The Sunstone session memorializing the Cambridge, MA LDS Chapel featured Claudia Bushman, Phil Barlow, Mary Webster, me, and audience participants (including Morris and Dawn Thurston, Charlotte England, Richard Bushman, and a variety of others). The session was a wonderful time of remembering, with important contributions from all participants. Because I have severe limits on my time right now, I’m unable to summarize much the fascinating content of the panel, but I will post the text of my talk here. (Claudia’s lively reminisces are slated for print publications, and Phil’s and Mary’s thoughtful and engaging talks were not written.)
The experimental psychologists and New Atheists love to tease us about our memories. Memory, they tell us gleefully, is an easily manipulable collection of sensations stored in a million strange ways in the brain. It is in many respects, a figment of our imagination. They gesture, the spittle of earnest superiority streaming from their lips, toward smudgy maps of the brain. “Astonishing,” they tell us, that there’s nothing more to us than that, a fatty lump of organic wires intermittently shorting their circuits.
As you may suspect, I dissent sharply from such a philistine and materialist worldview. To this atheist view, I would counterpose the luminous first paragraphs of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory.
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour)…first and last things often tend to have an adolescent note…Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between…Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life…I have journeyed back in thought—with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went—to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits. Short of suicide, I have tried everything…In probing my childhood (which is the next best to probing one’s eternity) I see the awakening consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the interval between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold.
Nabokov’s memoir, beautifully represented in this early passage, represents a prolonged study of the meaning of memory, the ways that memory, our intentional return to places we have once inhabited, has the capacity to transform us. Memory points to times before and after, yearns to stretch beyond them, displaces and distorts time. For me as a Latter-day Saint, memory allows me to conceive the eternal persistence of my being.
I am grateful for a variety of very specific images of my slow approach to God through life.
There are a pair of images from my childhood in Helena, Montana. Perhaps five or six men stand huddled around me. I lie prone, wrapped in a bright yellow blanket, though it is possible that my memory has imported that blanket from later in my childhood. My body burns and my brain aches. I remember the gently modulated fear of the voices of the elders my father had assembled to bless me, the knowing hush attending the words “Hong Kong flu.” A physician now, I doubt there was ever a risk to me of more than brief misery, but at the time I thought I might be hovering between the present world and the other side. Perhaps two years later I sat in that same dingy house on the poor side of Helena, Montana, being goaded into bearing a testimony I did not have of an ordinance, baptism, I did not want. My father, so frightened and alone through his entire brief life, believed that he could call from me the faith he so desperately wished would free him of his mangled psyche. Against my will, I entered the waters of baptism, frightened, conflicted, and confused.
Next I remember how as a still-conflicted teen in Utah, I encountered the Uinta and Wasatch Mountains. There I learned to walk barefoot, to sample the strong and smooth needles of pines and firs with my fingertips, to inhale the potent fragrance of forest duff in its delicate balance of living and dying. More than anything I loved the alpine lakes of the High Uintas, places my friends and I reached after arduous walks. Beside those alpine waters, we perched atop glacial boulders in varying stages of Edenic undress reading or writing poetry, swam in pure water, built rafts from felled trees that barely kept our chests above water. In those sacred precincts an agnostic teen began to believe that there might be a reason to suspect and even relish the existence of a Creator.
Third, I remember that within the comparative civilization of 1980s Davis County, in the town of Kaysville, there is a dirty hill, the wall of a small gorge on the South side of town. I sit astride a Yamaha 2-stroke motorcycle borrowed for the weekend from a friend. I have told God, in the logic that only makes sense in youth or deep sadness, that I will believe in his existence and turn away from my agnostic dissolution if I can crest that 20-foot hill. A modern and impetuous Sisyphus, I drop the motorcycle each time with more than five feet left before the short sod cornice at the top. After perhaps fifteen attempts, I declare God to be in default on our bargain and ride the motorcycle home where I spend part of the evening staring at a paperback Book of Mormon, arrayed in its sullen deep blue.
The next day I am kneeling behind a simple altar, the type of formica-burnished table that must have seemed practical and cheap when my church house was built decades before my birth. There is my bishop, now recently dead from myeloma, on the rostrum, his broken thumb fingering a black binder, my mother lost in thought on a pew amidst many loud children, my closest friends and my younger brother beside me. As I call out “O God, the Eternal Father,” there is a holy and entirely overwhelming rush of the spirit, the mystical or numinous experience that has been treasured for millennia. I am reborn, my knee against cheap, knotty carpet, my hand clasping a laminated index card with the words of our sacramental prayer. This is an experience I have never had again, a magnificent penetration of the dark abysses flanking my existence, but it is one that I have periodically recalled to keep me alive, to keep me Mormon.
Perhaps a month later, I received the Priesthood of Melchizedek, the sacramental essence that Joseph Smith announced would save everyone in the world by uniting them in love and hope and aspiration and commitment. The only visual image from that life-changing summer stored by a camera depicts me in the midst of people I loved, my mind far away. Just this year I returned to that very room to bid farewell to the old friend and bishop, who had shepherded my return to belief and behavior. It was a painful jolt, that premature end in a room of beginnings, as this friend had moved to the latter abyss where I had left a sort of former abyss. These places remember and they cause to remember.
A month after my conversion at that sacrament altar, I arrived in Boston to start college, a long-haired Jesus freak who wanted to read books and minister to those in need. The Longfellow Chapel immediately became a central feature of the environment of my belief. As I search my memories of nearly two decades ago, the first and most prominent is of the ward dinner. Every week we converted our cultural hall into a shared dining space that made our Sunday meal in the Longfellow Chapel half soup kitchen and half ward banquet. Because the ward had invited homeless guests from neighboring shelters to join our after-church dinner, the hungry and marginalized mingled with aspiring Mormon intellectuals and ambitious students and professionals in that gymnasium. I remember Michael, with his learning disability and a sharply hooked nose, his temporary home in the basement of the Congregational Church two blocks from ours. I stole food for him and his friends from the college cafeteria, volunteered at the shelter in the Congregational Church, walked with him and heard his stories, listened to his terrible keyboarding on a Casio that bleated uncertainly under the pressure of his large fingers. Because of the Longfellow Chapel, I was able to meet Michael as a person rather than a representative of homelessness. I assumed he was a church member for several weeks, until he confessed with embarrassment that he was not Mormon. Through the power of the community that church allowed us to create, Michael and I created a friendship that extended through my mission and until his untimely death from a ruptured aneurysm.
That building also contained the sacrament hall with its oval window glowing with stippled light from shimmering trees that reminded me of nothing so much as a gentle breeze through a stand of quaking aspen on a bright afternoon high in the Uintas. There I heard stories of faith and uncertainty, of commitment and disaffection, of loves requited and unrequited, of emotions and attachments that obeyed and disobeyed conscience and tradition. More than anything I remember the sense that all of us were Saints, that in the silent reaches of that church, which watched and contained but did not require a particular view, we were a community, a created family of sacred durability. Nabokov was right that the flashes of inspiration come best in adolescence or young adulthood, that state between the big before and the big after, and the Longfellow Park Chapel is where I grew into a Latter-day Saint.
These three sacred spaces—the Uinta Mountains, a chapel in Kaysville, Utah, and the Longfellow Park Chapel, have marked three different and interdependent phases in my growth as a believer and son of God. In the Uintas I learned to feel gratitude and clarity, in Kaysville I first encountered what scholars call the numinous or the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. In Cambridge, at that red brick chapel that saw several generations of aspirations and belief, I encountered community—the sort of rough-and-tumble, many square pegs and round holes community that can give us hints of what Zion could be. There I felt perfectly equal in the most relevant sense with everyone, with people whose lives were filled with music or numbers or books or the intermittent drudgeries of secretarial labor or the sudden and uncertain pleasures of nurturing a stranger’s children. Or, and this is something that continues to amuse me, people whose minds were filled with robots, lasers, and space ships. In that hidden space within the Northeast, that enclave of Mormonism in the land of the Mathers and then Emerson and then the abolitionists and then Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, we came together as a group of believers.
These spaces that hold memories—Clayton Christensen, ever efficient, described the chapel as a filing cabinet for memories—exert some of their great power in part because of their neutrality. Able to be experienced by many different people, to have created within them a wide variety of mental and spiritual worlds, these spaces allow us to create community precisely because they mean different things to different people. Rather than worrying with the postmodernists about the multiplicity of meaning lurking behind each symbol, in my experience I am nourished to speak and hear proclamations of love for a place that I also have loved.
These holy places hold our memories, provide an architecture and container for them. It is this process of creating memories, of building character that builds our spiritual identity. Because three years ago I felt drawn to return to the sacred spaces of the Uintas and the Wasatch, to the high alpine lakes, mighty granite precipices, and forever-quaking aspens, I felt with particular misery the loss of that Chapel, my schoolhouse of Zion, as my memories slipped free, ghost-like, of their original container.