Thursday, February 09, 2006

A People of Sorrow and Acquainted with Grief

While teaching in the MTC, I realized I could not let "my" missionaries enter the field without telling them the truth: a mission is a difficult, taxing, and often harsh experience. Oh, there are miracles a plenty, to be sure, but most days are long, most doors are slammed, and many people are rude. I made a point of looking each of my Elders and Sisters in the eye and saying this may be the hardest thing you will ever do. I knew I taught truth, at least during that lesson, because I learned from what I taught. I articulated feelings through which I had never thought.

Further reflection, however, led me to ask why? Of course, if you have read Elder Holland's Missionaries and the Atonement, you know he atriculates both the questions and the answer better than I ever could. Still, I've spent many hours pondering sorrow, and I hope I have learned a couple of things.

Perhaps most importantly, sorrow is often proportional to spirituality. Yes, that's right, directly proportional. Consider the following examples:

  • Joseph Smith was, as Richard Bushman has wisely dubbed him, a "prophet of sorrow." Consider Joseph's trajectory: born in poverty, called to bear a mantle which nearly suffocated him, rejected and misunderstood at almost every turn, and finally killed for his integrity (whatever flaws Joseph possesed, and those flaws are real, his integrity remained firm). Joseph was, as he said, wont to swim in deep waters. Considering the betrayal, persecution, and rejection that haunted him at nearly every turn, I am hardly surprised when I read his beautiful, steely cry from Liberty Jail: "O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?"
  • C.S. Lewis, the converted atheist and preeminent Christian apologist of the twentieth century, was devastated to find God had apparently abandoned him in Lewis' moment of greatest need. Using the same strong words with which he had, for so long, explained away "the problem of pain," Lewis wrote, following his wife's death: "Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. If you remember yourself and turn to Him [when you are happy] with gratitude and praise, you will be--or so it feels--welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence."
  • Ammon and his companions, perhaps the greatest missionaries of whom we have record, found rejection, temptation, and affliction at almost every turn. For every discussion with a Lamoni, there were many nights spent in prison--languighing and waiting for deliverance. As a student of the Book of Mormon, I am often so eager to bolster my faith I skip straight to the "inspiring" parts of Ammon and Co.'s story. In so doing, however, I neglect to acknolwedge, "Now these are the circumstances which attended them in their journeyings, for they had many afflictions; they did suffer much, both in body and in mind, such as hunger, thirst and fatigue, and also much labor in the spirit."
Sorrow, it seems, will constantly accompany those who seek Christ. I at first thought this absurd; Lehi, after all, is clear: "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have hoy." How can sadness inescapably dwell with Christ's disciples if He promises joy to those who follow Him--indeed, if joy is the very reason for our creation and existence? I realized, however, joy and sorrow are not related as are light and darkness. The latter pair are, by definition, mutually exclusive; they cannot both occupy the same space simultaneously and as one advances the other must retreat. Such is not the case, though, with joy and sorrow.

Instead, joy and sorrow are forever sealed together; just as "neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord," joy cannot be complete without sorrow, or sorrow without joy, in Christ. All things must exist in opposition, as Lehi explains, and so joy finds meaning in sorrow. Furthermore, as we trek through life, we find meaning in each of these only as we experience the other.

Sorrow, I believe, is holy.

Consider the last time you attended a funeral for someone who lived a full and faithful life. The sorrow you felt was, no doubt, both real and deep. Joy, however, infused you sadness with hope. Your joy may have sprung from memories of the past or from hope for future reunions. Your joy was real, but it was made so by the impinging sorrow. Joy and sadness are inseperable. Often, indeed, our ability to feel one increases our ability to feel the other.

This analysis leaves many questions unanswered, however. Most acutely: what of sorrow not infused with such obvious hope--what, for instance, of a funeral for a beloved and wicked man. What about rape? Incest? Murder? Hatred? Abduction? War? The missing? The dead? The estranged? The hopeless? Comfort may abound at the funeral of a saint, but what of the craven criminal who dies alone in the street?

The first answer is: I don't know. What I do know, however, is that "the keeper of the gate is the holy one of Israel, and he employeth no servant there." In other words, every man will eventually face the Savior for judgement. I believe quite strongly that meeting will surprise many of us--many of the most confident will, for the first time, recognize glaring problems and many of the most humble and fearful will find much greater compassion than expected. When it is all over, though, each of us will receive, as Elder Maxwell has pointed out, "according to his desire."

One final thought. I have glaringly ommitted the Savior from the list above; I have done so, however, because the arc of his life teaches special lessons concerning the promises of the Lord to those who find themselves beset by trials and hopelessness they cannot easily overcome. No scene, ever, evokes pathos like the Savior kneeling in Gethsemane. A poem depicts the scene:

He kneels alone, His friends asleep, the weight is bearing down.
His blood is seeping out like wine, He claws the barren ground.
He groans beneath the world's weight, His shoulders weary grow--
but love sustains Him through the night, compassion downward flows.

Most terribly, the Savior found himself without His Father's help. An angel came to bear him up, but the Father had to turn from Him--to be infinite, the Atonement apparently had to include what felt like the betrayal of the Savior's constant companion and friend: His Father. From later in the same poem:

They crown His brow with thorns and hang His frame upon the cross.
In disbelief disciples watch and count salvation's cost.
His Father hides his face and cries. Christ's pain is like a knife
thrust deep inside His Father's heart--God mourns the sacrifice.

Do we wonder that the Savior, sensing the suffering about to engulf Him, pleaded "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me?" Do we realize what he taught about submissiveness when he concluded his anguish with faith: "nevertheless, not my will but thine?" Do we remember, in our moments of suffering, the anguish of the Savior?

More importantly, however, do we, in those most difficult moments, remember that the Savior's story did not end in Gethsemane? Nor did it end on Calvary, in the empty tomb, or even among the hosts "awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world." No. So far as we have record, the Savior's ministry in the meridian of time ended in the land of Bountiful, among the Nephites.

When sorrow descends like night upon me, I like to read 3 Nephi 17. There, I find the Savior weeping with joy. I find him blessing, healing, and discovering himself filled with compassion. I like this chapter because it reminds me that, for the faithful, Gethsemane is real but not final. One day, those who keep their covenants will find themselves safe in the arms of Jesus and the Father, surrounded by compassion and healing. The arc of the disciple's journey will have begun in Eden, and it will pass through Gethsemane, but it will end in Bountiful--a land of endless joy and sorrow.


Blogger RoAnn said...

I found your remarks very perceptive, and agree with your conclusions as well as your observations. I was a missionary as a young woman in the early 1960's, and have since served with my husband. We also have children who have served missions. It is obvious that missionaries in different places encounter varying degrees of success in terms of baptisms. In some areas, companionships can baptize every month; in others they may not see a baptism their entire mission. But even in places where it is relatively easy to teach people, missions are, as my husband put it, more about failure than success. I agree that, as you put it, "a mission is a difficult, taxing, and often harsh experience." Physically, mentally, and spiritually. And that is exactly the way it should be, for the reasons you detailed.
Regarding my experience later in life, your essay called to mind something that my husband and I used to talk about before any of our children reached the teenage years: our life was going too well. My husband had a job that was satisfying and well paid. I was able to have the career of SAHM which I had always wanted. We had Church callings that we enjoyed, and we felt appreciated by those we served. We were living in a country where we could afford a maid, and where we could attend opera, ballet and orchestral performances frequently. We and all of our close relatives were all in good health. Our children were bright and talented, and generally obedient. We were far from perfect, but we were an active, believing, temple-worthy LDS family.
Where were the trials we knew we had to endure in order to be refined and perfected? The sorrows we had experienced prior to our marriage had certainly been significant, but with time they began to fade from our memories.
Well, a few years later we again became "acquainted with grief," and have been no stranger to it since that time.
Sorrow seems to beat some people down, but if we are doing our best to stay close to God, even when we may feel abandoned, I believe it can be the tempering and tutoring experience you described. In later years I have always received the comfort I needed to carry on even when my grief seemed more than I could bear. And I have learned to find joy every day in those "tender mercies" Elder Bednar so eloquently spoke of in a General Conference talk.
The analogy in your conclusion between the arc of Christ's life and that of our own is a powerful one, and the image you paint in your last sentence is beautiful. Thanks for another great post.

2:38 PM  
Blogger annegb said...

Wonderful blog, I stumbled in here from a link on Times and Seasons.

I'm going to add it to my list of favorites.

Really well done.

11:25 PM  
Blogger annegb said...

I couldn't see a place to e-mail you. What did you mean about the Red Rock? Are you from St. George? I live in Cedar City. Just wondering. I'm sort of all alone down here.

11:50 PM  
Anonymous preethi said...

Some time ago, I passed through a period that while insignificant relative to the grief of countless others, was most difficult for me. There were moments and days in which I questioned my faith, challenged my knowledge of the truth. This was new for me; never before had I encountered a time in which I had sincerely wondered whether I sincerely believed what I thought I did. It seemed wholly unfair. I, too, asked, "Meanwhile, where is God?"

Worse still, it appeared at the time that the Lord was reneging on previously promised blessings. It was not simply that I felt sorrow; rather, I felt sorrow in my inability to fulfill what I believed to be the Lord's will. Because of this, I came to question whether that was, in fact, His will. I wondered whether it was actually His Spirit that spoke. In truth, I was uncertain as to whether the Spirit actually worked at all.

I'll briefly switch gears to recount a different story. In the Book of Mormon, the Lord commands the young missionary Alma to enter into the land of Ammonihah in order to share the gospel with the people therein. Beforehand, Alma did many things: he prayed, for himself, as well as for a mighty change of heart in the people - Alma 8:10), and he was obedient (Alma 8:15). The preceding chapters detail him fasting, searching, loving, and serving. By all counts, he was the perfectly prepared missionary. All this, AND the Lord had promised him success! It was the perfect combination.

And much success did he have. Throughout the lands of Gideon and Melek, he taught and baptized. I'm sure much to Alma's surprise, however, upon arriving in Ammonihah, instead of meeting with accustomed success, he was reviled, spit upon, and cast from the city. He indicates that he was "weighed down with sorrow." At this point, I can only imagine how simple it might have been to pack up his things and escape as far away as he could.

The story, however, had not yet reached its conclusion. At this point, an angel appeared to Alma, indicating that he should return to Ammonihah and again preach unto the wicked people there. I, admittedly, would undoubtedly have been rather wary of that instruction after such an experience. Alma, however, "returned speedily." Upon his return, he was blessed to meet Amulek, whose heart had been prepared for his joyous message.

The Lord did fulfill his promised blessing to Alma. Likewise, He fulfilled His promised blessings to me. While they did not come to pass in exactly the manner in which I imagined them, they came to pass.

Why, then, the sorrow in between? Why not simply fulfill the blessings immediately, if they would happen anyway? I make no claim to knowing fully. I do know, however, that the sorrow I felt in the interim only heightened my subsequent joy. It made it far more meaningful. And, in all honesty, I doubt I would have been prepared for the blessings had I been without that refining experience, and might not even have recognized them once they came. As you described, the sorrow I felt was directly proportional to the resulting joy and spirituality. And, importantly, I learned a little more of "patience in affliction." While his prayer in the Sacred Grove was his first spoken aloud, even Joseph pleaded on many occasions for a knowledge of the truth.

Even modern psychologists have detailed the importance of suffering, even opposition, in attaining joy. Marty Seligman, world-renowned clinical psychologist, researcher, and professor, enumerates this fact. Like Adam and Eve, we require opposition in all things. They had to know sorrow in order to know joy, pain to understand authentic happiness. Part of the reason lies in the simple opposition – we are able to understand light once we are enveloped in darkness. Seligman provides additional insight, however, in observing that as we utilize our innate strengths to grapple with the darkness, we find joy in doing that at which we are inherently gifted. Seligman remarks, "This means that we all contain ancient strengths inside of us that we may not know about until we are truly challenged. Why were the adults who facee World War II the 'greatest generation'? Not because they were made of different stuff than we are, but because they faced a time of trouble that evoked the ancient strengths within."

Seligman details the importance of exercising virtue in the midst of sorrow in the path to true joy. "The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to happiness, joy, rapture, comfort, ecstasy, rather than be entitled to these feelings by the exercise of personal strengths and virtues, leads to legions of people who in the middle of great wealth are starving spiritually. Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to inauthenticity, to depression, and, as we age, to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die."

One final note: on occasion, I had wondered why the Savior, with a full knowledge of the Resurrection and the blessings to come, would have felt such utter sorrow. This likely appears ignorant, or callous, or both. Interestingly, however, it was in reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that I came to better understand this concept. As I read, I vividly imagined Aslan's approach to his personal Golgotha, his head hanving ever-lower, anguish marring his beautiful features.

Recognizing the Christian allegory, I suspected how things might turn out. Regardless, however, I felt myself entirely absorbed in his grief. I understood, in that moment, the sorrow of another that he took upon himself. Similarly, Christ took the anguish of each of us upon himself, in Gethsemane, upon the cross, and through His infinite Atonement. It is my belief that often, the lives best lived are those permeated with sorrow.

1:51 PM  
Blogger annegb said...

Are you no longer posting? I enjoy your blog, come back!! :)

8:26 AM  
Blogger annegb said...

Are you no longer posting? I enjoy your blog, come back!! :)

8:26 AM  

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