eli lama sabachthani?” which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This was the Psalmist’s cry in Pslam 22. This was Joseph Smith’s cry in Liberty Jail. Only, Joseph had received an answer. Jesus, here on the cross, in the midst of ultimate suffering, in answer to his cry received–silence.
I had no immediate response to this. Christ himself was greeted by silence in his most desperate hour. Did this complicate things even more? Perhaps. But I realized that this howl of lamentation, this crying out for the hidden God was not the question of an atheist. It was the question of a believer, one who cannot help but believe, but whose belief offers no comfort, no revelation, no answers of solid certainty.
This experience remained with me for a while. Again, no easy answers here, but that was actually a sign of hope. I was sick of easy answers that avoided hard questions by appealing to happy endings. We do not live the ending. We are always already living the middle. I needed something that would wrench me right down the middle. I had been through something hard, something soul-destroying. Surely any kind of light shed on my experience would not merely reveal that I simply hadn’t prayed hard enough, or had enough faith, or misunderstood prophetic teachings, or didn’t do enough to serve others, as if God was looking for any excuse he could to cut himself off from me. If there were answers, they would need to penetrate my bones and tear open my soul in order to reach me.
Gradually, without fanfare, I also began to realize that communication with me might not be what God was after, if God was after anything. And perhaps it wasn’t what I really had needed. The more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that revelation as word–as words–would never have reached me. Was God (or anyone else for that matter) going to say something to me that I couldn’t already find in scripture, something that would surpass Liberty Jail and Job and Isaiah? I would never have listened, in any case. Instead, perhaps what was really happening was, on some level, not communication but communion.
I could not rid myself of God’s presence but perhaps his constant presence was reducible to essentially this: that there could be no words God could have given me, no explanations for my suffering, no reasons why he could or could not intervene, even if there were in reality such reasons. Theoretically, I cannot know with certainty that there were not reasons on some level, though I strongly believed that nothing could explain it all away. But to provide me with them, even if they existed, would have been to betray my suffering by justifying it. There is unspeakable suffering that simply, worlds without end, cannot be justified with reasons–it is unspeakable. I do not want to compare my suffering with the suffering of so many others, but my suffering, for me, could not be spoken. It could not be painted or sung. It could not be brought down on engraved tablets from a mountain. Nevertheless, perhaps it could be communed with. What, I asked myself, was God actually doing as I was suffering? What was God doing while so many others of his children moaned and wept under the weight of their burdens? What was he doing while his beloved son cried out for confirmation that he had not been abandoned? Communion comes from the Greek, and it means “fellowship.” For the first time I felt that whatever else was happening, whatever reasons and laws were being followed that I was ignorant of (and, frankly, wanted to remain ignorant of), God was in communion with me in my suffering, my fellow-sufferer, the one whom Enoch saw would weep over his children, but did not, could not, hide his eyes from them. At last, something of what I can only say was the Holy Spirit finally penetrated me–I had come to know that God was there, silently and immovably there. But now I knew he was was also weeping.
Years later I would write a paper addressing that most problematic of Mormon scriptures regarding the problem of evil and suffering, Alma 14. In that paper I wrote the following, an incomplete, certainly revisable, culmination of what I had learned in my own experiences:
The religious life cannot be a comfort to us. We think that spiritual comfort or strength is the primary benefit of lived religion but that’s because we continue to bind belief in God to the causes and origins of our sufferings. The call from scripture to repent, to constantly revise yourself in your perpetual brokenness, to reconsider your world, and to reach outward to others as they also call to us is better defined as exhausting, disorienting, and sometimes disheartening. No, religion is anything but comforting and our genuine encounters with God are often painfully transformative. It is radical indeed to consider a relationship to God that is not comforting and reassuring. But there is still comfort to be had. In Mormonism comfort is a divine mandate (Mosiah 18) but not as comfort derived from God: we are to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort. And others can and do comfort us, most often in silence, and in ways that have nothing to do with explanations. In the Mormon theological perspective we participate in mourning that did not originate in ourselves, the suffering of which did not originate in ourselves…
The very fact of presence is comforting, even, and maybe especially, in silence. That Alma had a constant companion in his suffering, and in the witnessing of ultimate suffering, is perhaps symbolic of the significance of this truth. Together we suffer, though there are no explanations, nothing that can satisfy our intellect. Even on the cross, even after God himself withdrew his presence and Christ cries out that he had been forsaken by God, we usually say that he was lonelier than he had ever been. But is that true? At the foot of the cross, stood the women he had been closest to in life. On either side of him, fellow mortals, also nailed to trees, sharing the form of his death. None of these could provide explanations to him, and of course perhaps he needed none. In any case, there were none to provide comforting explanations to the women at the cross, nor to his fellow-sufferers. That they were together, that they would not leave him, was all there was. God withdraws from the scene altogether, and what is left? The mourners and the comforters, to whatever extent possible. Not that God is simply unable to provide reasons. But if he truly suffers with us, of what value can these reasons possibly have? Can they turn genuine suffering into non-suffering? No, this seems putatively impossible. If God suffers with us, not just physically but emotionally or psychologically, including the suffering of the absurd and the meaningless, then reasons will not save us. The only thing that will save us, perhaps, is first—to discern that there are always those, worlds without end, who need us to mourn for them—the task to which we devote ourselves in the presence of the suffering of others. Second, to have available to us at least the possibility to realize that at least one remains with us, noticeable even in absence, the only one whose presence or absence, for all of us, believer and non-believer alike, is always manifest, always unmistakably apparent for each one of us, the one who eternally remains, even if in silence.
We learn, each of us, as if we are an Adam or an Eve, for the first time, what God is. No philosophy or theology can explain it. Scripture only vaguely alludes to it, as the records of people who themselves were revealed to as if for the first time. There are no answers that apply to every situation.
I have told a story of my experiences here from the perspective of one who suffered. More broadly speaking, however, suffering presents a task to be done. That task is the task of lifting and mourning. If my experiences gave me anything they really only gave me this: a well of empathy and love on which to draw and offer others in their own brokenness and weary despair; a willing (if still imperfect) haven for the downtrodden.
I am not one you can come to for scriptures to be quoted, or even prayers on your behalf, though I will do both if you want me to. My personal religion is no longer a religion of preaching a testimony of propositional certainty about particular doctrines. Instead, I am one who can be approached by those in tears, near total collapse, ready and able to lift up hands and weep and mourn in silent communion over that which cannot be spoken. I believe that this is, in the end, for us who live in the everlasting presence of God, the task for which we are born and re-born.