Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward. –Doctrine and Covenants 58:27-28
Last March, on the Sunday morning Daylight Saving Time began, I went to church as usual, took my son to nursery, and immediately noticed that the clock in the room was still on Standard Time. I found that my first, entirely natural impulse–to change the clock to the correct time–was so swiftly and automatically stifled that I almost didn’t notice I’d had it. I’ve learned very well to do little at church on my own initiative, lest my actions inadvertently violate an unknown directive or intrude on someone else’s stewardship.
How did it come to this? How is it that I can live on this earth for forty years, decide whom to marry and marry him, give birth to children, raise them, care for them, make educational and medical decisions for myself and for them, teach classes, earn degrees, defend theses and exam lists, and cross oceans–in the service of the church, no less!–and yet at church itself I hesitate to change the clock to the correct time?
The clock incident reminded me of another of a decade earlier, when I was a ward auxiliary president attending a semiannual auxiliary stake training meeting. After donning my skirt and pantyhose and driving forty-five minutes to the stake center, and after listening to the discussion of various issues our auxiliary faced, I raised my hand to propose that we go directly to our bishops with certain problems, given that bishops were the only people empowered to solve those problems. The stake auxiliary president quickly corrected me. No, we should not go over our immediate priesthood leaders’ heads. Instead, we should contact the bishopric member in charge of our auxiliary so that he could inform the bishop of our concerns. The bishop would not, of course, respond directly; instead the reply–which I knew enough about the dynamics of my ward to know would never come at all, under such circumstances–would be conveyed to the bishopric member whose stewardship we were, and he in turn would convey it to us. I sighed inaudibly, bit my tongue, and imagined myself playing this ludicrous game of telephone up the long ladder of men in suits arrayed in layers and layers above me in the Church News General Conference picture order of seniority, all the way to the prophet and then to God, simply to get a teaching calling filled or an overdue interview arranged. An hour or two later I made my way alone to the parking lot and to my car for the forty-five minute drive home.
Several years after that, I found myself in sacrament meeting sitting on the piano bench, having just played the opening hymn and bowed my head for the opening prayer, staring at the floor and hoping that my overwhelming emotions were not evident to the congregation as the bishop read one of Salt Lake’s periodic directives not to write to the General Authorities with our doctrinal and personal questions. I puzzled over the familiar directive for the thousandth time. Where was I supposed to take my concerns about the temple? Neither my bishop nor my stake president was authorized to interpret the temple; not even the temple president seemed to have any power of definitive interpretation–and it went without saying that the matron didn’t. Certainly none of these good, kind lay leaders had the slightest power to change anything. Only the General Authorities could tell me whether the God they worshiped considered me a person or a helpmeet, an eternal being with my own subjectivity or a seductive, submissive subject-object conjured into being for someone else’s happiness, a silently smiling prop to be acquired and controlled as part of someone else’s glorious destiny. How on earth could such a one as I get their ear? And even if I could get their ear, against all odds, how could I make them understand? I imagined struggling to articulate my lifelong anguish over my ritual subordination in the church, an anguish I could barely choke out over tears, up that ladder of layers of men in suits, many of whom, I knew from sad experience, would smile condescendingly, pat my hand, and offer me the reassurance that God loved and valued me as a way of excusing God’s church for doing neither. No, I thought that day, as I had many times before and as I far have too many times since, there was nothing to do but disengage from the institution on that issue and retreat to my private religious life.
Still several years later, I found myself in a new ward, accompanying my husband and his teenaged home-teaching companion as they took the sacrament to a nursing home within our ward boundaries. They broke the bread, blessed it, and set it before the old man they were ministering to. He was so frail that he had difficulty taking it, and I unthinkingly, spontaneously reached out to help him. Equally unthinkingly, my husband intervened to prevent me from touching the tokens. I was devastated. I don’t know when in my extensive church experience it has been clearer to me that my feminine presence was a contamination of the sacred. On the way home my husband explained the instructions he had been given as a young man that no one was to touch the sacrament but those blessing and passing it. It was, needless to say, instruction that had never been conveyed to me. That day I realized that precisely because I was excluded from priesthood instruction and responsibility, I was also excluded from the instructions that would inform me when I was trespassing on priesthood perogative. The instruction was about respect for the ordinance, my husband explained. It had nothing to do with gender. Of course not, I replied bitterly. Of course not.
Quietism has been the great solace and the great temptation of my reserved and melancholy temperament. I am a private person, and I cherish my time in solitary prayer, scripture study, and meditation. I find immense value in daily considering my life before God, examining myself, and struggling again and again in prayer toward repentance and forgiveness. I have always loved memorizing the psalms and other beautiful, haunting passages of scripture. My private life is the foundation of my public religious life and the foundation of my being. It has also, more dangerously, become my refuge from the pervasive injustices of the institution that I love and believe bears the authority of God on earth. But the hard fact is that in private spiritual and emotional life there is no injustice because there is no sociality. A private religious life is crucial; there is no religion without it. But it is only the beginning of a religious life, which particularly for Mormons, who find exaltation in eternal family bonds, must be lived in relation. To make solitary devotion a refuge from responsible action is a perversion of the sacred. Certainly no student of the Old Testament could dream of worship without justice.
Yet in the face of our own institutional injustice, I’ve been repeatedly enjoined to quietism–and I’m willing to bet you have too, patient reader, if you’re still with me. Bothered by the thoroughgoing patriarchy of the temple? Want to know why women can’t be ordained? Want the young women in your ward to get as much money and as many activities as the young men? Want to know why your ex-husband is sealed both to his new wife and to you? Where the women are in the scriptures? Why women can’t so much as pray in general conference? For that matter, bothered by Joseph Smith’s habit of marrying other men’s wives, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the priesthood-temple ban, the racism of the Book of Mormon, the elisions of correlation, the church’s involvement in Prop 8? The answer is always the same: put it on the shelf, pray, read your scriptures, put it on the shelf, read your scriptures, and pray. I well understand both the need to cultivate a meaningful life in the presence of God and the need to treat personal questions responsibly in the community. But I begin to wonder at what point prayers and scripture study become vain repetitions of evasion. At what point do we resign ourselves to oppression and evil? At what point do we begin to pray our very morality away?
Although various publications and online fora have relieved me of some religious isolation, I also sometimes feel as if I’m dying of my own Sunday silences. I deeply admire the many women and men I know who manage to work the edge within the system to increase justice and mercy and understanding in our congregations. Sometimes I’ve tried to be one of them. In recent years I’ve just been too tired; getting myself and my small children to church in time to take the sacrament is about all I can hack right now. I can’t count the number of church conversations in which I’ve just weakly smiled and changed the subject when I realize that my interlocuters and I are starting from such vastly different premises that it seems impossible to say anything. I’ve ended up managing my church life by absenting myself, as much as I can, from adult religious discussion. (On the other hand, I’m very happy to chit-chat about grad school or raising kids in the foyer, and I enjoy doing so. Especially since I’ve become an SAHM church has been an important social outlet, if not a particularly intimate one.) My children prevent me from hearing anything said in sacrament meeting anyway, and I’ve waited out the last two hours in nursery or behind the Primary piano. But inevitably the self-censorship becomes so severe I begin to feel as if at church I’m no one at all. I begin to feel as if I’m going crazy with so much suppression of difference, so much saying nothing. It’s a dangerous place to be, this place of extreme self-stifling. It’s the place where people snap and hijack the pulpit with a list of personal grievances too long suppressed. And it’s the place where people simply walk out and never come back because they’ve concluded, often rightly, that there’s just no place for them, that the only person they’re permitted to be is intolerably constrained.
What would it mean to be an agent unto myself, to do many things of my own free will, to seek to bring to pass much righteousness? And why is the very church that encouraged me to learn those passages by heart the hardest place to live by them?
- 6 August 2012