Confessing God’s hand in all things

My three-year-old son loudly announced that the incense smelled “yucky” just as the priest walked by, censer swinging from chains, bells jingling. And the priest smiled.

I recently finished reading a book by religious studies scholar Robert Orsi, who once suggested that “if it doesn’t offer you the opportunity to taste something, lick something, kiss something, or put something into your mouth, it’s not a religion.” I’m sure he’d have included “smell something” in this list had he been thinking about it. One of the things I enjoy most about attending Eastern Orthodox Pascha each year with my family is the way it engages the body—sight, sound, touch, and yes, smell. While the LDS Church is my home, these occasional pilgrimages help renew my faith. 

Orsi’s book is about how Catholics encounter “abundant presences.” That’s the scholarly jargon Orsi developed to talk about what others might call “supernatural,” the “transcendent,” or “the Spirit” or “spirits.” He had to come up with new words because the old ones seem to deny the reality of spiritual things when Orsi wants to somehow include them in his account. How can scholars grapple with miraculous claims about bleeding statues, incredible healings, or visitations from Mary? Many Catholics live in a world inhabited by spirits, saints, and other divine presences—something Mormons can’t so easily dismiss, considering our belief in angelic visitations, continuing revelation, and the still small voice. Orsi’s scholarship resists the kind of scholarship that would explain such things away.

LDS historian Richard Bushman spoke with Orsi about abundant presences, asking if they still crop up in Mormonism. We have quite a history of miraculous visions, healings, and translations. Bushman cited testimonies many members share today of the Spirit’s influence in their lives, promptings, and blessings received as the result of following commandments. “But usually,” Bushman added, “it has to be reduced to some incident.” A phone call at just the right moment; a job offer against all odds; overcoming addiction; forgiving someone.

Have I been tempted to “reduce” my experiences with God “to some incident”? I’ve had a few moving experiences in my life that feel like what Orsi means by “abundant presence,” but more often I don’t feel an obvious kind of electric connection with God that results in certainty. If anything, my spirituality sometimes seems to consist in little more than my own desire to find that kind of connection, or my own willingness to keep living religiously without immediate or obvious payoff.

Doctrine & Covenants 59:21 expresses God’s offense when his children “confess not his hand in all things.” This is one of those verses that troubles me, challenges me, comes to mind when I’m least expecting it. I personally don’t sense God as a micro-manager in my life, and Mormonism values human agency, so what could it mean for me to confess God’s hand in all things, especially when “abundant events,” or what Mormons might call “spiritual experiences,” don’t seem altogether common in my life?

I’ve been seeking to locate a spirituality of the mundane, God in the everyday, in a way that doesn’t put a suit and tie on it, make it smell like the cultural hall, or feel like a three-hour block of church. Not that God isn’t or can’t be there in those things, too—I’ve experienced God there—but that those things alone can’t contain God. Those things aren’t “all things.” Things can include yucky incense, after all.

The Pascha celebration began inside the church with all the lights off. The minor-key music and dim atmosphere made my son nervous, so I held him for over an hour as the priests lit our candles and the worshipers exited the building singing, carrying banners, icons, candles, and the Gospel. Our procession circled the church and returned to the church doors where the priest knocked and demanded they be opened to let the king of glory in.

Before we re-entered, I looked up at the sky’s twinkling stars peeking through scars between fast-moving clouds. I felt in my heart that it seemed kind of funny to think about God sitting out there in a planet someplace. We believe Jesus, like God, is embodied; but we see in our scriptures they are more than a regular body. In that moment it felt to me like God was also somehow not only out there but also deep, deep down in here; in the dirt crunching at my feet, in the smoke residue brushed in my nostrils, in the heat from the candle’s small flame, and in the glowing eyes of my son whose face lit up when we made eye contact and it felt like—despite his absurdly short attention span—he never wanted to look away.

I know what it felt like. I don’t want to reduce it to some incident, but I can’t deny that it happens within some incident, too.

Before we re-entered the church the priest called out, “Christ has risen!” We shouted our response, “Truly, He has risen!”

And he rises still, somehow, in all things. Putting it in words is the hard part.


O day of resurrection! Let us beam with God’s own pride!
Let everyone embrace in joy!
Let us warmly greet those we meet and treat them all like brothers,
even those who hate us!
Let all the earth resound with this song:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!


  1. This is a great read, Blair.

  2. BHodges says:

    Thanks JKC!

  3. After reading this OP, I thought President Nelson’s talk is the antidote for those who have too few moving experiences. President Nelson pleaded with church members to “increase your spiritual capacity to receive revelation.” He exhorted us to “come unto Christ and lay hold upon every good gift.”

  4. J. Stapley says:

    He is risen, indeed.

  5. Thank you. He is risen indeed.

    I’m currently in a country where nearly all religious observance is very limited, except for the official state version, and I’ve missed Holy Week and Easter services. But I was able to go to a Palm Sunday service at a French Embassy (on a Thursday night because you take what you can get here) and catching the scent of the incense, even though I couldn’t understand all of the service, was one of those incidents in the middle of something greater that reminded me of things I’ve forgotten living here.

  6. Thank you, Blair. This is one of those unusual to me pieces where no detail connects, none of the experience is mine, but the heart of the matter rings true. I am better for it.

  7. J Stuart says:

    Thanks, Blair. I love this.

    Also, I second Christian’s comment.

  8. Thanks, Blair. Good thoughts.

  9. Kristine says:

    I love this, Blair. I always wonder if I love “smells and bells” rituals so much because I’m just built that way, or because they break through the haze of the familiar that sometimes shrouds God in my LDS experience.

  10. SHenneman says:

    “I’ve been seeking to locate a spirituality of the mundane, God in the everyday”

    I feel like this is the quest of my whole life. When I feel the Spirit the strongest, whether that be interacting with a group, an individual, or my own meditations, the most powerful sensation is a deep connection to everyone and *all things*, a sense of interdependence and blurring of my sense of self.

    “it felt to me like God was also somehow not only out there but also deep, deep down in here; in the dirt crunching at my feet, in the smoke residue brushed in my nostrils, in the heat from the candle’s small flame, and in the glowing eyes of my son … ”

    This, exactly.

    Beautiful piece, Blair.

  11. Thank you, friends.

  12. Thanks, Blair. Like others here, I haven’t experienced this particular Easter liturgy, and yet it speaks to me.

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