One Saturday, I went hiking with a friend in the forest just beyond the city. We walked for about ten kilometers, up and down hills and through swamps and along lakes, all of the time in forests of birches, the white trunks rising high above us and the leaves shimmering in the wind. It was that moment between late summer and early autumn, when the coolness and dampness have settled in but before the leaves have changed. Any man’s thoughts are apt to turn to higher things in such a place, and given that my friend is a Lutheran priest, I was not surprised that he wanted to talk about religion when we stopped for lunch. But I was surprised by how he started.
‘Of course, nature is very important to you Mormons.’
‘Is it?’ I asked, more out of curiosity than denial.
He had toured the temple during the open house and had been struck by the mural in one of the endowment rooms covering three walls, clearly representing the beauty of the natural world just outside of the temple: birch forests, rock outcroppings and the occasional native fauna. (I believe murals representing the local landscape are common in the small temple designs.) He said, ‘It must be wonderful to worship in such a room.’ I agreed that it was, although I was unsure about the actual role of the room in the temple worship. I assume it is meant to represent the tellestial world, or the world in which we now live — but it is green and lush, full of life and beautiful, with nary a thistle or thorn. If you add to that the nearly religious devotion of Finns to their forests and the products thereof, I imagine that for most people in that room, the mural represents more of an Eden than a vale of tears.
I explained that the creation of the world and an appreciation of the beauty of nature as a reflection of God’s grace is important within Mormonism, as it is in many varieties of modern Christianity. As I thought about it, the production values of the temple film (aside from the actual content) reinforce this concept implicitly. At the core of Mormon worship is a depiction of how beautiful our world is: yes, it is meant to represent the world before the fall, but it is our world, isn’t it? They didn’t film those sunsets on a Provo backlot.
In addition, I explained nature plays a significant role in Mormon history: many of the foundational events of the church occur in the forests of the Finger Lakes region of New York, with the Sacred Grove at the center. In historical hindsight, or perhaps as a doctrinal construct, the function of the natural space seems to be a placeholder of sorts for the temple, and indeed the visitations occur in the Kirtland Temple as soon as it is completed. Still, in the core of our religious experience is this sense that nature is the place to go to for religious insights, away from society and closer to God. If you believe Hugh Nibley, modern Mormonism seems to have walked away from that heritage; but for those interested in exploring the idea, it is very Mormon to see the natural world as an inherently spiritual space.
How I ended up in a swamp in central Finland with a rifle in my arms looking through a scope is a complicated story, but there I was, with the sole purpose of shooting a moose for the sole purpose of feeding my own and my extended family. And I did. I shot a moose and killed it. One minute it was moving and the next, because of what I did with my finger, it was lying on its side looking at nothing. I felt — well, it is difficult to explain. I felt close to the earth. I felt like an ur-man, like all of my trappings of civilization and education and individuality fell away from me and I was essentially involved in life and the death. I felt a desire to participate in a ritual that would mark my recognition that this was significant, not sporting or frivolous.
My hunting companion, a young man who spends most of his days in the forests, said a single word when I fired the shot — ‘Yes’ — and we approached the fallen animal in silence.I stood above this beast, astounding in both its size and its awkwardness, and we did nothing for a minute or two.
I recognized that the experience I had was somehow spiritual, but I find it difficult to articulate why. It has to do with the role death plays in the world. As a wise friend expressed, all life requires death, and we have largely forgotten it. By denying our access to death, we have also denied our access to life, to understanding the mechanism between the two, that the circle of life is a circle of death. For humanity, creation involves destruction. We are engaged in death every day as we eat and drive and build and live, but we try our best not to think about it.
I had been fooled by my own social delusions that life and death are opposites, and my experience with the moose reminded me that death in this world of suffering is not just a mistake or a by-product: it is part of the plan, something we need to confront and understand and prepare for, not something to hide from and whisper about. The absolute center of our faith and spirituality is the death of the Son of God. Death is overcome, but it is overcome through the experience of death itself. *
A few days later, after the carcass had been picked up for processing, we drove back to the city and I went to our ward’s temple day. I sat in the endowment room, watching my friends gathering there and looking around the walls, and there I saw a moose. Not a vision, but a moose painted into the mural. It brought it all together for me: this thing we do, whether it’s religion generally, Christianity or Mormonism more specifically, is about figuring out what to do in this world — this beautiful world, where death is a straight fact — and finding order, finding beauty and finding eternity.
*If this sounds a little irrational, it is because even now, months later, I see the truth of this out of the corner of my eye, and when I try to look at it directly it escapes me.