The Wilderness of Faith
Edited by John Sillito
Respite for a Heretic:
Jesus Christ and the Language of Desire
Donlu DeWitt Thayer
I have lived my whole life in a dissolving world, though for a long time this did not matter to me much. The year I was born Richard M. Weaver published his book, Ideas Have Consequences. This was, Weaver said, “another book about the dissolution of the West,” a process he traces to a change in metaphors for comprehending and shaping reality which occurred in the fourteenth century when William of Occam and the nominalists won the great medieval debate over the existence of universals. When humanity ceased to believe in the reality of universals, says Weaver, it made an evil decision, which began the “abomination of desolation” that appears in the modern world as a “feeling of alienation from fixed truth.”1
But I grew up in a different history. Instructed in and measured against truths that were fixed, that were the word of God revealed through holy books and prophets living and dead, I was certain of everything that really mattered—of God and his son Jesus Christ, of the Mormon church and its inspired programs, of the universe and my place in it. Of course I knew of the evil world outside whence could come atom bombs or evil people and of the natural world where accident and disease could maim and kill. But the point of life was to overcome the world, to fight our way to our true home, where God (Father and Mother) and Christ dwell.
[p.136] We could do this by following carefully the sure guides. I could follow those guides, for I was not just any ordinary person; I was a youth of noble birthright, stalwart and brave, firm as the mountains around me, a member of the chosen generation saved for these latter days. I was glad that I would be punished for my own sins and not for Adam’s (or Eve’s) transgression. I was in a word special.
All through my childhood I lived in expectation of some miraculous confirmation of my own particular spiritual prodigiousness. For a while when I was very young, I thought that perhaps I would somehow confound the wise in the temple at age eleven-and-a-half. More likely though I would have a vision, a revelation from God that would reveal to me a secret of godliness and tell me the great and unique task set for me in mortality.
By the time I was fourteen, I had begun to worry that it wasn’t good to think I was so special. I made up a little slogan that I hoped would remind me to be better. I wrote it down and posted it where I could see it every day: “Some people need to know God loves them. Other people need to know God loves other people too.” I tended, I knew, to be the second kind of person. I didn’t know what to do about this.
Of course I knew I had faults. And I strove to purge myself of weakness and sin, setting goals, keeping lists, certifying my spot in the ranks of the chosen. I hadn’t had a vision in time to be special in the way Joseph Smith was, but maybe there would be something else. Perhaps I could become the mother of the great prophet of the last days. I didn’t think about this very often though. I had other things on my mind. The trials of adolescence broke my attention, got in the way of my clear thoughts about the secrets of godliness. And so I missed it. For now I realize that in a much less dramatic way than I had expected, I had received my vision at the very time I had been expecting it. When I was moved at age fourteen to write that little slogan, I had received the most important revelation of my life. But it would be a long time before I would understand the love of God for other people.
Yes I had my faults, and I could work on those systematically until I was perfect. But there was nothing basically, fundamentally wrong with me, with my ideas. I knew that if everyone could see and feel as I did, the world would be good and safe. I was almost twenty years old before the Vietnam War and my feeble attempts to discuss [p.137] it with French communists in student restaurants in Grenoble brought me my first real anxiety about my own fallibility, about threats to my ideological security from the “outside world.” Here were people, seemingly sane and happy, who had never heard of Joseph Smith, who were confident of truth as they saw it. I knew they must be wrong, but I couldn’t refute their arguments. I decided to feel sorry for them, and I took up eating strawberry tarts in patisseries instead of talking to communists at lunch.
I gained fifteen pounds and went home to Utah where the world would be safe and right again. But I discovered that I was no longer safe, not even here. I had seen something that I could not stop seeing. I know now that disillusionment is a natural part of maturing. It clears the mind for the new vision of experience. In some societies disenchantment is built into the rituals of a religious education: the Zen initiate must endure the broken Buddha; the Hopi youth sees the unmasking of the Kachina. This is meant to shock the young person into “grasping a higher reality” and developing a “mature religious perspective.”2 But as far as I could tell, my disillusionment was not orchestrated or guided, and I felt betrayed.
As the evidence mounted against the “establishment,” I began to turn my criticism more and more upon those who seemed to reach adulthood without ever knowing that anything was wrong. The church, for instance, seemed full of grown-up children, people who could still believe in being special and right, people who could still be happy being the way I used to be. These people were blind and foolish. They were not to be tolerated. So now my world was full of stereotypes—”us,” careful-thinking deeply spiritual followers of Jesus Christ, and “them,” narrow-minded, sentimental, materialistic members of the Mormon Club. “They” were the true heretics. They were the ones who were hanging the living gospel up on the goalpost to die, whose behaviorist agendas were turning the bread of life, staled by overexposure, into misguided and pointless programs. It seemed to me that the fountains of living waters were clogged with discarded checklists. I wondered that people would not look up from their statistics or down from their worldly successes and live.
But I was not living. I was dying. I could not see that in my critical heart I was still preoccupied with “specialness,” that I was jockeying with those I criticized for evidence of God’s favor. Preoccupied with the contributions of others to my pain, I was unable to [p.138] learn how to find what could really help me. I was irritable, lonely, needy, sad. I alienated friends with my attitudes; my family suffered. Finally, like a spoiled child who cannot force the world to do her will, I was in an almost perpetual despairing rage.
So, estranged from reality, I began to feel that nothing was real except the pain of my neediness. I did not know then that my needs were fictions and that neediness itself was part of my sin. So when in dark days of despair I would ask God to take away my pain, to carry me across the abyss, the “silence” did not mean that God was refusing to rescue me because I was supposed to suffer, as if suffering in itself were good for me. The silence meant rather that even God could not take away something I was creating—the emptiness of the refusal to be filled. God could not carry me “through” something that was an illusion, but could only teach me to see more clearly, and only if I would turn to heaven and open my eyes. God could only fill me with love if I would open my heart to receive.
Gaining a path to health was not easy. I knew that it was necessary, but I was reluctant for the real work. It was easier sometimes to endure the accustomed pain than it was to change old habits of mind. For some time, predictably enough, I worked to name my problem precisely, so that I could control it. I read dozens of psychology books, religion books, philosophy books, so that I could more perfectly comprehend what was wrong with me. Each new insight was opportunity for analysis, rationalization, explanation, accusation. But at last I was exhausted from this vain obsession with myself and my emotions.
The beginning of change for me was marked in my mind by the memory of an afternoon when a friend spoke to me the words of Jesus from John 15: “As the Father hath loved me, so I have loved you: continue ye in my love.… These things have I spoken unto you that your joy might be full. This is my commandment. That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”
These familiar words of Jesus pierced my heart as they were spoken to me by someone who loved me and who also loved [p.139] everyone else he knew. Until that moment I had denied the importance of this affection arising from my friend’s own virtue not my “specialness,” free for everyone, not unique for me and therefore, I thought, meaningless. But in that moment I knew that my friend, like Jesus to his disciples, was giving me all he knew. He loved me; he wanted to help me; he would not be more “special” than I. And so a seed of virtue was planted in my heart. As it grew it would first break my heart and then heal it.
I desperately wanted to know how to live virtuous, whole, joyful, and I prayed for clearer sight, for knowledge of how to stop the pain I caused myself and others. In vivid dreams I saw rehearsed real moments from my life. I saw myself over and over again—self-absorbed, competitive, critical, manipulative. I heard myself speak, knew the effects of my behavior on others, my friends. At the same time I saw my heart and the hearts of my friends. I saw that sometimes I had taken offense when none had been given; sometimes I had criticized unjustly. I saw myself miserable and lonely because of what I had done. I was filled with sorrow.
This sorrow was much different from the black, static, self-regarding pain of my despair. This sorrow was grief for those I had wronged, including strangely enough the “self” I watched suffer in these scenes. I was sorry not so much that I had done something wrong as that I had done injury to others, to myself, to God. At the same time I saw that sometimes my heart had been right. Sometimes I had been tolerant and patient; sometimes I had given all I had and all I knew; sometimes I had absorbed offense with love; sometimes I had been a friend. Seeing this filled me with joy.
This was what I had needed to see: my own actions creating my own sorrow and my own joy. I was being instructed from my own experience in how to be, and I was receiving a new sense of God’s love. It was not out of neediness that God loved me, the human smothering, insistent desire to possess, to convince, to be completed, vindicated, affirmed. Rather it was a strong, clear desire from wholeness, not desire of me from him for his glory but desire for me as his glory. It was a desire independent of my desirability, unchanged by my unworthiness. In my competitive heart it had seemed that such a love would be meaningless. If I was not loved for my merits, how could it mean anything? But now I saw that this love, the pure love of Christ, was the only meaning there is.
[p.140] Such love in every human heart would stop the dissolution, would heal the entire world. It seemed obvious to me now that while attraction, evoked by attributes that can change, often fails, the pure love of Christ can never fail. It is not blind to faults, but there is no self-interest in its discernment of the failings of others. It seeks life and light for all.
In feeling this love, this desire for me, I felt regarded by God, seen, called by my name. I saw that he did not descend below all things in order to remain forever remote from the struggling creature below. He descended in order to be with me, so that I could be with him. Seeing this I understood at last what people are for: they are to be with in their sorrow and in their joy. The purpose of love, its “work and glory,” is to bring to pass immortality and eternal life for others. To be possessed of this love is to participate in the order of the universe. Failing this, regardless of our other gifts, we are nothing, which thing I had never really supposed.
Recently I learned that the word “sin” is etymologically related to the verb “to be.” It suggests incomplete being, that which is unfinished, not whole.3 All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. This does not mean that we have not yet finished doing everything on the Great Checklist of Life. It means that we lack perfect love—the desire, the will, the ability to create, to bring light and life to the world; we are alienated from Truth. This alienation creates a sense of neediness.
But we can learn love. Desiring earnestly, praying with “all the energy” of our hearts, we can receive this best of all gifts from a gracious God. Knowing love we are freed from the futility of egocentric striving to root out our own imperfections. God’s gracious gift is not his loving; love is his very nature, which he cannot hide or withhold. His gift is the Way to our loving. His gift is his Word, his Son, his Perfect Love. Receiving Jesus, and so learning this love, can sustain through fear of failing, fear of the opinions of other, fear of wrong ideas, fear of loss or betrayal or rejection.
God does not promise a life free from sorrow. In this world we will always have tribulation, but Perfect Love has “overcome the world” and will if we allow cast out all our fear. So my repentance is not an accomplishment; it is a way of life, a state of mind. I know I must continue to choose, turning and returning my wandering heart to love, accepting chastening when it comes, learning grace upon [p.141] grace how to be a friend to Jesus Christ. I find there is always room to be a more loving wife, a more consistently patient mother, a better friend. I find I even enjoy church meetings more now too. Instead of mentally murmuring my way through the travelogues and bursts of speculative theology in testimony meetings, I regard the members of the congregation tolerantly, wondering if anything that I am able to give could be needed by them.
I am also more careful now than I used to be of facile distinctions between the church and the gospel. I am more careful when I can remember my resolve and put “myself” aside, of what I say about the church and its members and leaders. I do not see in the church the kind of perfection I once thought it must have, but I do see opportunity to find embodiment of the only idea that really matters—that love is everything. By subjecting myself as the spirit directs to the requirements of membership in the church, I can learn to bridle my pride, my anger, my impatience, my irritability, so that I might be filled with love. I learn in the church as I do in marriage, in parenthood, in friendship, in teaching, in writing, in the beauty of my rose garden, that subjection of the will to a strenuous form can bring unexpected rewards. In the keeping of covenants—of baptism, of priesthood, of endowment, of the holy order of matrimony—the order in our individual lives reaches out into the community of faith. I cannot stop the world’s dissolving, cannot prevent the evil that comes my way, except as I can bring order to my own heart, receiving there the desire of Jesus Christ, the gracious gift made by one who emptied himself (the literal rendering of Philippians 2:7) of his glory to be born, suffer, and die so that I might if I would be filled.
The ability to be filled comes from, as one Christian psychologist has put it, “our learning how to receive our being in the feminine way, at the wounded core. It comes from our acknowledging our dependency of being-one-with others.”4 This leads us to discover that “we want to be with what matters most to us, with what gives life to any and all being. No longer satisfied with substitute sensations of being we pursue inspection of who we really are and who others really are in all their differences and samenesses to us.”5
Receiving “being,” knowledge, substance, truth in this way (which Ann Ulanov calls “feminine” and which might also be called the Hebrew mode) is an action of the heart that we all, male as well as female, neglect at our peril. The “proclaiming rhetoric of the Bible,”[p.142] says Northrop Frye, “is a welcoming and approaching rhetoric, addressed by a symbolically male God to a symbolically female body of readers”: “The ‘word of God’ is described in the New Testament as a two-edged sword that cuts and divides.… What it ultimately divides is … the world of life and the world of death, and this can be accomplished only by a language that escapes from argument and refutation … in short, the language of love.”6
The language of love calls us from the death of our neediness into the abundant life. By submitting our lives to direction by a will higher than our own, we learn within the bounds the Lord has set a divine economy. Need is “an economy of scarcity,” of poverty, while desire is “an economy of abundance.”7 It is the abundance of a pure heart that is seen in such friends of God as Enos or as the Nephite disciples who learned a language of prayer beyond mortal ability to describe, or as Joseph Smith, who said that “the nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion upon perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders and cast their sins behind our backs.”8
I would like to be such a friend to Jesus. I have seen that his desire for my friendship is greater than any desire I have ever known. Seeing this has brought me to the ability to imagine such a friendship. Too often, however, my compassion extends only to “perishing souls” who are appealing—who are very young, very old, or are disadvantaged, hurt, shabby, disabled, or oppressed. For others who “perish,” such as those who are self-righteous, who are blind to real spiritual truth, or who are in other ways boring or inconvenient, it is still difficult for me consistently to feel real compassion. I tend still to long for the Lord to cleanse his church of my ideological foes and so bring Zion.
Recently, however, I found the following statement from Brigham Young: “Do not be too anxious for the Lord to hasten his work. Let our anxiety be centered upon this one thing, the sanctification of our own hearts, the purifying of our own affections. This should be our concern, this should be our study, this should be our daily prayer, and not be in a hurry to see the overthrow of the wicked.”9 So I set myself once more to the task of purifying this heart so prone to wander from the Word of God. It is not, I have to say, always clear to me what to do. The Way is not so well defined as life seemed when I was young and sure of everything. I can see at least [p.143] that unity with others is essential to personal wholeness and union with God and that such unity does not imply complete agreement of ideas. It does imply, however, mutual desire for wholeness, and this requires a mentality of forgiving. Of me it is required to forgive all offense, for in the end all offense is offense only to God and can only be judged by him. There is no harm in offense except to the one who offends and the one who will “take offense.” “For in nothing doth man offend God … save [he] confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments” (D&C 59:21), which commandments are circumscribed in love. The great metaphor for unity is the body of Christ; we are all members and have need of each other. It seems to me, however, that “metaphors of unity and integration take us only so far, because they are derived from the finiteness of the human mind. If we are to expand our vision into the genuinely infinite, that vision becomes decentralized. We follow a ‘way’ or direction until we reach a state of innocence symbolized by the sheep in the twenty-third psalm, where we are back to wandering, but where wandering no longer means being lost.”10
Though I “wander” a good deal these days, less certain now than I have been before, I am also more serene and less afraid. Perhaps, though I wander, I am now more often safely in the Way of Truth.
Yet life does not often seem any simpler. My new understanding does not relieve me of the responsibility to evaluate, to discern, to make decisions that are painful to me and distressing to others. I cannot do all that pleases everyone who is touched by my life. I know that even if I do right, I will inevitably be the means by which offenses come to others. I will watch others estrange themselves from me. I will only be able to trust that what I try to do in purity of heart will be enough and that what I inevitably do in sin will not be too much. And I will try to avoid receiving offense. The One who calls to me has taken upon himself all offense, and I must accept his work.
So while this life is not simple, the yoke of Christ is easy, and his burden is light. Wandering then, I listen for his call so that I do not fear too much and lose the way. Shepherd, king, bridegroom, host, mother, father, friend—he calls in many voices, all one voice. He calls and waits that I should hear and come with desire. Make ready for the bridegroom; the bridegroom comes. How often I would [p.144] have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, and you would not. Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls. Fear not, little children, for you are mine. Be of good cheer, and do not fear. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know. I am the way, the truth, and the life. He that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. In this world you shall have tribulation. But fear not: I have overcome the world. This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass immortality and eternal life for you. You are, that you might have joy.[p.145]