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.)