On the Friday before Easter, I went to a Tenebrae service at a Luthern church on the other side of town. We sang hymns in minor keys and read through the passion story, up to the Crucifixion and ending there, as the candles in the church were slowly extinguished, and the sun outside the high windows sank below the horizon. When the service ended with Christ still in the tomb, it was nearly dark inside the church, and the last of the light outside was the deep, heavy blue just before nighttime has entirely settled; the congregants walked back to their cars in near silence. I had rarely felt so still, like the weight of the words and darkness had sunk over me, the hand of God had come to quiet all the seething inside that I couldn’t calm on my own.
The Anglo-Saxons called the three days at the end of Holy Week swigdagas, the Still Days, when the church bells were silent and no Mass could be said. Ælfric of Eynsham wrote that Ne mot nan man secgan spell on þam þrim swigdagum (“Nor may any man say a sermon on the three still days”)1, suggesting that not only Mass, but preaching in general was forbidden. I imagine that devotion during these days, at the apogee of Lent, became an intensely personal thing, a retrospective and symbolic time of mourning for one’s God as well as one’s own sin. I imagined, in the Lutheran parking lot, looking up to the stars behind the silhouettes of the trees, that this was how the Anglo-Saxons felt as the swigdagas set in.
Lent this year was tumultuous, in a good way. For months and months (and months), from last spring to this, I had found myself struggling for a reason to get out of bed on Sunday mornings; church had become an ordeal of anxiety and melancholy, and eventually, rage. I persevered for a long time, trying to go every week even if I was late or couldn’t stand to stay. I made a New Years resolution not to raise my hand in Sunday School or Relief Society, in the hopes that my staying quiet would ease my way in a singles branch that no longer wanted me. And after a Sacrament Meeting talk that was clearly and smugly directed at me and my pride and my liberalism and overeducation and philosophies-of-women, something in me snapped. I realized that just walking into the church parking lot was enough to send me spinning into a miserable fury; I was angry all the time, whether I was at church or not, whether there was something Mormon in front of me or not.
So I decided to give up Mormonism for Lent. The week before Ash Wednesday, in a moment of either clarity or reckless abandon, I ordered a mocha at the coffee shop on campus where I hold office hours. Sipping my sin and reading Alice in Wonderland, I realized I was feeling something I had not felt in nearly a year – eagerness, a desire for religious exploration, excitement at the prospect of finding God again, in places where I hadn’t been looking, in books, music, hiking, meditation, other churches; eagerness to let all this anger and isolation go, start over, find my faith again, and come back to church after Easter a whole new cheery and committed Mormon.
The first half of the plan worked beautifully. I reread Augustine’s Confessions, attended an Episcopal discussion group on Julian of Norwich, went to concerts of medieval and Renaissance liturgical music, slept in deliciously on Sunday mornings and spent Sunday afternoons writing in my journal, listening to Bach, and exploring the local high-church scene. I went to Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Catholic services. I had long, casual talks with God, instead of my usual intense and demanding shouting matches. Also I drank a lot of coffee, and a little mead. And I thought through it all, when Easter comes, and I give up Starbucks, and go to church again, starting over in a whole new ward with people who barely know me, it will be clear to me how to be Mormon again. How could a plan this good possibly go wrong?
Tenebrae is balanced and reversed by the Easter Vigil, when the candles are lit again and the light in the church grows as Saturday night turns into Easter morning. I went to a Vigil this year with one of my closest friends, who was being baptized into the Catholic church; it was a full three-and-a-half-hour service that in fact ended just at midnight. Early on Sunday Morning I went to a Rite I Episcopal service, where I was the youngest person by about three decades, but the language was rich and the church was full of flowers and I felt generally peaceful. And then I went to Sacrament Meeting at the Mormon ward I’m now attending, where a youth speaker gave a talk about how much she wanted an iPhone. And it came crashing down on me that nothing, after all my Lenten recuperation, had really changed.
Going to church still makes me feel angry and alone. I am a non-entity in my new ward just as I was a person of concern in my last one; in a ward dominated by transitory young families, no one really has the time or inclination to be friends with anyone they can’t babysit-swap with. Doubtless I can and should fight for a place for myself, and I’m usually extraverted enough and (I like to think) assertively cheerful enough to be able to navigate situations like this more gracefully, but I’m not convinced it would be worth it this time. I am finding myself slipping quietly into inactivity, and it seems that both the branch I left and the ward I’m going to would just as soon I did. I feel utterly peripheral, liminal in both the church and in my own religious life; I can’t go back to the pummeling of a religious life that wore me out and gave me nothing back, but there is nothing, yet, to go forward too. And yet last night, driving home from a party in the near-dark, looking up to the enormous moon rising above the silhouettes of the trees, I felt a breath of peace, of quiet that still feels a little like faith. It is as if I am still in Tenebrae — waiting in the dark, and trying to be still.
- 6 May 2012