What a topic. How to approach and depict the sacred is something that has haunted artists throughout time. I’m very aware that I’m one little speck–one little known speck–in the artistic universe and that my take on the subject may be inconsequential to others. Still, approaching the sacred in written text is something I’ve contemplated for a very long time; something I’ve tried and erred doing; something at which I’ve achieved some level of success, or so I think. And so I feel compelled to keep the topic afloat as I seek more knowledge. I haven’t the chutzpah to formalize my thoughts into a conference-type paper, but prefer the intimacy of the blogosphere. Conference papers invite argument–disagreement–but that kind of argument doesn’t seem appropriate to this subject.
Rather, what seems appropriate is discussion. There is a parable I tell every time I begin teaching a new class, be it a secular class or a religious one, the Parable of Convict Lake. For our honeymoon, my husband and I went fishing. Not extremely romantic, but affordable, especially considering we stayed at a condo my parents owned at Mammoth Lakes, California. One day, we decided to hit Convict Lake. Our drive took us down the mountain a bit, to a location less populated with pine and more infested with brown, scratchy brush. We parked in a small dirt lot, grabbed our gear, and hiked along a barely-worn path through the thigh-high brush, becoming thoroughly scratched along the way. All I could think was, “As far as honeymoon destinations go, this one sucks.” The landscape on this late summer day was brittle, dry, brown, and desolate. I was miserable.
Then we reached the lake. Convict Lake is an appropriate name. The thin row of trees that lined the shore did have a prison bar sort of feel to them, and the men huddled in the many alcoves between them seemed forlorn, abandoned, and not friendly at all. The open stretches of shore were likewise staked out. Across the lake, a mountain loomed straight up it seemed, an insurmountable wall. Fishermen in small boats drifted in the shadow, their lines also cast. Bret and I trudged from alcove to alcove to open area until we finally found a place without an “inmate” already fishing there. And we cast and we sat and we waited and we cast, sat, waited, and caught nothing and then more of nothing.
But as I sat, fighting mosquitoes, I contemplated the mountain across from me. In short order, it transformed from being something formidable to being something lyrical, even that very majestic “purple mountain” in America’s favorite patriotic hymn. As I was waxing intellectually poetic, I noticed the fishermen in boats, floating at the foot of the mountain. While I sat in shorts and a t-shirt, the men in the mountain’s shadow huddled in down parkas and wore caps with flaps covering their ears. Epiphany! Those men were having a different experience than I was having. While I sat and thought how beautiful their side of the lake looked compared to mine, they were freezing. Slowly, I turned around, stood up, and looked over the weed-infested acres that stretched far down into the valley. Amber waves. . . well, okay, not of grain, but of prairie grass seed. Blue skies. Bright sunshine. What had left me hot, scratched, and uncomfortable probably looked quite inviting to the fishermen shivering in their boats.
I let my gaze circle the shoreline, taking in all the hidden alcoves filled with quiet fishermen, and I wondered, if I asked them to describe the lake we shared at that moment, what would they say. I realized every person there, by virtue of his/her position, would give a different description because they saw from a different perspective.
The gospel is, of course, like this lake. Although we all share the lake in common, we have taken different paths to get to it and are positioned to see some things and not see others. We need one another’s view point in order to gain the full picture. What’s more, my vantage is no more an advantage than any other person’s. We must share our experiences and insights in order to gain a fuller understanding.
This is the attitude I bring toward writing the Mormon sacred. I have no special craft trick that will, if applied by all, make the difficulty disappear. But I have learned a few things that worked for me and I’d like to share those. I have observed somethings that have worked for others and I’d like to share those. I’ve even chewed on some theoretical lunguistic reasons why these things work and look forward to discussion about that. I have no lectures in me and don’t want to hear lectures. I want to stand on my side of the lake and tell you what I see, and then I want you to stand on your side and tell me what you see.
Here’s my plan, for all the good planning seems to do me. I’d like to keep any posts about writing the Mormon Sacred below 1,500 words (preferably about 1,000) in hopes of avoiding the horribly mental click that causes people to tune out. So, yes, if you feel as if you have more to say than a comment box can hold, I invite you to email me and we’ll see about guest-posting. Give me theoretical, craft, or critical takes on writing the Mormon Sacred and I’m a happy camper. I hope, off an on, to use this platform to demonstrate how to approach sacred things in each of these three modes.
For today, I think it best if I define the Mormon Sacred for the purposes of these discussions. Most obvious, of course, are the rites and rituals Latter-day Saints engage in within the walls of our temples. These include baptism and confirmation for those who’ve passed from this life without these benefits, washing and annointing, the new name, the holy endowment and familial sealings. For most mainstream Latter-day Saints, however, even the experiences had in the temple locker rooms, wash rooms, and cafeteria have a degree of sanctity associated with them by virture of their location within temple walls.
But the Mormon Sacred is much, much more than the “secretive” practices in the temple. Blessings, prayers, and even the extension of a calling may be considered sacred. Certainly, those moments when the tender mercies of heaven are extened via personal revelation, inspiration, or the comforting bestowal of a perfectly-timed blessing or insight is sacred. I think most Mormons would agree that the most sacred moments in their lives are also deeply personal; they are as likely to occur in the temple as in the car, driving to work. The Mormon sacred is communion with God, a genuine give and take between human and divine, a communication, a miracle. Capturing the import of this moment is a very difficult thing, precisely because of its intimacy.
We speak of the gift of the Holy Ghost as the conduit for this communion, and many of our faithful LDS writers prayerfully and sincerely approach their Father in Heaven for that gift as they write, hoping that, if they have the gift, somehow that gift will flow through their work and adequately represent the Mormon sacred. Perhaps this works.
But it seems that, for many readers, it may not, particularly if the reader is not of our faith, or does not have an expectation that such a thing can or will occur, or a desire for it to occur. To invoke Mormon Speak, a writer has no control over whether or not a reader will be “in tune to the promptings of the Holy Ghost.” We can’t expect or depend upon our readers to walk the same path the writer walked. This is why craft is vitally important. Writers have no control over the path any given reader has trod over his/her life, but we can control, using the immense lingquistic tool chest provided through socialization and culturalization, to craft a path for a reader to journey that is most likely to bring that individual to an understanding of the import and relevance of the Mormon Sacred.
I do not consider this the equivalent of bringing someone to the point of testimony. That job belongs to the Holy Spirit. My job, as a writer, is to bring readers–including non-believers–to an understanding of what sacred feels like, how it can change or influence a life, even the lives of rational people. Writers in the Age of Realism believed words had the potential to actually recreate a moment, to make a reality. I do not ascribe to that way of thinking. To me, words, sentences, paragraphs, stories are, at best, mirrors constructed to reflect something else. This philosophy does not require readers to accept that what is shown in the word-mirror is reality, but allows them to examine, assess, and understand something without needing to pass a judgment on its reality or lack thereof. A non-believing reader should not have to pass judgement on Mormonisms truth claim in order to respect the Mormon Sacred.
I’m afraid I’ve hit my 1,500 word cap and must wind this up . . . with a tease. In future posts about writing the Mormon Sacred, I will consider the difference between writing stereotype and writing prototype, the power of syntactical choices, and even discuss how much religious writers can learn from those who craft horror stories.
Lastly, let me once again reiterate how much I want to hear of your experiences, or of things you have read that influenced your thinking. My desire remains to help move, in any way possible, Mormon literature into the national consciousness. We are a great team of thinkers and writers. We have a unique experience to share and, it seems to me, writing of our sacred moments has been a stumbling block we should strive together to overcome.