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‘HOOKS’

tomrogersWe perhaps too cavalierly overlook what, for want of a better term, I call ‘hooks’–the experiential ‘hooks’–that, in each of our lifetimes, more commonly I suspect than we readily recognize, have often unexpectedly amazed and spiritually ‘grabbed’ us. If ‘hook’ is a rather crude expression, connoting as it does over-dependency, even addiction, we might further relate to it the metaphorical notion that the Savior himself is the great Fisherman and we the fish he rescues from a sea of aimlessness, self-absorption, and ultimate despair. I believe that each of us has encountered such testimony-galvanizing ‘hooks’–often in particular role models–but we can with time all too easily dismiss or forget them. The Spirit, as we are told, is just that fragile. You know when you know, when it has spoken to you. The trick is not to forget.

As I have commented about a number of LDS Russians I have at one time known to be dynamic and fully engaged disciples and leaders:

It is a further witness that in the seemingly alien environment and culture of Russia there were still those who heard our missionaries’ message and at least for a time felt the Spirit so deeply. The genuineness of their conversion was evidenced by their remarkable faith, humility, enthusiasm and eagerness to serve. Even those who were our branch and
district presidents and are no longer with us once manifested those same qualities and clearly felt the Spirit. They have simply forgotten it and not allowed it to continue as a force that pulsates in them and informs their lives. The Spirit is that tenuous. (Thomas F. Rogers, A Call to Russia: Glimpses of Missionary Life [Provo: BYU Studies, 1999], 175).

Allow me now to share with you several of my own ‘hooks’:

–The prophet of my youth and young adulthood, David O. McKay;

–The profound mentoring during my undergraduate years and in an LDS institutional setting by Lowell Bennion, who equally impacted Gene and Charlotte England, Mary Lythgoe Bradford, Douglas Alder, Emma Lou Thayne, and ever so many others;

–Later, the wise and loving tutelage of another remarkable role model and priesthood leader, Jae Ballif;

–The impulse in my senior year of college to approach my bishop and ask him to call me on my first mission. The unforeseen consequences of that ‘road taken’ have been manifold and long lasting. Before that moment I had, though unwittingly, too exclusively pursued the life of the mind. It was the narrow, almost myopic worldview of my otherwise admirable professors and what at least struck me as the shallowness of many of their lives that in that year at last impelled me to opt for something less theoretical and more all encompassing, more existentially challenging and humanly ‘hands on.’ I have since come to view Mormonism as the ultimate humanism–concerned as no other philosophy or social system with the long-term welfare of every individual;

–My own severe crisis of faith while on that first mission: After arriving in Germany, I soon realized that I still did not ‘know’ or sense with enough certainty that what I was persuading others to take upon themselves was actually of God–an impasse whose resolution came weeks later and in a form I did not anticipate. I realized then that I could not in good conscience persuade others to so radically alter their lives, including the forfeiture of ten percent of their ongoing income, if I were not more certain that our message and its sponsoring Church were in fact distinctively divine. So, in desperation, I wrote the then-apostle who had set me apart, Hugh B. Brown, and the young fellow-Lambda Delta Sigma-er, Merriam Dickson, who had already proven such a helpful confidant and friend. Their counsel simply reminded me of those fundamental things we are all asked to do to gain a testimony. I remember to this day, over a half-century later, the very moment and exactly where I was sitting (in the Hannover chapel’s Melchizedek Priesthood classroom, where on early weekday mornings I studied the language and missionary discussions) when, approximately two months later and quite unexpectedly, what I can only call an undeniable ‘witness’ entered my mind and bosom. Prior to that moment–as excessively romantic as this may sound–I had seriously contemplated defecting to France (I’d already studied French at the University of Utah, but not German) and there, too ashamed to return to family and friends, getting lost in the French Foreign Legion (with what dismal consequences during the subsequent Algerian revolt I can now only imagine!). It was in fact an unusually understanding and empathetic missionary assistant to the mission president (designated back then as mission second counselor) who first took me tracting and whom I particularly credit with keeping me aboard during those precarious first weeks; he was an accomplished pianist and aspired to become a surgeon. Instead, I learned a few decades later from his two nephews who were among our BYU Study Abroaders in Vienna that their uncle had ended up a restaurateur in San Francisco, where, never marrying, he contracted AIDS and then returned to his roots in rural Utah, nursed there by a sister until his untimely demise. (For three years in the 1970s, while serving at the Provo MTC, I was further privileged to witness and be deeply impacted by the spiritual wrestling and similar ‘conversions’ of many young missionaries. Their striking transformation was always thrilling to behold and very real–a nearly palpable source of greater and more genuine childlike humility compassion for others, and profound joy.)

–Other instances of what I still consider miraculous intervention and transcendent insight while on my first mission, including the discernment that enabled me to perceive that, as others argued against the Church or threatened to leave it, they were invariably, as Dostoevsky’s Myshkin puts it in The Idiot, “really talking about something else”; the further reassuring discovery that, having for a time managed to put aside my doubts so that faith could have its way, I was not in the least ‘lobotomized’ but still as capable as I am right now of questioning, considering counter-arguments, and entertaining various forms of doubt; and, perhaps most important, the prompting I had while with two more years to serve to propose to my future wife–now both of us over a year beyond our golden anniversary–a decision that has subsequently proved to be more than inspired;

–On that same early mission, the belated discovery through intensive personal study of Acts and Paul’s epistles that, in its organization, lay offices, gifts, ordinances, and their purposes, as well as in its proselytizing thrust and communal lifestyle, the pristine church of Christ and the one I represented were, in contrast to so many others, distinctively one and the same;

—In all this time, Merriam’s steady example of unwavering love, wisdom, sacrifice and faithfulness;

–The response in 1970s India of a venerable Sanskrit tutor, Shri Matiji Pande, to my query, “In your entire pantheon of deities was there ever anyone who taught love for one’s enemies and also voluntarily suffered and died for humankind?” “No,” was her cryptic but carefully considered reply–which further reinforced my conviction that, as the world’s Savior, Jesus Christ is unrivaled and, as we would expect, totally unique;

–The spirituality less articulated than exemplified by various colleagues and peers–the current patriarch for the Church in Russia, Gary Browning, and Don Jarvis, who earlier presided over missions in Moscow and Ekaterinburg and with his wife Janelle has also served a humanitarian aid mission in Belarus, being just two instances;

–In addition to those three years at the Provo MTC, multiple epiphanies that have accompanied my approximately seven years of full-time, often taxing, missionary service, including, again, the firsthand observation of astounding and edifying transformations in converts, enduringly faithful members, and, above all, fledgling missionaries;

–Recognition of the great blessing in the lives of our offspring, their spouses, and those of their children who have served missions and remained full participants in the work of the Church; throughout my extended family and over several generations, incidentally, I have witnessed how consistently closer and more mutually supportive such persons are than those who have repudiated that heritage and so much more exclusively live for and focus upon their immediate selves;

–The heady amalgam of unfettered inquiry and artistic exploration of Mormon roots and culture at BYU that accompanied those almost two golden decades of LDS scholarship, spearheaded by Leonard Arrington and his associates, together with the distinctive combination of like-minded loyalty and unfettered openness to inquiry on the part of so many respected colleagues and students, particularly in the BYU Honors Program and Colleges of Humanities and Family and Social Sciences. In a very personal way, I regard the serendipitous promptings to begin writing serious dramas (occasioned by the casual comment of another respected colleague, Alan Keele) and, after retiring, to take on yet another heretofore uncontemplated avocation–painting–(in turn occasioned by the mundane search for a new eraser) as urgings from beyond my ken that have proved immensely gratifying and perhaps of some benefit to others;

–Again, the almost palpable ‘Spirit of Elijah’ that increasingly overcomes me with nostalgic affinity for departed forebears, perhaps an appropriate preparation for the day I too must leave this life and can, hopefully, rejoin them;

–An increasingly deeper sense that love is the key to all else and that both its ultimate source and its object is Deity–that, without that influence, we are further limited in our ability to properly value what we can know or to care for one another.

Responding from Belarus to the foregoing list, Don Jarvis wrote the following:

I particularly liked your emphasis on memory as a crucial aspect of testimony. The word “remember” in my Word-Cruncher scripture search program produces over 330 verses, including . . . the sacrament prayers, and Alma 5:6. When I used to have someone in my BYU ward or MTC branch looking for some miracle to pump a deflated testimony, I would ask them if they had done what you suggest by recalling personal “hooks” . . . from their own lives. Many, but admittedly not all, found that very helpful. I certainly do. Alma in Chapter 5 talks even more about imagining future events, reminding us that faithfulness is very much an intellectual activity (email, 8 June 2006).

Don’s meaning here, I believe, is, that maintaining a vital and abiding faith requires ongoing reflection and cogitation–a discerning reassessment and sorting out of both our preconceptions and our dissonant, ever competing inclinations by recalling our long term experience and lessons learned but all too easily forgotten–which may in fact be a fair description of efficacious meditation and prayer. None of us is fully insulated, no one completely sealed off from uncertainty and occasional nagging doubt–much as we might prefer otherwise. We are all ‘God wrestlers.’ As with our less than consistently or at all times unambiguously ethical deeds, maintaining faith is all uphill, and its slope sometimes steep. If we think or declare otherwise, as we often do, we are in denial. No one gets through this life free of fault or utterly robotized. We weren’t intended to.

Among my heroes are those mid-nineteenth-century Russians–like Tolstoy, the composer Mussorgsky, and the painter Repin–who so agonized over the plight of the far less favored peasants, tirelessly working in their behalf and yearning to be one with them. Simultaneously, on another continent, a society was emerging with potential for that desired outcome–more beneficial and far-sighted than the socialist phenomenon that so tragically impacted those Russians’ descendants. On their very soil I have witnessed its effects in the lives of a fair number of them. Those effects are not just theoretical. They are very real: Barriers of unfamiliarity, social class, and even nationality disappear; in our interaction we bask together in mutual affection and supportiveness–truly one another’s sisters and brothers. Few religions achieve this. That of the Latter-day Saints can and often does. Or, as Don Jarvis further comments, again from the trenches while with his wife Janelle distributing wheelchairs, arranging for free dental care by States-side volunteers, and staging puppet shows for Belarussian children on personal hygiene: “This ‘going to the people’ is yet another evidence of the Church’s efforts to bridge heaven and earth, so unlike the neo-Platonic dualism of much of ‘classical’ Christianity . . . with its monks, celibacy, and retreat from the world it is supposed to serve” (email 7/2/06).

I’ve listed a number of what I call ‘hooks’ or promptings that, as I now look back on them, seem to have steered my life in ways I could never have foreseen. These often arose as unbidden invitations or opportunities that in turn required an active choice between two alternative courses of action–one leading to greater personal fulfillment, the other to stagnation. I now view such promptings as tender mercies that, I believe, are how the Spirit most often operates in our lives.

As a patriarch, I’ve frequently been privy to that same process in the lives of now close to fifteen hundred fellow Latter-day Saints throughout the vast territory of Eastern Europe. Each time I travel abroad I keep witnessing the miraculous transformation in those I interview which, they testify, took place after they were sufficiently imbued with faith, testimony, and, through the Spirit’s transcendent power, the concomitant desire and confidence to exercise the discipline and sacrifice that enabled them to change, often quite dramatically.

Like our convert ancestors, new Church members are spiritually quickened. Paradoxically, their vital, whole-souled response to the missionaries’ message fortifies the missionaries’–and our own–ongoing conversion. We are blessed by their example, which draws us to them. Meanwhile, those in succeeding generations have as much need of that same quickening by overcoming a certain complacent drag when, at least at first, the whole thing seems the mere consequence of the family setting in which we happen to have been born. This applies as much to those at all levels who throughout their lives have mostly ‘gone along,’ accepting and dutifully serving in various callings.

The human condition spares none of us nor our loved ones from discouragement and sorrow, and for those who lack faith in immortality and salvation such outcomes and the prospect of one’s mortal finality can only be, however stoically viewed, utterly grim. There is surely an innate need in us all for the wondrous assurances that Christ preached and, in his atoning mission, exemplified. We are therefore truly blessed when, with faith (whatever the skeptical arguments that can also readily occur to us), we ‘buy into’ those assurances and live to cultivate that same faith. We’ve each experienced both it and its opposite. Such faith is an immense blessing, and we should never allow the sum total of inequities, short sighted practices, or the predilections of equally human and at times fallible spiritual mentors–which are ultimately ‘accidentals’ and not ‘fundamentals’–to rob us of remaining fully open to what Christ’s consoling and unmatched restored doctrine can afford us.

Paul honestly asserted that we peer ‘through a glass darkly.’ Even so, I believe that each of us has at times deeply felt the mind of God that Paul knew so markedly contrasts with the mind of man (1 Cor. 2:11-14). I like to call this the ‘epistemology’ of the Gospel. We rightly choose to exercise faith, while we are still at times tempted to believe we may be self-deceived: our faith easily wanes and waxes from day to day, even from one moment to the next. For me, it’s in fact been, as mentioned, quite reassuring to recognize that I could still entertain doubt after receiving the witness that I finally did as a young missionary.

It’s a humbling and perhaps needful thing that we are thrown back on both the finiteness of our precarious physical condition and the limitations of our mortal understanding. Where the challenge of Christ’s teachings and our willingness to believe them is concerned, there is absolutely no definitive proof to the contrary and so much to be existentially gained by continuing in that trusting direction. The equal need of our very loved ones–our spouses and children, and theirs–their similar need for spiritual nourishment and eternal perspective, is key.

By contrast with every theological speculation and every other religious practice of which I am aware, the restored Church and Gospel are so amazingly comprehensive and efficacious in addressing our individual and social needs, so reasonable and correct in their understanding of original Judeo-Christianity, and so profoundly grand in their perspective on our ultimate eternal possibilities–truly the most conceivably viable humanism and literal fulfillment of that great ideal of the fraternity and sisterhood of all humankind.

Meanwhile, I remain pensive and deeply stirred by Simone Weil’s observation that “Instead of speaking about love of truth it would be better to speak about a spirit of truth in love” (Waiting for God). I sense such love in many of my fellow Latter-day Saints and would better emulate them in that regard.

BECOMING ‘GROUNDED’

On more than one past occasion I have spelled out an array of influences and highly persuasive reasons for favoring the teachings of the restored Gospel and further adhering to its sponsoring institution. As I now look back, I recognize how extensively I’ve been privileged to serve that institution and, together with my family, be blessed by it.

Even so — and even after thirty-one years’ employment at the Church’s flagship university and a total seven years’ full time missionary activity — I have often too much been a mere witness or bystander, a ‘fellow traveler,’ more theoretically disposed than existentially committed. Until fairly recently!

I am now seventy-six. This should offer hope to others whom the ‘spark’ has still not fully quickened. How and to what extent have I myself changed, and so fairly recently? It may be the natural consequence of a certain mellowing that comes with advanced age. In any event, I now look upon my religious commitment with increased appreciation and fuller intent than perhaps ever before. The form it takes is really selfish — an instinctive preference for it over anything that might oppose or detract from it. With that heady appeal have come both a lesser disposition toward self-indulgence and greater awareness of and commiseration for others’ travail. This includes, for all our extraneous differences, more satisfaction in associating with fellow Saints as well as a disposition in prayer to affirm my ongoing resolve and preferred good intent rather than so much to seek favors.

This reminds me of Simone Weil’s allusion to the two birds in the Upanishads that share the same limb of a tree. One ravenously consumes the tree’s fruit while the other simply looks on. The second bird’s empathetic detachment more nearly reflects divine perspective and, with it, desirable understanding and serenity. Why I’ve been blessed to feel this way I cannot say. I take no credit.

Two recent novels by Mormon authors –Jack Harrell’s Vernal Promises and Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House–compellingly illustrate a similar spiritual odyssey in considerably younger protagonists In both instances, though in quite different settings: that of lowlife drug culture in the Mountain West and during the ever present Hell of battle in the Korean War. Their characters arrive at a more stable and placid life’s course by first experiencing (and withstanding) extremely violent and potentially destructive opposition. Such opposition can of course take a variety of forms, either physical or psychological. But experiencing it in various personal contexts further attests to the scriptures’ paradoxical assertions regarding the essential role that trials and opposition play in our individual development.

So, blessed we are by the intermittent shadows if we do not finally give in to them. They can then bring us onto more solid ground. Of this I testify.

———-

After graduating from the University of Utah and serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany, Thomas F. Rogers earned a master’s degree in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Russian Language and Literature from Georgetown University. Along the way, he also picked up two certificates in the teaching of Russian from Moscow State University and a certificate from the Theatre Workshop at the University of Wroclaw, in Poland.

He taught at Howard University in Washington DC and at the University of Utah before joining the faculty at Brigham Young University, where he served as a professor of Russian from 1969-2000, directing the University’s Honor’s Program from 1981-1983 and editing Encyclia, the journal of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, from 1991-1993. Immediately upon his retirement from full-time college teaching, he served as an instructor in the BYU China Teachers Program from 2000-2001.

Professor Rogers is the author of numerous professional articles, reviews, essays, and stories, as well as of the books ‘Superfluous Men’ and the Post-Stalin ‘Thaw’ (The Hague: Mouton, 1972), God’s Fools: Four Plays by Thomas F. Rogers (Midvale, Utah: Eden Hill, 1983), Myth and Symbol in Soviet Fiction (San Francisco: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), Huebener and Other Plays (Provo, Utah: Poor Robert’s Publications, 1992), and A Call to Russia: Glimpses of Missionary Life (Provo: BYU Studies, 1999). He also translated S. Panchev, Random Functions and Turbulence (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1971), from the Russian.

Along with several awards for teaching and academic excellence, Professor Rogers received the Distinguished Service Award from the Mormon Festival of the Arts in 1988 (the citation from Eugene England pronouncing him “undoubtedly the father of modern Mormon drama”) and the Lifetime Service Award from the Association of Mormon Letters in 2002.

His numerous callings in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have included service as an elders quorum president, Sunday School president, counselor in a bishopric, stake high councilman, president of a BYU student branch, president of a branch in the Provo Missionary Training Center, president of the Russia St. Petersburg Mission (1993–1996), temple missionary and sealer at the Stockholm Sweden Temple (2004–2005), and ordinance worker and sealer in the Bountiful Utah Temple. Since 2007, Dr. Rogers has served the Latter-day Saints of the Europe East Area as an ordained patriarch.

Posted December 2009