A few months ago I went to a Unitarian Universalist church for a singalong Messiah performance. As I pulled into the parking lot of the church, I found myself overwhelmed by a feeling I couldn’t identify or articulate; I was suddenly shivering and in tears, feeling buoyant and light. Nothing dramatic happened that evening—I sang along with the Messiah, frequently failing to reach the highest soprano notes—but as I dissect my feelings later, wondering what had happened in the parking lot, it came to me: I was happily anticipating entering a church. I was about to do something religious, and all I felt was pure uncomplicated excitement.
That evening at the UU church made me realize that I brace myself each Sunday, and I have been for years. I rarely, if ever, feel the Spirit at church, but I often drive away crying, grieving dogmatism or sexism or boredom or disconnection or my own simple inability to fight my anger or cynicism, and at this point I’ve trained myself to expect this. Sunday is a day I am vulnerable to grief and fear and pain, with little expected joy in return, so Sunday is a day I put up walls. On Sundays I am not the person I hope to be.
Many years ago I read a story that has haunted me since: one of the early expeditions to explore inland Australia ended in most of the explorers dying of malnutrition and starvation, without ever feeling pangs of hunger. The explorers, led by Burke and Wills, were eating large quantities of nardoo, an Aboriginal food, but, ignorant of how to prepare it correctly, didn’t realize that it was giving them no nutritional and little caloric benefit; they ate and ate but gradually grew weaker and died. True to the ethos of the Victorian explorer, Wills documented his death by starvation thoroughly, writing, “I am weaker than ever although I have a good appetite, and relish the nardoo much” and “starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels, and the utter inability to move oneself.”
I attend church regularly. I obey the Word of Wisdom. I read the scriptures and pray daily. I fulfill a calling. I bring meals to new mothers. I do my visiting teaching. I am full of the Mormon religious life, and yet, like the unlucky explorers, I feel myself growing spiritually weaker every day. Daily, despite my actions, I am further from the divine, further from hope and faith and justice, further from the godly life I seek. I hunger after righteousness, after God and His word, after joy, and yet I am worn down by my practice, worn down by the same tired Sunday School answers and bland repeats of watered-down lessons, by hopes dashed, by endless limits and roles and stereotypes and hedges around the law. What church, when I ask for bread, gives me nardoo?
In the Bloggernacle we often talk about crises of faith. I watch people encounter the messy reality of polygamy for the first time, and weep as their faith shatters. I watch people grapple with changing approaches to the fallibility of leaders, to our complicated history, to a God who doesn’t seem to limit Himself only to the prescribed corridors of Correlation. I sympathize, I know that pain, but that’s not where I am. That’s not why I’m starving. Instead, I feel like I’m a native in the land of faith crises: I was raised by unorthodox, Sunstone-reading parents; educated early by savvy friends and a wide range of reading; and have always lived a life on the edges, gripping tight and willing myself to stay because I could help, to stay because of habit, to stay because of Joseph Smith’s glorious vision, to stay because here are the words of eternal life and where else would I go? I’ve fought through the initial crisis and, I thought, come to a fine place, a place I could stand on the frontier of Mormonism and be confident in my faith, firm in my hope for change.
I’m not sure if I think that anymore. I can only brace myself on Sundays for so long before the walls come tumbling down. My faith is starving, full of nutritionless spiritual nardoo but too weak to stand, and I’m scared that our tiny baby steps of progress—women praying in General Conference; pictures of women leaders hanging in the Conference Center— can’t cross the desert fast enough to feed me. This is a crisis of faith too, as it ultimately means my faith isn’t strong enough, doesn’t have enough flesh to sustain me, but it’s a different sort of crisis: quieter, slower, belonging to the ones that just fade away, that never wanted a fight, that don’t have the energy anymore to keep showing up. Mine is a crisis of patience: I still hope for change, for progress, for Zion—the signs are there, and from small and simple things we might get great things—and I believe it will happen someday, but I no longer know if it that day come for me before I starve.