Monday, November 30, 2009

Little Bodies, Grownup Spirits

For this posting, I turn to a journal entry of 21 November 2008 and append additional comments at the end.

In relation to 3 Nephi 26:14, 16 (in the Book of Mormon): Children are born with grown-up spirits–these having been nurtured and instructed in their pre-earth-life existence. But these spirits have to contend with physical and mental faculties which do not at the outset have the development necessary to enable the mature spirits to think and speak and act as they would if not confined to these cramped quarters (their bodies expandable with time and effort and nurturing and instruction but presently rudimentary).

In the above scriptural reference, Jesus enables little children’s spirits to think and speak beyond the capacities of their developing faculties: “And it came to pass that he did teach and minister unto the children...and he did loose their tongues and they did speak unto their fathers great and marvelous things.” And then this: “even greater things than he [himself] had revealed...and he did loose their tongues that they could utter.”

Think about that. The savior had told his apostles in Jerusalem that they would do greater works than he had done. Here young children utter greater things than Christ himself has revealed on this occasion. (I like this willingness to let others say or do greater things than he has said and done–what a wonderful example for leaders, parents, etc. What a lesson in humility and absence of self-serving.) Verse 16 adds this astonishing note: “...even babes did open their mouths and utter marvelous things.”

Welsh writer Leslie Norris, in his short story “The Waxwings” (published in his anthology “Sliding”) presents a seven-year-old boy who has a wonderful experience with birds–cedar waxwings. His mature spirit appreciates the beauty and marvel of the encounter beyond the capabilities of his seven-year-old faculties of self-expression: The birds “were so brilliant that the boy cried his delight aloud....their colors, oh, the colors. Their heads held crests of chestnut, a black stripe ran dramatically through each eye, their bodies were tinged with pink, the incredible tails, short and thick, were tipped with a band of yellow as bright as summer. But it was their wings, carrying them boldly through the trees as they ate like locusts, that the boy saw most clearly. Strongly barred with black and white, the secondary feathers looked dipped in vermilion sealing wax, as hard and shining as sealing wax. He thought they were like hundreds of candles sparkling through the trees.”

This is what he observed, thought, and felt. But when he returned home, he could not share in words his experience. His physical and mental faculties were not sufficiently developed as a seven-year-old. His mother “saw with compassion the small boy standing before her, his face bewildered and frustrated by his inability to express the significance of his journey, the marvelous vision of the waxwings. She saw the puzzled tears form in his eyes. ‘Oh, Mam,’ he said, ‘my boots is hurting.’ She put her arm around his shoulders, and smiling, led him indoors.”

What a disparity between his mature spirit’s perceptions and his immature body and mind’s ability to express those perceptions! Bear that in mind when you hear children’s repetitive testimonies in LDS church meetings. Often the repetitive nature of their expressions may hide a mature spirit’s feelings, thoughts, and perceptions that the child cannot make his or her immature faculties express.

I know that as a preteen, I felt more than I could hope to express in my frequently borne testimonies. I remember one occasion when an adult bearing his testimony after mine said something like this: The boy says he knows that the gospel is true. But he doesn’t really know it yet. The time will come when he will know what he now just says he knows.” Something like that. I thought then and I think now that he was wrong. I did know and feel with real conviction the truth of what I expressed and was incapable of adequately articulating.

End of journal entry. I sent the above off to my daughters and received this interesting reply from one of them:

"What a good way to start Sunday morning! Thanks for sending that. We have a little boy in our ward [local LDS congregation] who bears quite the interesting testimonies about seeing God. The first time he did it, his mother came up to kind of steer him another way but the next time, she just patiently let him finish. Whether he does actually see God or is just trying to express something else that has happened in the only way he can, his spirit comes through loud and clear.

"When I think back to how I felt as a teenager or even as a primary age kid, I don't think I know any more now than then that I am a daughter of Heavenly parents and that Jesus died for me. I may have a bit more of an understanding about the whole thing but no more sure testimony than I've always had.

"The kind of silly (to me at the time) comment that a missionary in Kentucky made about babies squirming so much because it's hard to fit that adult spirit into a tiny body may not be so silly after all." So went my daughter's apt comment.

And I myself will make another addition to this entry. A brief article in our church’s publication, “The Ensign,” contributes an additional insight into the capacities of children–of their grownup spirits inside their developing bodies. The article, in the December 2009 issue of the magazine, is titled “Why Do I Need to Be Here?” A harried mother, in line for desperately needed prescriptions for her two children is dismayed when her daughter of 19 months breaks free from her arms and runs off toward an older man sitting with his head in his hands, obviously quite distraught. the child pesters the man, refusing mother and older brother’s efforts to make her leave him alone. She takes off her shoes and hands them to the man. Raising his head and even smiling he puts them back on for the girl and then embraces her, “kiss[ing] her on the head.”

He then explains to the mother that his wife has recently passed away and, more recently still, he has learned that he himself has terminal cancer, for which he has come to get medicine. He had been pondering and praying as to whether it was worth struggling on instead of short-cutting the dying process. He had not even ended this prayer when the girl showed up and started seeking his attention, “calling him ‘Grandpa.’” “Now,” he said, “I know why I need to be here longer....I need to stick around for my grandkids. They need me.”

Here is a case where the child is not given amazing words to utter but is given a prompting to do something extraordinary. We learn that up to the point of her wiggling free from her mother’s arms she “had been especially clingy.” Both she and her brother had been miserable with “strep throat and ear infections.” So her action, if characteristic of her normally (as it may have been) was clearly not in keeping with her present state. Yet she performed it doggedly. Her brother could not pull her away. Her mother’s commands went unheeded. “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” asked the barely adolescent Jesus of his mother when she found him with the sages in the temple. Well, this child too was about her father’s business and just as impervious as Jesus to the anxieties of loved ones.

I’m not suggesting that she had any understanding whatsoever of why she was drawn to the man–other than his reminding her of her grandfather or of grandfathers generally. But the Lord nevertheless had a work for her to do and she seems to have felt impelled to carry out what had come into her mind or the feeling that so strongly enveloped her.

I am reminded of a passage in Matthew in the New Testament, chapter 21, verse 16: Jesus “said unto him [one of the chief priests who encountered him in the temple performing miracles] Hearest thou what these [children] say [verse 15 “the children crying...and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David”]?....Have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?”

Perhaps we should regard our children with greater respect. Who knows what their cramped spirits might say if their physical tongues were loosed?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Not All Deviance is Quixotism

A distinction needs to be made between deviant behaviors in general and quixotism as I am using the term with reference to Kiolkowski’s book of which I spoke in my last blog. A provocative article in the “Atlantic,” “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” by Hanna Rosin (December 2009), discusses the “prosperity” church phenomenon. This, I want to make clear is not what I have in mind in using the term “quixotic.”

It is certainly deviant to believe, as dirt poor congregants in such churches are led to do, that if your faith is sufficient God will see that you get that expensive, luxurious home of your wildest dreams, even though reason tells you there is absolutely no way you can manage to afford it. God will open the way; you just have to take the leap of faith: dare to contact a loan officer in the sub-prime lending market, for instance, and God will see to it not only that you get a loan despite your lack of collateral but also that you will find the wherewithal to make the payments.

Never mind that your pastor is–or has been--in the sub prime lending business himself.

No, this is not what I have in mind in using the term quixotic. Don Quixote was not acquisitive. His motivation was chivalric service. Creature comforts were scanted, much to Sancho Panza’s dismay, in pursuit, not of wealth but of chivalric achievements. Christian Quixotism as treated by Ziolkowski involves doing good and holding to a standard that is deviant from the prevailing one and hence antithetical to prospering in the status quo. Don Quixote and spiritual heirs like Parson Adams in “Joseph Andrews,” Myshkin in “The Idiot,” and Father Quixote in Graham Greene’s novel by that name did not prosper in worldly terms and, indeed, suffered many afflictions and privations as a result of their quixotic behaviors.

The pattern for these protagonists, even Don Quixote himself to an extent, is Christ, who did not have a home of his own once he left the nest, who “went about doing good,” who put up with all sorts of abuse, except abuse of his Father’s house and business, who suffered even unto death when he could have called down legions of angels to rescue him, and who taught that “ he who saves his life shall lose it.” “Go and sell all that you have,” he counseled the rich young man, and give to the poor and [then] come and follow me.”

That is the pattern I have in mind in employing the word “quixotic.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Norman's Quixotic Thoughts

Norman’s Quixotic Thoughts

Note the title change. “Quixotic” resonates with me as it never did before since I finished reading “The Sanctification of Don Quixote: from Hidalgo to Priest” by Eric J. Ziolkowski. The word has been “sanctified” along with the old anachronistic knight himself. It is good, self-flattering, to style one’s own thoughts quixotic. My first and only entry in this blog, is quixotic. It flies in the face of received wisdom of our day: A God at once just and loving is unthinkable as hundreds of postings on the internet would seem to argue (sorry, I just read titles and descriptions as I Googled through the subject–hence “seem”).

Likewise God’s timetable and procedures in Genesis have no basis in scientific fact, or so I am assured (not that I pretend to understand his timetable or procedures, which I don’t think these others do either). Yet I believe creation was masterminded by an all-wise, loving creator, a personal God. That is quixotic thinking at its best–or worst if you prefer.

However, I don’t like to link myself with intelligent design people nor with the creationists to the extent that they would pit their view against scientific understandings of evolution etc. That is a quixoticism beyond even my tastes. I don’t quarrel with evolution or its time table. There is too much evidence in support of it. I do, however, like the Darwin of “Origin” better that the Darwin who went on to leave God out of the equation–especially after opening “Origin” with a consideration of engineered evolution–man and the rock pigeon. If man can engineer evolution why can we not suppose one greater than we might do so?

Anyway, I am a believer in spite of such weighty evidence and impressive arguments to the contrary. That makes me decidedly quixotic, hence the new title for my nascent blog.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Suffering and a Just, Loving God

I will briefly introduce myself as I enter the world of blogging.

I am Norman Davis, an actively participating member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am a teacher (retired) of English (literature, language, writing, etc.) at various levels including the four-year college level (with graduate degrees). I am a registered Democrat who generally votes along party lines. Though not overly robust, I am a lover of the out-of-doors and of hiking, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, and biking. There are no doubt other things I might add to help characterize myself, but perhaps these will do for starters.

I am entering the blogging world to air thoughts on a variety of subjects, thoughts meaningful to me and to others with whom I have already shared them, thoughts that may be interesting and meaningful to others as well.

With that brief look at my background and interests, here is my first posting, an unapologetically “Mormon” perspective on the issue of suffering in relation to a loving God:

Journal entry for June 20, 2008

A New Yorker article addressed the issue of reconciling a God, especially a loving, personal God with the fact of suffering and evil–especially the more flagrant instances of these.

Thinking about the article’s denigration of belief in a benevolent God, I was struck with the thought that Jesus in his life, and especially in undergoing his atoning experiences and suffering and the aftermath of those, serves as a model of what it means to suffer greatly in earthly life in relation to the larger perspective of eternity.

We see him suffer privations and rejections and outrages to his sense of rightness (as in the buying and selling within the precincts of the temple). Then we see him suffer with extreme intensity–mental and emotional suffering beyond mere human endurance in the garden and the exquisite physical pain and agony of his crucifixion. And these in terrible isolation–even his disciples forsaking him–except for the women who stood afar off as he hung on the cross.

Then we see him return fresh, sound, hale, and glorified. And we are given to understand that such will be our lot to the extent that we seek it and are prepared for it. All will be resurrected with bodies no more subject to the frailties and woes of our bodies in their present state. And all but the most willfully disobedient, who cut themselves off entirely from the saving grace of the atonement, will experience an existence far happier than our present state--as I understand the matter.

We have all experienced in this life severe (to us) sufferings and privations that have seemed unendurable or nearly so and sure to scar us for life only to find, once they are over, that we have rebounded wonderfully and that in retrospect they haven’t really been all THAT terrible after all.

I am reminded of a boyhood experience of jumping into a swimming hole in the Verde River in Northern Arizona from a railroad bridge abutment. The abutment seemed from the top so scarily high, yet when we looked back up at it from the water after jumping it seemed only of modest height, not scary at all.

I do not mean to trivialize terrible ordeals. I never wish to experience such if by honorable means I can avoid doing so. What I wish to do is magnify (to their true proportions) the rewards, the compensations of the hereafter. God will indeed wipe every tear from the eyes (except perhaps the tears of remorse for willfully cast away opportunities) and gladden every heart. We will be constrained by what we learn and experience in the resurrection to exclaim, “Thy ways are just, thy love is perfect, beyond comprehension, nothing has come our way that has not been tempered by love and wisdom for our everlasting benefit.”

The bridge abutment in retrospect was not that awfully high after all.

A postscript: Not only is suffering swallowed up in joy. It also has its uses in and of itself as this quotation from Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” suggests: “Gabriel Oak, having passed through the ordeal of seeing his dream of life as an independent farmer instead of a mere shepherd or bailiff destroyed, “was paler now. His eyes were more meditative, and his expression was more sad. He had passed through an ordeal of wretchedness which had given him more than it had taken away. He had sunk from his modest elevation as pastoral king into the very slime pits of Siddim; but there was left to him a dignified calm which he had never before known, and that indifference to fate which, though it often makes a villain of a man, is the basis of his sublimity when it does not. And thus the abasement had been exaltation, and the loss gain.”

Welcome to the world of my thoughts!