Last week I attended an ordination of a new cleric at Norwich Cathedral. He gave florid vows in high, KJV style English and knelt before the bishop in his stately robes who solemnly laid his hands upon his head. The organist played a hair-raising postlude by Olivier Messiaen. The congregation sat in rapt attention as dramatic music soared through the distant gothic arches.
Mormons say they can’t really feel the Spirit in these apostate, high church rituals. But for me, the Spirit WAS there. It wasn’t the same spirit as comes when the primary children sing “I Am a Child of God,” but it was the Spirit nevertheless.
Two Dimensions of God’s Spirit: Intimacy and Mystery
The genius of Mormonism was to introduce an anthropomorphic God, a literal spiritual Father, “a God who weeps,” an intimate, empathetic being, as human as we are. We feel the Spirit when we encounter this God because He is so familiar, evoking the deep need we all have for intimacy with family and friends, for someone to understand us.
I agree that God IS intimate with us in the deepest LDS sense of the word. God is a magnificent being who exists on many dimensions, and the intimate, empathetic side of God is an important and real one. But God is more than this. He is also a creature beyond comprehension, the architect of a beautiful but often cruel world, infinite in its darwinian variety: a God of mystery and paradox, a God who “ordained that the cat should play with mice.” God’s empathetic Father-self brings the Spirit easily, because we love and identify with fathers. But God’s mysterious side brings another dimension of the Spirit which is no less meaningful in its own way. That was the Spirit I felt that evening listening to the organ in the imposing Norwich Cathedral.
“We Came To Know God in Our Extremity”
Milan Kundera wrote in Testaments Betrayed:
“The soul’s sorrow can find consolation in the nonsentience of nature. I say, indeed: “consolation in the nonsentience of nature.” For nonsentience is consoling; the world of nonsentience is the world outside human life; it is eternity; “it is the sea gone off with the sun” (Rimbaud)… a life freed of human subjectivity, the sweetly nonhuman beauty of the world before or after mankind moved through it.
Kundera’s thoughts reminded me of the 1972 plane that crashed into the Andes mountains. The survivors had existed for months with nothing to eat but the flesh of their dead fellow passengers. 35 years after the ordeal, Roberto Canessa returned to the infamous place with his daughter and recounted one particular event. Roberto had been among several of the survivors who determined to try to climb down the mountain to seek help. On the first night of their journey, they couldn’t find a suitable place to sleep on the rocky cliffs they were scaling.
“I felt so helpless. I wept. I was freezing. Finally, we found a ledge, laid down, the wind died. Imagine this whole valley, pure white everywhere. The wind died, the moonlight was beautiful, horribly cold- And I felt close to God. I don’t feel it now. Whoever made all of this, the Creator, was my friend.”
“Why can’t you feel it now?” asked his daughter.
“Well, because we have the sandwiches, the tents, we know what is here and over there.”
Roberto Canessa’s most profound spiritual experience came when He experienced God in His glorious, but unforgiving mountains. Others who have experienced the extremities of nature have testified to a similar spiritual consolation that comes from facing these extremities. When the survivors of Shackleton’s voyage made a return trip to the infamous Elephant Island, they wept for joy at the sight of it, though it had been the place of their greatest sorrow and depravity. Shakelton wrote:
We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had suffered, starved, and triumphed. Groveled down, yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the hole. We have seen God in his splendors, heard the text that nature renders, we have reached the naked soul of man.
Similar sentiments were expressed by the victims of the Martin and Willie handcart companies who said, “We came to know God in our extremity.” In church we often talk about how angels helped push the handcarts. Was this what they meant when they said “we came to know God”? I don’t believe so. It was not through sympathetic angels that they came to know God, but through the unforgiving ice and snow.
God’s Glory in the Leviathan
It is a common misconception that Job handled his trials patiently. He did not. He complains non-stop to God for chapters and chapters, moaning his fate, wishing he had never been born.
Finally, perhaps fed up, God gives Job a vision to calm him down. It was not a vision of footprints in the sand. It was a vision of two frightening and terrible monsters, the leviathan of the sea, and the behemoth of the earth.
“Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
In other words, God “wows” (Bart Ehrman’s description) Job with visions of His power and glory in nature. That was God’s consolation to Job.
A Bird at the Houston Temple
A number of years ago I was diagnosed as “severely depressed.” Thankfully, I’ve since been able to overcome my depression. But back then, I remember once going to the Houston temple and sitting in the garden, brooding. There was a little bird perched on one of the corners of the temple, singing the most elaborate and creative birdsong I’v ever heard in my life. It seemed to go on and on, never repeating a pattern, an unending improvisation that would have put Miles Davis to shame. The heavenly music reverberated all through the temple grounds and I was astonished that such a powerful voice could come from such a tiny thing.
I still remember the incredible love I felt from God at that moment. A little bird, fulfilling the measure of his creation, marking his territory, calling his mate, engaged in ruthless Darwinian survival. It was just what I needed to hear in my depressed state. Not “I’m a child of God.” Not an intimate God who weeps. But the God of the endless birdsong, that for me was a God of consolation.
Maybe its just me. As my previous depression diagnosis might indicate, I am perhaps a bit groundless and disconnected. I’ve always felt my greatest sense of belonging when alone with non-sentient nature, not when surrounded by family and friends. This is a failing of mine I know, but perhaps it has allowed me to experience God in a way that others may not always. I wonder if I am the only one. I think not, given that this was the Spirit that inspired centuries of vast, soaring, impersonal Cathedrals in homage to God’s soaring, impersonal mountains. LDS celebration of home and hearth sometimes leaves me cold. But when I read William Blake, I feel the Spirit:
TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
…What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?…
Whenever I recite this poem, I find myself repressing a sob when I get to the line, “Did He smile His work to see, did He who made the lamb make thee?” It is not a sob of terror or sorrow. Rather, I loose my breath in utter astonishment at the grandeur and paradox of my mysterious Father.
- Am I the only one who responds to the Spirit of an impersonal God?
- Does God’s natural world, including its cruelty and indifference, speak to you in any meaningful way?
- Is the LDS experience of the Holy Spirit generally manifest in feelings of family connectedness: “I am a child of God”?
- Are there other dimensions of the Spirit that you have felt that are unrelated to the family dimension?
(Forget “I am a Child of God.” This is the kind of music that brings me the Spirit. Is it the same Spirit? No, but it is another dimension of the same Being. Messiaen believed birdsong was the language of heaven and travelled the world transcribing the songs of exotic species and incorporating their songs into his compositions, like this one from the black-eared wheatear.)
I love cathedrals, and cathedral choirs. There is something so inspiring about the architecture and the music, and particularly in combination.
I’m definitely a city person though, so nature, not so much.
The Blake poem reminded me of this Blake poem, there are several musical settings, but this is my favourite. The contrast with Agnus Dei at the beginning, and the cosier children’s choir:
Oh, and have you seen the Blake works at Tate London?
I visited as a student many years ago, but it seems I missed the big exhibitions.
You are definitely not alone in this. Sometimes impersonal nature is all that can comfort. I believe God intended us to take joy and solace in His creations.
I spent 18 years with anxiety and depression thinking I was not good enough because I could not overcome. I remember going to Catholic mass and being taught by my mother-in-law after I was married that you would not be able to feel the spirit but it was a nice service (she being LDS and supporting her nonmember husband) Also, I remember the day I sat in my Yoga training and I did my first meditation and instruction in mindfulness. The instruction was to REMEMBER. This is what hit me with such profound revelation. So the focus was the breath (present moment experience) and when you go to thinking, sounds,or sensations all you have to do is notice and REMEMBER to REMEMBER to come back to the breath WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. It was the greatest spiritual experience of my life. Sitting in a class I was raised “no spirit can be felt there” talk. This started a transition. I said with such awakening, “I don’t think we have a market on spirituality.” We do have a market on “doing” and not “being”. I to have had my depression lifted and it was not from doing but from taking care of ME. This has become a real source of discomfort for me as most days I sit in church or read a conference talk and feel greater resonance with the teaching taught in the Buddhist tradition (self-compassion, present moment awareness, non-doing, acceptance, non-striving, non-judgement, etc). This has been a painful inner process to see the shame we are so good at putting upon ourselves and others and at the same time say, “don’t judge”. I am still processing and growing but I am at peace with the present moment journey:)
Hedgehog, I’m happy to hear we both have William Blake and Cathedral music as common loves. I’m curious which urban area of England you live in. I don’t live in Norwich but travel there frequently.
Sue thank you for your thoughts again on this post. Getting rid of the judgement can be really hard for Mormons, even though we hear it clearly taught in the scriptures. “Judge not that ye be not judged.” It’s the unfortunate side effect that comes from believing the LDS path to be the universal, uncompromising truth. How to deal with Conference talks that don’t bring the spirit as much as Buddhist meditation is a problem isn’t it? My approach is to try to remember that Mormons need Mormonism. Maybe you and I are not typical Mormons. I try not to judge even judgmental and conservative attitudes, because maybe that’s what God gives some people. Maybe its a stepping stone. Maybe its another path to the same ultimate destination. We can only try and follow the light for ourselves.
“Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment.” (JST)
Mormons may find other religious practices/procedures too odd or awkward to get a spiritual feeling, but it’s not always the case.
Handel’s “Messiah” is not of Mormon origin.
I’m in the east, Nate, but not so far east as Norwich.
On the urban thing, growing up my family had lots of camping holidays out in the countryside. I would feel quite stressed. One holiday in Cornwall, it dawned on me that it was being in the countryside that was stressing me, when we went into Truro for the day, and I felt so much more relaxed. Nice cathedral in Truro too.
There is one thing in nature though, now that I’ve had time to ponder it, and that’s water. I find water very soothing, be it the sea with crashing waves, rivers or canals, the energy of a waterfall, even a fountain. I do like to spend time near water as well.
Thank you for this. Your words bring me solace because i often feel that the LDS ‘anthropomorphic God, a literal spiritual Father, “a God who weeps,” ‘ is a God made in our own image. I sometimes say that my God is bigger than that, but you have much more clearly stated what I mean.
I love cathedrals with magnificent, full-pipe organ playing and formal worship. Maybe if that experience was more often and familiar it wouldn’t be as powerful. I also frequently flee to nature for communion with God. Last week I went to the backyard just to sit next to my big tree and feel it’s power.
Wonderful post. It is good to be reminded that God has many facets. Sometimes focusing too closely on one aspect of God can become painful, because we try to channel everything through too narrow a lens. (Heaven knows, our mortal lenses are narrow enough already.) While I cherish my belief in a deeply personal God, I also take solace in a world-shaping, universe-sized God.
The lesson I’ve been learning for the last several months is that our church does not (and should not) have the sole ownership of the Spirit. What a blessing that God can be found in so many places–what a relief that God’s vast enough to inhabit contradictions.
Thankyou for this lovely post, it helps me know that I am not alone.
When my sister died, I gained great solace from nature, perceiving God’s enormity in the process of life and death. I wanted to slip into a church that would not demand that I show my face and faith. I wanted to be anonymous woman grieving.
I also felt this perception in Blake’s glorious poems, jarring and paradoxical as he is. A man possessed with a prophetic spirit, seeking after God in all he did.
I’m actually quite a private person, so living a spiritual life in public is just not congruent with who I am, but maybe it’s what I have to do anyhow since I deeply believe in the doctrines of the gospel, and take my comfort in my own way, in my own relationship with God.
I caught evensong at King’s College, Cambridge last year, open to the public most evenings of the week. Deeply spiritual, but deeply private. Suits me so much better, perhaps it’s because it was the religion of my childhood.
I love that you love Messiaen. His Quartet for the End of Time speaks to me of the mystery of godliness every time I hear it. Especially the “Louanges a Jesus” movements. But I love the lonely clarinet abyss of the birds, too.
When you described this moment in the cathedral I wanted to be there. We all have our own care and feeding directions.
Jeremiah, good to hear someone else who loves Quartet for the End of Time. That was my introduction to Messiaen. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it one afternoon at the BYU library, and I listened to the last movement over and over, caught up in celestial visions.
Charlene says (#8): i often feel that the LDS ‘anthropomorphic God, a literal spiritual Father,. . . ‘ is a God made in our own image. I understand that, even though (like Charlene, I think) I realize that I’m created in His, and that there is so much more to Him than I can comprehend. I force Him into my own image sometimes; it helps me get my arms around loving Him. But it also limits my appreciation and grasp. Nate does a good job in this post of pointing out the ineffable we frequently miss.
As a “recovering Catholic,” I can say that I’ve had many experiences in that faith (and others) in which I’ve felt the Spirit. In particular, reverent, majestic, sacred music seems to really bring it for me.
My children have always been free to occasionally attend services of other faiths with friends. We’ve told them that they will feel “different,” not that they won’t feel the Spirit. They’ve mostly found that to be true.
Frankly, I’ll take “Glorious in Majesty” by Houston’s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer Choir over Another Insipid Rendition of “I Am a Child of God” any day. (That’s from an album my mom had when I was a kid; for your Mormon tie-in, it features music from the Melchizedek Mass setting by Betty Carr Pulkingham. It’s called “God’s People Give Thanks,” and the CD is available from the Community of Celebration. Check it out on YouTube at youtube-dot-com/watch?v=s0hmsfYGWMc)
One of the reasons I like visiting Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior is the comforting “consolation of the impersonal God” which I get from closeness to the Big Water. (Like Hedge, all water, actually; I live on a river and in a state with thousands of lakes.) I also enjoy hunting as much for the fact that it gets me out into the quiet woods as for the thrill of the hunt. Maybe even more.
In Sunday school, a priesthood leader brought up, with a trace of derision, churchless people who “find God” in nature, which provoked some snickers throughout the class. Because obviously God can only be found in church deriding those who find God elsewhere.
Honestly, I’m not the kind to find God through nature, but magnificent works of art and acts of selfless love do it for me in a way sitting in a pew can’t.
God is God. Just like we object to other Christian groups who say we worship a “different Jesus” when there is only one Jesus, there is only one God and it is up to us to feel His presence, not the circumstances.
The impersonal God makes sense to me.
I have felt God in cathedrals in downtown Denver, in Buddhist temples, in the mountains above Colorado Springs, the Denver Temple, my church building, my home.
Thinking about it in terms of being impersonal is like what Jeff said, God is God, not limited to where I think He will or will not be…just noticing when I feel it and where I feel it.
In some of my most dire times, I did not feel him. He was impersonal to me. And at surprising times, very personal visitations of the Spirit remind me He is there.
Not on my terms…but for me to come to terms with the reality, God is good all the time.
I loved this, thanks Nate. It’s interesting to me the times that I am comforted by the personal and impersonal God. Sometimes I pushback when others claim to “know” Him. I definitely connect with God in nature, the all powerful unknowable God is comforting. Thanks for the reminder.