“Life withers when there are things we cannot share”

Virginia Woolf2

I don’t have a testimony.1

This doesn’t mean I don’t seek to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, or that I don’t believe Joseph Smith is a prophet or that the Book of Mormon is scripture or that the Church is the vehicle through which we can be sealed in lasting relationships, etc. But nevertheless, I don’t have a testimony. It might seem like I’m playing little word games here, but the idea of “having a testimony” doesn’t seem adequate to what I actually experience as a devoted student of Mormonism. Having suggests solidity, perhaps a sense of completeness, or a claim that I possess something. Over time, instead, my religious experiences have left me feeling incomplete in some ways (and not just in the “I’m not perfect yet” sense), and feeling possessed by faith more than being a possessor of it.

So I don’t have a testimony because I don’t feel like a testimony is something I can personally and actually have.

Especially not all to myself. I think a lot of Mormons recognize this deep down. After all, the setting where we most often use the word “testimony” is a group setting—a fast and testimony meeting. This is where we share our thoughts, beliefs, experiences; a testimony is really only such when it’s being shared. It exists in the gap between me and you, or maybe in me and you, but not separately, not ever. Testimony is the narratives we create together, the truths we forge out of the myriad experiences and sensations of our day-to-day lives, stories about our lives, and testimonies are always interpersonal just like people are. You are not you without me, and I’m not either; we must testify and we must live, but only together.

“Life withers,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “when there are things we cannot share.”2 Life itself withers.

Her magnificent book The Waves is an experimental attempt to describe our fundamental inseparability from each other. We, individual waves, are part of a vast ocean; always together whether rough or smooth. The Waves consists of the internal perspectives of a group of friends, one of whom is a writer of fine phrases always trying to capture reality and communicate it in a memorable word or sentence. But he can’t escape the shadow of doubt that trails after everything he and his friends try to share. Testimonies, stories, seem to be more than what words can capture and since life withers when there are things that can’t be shared, life’s withering is a constant threat. This is the plight at the heart of communication.3 Near the end of the book Woolf seems to state explicitly, through this character, what her intentions for the entire book were:

“The crystal, the globe of life as one calls it, far from being hard and cold to the touch, has walls of thinnest air…”

This “globe” represents the story one tells about oneself; one’s delicate and changing self-perception which is always composed with help from other people. She continues:

“If I press the [globe] all will burst. Whatever sentence I extract whole and entire from this cauldron is only a string of six little fish that let themselves be caught while a million others leap and sizzle, making the cauldron bubble like boiling silver, and slip through my fingers. Faces recur, faces and faces – Neville, Susan, Louis, Jinny, Rhoda and a thousand others. How impossible to order them rightly; to detach one separately, or to give the effect of the whole – again, like music…”

Life is so much more than we can grasp or clutch to ourselves, even alongside those we love, or those we despise, or all those strangers passing on the street.

“What a symphony, with its concord and its discord and its tunes on top and its complicated bass beneath then grew up!”4

The Waves evokes a deep sense of futility and sorrow—but shimmering; and those flecks of light are a strange hope, sparks leaping from our shoulders as we brush past one another giving perhaps just enough light to take another step forward. Testimonies are shared, yes, but I don’t think we are called upon to scrutinize, judge, or declare insufficient the living and shared testimonies of our fellow Latter-day Saints. We speak our testimonies between us and pray the Spirit to seal them (and us) up to eternal life. Testimonies are a symphony, and what may sound to us as a note out of tune may be a strange dissonance necessary to the overall effect of the piece as a whole. We think we can share, we must share, we fail at sharing, we try again. We need each other. We are each other.

“…if I wake in the night, I feel along the shelf for a book. Swelling, perpetually augmented, there is a vast accumulation of unrecorded matter in my head. Now and then I break off a lump, Shakespeare it may be, it may be some old woman called Peck; and say to myself, smoking a cigarette in bed, “That’s Shakespeare. That’s Peck”— with a certainty of recognition and a shock of knowledge which is endlessly delightful, though not to be imparted. So we shared our Pecks, our Shakespeares; compared each other’s versions; allowed each other’s insight to set our own Peck or Shakespeare in a better light; and then sank into one of those silences which are now and again broken by a few words, as if a fin rose in the wastes of silence; and then the fin, the thought, sinks back into the depths, spreading round it a little ripple of satisfaction, content.”5

We share. We sink into silence. We seek to set things in a better light. Else life withers.
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NOTES

1. OK, my intro line feels like clickbait, I know. Also, I couldn’t find the original source of the art. I found it here using Google Image search.

2. Virginia Woolf, The Waves (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1959 edition), 265.

3. This is the subject of John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, 2001), one of my all-time favorite favorite books of all time.

4. Woolf, 256. The Waves is a symphony and no number of quoted excerpts can suffice, much like if I played you a 5 second span of an orchestra piece. It needs the whole for its effect to be really felt.

5. Woolf, 272-273.

Comments

  1. Unbeknownst to me, Adam Miller recently published a blog post looking at a different facet of perhaps the same rock:

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2014/10/the-body-of-christ/

  2. But then I am asked if I have a testimony . . .

  3. Keith, sometimes I think that question—when asked charitably—really means “are you with us?” or “do you love us?” or “do you love me?” or “will you stay?” or “are we worthwhile?” or “do you find God here?” or etc., etc.

  4. Yes, the opening line does sound like click bait. But I’m with you: the plain ol’ definition of the word “testimony” — a recounting, a telling, a statement — supports your point that we don’t possess it, it’s in the sharing.

  5. Nicely done Blair. VW is one of my favoriates and I’ve not read this one. I will remedy that soon. I particularly liked the final quote–

  6. Virginia Woolf loves the Peck authors!

  7. Excellent, Blair. Thank you.

  8. Oh, you had me at The Waves. A luminous and wonderful book. SteveP: move it up the pile quickly!

  9. I’m ordering this book now. Thank you, Blair.

  10. The idea of “possessing” a testimony has always seemed strange to me. Testimony isn’t something you have, it’s something you do.

  11. This strikes a chord. It reminds me of a passage from Nibley’s Leaders to Managers, the Fatal Shift (CWHN Vol. 13, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, Chapter 18) e-version available at Maxwell Institute website under Publications.
    “The group leader of my high priests’ quorum is a solid and stalwart Latter-day Saint who was recently visited by a young returned missionary who came to sell him some insurance. Cashing in on his training in the mission field, the fellow assured the brother that he knew that he had the right policy for him just as he knew the gospel was true. Whereupon my friend, without further ado, ordered him out of the house, for one with a testimony should hold it sacred and not sell it for money. The early Christians called Christemporoi those who made merchandise of spiritual gifts or church connections. The things of the world and the things of eternity cannot be thus conveniently conjoined; and it is because many people are finding this out today that I am constrained at this time to speak on this unpopular theme.”

  12. Loved the piece. Interesting angle on the concept of having a testimony. I agree with the sentiments. As a counter point, when do we create the meaning of “having a testimony”? As an interpreter I am constantly negotiating context specific meanings where the org or business, etc has taken a word of phrase and established a new meaning/import for it. I, therefore, have to use a different construction to interpret that meaning. Any thoughts?

  13. I guess the point is to challenge the way we’ve taken the phrase hostage, right? Just thinking about what you said. I am often interested in defining words because of my interpreting background. What are words for? What do they try to convey or not convey? Anyway-not that important.

  14. Audrey, it would be very interesting to trace the ways members of the church began talking about “having a testimony.” I don’t know if any one has taken that on yet, but I’d like to see it.

  15. BHodges (Blair, right?) Oooooo. That sounds fascinating.

  16. Blair, yes. :)

  17. Carey Foushee says:

    So what your suggesting quite literally is that “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20)

  18. Oooo, I like that reference, Carey, nicely done!

  19. BHodges,

    If memory serves, in earlier days, testimonies in some parts of the Wasatch Front were largely from those who knew Joseph Smith personally. It was essentially an eyewitness account with a description of some sort of spiritual confirmation. It has evolved significantly, even within my lifespan. In my youth, I rarely heard a testimony of the Book of Mormon. In the early 1960’s I remember older high priests who would report every personal witness (dreams, visions, etc.) in testimony meeting. By the 1980’s this was discouraged, and most of these older men were dead. But rote phrases like “I know the church is true,” and “I know that __________ is a prophet of God,” etc. became more common.

  20. Someone’s gotta do a folklore studies on the use of the phrase, its function in performative contexts, its shifts over the years, etc.

  21. Actually, the reason you have a testimony, is NOT because you give testimony or bear it yourself (though you can, and many do in Fast and Testimony meetings). The testimony that one speaks of is the testimony that is given to them from the Holy Ghost. Hence, they have a testimony from the Holy Ghost that the church is true, that the Book of Mormon is true, Joseph Smith is a prophet, and other items.

    When one says they have a testimony, it is not in reference to a testimony that you are given (aka, if you were a witness in court giving a testimony) but the testimony which you were given, or that you have received (aka, the court has your testimony if you give it to them, or, you have the testimony that the Holy Ghost gives you).

    Just for clarification, as there seems to be some misunderstanding of WHY we say we have a testimony from my POV.

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