Keep the commandments; in this there is safety and peace.
—Barbara A. McConochie, Hymn 303
The world’s a tumultuous place, no doubt about it: roiling with uncertainty. No wonder, then, that we seek safety. Mormonism has a strong discursive bent toward treating the gospel as the means to safety in a perilous world. Get on board the Old Ship Zion, we say, and you’ll weather the storm. The watchmen on the tower will warn of impending danger, and, if we heed their precautions, we can sleep soundly at night.
On the cosmic level, I believe that this is right, and in some more proximate ways as well: trying to steer clear of sin is probably a good idea. Even so, I think that the safety the gospel affords turns out to be more painfully paradoxical than we usually like to let on.
Let’s start with prayer. We talk of prayer as a source of guidance or comfort, and it can be both of these things. Prayer is also, crucially, a way to gain confirmation of the truth, as missionaries routinely say, so we associate prayer with certainty. We sometimes acknowledge that prayers go unanswered, to which we respond with talk about God’s timing. Prayer only torques the soul by the delay of its salutary effects.
That can be a torquing indeed, as anyone who has gone through it would attest. Talk of God’s timing can be little comfort, but that is the language we often choose instead of acknowledging the anguish of the experience. It’s not that we lack resources, but that we don’t particularly use them. The psalms, for instance, speak in places of spiritual desolation: “Out of the depths I cry unto thee, O Lord,” from 130, and “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” or “my heart is all poured out like wax” from 22. Beyond the scriptures, writers like the 16th-century Spaniards St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. John of the Cross (among many others) have written about the experience of spiritual desolation (Ignatius) or the “dark night of the soul” (John of the Cross), when all of the affective pleasures of spiritual experience are stripped away to make way for a deeper union with God.
Sometimes, though, getting answers to our prayers can be more terrifying than not getting answers to them. These days we prefer to think of God as a benevolent grandfather who is mostly kind, but who occasionally dispenses pleasantly cantankerous bits of wisdom. We don’t like the older ideas of awe-inducing divine majesty, armed with thunder and given to smiting. But if you don’t think that facing the God of love will scorch your soul, I suspect that you, with Joni Mitchell, don’t really know love at all.
We’ve all heard enough jokes in testimony meeting to know that praying for humility is a bad idea, but praying for love sounds like the epitome of coziness: God will wrap you in a warm blanket and set you down in an idyll of family and friends, probably housed in one of those Thomas Kinkade cottages.
Consider, however, the kind of love at work in Isaac Watts’s great hymn text:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all!
What greater sign of love than the cross? And to what does that love call us, but the cross? “My life, my soul, my all” is not a price easily paid. Nor is working out how to pay it a simple matter of accounting.
Rather than keep us safe from the world’s darkness and turmoil, the cross sends us straight into it. Two millennia have worn off the shock of a crucified God, who came to suffer in abjection, not triumph in majesty—nor, indeed, to repose in a bourgeois cottage. No, we have to learn to see the darkness, and, seeing it, to love it. We have to come to love the “world” in all of the qualities that impel us to use that word pejoratively. Love of the world, after all, led God to send Jesus here: not to condemn the world, but to save it.
So, pray for love at your peril. You might find that God opens up a breach in your heart, much like the breach that the soldier opened in Jesus’ side, creating a pathway to his heart. The breach then expands until you find yourself in a deep, silent darkness that eats away at everything you once thought love was: warm feelings, kind thoughts, and even hard tears. You learn how much selfishness and pretense lay in your earlier loves—how much you loved for the rewards that accrued to you more than for anyone or anything else. You see yourself calling out to God, “I will save them: give me your glory,” while Jesus’ haggard face looks on, as if at a thief.
You might learn that at your core resides the anguished thought that nobody who really knew you or saw to your depths could love you, that there’s something of you that you keep hidden away, even from yourself most of the time.
And then you might learn that God resides in that anguished thought, and perhaps nowhere else. Think of how eagerly we flee the cross: we are hastier even than God to abandon Jesus there, bitter and alone, rather than try to compass his sorrow. But then he meets us in our darkest place, and we see eye to eye.
There we learn why God had to abandon him, and abandon us, because there was no other way for us to find God, in the end. We learn that it was in being abandoned by God that Jesus found us.
Once you see Jesus in that dark, abandoned place, you see Jesus everywhere; in Hopkins’s words, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in eyes, and lovely in limbs not his, / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” And your heart opens to an awful, engulfing love, a love that most of the time feels more like agony than bliss, because you see the agony lurking in the corners of people’s eyes.
The religion that comes out of this kind of encounter is anything but safe. There is no easy or obvious answer to human suffering. Simply being present to someone seems the best thing, and yet the darkness corrodes so much of what you try. You learn there how deeply Jesus longs to be present to us, and how that kind of presence really must take a God to pull off.
You can’t think of anything that might work, but you try anyway, because not trying seems like death. You hear Jesus calling you to take up your cross and follow him, so you take that darkness at the center of your soul and start offering it to people. It’s your gift, all you really have to give.
As you try to give your darkness, it becomes a bridge connecting you to other people’s darkness, and you find yourself called to bear witness. You know that you could choose not to see the darkness; you spent most of your life not seeing it, after all. But you realize that, if you can’t hide from your own darkness, not really, there’s something dishonest in averting your eyes from someone else’s, not to mention the vast eddies of oceanic dark in which we all must swim—oceans filled with leakage from the wounds we persistently inflict on each other. Jesus was God, and if anyone had the power to look away, he did, but he didn’t and wouldn’t. He insisted on seeing, so you try to do the same.
More often than not, you fail. You think you’re giving all you have, but then you have moments of vision that you strain to hold open, and you realize, yet once more, that you’ve let love’s lessons remain largely unheard. You can’t keep the commandments after all—putting aside that love frequently stretches what you thought they meant, redefining them almost beyond your recognition. You just fail. The whole Church fails.
But here’s the thing: in all of this anguish and failure, you feel calmer than you ever have. Oddly, you feel safe. It’s not that you know that Jesus will save you from all the failure, or that he’ll know you’re doing your best and accept your offering. No, it’s that he meets you in the failure, again and again. (The sacrament, emblems of his mangled body, can be this, if you let it.) In his abjection, he gives to you the presence that you’ve tried to give to others, but couldn’t, and that lets you lift up your own cross and try to give again, a little more able to love than you were before.