Zelophehad’s Daughters

Tenebrae

Posted by Melyngoch

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.

17 Responses to “Tenebrae”

  1. 1.

    That was beautiful. And sad. Basically, I can strongly relate to your story (still on the wandering road, myself) and have nothing to add but good luck.

  2. 2.

    Your Lenten experiment has shown that you’re happier outside the Mormon fold.

    It sounds to me like you did find a number of spiritual experiences that worked for you during Lent. Keep searching and God bless.

  3. 3.

    Beautiful. And resonant. I realized recently that I have been slowly finding my way back after a several-year absence. It is always with trepidation that I contemplate trying again. I am glad for posts like these that give me solace and tell me that I am not alone in my anger and sadness.

  4. 4.

    I feel for you Melyngoch – I have been in a ward where I was essentially shut out by all but a few people. It was not fun and I was glad when I moved away from it.

    Perhaps you might take a monastic approach for a while. Create your own sacred space / monastic cell, revisit the foundations of Mormonism and the profound doctrines that Joseph Smith developed. I know that my own Mormon practice is so heavily informed by the early 19th century that there is not much remaining of modern Mormonism anymore. It is a deeply rewarding journey for me, and has left me traveling parallel to the church, rather than lockstep within it, which is fine by me.

    Anyway, seek and continue seeking – our Parents are there to be found, and I have been blessed by the journey.

  5. 5.

    I love the Gospel and I love the Lord. I do not love my ward. I go to Church to learn, to keep me grounded and to hopefully feel the Spirit. I go because I need the Sacrament and I need a Temple recommend. But I go alone so to speak. I sit in the further most back corner, plop my purse on the seat next to me, get my own hymn book and relax and enjoy in my isolation. I am pleasant to those who make eye contact. I don’t go to socials. I make it fit my needs and I need the Church.

  6. 6.

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I want you to know that I am in a very similar position. Your story sounds so much like mine I couldn’t believe it. I keep saying (to myself and others) that I’m “taking a break” before I jump back into it. But that break may last for years, I don’t know. Right now I’m enjoying the coffee and the peace.

  7. 7.

    My thoughts, in chronological order as I read this:

    Tenebrae! Now there’s a word that isn’t used enough!

    Damn, Melyngoch is a good writer.

    Angry: I know the feeling.

    Giving it up? Nooooooooo….why do all the good ones leave?

    Please please please move to come to church with me. I would kill to have you in my ward. Pretty please!

    Damn, Melyngoch is a good writer.

  8. 8.

    Thanks for writing this.
    I’m sad to realize that there is probably someone in a similar place in my ward, but I don’t know who it is. I’ll be watching, trying to find them and reach out.

    All the best in your journeys.

  9. 9.

    Beautifully expressed, Melyngoch.

    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 have to echo Petra here. I wish there were a place for you that didn’t even require you to fight for it. I’m sorry you’re not welcomed. I understand why you would not continue the fight when that’s what you have to do to make a space. Church shouldn’t have to be annoying and exhausting.

    I wish I had a solution.

  10. 10.

    I’m another who would kill for you to come to church with me. Someone willing to stop repeating the same old watered-down stuff and talk religion with me. Who can and wants to join in an actual theological discussion and learn something.

    I stopped going to church to gain enlightenment a long time ago. I go now because it’s part of a deal I made with God. Usually involves me holding my tongue and trying not to visibly wince. Actual spiritual growth gets to happen in my spare time, when I can curl up on top of my bed with my scriptures and a dictionary and a few poets and philosophers and whichever theologians I’m most smitten with lately.

    And yet, I can actually say that I love my ward. It’s a very human ward, filled with people from all walks of life, and there are good people there. And I may not like a few of them, but they’re trying. They try to welcome me, a young single woman, into their family ward. They try and, most of the time, it’s enough.

  11. 11.

    Face it: Mormons just don’t know how to do Easter. There are some exceptions, but most Christians would not be impressed by Sacrament Meetings that happened to be held on Easter Sunday. (At least this year the 1st Presidency had the sense to send out a letter and remind all the bishoprics that Easter was a time to talk about Jesus.)

    We do a lot better job of rallying the troops and circling wagons against the evils of the world. We almost lose identity without an enemy at the gates.

    Spirituality is so much more than “us vs. them,” and yet, when we fall into the habits of drawing lines of protection around our congregations, we also draw individual lines around The Others within our fold. In order to “protect” ourselves from Satan’s minions, we unwittingly cut off our own arms and legs and hearts and hands.

    I cannot bring myself to believe that God wants us to suffer through the sabbaths in our lives. So I have to say, Find a place in your life where you can encounter The Divine, and go there regularly. There may be more than one place that works for you, and That Place will change as you live your life, but whatever (or wherever) it is, it needs to be yours, and you are the only one who can make it personal to you.

  12. 12.

    This was so beautifully done. Beautifully and a little heartbreakingly. Thank you for sharing. I’ve felt this myself far more often than I’d like. And for now I’ve made the decision that I simply won’t subject myself to such high levels of negativity in order to conform to externally imposed expectations. I get my spiritual fulfillment where it actually feels like fulfillment and for now that is not the Mormon church. I think it’s sad, both for myself and for others, that this is the case, but I simply will not do that to myself anymore. When I feel like the church will welcome me As. I. Am. then perhaps I will return to worshiping there. I do not have high hopes that such a welcome will happen anytime in the near future, or even in my lifetime when I’m being truly honest with myself about it.

    I also wanted to thank LRC for this: “when we fall into the habits of drawing lines of protection around our congregations, we also draw individual lines around The Others within our fold. In order to “protect” ourselves from Satan’s minions, we unwittingly cut off our own arms and legs and hearts and hands.” Exactly right. And again just so very sad.

  13. 13.

    I keep clinging to the things I have that are uplifting in the direction of God, but it’s so hard sometimes to keep going when there is so little change and acceptance and discussion. Sometimes I dream of doing my own spiritual things and separating them completely from any sort of formal worship and guilt about commitments. I don’t know what’s holding me back most of the time. I guess the culture is deeply embedded.

  14. 14.

    Hi there, Melyngoch. We used to chat a bit over on my blog waaay back in the day, and I was excited to see your name here.

    I’m so sorry to see the struggles and pain you so beautifully express. In a Mormon Matters podcast I’m listening to right now (yes, it takes me days to listen to one podcast) I hear a lot of your thoughts echoed by the contributors–that their relationship with God is changing and growing closer as they are pulling away from church, or perhaps just from the people, cultural practices, or doctrines that make them feel unwanted, misunderstood, and isolated.

    It seems like a lot of us are going through times where we have to re-frame our faith, and maybe some people have to give themselves a break before it gets snuffed out entirely.

    I would like to hope that there is a way to get involved in your new ward that might help you find some kindred spirits or, failing that, some people who need YOU. But . . . yeah. That’s hard and there are no guarantees. Am sending good hopes your way, though.

  15. 15.

    Thanks for your friendly comments, everyone. It’s always nice, as I’m digging around in the angst of it all, to know that there are people around dealing with similar things. (Even if you’re not AROUND around, geographically; could any of you just move here? thanks.)

    I should probably clarify that I’m not planning on all-the-way leaving the church any time soon; I’m just extending my rumspringa till I figure it out a little better. I do think there’s something to be said for separating one’s faith in gospel from one’s social experience at church — but I also don’t think the two aspects need to be held all that far apart. If I can be saved all by my lonesome, and the community is optional, then why (especially for the introverts among us) have a community at all? I don’t want to simply reject the notion of church community and sit by myself in the corner; I can endure the corner, and the periphery, and the margins for a while, but the fact is that I don’t want to just be a member of the church, believe its doctrines, and look for salvation in its ordinances; I want to participate in it, and that’s what’s elusive.

    Ashely, what you say about your ward reminds me of the branches I served in on my mission — it’s not like the discussions there were any more theologically profound, but the branches were small and struggling, and they had to make a place for everyone, and the people seemed to all really love each other (or so I though, looking through my starry missionary eyes). In fact, I’d love nothing more than to get back to a branch like that after I finish grad school and move off who-knows-where in the next few years. A ward of flawed humans who would accept me as a flawed human — that would be, as you say, enough.

    Also, Petra, you just line me up a job in the Bay Area, and I’ll not only come to your ward, I may move in to your living room until I save up enough to be able to afford Bay Area rent. (See? Now aren’t you sorry you said that?)

  16. 16.

    Loved this! As I read I kept thinking “I wish this girl was my friend, in my ward, right now!” I have slowly been making my way to the inactive side of things and that disappoints me. My problem was I kept believing that Church was ALL or nothing. As I’ve been reading around the bloggernacle and finding views similar to my own, I’ve realized that’s not the case at all. Just yesterday I had this enlightened moment where I realized I was ready to try Church again, and try it on my own terms. I got the same excitement you described, I’m ready to find God again and reaffirm my faith. It was a very liberating feeling.
    .
    Thanks for sharing your feelings on the matter. It was a reaffirmation of my own. I love the Church Community, it has many positive aspects and I’m glad I was raised with that, it’s a part of who I am. But, there is more to life than just that.

  17. 17.

    Dear T, As I listened to your words I could deeply relate to them as for me attending a Mormon church became too much to bare and no longer feed my soul. I now do a mix and match approach. I attend a Protestant church for my ‘holy moments’, time when I commune with God, and a Mormon church when I feel the need to connect with my heritage. That way, I don’t lose everything I had within the Mormon church but have a new place to speak to my spirit. The truth is that I do not feel the Mormon church is the church it once was. The culture and the institution have taken over. The focus is not God or Jesus Christ in my Mormom community, rather what calling they have, doing their visiting teaching, doing family history, the stress of life and the battles they have with their teenagers keeping them active or simly getting through sacrament meeting with their toddlers. In all of this the central message is lost – love God, love thy Neighbour. But we must remember that these are really good people, not just good people, wonderful people. That is why we feel the pull to still be with them. Good luck on your journey, try to create a worship system that is ‘bespoke’ to you, only you can do this, a ‘one size fits all’ in Mormonism doesn’t seem to work for you. It is my prayer that you find what you are looking for. With love Karen

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