Mormon Mysticism and #ldsconf

Given the way that Mormonism often seems to privilege certainty, I was intrigued to notice hints of mysticism in several of Saturday’s talks. The vein of mysticism I’m talking about involves apophatic or negative theology, which means defining things by what they are not rather than what they are. Such theology draws attention to the limits of human understanding and encourages ascetic practices, often centered on prayer, designed to bring worshipers toward experiences of the divine that transcend rational description—or at least the usual categories of certainty. Mystics are people who experience God’s “dazzling darkness” in this way.

The most obviously mystical talk was Elder Snow’s, on humility (I’m building on PeterLLC’s discussion). He talked about the experience of not knowing what would become of his injured teenage son and the humility that resulted from this not-knowing. In this state, which he calls “the valley of humility,” his family began to recognize small miracles. This recognition came, he implies, not because his family was certain, through a kind of Stoic faith, that God would heal their son, but because their uncertainty sent them into “prayers [that] became even more heartfelt and sincere.”

Such prayers are not transactional, in the sense of claiming blessings from God to which we feel entitled because of our faith. Rather, they involve an almost painful openness and vulnerability, which wouldn’t be vulnerability if the undesired outcome didn’t remain a real possibility weighing down our hearts. These are not prayers of believing that, if we just have enough faith, God will give us what we want; they are prayers that open us up to receive from God things that we may not be able to understand—miracles.

Elder Snow quotes President Kimball on the centrality of “real, constant, worshipful, grateful prayer” to humility. Such prayer begins with an earnestness of seeking (which Gregory of Nyssa in his Song of Songs-based theology of mystical prayer understands as masculine), but ultimately gives way to a womblike receptivity (again, Nyssa). [1] In this way, prayer stretches everyone beyond what social or even physiological gender norms prescribe, which, unexpectedly, brings me to President Uchtdorf’s talk on families from Priesthood Session.

In that talk, Uchtdorf observes that there are no perfect families. People are different in ways that can lead to real tensions:

Like, when your parents ask you to take a “Selfie” of them, or when your great-aunt insists that you are still single because you are just too picky, or when your opinionated brother thinks his political view is the gospel view, or when your dad arranges a family portrait with everyone dressed like characters in his favorite movie. And you get the Chewbacca costume. Families are like that.

We may share the same gene pool, but we are not the same. We have unique spirits. We are influenced in different ways by our experiences. And each of us ends up different as a result.

These differences, Uchtdorf points out, can cause deep hurt from time to time. He wants to think, though, about how salvation can emerge from these difficult circumstances and transform them. The answer is prayer—again, not in the “I have faith that God will save my family, so everything will be okay” sense, rooted in stalwart certainty, but rather a prayer of unknowing: “Those who save their families are successful because they counsel with their spouse and family, seek the will of the Lord, and listen for the promptings of the Holy Ghost. They know that what is right for one family may not be right for another.” The feeling that everything will be okay can emerge from such prayer, as the Comforter fills its eponymous purpose, but only as the desire to penetrate the closed heavens gives way to receptive openness. (In Nyssa’s thought, prayer requires both stages, both kinds of desire. I’m not privileging one over the other. Elder Nelson’s deeply personal talk in Priesthood session illustrates that in some cases the seeking side of the equation can persist for decades before the unexpected occurs.)

I love the way that Uchtdorf invites us to see the everyday difference of human experience (including gendered differences) as an occasion for mystical prayer. Each person we meet is a mystery. Sometimes we experience that mystery as alluring; other times, as abrasive. Precisely because people are so different, there is no single sure-fire way to approach the mystery. (In any case, I think that love, finally, is a faithfulness to that in another person which resists our attempts at understanding.) If we’re interested in breaking through the terrible solitude and existential narcissism that characterizes what David Foster Wallace called “the kingdom of our own skulls,” I believe that apophatic, mystical prayer is a powerful tool, precisely because it pulls us beyond whatever our gendered approach to life happens to be (using gender here as a metonymy for the many different intersectional categories that constitute our distinct identities). The very process of prayer builds empathy for people whose way of experiencing the world differs from ours—which is everyone.

Finally, mysticism and uncertainty inform discussions of the sacrament by Elders Bednar and Renlund. The language of certainty pervades much of Bednar’s talk, as in his reference to the “unchanging pattern of planting and harvesting,” which emphasizes rational predictability based on natural law, and in his injunction that “the inseparable connection between the ordinances of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost should impact every aspect of our discipleship in all seasons of our lives,” where “inseparable” fills a similar function.

Even so, when it comes to the practice of participating in the sacrament, Bednar puts the possibility of mystical experience at the heart of his attempt to make possible something like an assurance of salvation:

The ordinance of the sacrament is a holy and repeated invitation to repent sincerely and to be renewed spiritually. The act of partaking of the sacrament, in and of itself, does not remit sins. But as we prepare conscientiously and participate in this holy ordinance with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then the promise is that we may always have the Spirit of the Lord to be with us. And by the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost as our constant companion, we can always retain a remission of our sins.

Because the mere act of partaking cannot suffice to attain the desired end, Bednar forecloses the possibility of using the sacrament in rational or merely transactional ways. The causality remains fundamentally uncertain, which means that the humble state of having a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” must follow the initial questing desire that brings us to partake in the first place. Only when we have become thus receptive does the Spirit become our companion, at which point we may obtain the assurance for which we hoped. So, even though Bednar’s narrative of sacramental efficacy looks highly rational, its rationality gives way at the crucial point where the outward sign of participation ceases to be enough and the need for ascetic practice appears.

Such practice can, as Elder Renlund said, lead us to “feel God’s nearness as He is made known to [us], as he was to the disciples of old in the ‘breaking of the bread.’” Grammatically, the passive construction “is made known” obscures the agency at work in mystical sacramental presence. This obscurity aptly represents the complex, metaphorically gender-bending interplay of agencies at work: the active willingness on our part that leads us to desire and to pursue the divine presence, but which culminates in the openness that gives God space to act in us. No simple identification of the grammatical subject could do justice to the mystical process that stands at the center of our weekly worship experience. These talks collectively invite us to undertake that experience in ways that will enrich our lives personally, but also lead us into greater unity as a Church, which, as anyone knows who reads the collects that I write for the Mormon Lectionary Project, is an apophatic, uncertain possibility for which I think we all ought to pray.

[1] My account of Nyssa owes to the work of Sarah Coakley, first in Powers and Submissions (Blackwell, 2002), and also in God, Sexuality, and the Self (Cambridge, 2013). I highly recommend both books (I reviewed the latter here).


  1. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Jason.

  2. Excellent. Well done, Jason. I began to expect something like this from you when I heard Elder Bednar’s talk on the sacrament. :)

  3. Jason K. says:

    I love that the thought occurred to you :)

  4. Interesting stuff Jason. We have this counter theme though, and centers in stepping stone liturgy. The combination you suggest is a fruitful way to move between the mystical and transactional.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts and for the opportunity to expand my vocabulary by a handful of words. I always read your posts with my dictionary app at the ready.

  6. Lindsey says:

    This is wonderful; thank you.

  7. The vocabulary is kind of a problem. If you put this write-up to Elders Snow, Bednar, and Renlund, and President Uchtdorf, I think they would not see themselves even though they really are here. Mormons don’t do mysticism or apophatic theology. Or don’t admit that they do, even in the midst of doing the very thing.
    That’s a backhanded compliment, Jason.

  8. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Chris, I think ;)

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