Spiritual Nardoo

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.


  1. I love this so much, Petra. A perfect analogy, and a problem you expressed so well. Perhaps related to your experience, of the general sessions of Conference, I watched only Sunday morning. I was almost in shock when the session was pretty much all uplifting messages. It’s sad that it’s a surprise to find even a single Conference session where I don’t hear at least one or two talks attacking me for my feminism, my inability to take scripture stories literally, or for my refusal to hate LGBT people. I wish church were like that more often, rather than being something I have to brace myself for.

  2. Like you I don’t feel nourished by church meeting attendance. Gratefully the sacrament is enough to pull me through three full hours. I’ve gone hunting off in different locations to feel nourished.

    Sometimes I feel hopeless, pain, or boredom at what passes for three hours of Sunday worship. My biggest fear isn’t that it will keep hurting, but that it will stop — that my spirit will stop feeling pain and I’ll be walking through it a spiritual zombie: Dead, but still going through the motions.

    For now my pain reminds me im still alive.

  3. This post made me heartsick. I have been there. I would feel angry after church and angrier that I was feeling angry. To cope, I tried to tuning out or just deadening my emotions. It just wasn’t a long term solution for me. I was anxious to have a real relationship with God and a religious community. Just last year I decided to move on to a new faith community and for me, it has made all the difference. I feel alive again and awakened to His presence. Having said that, I admire all of you that are able to stick it out. It is a tough road either way. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  4. Have you thought about asking to be put in Primary? Or volunteering to substitute? I have people who swing by every week just to see if we need a last minute sub.

  5. I teach Sunbeams, and while Primary is awesome, especially when you get to teach, depending on who is giving the Sharing Time lesson it can be just as soul-draining, if not more, to see the troublesome ideas fed to the little ones.

  6. One more thing, I highly recommend reading Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. It won’t convince you to stay or go, but it might make the day to day easier. I loved it and so have many other Mormon friends.

  7. Thank you Petra. I relate to your experience. I have had to draw my source of spiritual sustenance from multiple sources. I really enjoy bringing meals to people in the ward, service projects, and staying connected to the social aspect of my ward (I.e. book group). But church attendance challenges me – although I do find my current callings in primary nourishing at times (granted I have the luxury that they aren’t every week commitments because that would probably be too much). Giving myself permission to explore other churches has been fulfilling. I sung with the UU choir for awhile. I started singing more outside of church. I sometimes attend a circle dance group at the Swedenborgian church. It isn’t religious per say but I have felt spiritually fed there. I’ve gained a better appreciation for bodywork and energy work. I like to say I have become comfortable being uncomfortable. I do feel compelled to maintain my association with the church but sometimes I wonder for how long that will be my path. I wish you well as you figure out the best path forward for yourself.

  8. Joseph Smith said that the “truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly and independent”. The truth doesn’t need the church to go forth. Sometimes it seems that the Church will fight big truth, kicking and screaming all of the way until it is the last one at the table! I do believe it will get there one day, and I’m hoping for it, but I’m not waiting for it.

    We have been told that the church’s role is to usher in the millennium. We want the church to be special. We want the church to be the truest one out there. That’s why we lend our trust and agency to it…we’ve been told over and over by our parents and those we love and trust that this is the way we must follow…

    But in an ironic twist, Jesus told us otherwise. He wasn’t about the establishment, and he wasn’t about following in the footsteps of our parents. He wants us to participate with the Father PERSONALLY, having left our father and mother and having dropped our nets to follow him. Once we do this, all that is left is self and God and the truth is right in front of us for us to embrace much more simply than we were ever taught.

    To clarify, I firmly believe in the importance of a faith community, either in or out of Mormonism, but that faith community is there for the purposes of exercising agency to serve and love others, mourning and rejoicing with God’s children. But a church is not there to dictate what people need to believe in order to please God and its not there to exhaust us. If our light isn’t shining or if we’re not feeling like we’re adding salty savor to the earth, it may be time to do a mental health check.

    Great suggestion Newbie on “Falling Upward” by Richard Rohr. Its a fantastic read and really helped me to frame my faith crisis in a positive way. It’s a must read for those in faith crises.

  9. Thank you, Petra. This expresses perfectly how I feel and where I am at this point: angry at the institutional church and utterly uninspired by church at the local level, in my very typical suburban American ward. The difference for me is that I feel very differently about the ward I grew up in; I still love attending there, and get much, much more out of it. I still feel bad that you didn’t have a better experience in that ward and that I wasn’t a better friend to you at that time. (Not trying to be patronizing or imply that you needed me! I hope you know what I mean.)

  10. I can only testify of my experience. I have found sacrament meetings and Gospel Doctrine to be not especially spiritually nutritious. Ok, but the sacrament has real power for me. My High Priests group has moving and deep discussions about how to live the Gospel with the spirit and to overcome failings, which every HP in the group admits to. I get nutrition from my personal spiritual efforts to come unto the Master, through prayer and scriptures. Finally, I am grateful for the insights and spiritual renewal from my opportunity to attend regularly a close-by temple. I feel bathed in the spirit when I leave. Even with all that, I fall so short, I am so grateful the Restoration continues to unfold with regard to our understanding of the Atonement. I wish you sincerely all the best in your journey.

  11. I am contemplating a return to semi-activity precisely because we will likely be moving to one of the weird wards where I hope I don’t have to hide my heterodoxy to fit in. We desperately need the freedom to innovate in our local congregations – like really, really innovate. In so many ways we really are the McDonalds of religion. Our wards show about as much deviation from the template as your local McD franchise. I know people who say that they love the church because it is the same wherever you go. That just makes me sad.

    The solution I am mulling over is to go to LDS services 2 weeks a month (hey that makes me officially active right!) and do something else the other two weeks. I truly love the concept of the Sabbath. A day of rest, a day to jerk us out of our worldly cares. Maybe this balance will work. I know this would put me on the perceived social margins of most wards (especially if I choose not to Potemkin Village it). I am hoping this storied ward will be different.

  12. Oh Petra, I feel almost exactly as you do, so much that it was eery to read at times. That combination of boredom, cynicism, and rage. That dreading of Sunday worship. It has gotten better now that I teach the young adult (married & single) Sunday School. My lessons are definitely not by the manual! (In fact, I don’t ever read the manual for the express reason of trying to avoid canned, correlated interpretations.) But still, I resent Sundays. They are not a day of rest, not of rejoicing, not really even worship. The question is–how do we find the living water, the bread of life, in this church?

  13. Except for the crying after church, this is my exact experience. I have not been since mid-February and have not missed the pain and feeling of bifurcation at all.

  14. I can relate. It can be so oppressive.
    Recently, after a life time of playing mainly lds hymns and primary songs, and went out and bought a couple of hymnbooks from our cathedral shop. We have far too few hymns of praise and worship, and those we have we don’t get to sing nearly often enough. It has been a balm to my soul to play the hymns from my newly purchased books; some I recognise and love from my own school days, or that my children have sung in school, others entirely new to me.

  15. Thank you for this beautiful and painful essay. Thank you for staying, Petra.

    I don’t remember exactly when it dawned on me that all the work we are doing as Mormon feminists – which wave are we now? – will be seen in generations to come as foundational-ideology-shifting whispers. Even the loudest change-seeking voices seem quiet compared with the trumpeting horns of LDS patriarchy. Surely, “the truth will out,” and eventually we will realize our full potential as collective saints within our beloved kingdom of God, but it will be long after I’ve abandoned this mortal coil. I feel okay about that.

    Personally, I feel great peace and satisfaction in finding ways to minister in my own sphere of influence. I suspect you do too. (This post, for instance.) Like you, I seek inspiration and enlightenment from sources within and without the church. Like every good disciple of Christ, we move quietly through the world, doing our best to share the good news. . . Isn’t it strange that at times the Church itself seems to mirror “the world” of which we are to be “in” but not “of.” It’s all very mysterious and disquieting, really. And oddly, all right.

  16. Thanks for the interesting side read on Burke and Wills. I hadn’t heard that story. But I wonder if the analogy isn’t saying what you think it is saying. The problem in Australia was not with the Nardoo, but with Burke and Wills preparation of the Nardoo. From my quick reading on the topic, if Nardoo is prepared correctly, it is life-sustaining. If it is prepared incorrectly, it depletes Thiamine in your system, hence the life-threatening malnutrition. My understanding is that a similar outcome of malnutrition can happen with a corn-heavy diet, and there are preparation techniques the Native Americans used to get around this issue.

    Is the poor preparation of the spiritual Nardoo the fault of the ward or the individual? I don’t know the answer. I imagine it could be a combination of both. I am lucky enough to find the spiritual Nardoo completely satisfying, but from all the stories of spiritual malnutrition out there, maybe I have just unwittingly stumbled on the correct recipe.

  17. This is me. This is me so, so much.

    I’m starving for truth and light, and feel like I’m trying to eat a stone for bread and drink sand for water when I’m at Church. I’m so close to just leaving and striking out on my own, but honestly the thought of that terrifies me. I feel like I would be giving up so much for nothing in return. Is that the sacrifice I’m being asked to make?

  18. I ate nardoo for a very long time as well. The problem is that when the majority of your friends and family members are eating nardoo and finding it very good, it’s hard to say, “This isn’t doing it for me” without consequences.

  19. I’m with you. I want to say, “Let’s hang out at church together!” but I’m even doubtful that that will work for me either. So instead, I just do my calling and bike to church since it’s pretty much the only exercise I’m doing at the moment.

  20. Oh my goodness. You’ve told me something about myself I couldn’t even name. A crisis of patience. I’m sorry, Petra. Just sorry. For all of us in this desert.

    I haven’t given up hoping there will be some manna in the desert, too, not just nardoo. You said the explorers didn’t know how to prepare nardoo correctly, that it wasn’t fundamentally worthless as food? I wonder if there’s anything I can do to make my spiritual food more nutritious. Part of that is I thinking choosing not to consume General Conference, except the talks that in hindsight are the best. Hard to do, though, when the whole thing is sold as uniformly wholesome.

  21. I have always been in awe of the strength of those, like you, dear petra, and many others I so admire, to stay and fight on day in and day out, even as the experience is drains the life from the spirit. It is just not something I have the energy to do.

    I go to church with my family on special days, and with close friends to their houses of worship too if they let me. I try to think and feel deeply, find my own meaning and spiritual connection, seek out what is worthy and good, and contribute what little bit of kindness and joy that I can to the sometimes aching world.

    Some days, I feel the absence of a faith community more keenly, like Easter, when I found myself lamenting to a Catholic friend that I wish I had a religion, my own church. I am a wanderer. And it is nice sometimes to have a Home.

    I guess I just traded in one type of struggle for a different type.

  22. Petra, wow, I feel your pain! I’m so sorry that that is your church experience.

    I have some similar experiences right now and sometimes fear that my Mormon church experience is driving a wedge between me and the divine, making it harder for me to have spiritual experiences.

    It is not that I don’t sometimes have wonderful, uplifting experiences at church; I certainly do. But wading through the stuff that feels wrong to me–defense of polygamy, leader infallibility, 1950’s gender roles, etc.–is absolutely soul sucking. And because my Mormon upbringing naturally leads me to associate my church experiences with God, I’m afraid that these repeated violations of my moral sensibilities draw me away from God.

    Not sure what to do because I value my Mormon community and many of its teachings and I also value my personal connection with the divine. I’m wondering if I need to supplement my religious worship, but I do not yet see a clear way to do this given our existing family commitments to our Mormon community. It’s complicated, I guess.


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