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Yearnings of Joy

I vividly remember being precariously perched atop a stack of kitchen chairs that my mother had moved into the living room so she could wax the kitchen floors, something mothers did back in the mid-1960s. I must have been about four years old because I was still the only child—my sister came along when I was five—and we still lived in the south Provo house from which we moved when I was six. While my mother was preoccupied with her floors, I was blissfully balancing on the furniture. As I sat atop the tower of chairs my thoughts turned to serious matters. Perhaps prompted by the lighter air at that altitude or by the frightening possibility of falling, I began thinking about the Sunday school lesson from that week: The beautiful, young woman who taught our class of four-year-olds had explained how Joseph Smith had prayed to find out which church to join and how God and Jesus actually came to visit him. Atop my throne, I felt like I could use a little wisdom myself—I must have figured that if prayer like that could get that kind of attention, I would give it a try myself—so I decided to pray. As my mom continued mopping in the other room, I prayed with all my heart for God and Jesus to come to my Provo living room. I wanted to see them, hear them, and touch them. I waited patiently for several minutes after praying. Nothing. As my mother finished up the floors, I gave up. I had no vision. But I didn’t feel defeated. Instead I had a blissful, aching yearning that forever changed me. I did not feel disillusioned by my failed experiment; rather, I felt a deep longing for something—some one, some place—I didn’t know what. But I felt I had known once, but could no longer recall the memory.

I’m sure I didn’t think about it in quite these terms at the time—after all, I was a four-year-old boy—but the feeling was real and stuck. And I experienced it many times thereafter. I could not create it—rather it would overtake me when I least expected it. Usually it was when experiencing something particularly beautiful or sublime: watching a spectacular sunset, listening to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for the first time, being in the mountains, staring up at the night sky away from the light pollution, encountering Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry. But it wasn’t the beauty of the experiences that moved me; rather, I believe the beauty stirred in my soul a recollection of an even greater Beauty I had lost, that I’d been separated from, a pre-mortal Beauty that I once knew really well but of which I now retained only vague memories. I also had a strong desire to regain it, if not the place or person itself, to reexperience the feelings of aching and longing that hints of this world far away and of a possible return. The longing hurt, but in a rather exquisite way.

Many years later, I read C.S. Lewis’s spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy and recognized that this feeling was similar to what Lewis calls “joy.” For Lewis, joy is a technical term for “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” It is a kind of pleasurable pain, a sweet aching longing for something absent—a moment of yearning so exquisite that, according to Lewis, once experienced one will always want to experience it again. Joy is, for Lewis, a glimpse of the transcendent glory of God.

I should probably remind you that my PhD is in Romanticism, so I have a rather deep interest in feelings and emotions. The Romantics were not so much interested, as their name often suggests, in the romantic glow of love. Rather they wanted to confront the honest feelings of human existence, which they believed were more important to understand than the empiricist rules laid down by the Age of Reason. Wordsworth believed poetry originated in “organic forms,” from “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Romantics believed the Enlightenment left humanity cut off from each other and fragmented individually as industrialization divided us into parts of a large impersonal assembly line of being. They were preoccupied with the mystical, the unconscious, and the supernatural, and longed to locate in nature and in the human soul the essential meaning of existence. So for me to talk about my relationship with my religion, I have to talk about my feelings—those moments when I have felt a kind of transcendent connection with other people and another world.

Despite my pre-Kindergarten yearnings for the transcendent, I had fairly non-religious parents. They were deeply moral, kind, good people—my Dad never got a speeding ticket and my Mom was generous to a fault. But they both drank coffee and didn’t pay tithing and were never comfortable talking about religion. My mother taught me to say my prayers at night, but that was really the extent of my religious training at home. My questions got quick, unsatisfying answers. However, I did go to Sunday school and weekday primary meetings. My Mom made sure of that. This setting created a fairly confused kid. I didn’t really fit into my family because I craved religion, but I didn’t really fit into my religion because I was without a family to take me. I felt like an outsider in both worlds.

When I learned about “eternal families,” that a family can be sealed together for eternity, I felt more confusion. I wanted my family to be with me through eternity, but I couldn’t bear the discomfort of talking to them about it. And I began to feel a sense of shame when at Church, knowing my family was not Brady-Bunch perfect like everyone else in our neighborhood. My friends’ parents went to church each week, none of them drank coffee, and, unlike me, they were sealed to their parents in the temple. I distinctly remember having some friends over to my house once when one of them noticed the coffee can in our cupboard. His voice revealed horror: the kind you would expect if I had just told him that my father was in jail for beating up a police officer or my mother was in the back smoking marijuana and drinking Jack Daniels. My friends knew my family was sinning, and I knew they knew. I started to develop what W.E.B. DuBois would call a double consciousness—seeing myself through the eyes of my neighbors and sensing a deep shame about my family’s “wayward” ways. This might have made me resentful either of my family or of our church-going neighbors, but I knew my parents were good people—they didn’t beat up police officers or smoke marijuana— and I knew that my friends didn’t understand that. But I also knew my friends and their families were good people. And I craved the discussion about religion I found at Church, with my friends and their families. It was a double bind; I felt caught in the middle between two worlds, a stranger in a strange land.

And those moments of “joy” often came in a Church context. Like the first time I went with a youth group to perform baptisms for the dead. As I entered the temple, I immediately felt this sense of awe and peace and power. It was another defining moment for me; I felt like I really belonged there, like my soul had found its home. I felt loved and accepted. Most of all, I realized that the yearning I had experienced all my life was for a place like the temple, not the temple but almost.

There have been many other moments when that other world I was longing for seemed like it would burst into this one. The exquisite peace I felt on the last day of my mission, as if all my sins were forgiven and I was pure as a new-born baby. The loving feelings I experienced when I was married to Zina that assured me that somehow in that simple ordinance we were uniting generations past, present, and future in a chain of familial love. The delight I felt when I finally saw my own parents go through the temple and we became an “eternal family.” The indescribable love I felt when my wife gave birth to our four children and the window of heaven opened long enough for these new beautiful beings to enter this world and our lives. And the sweet pleasure of being able to serve my father and mother in their final days before they died and feeling the trust and love that unites us as a family beyond the grave.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin religio, which means “to bind”; its cousin “ligament” illustrates its deeper meaning. Religion is a binding together of believers. It gives us community in which we can create holy lives, a community of saints. I have found my community within Mormonism. I’m not always at ease here; I often find myself frustrated by my fellow Mormons. I frequently struggle with our culture’s conservative politics, I am often uncomfortable with my fellow Mormons’ discourse of surety as they bear testimonies of “knowing” things that I can only say I believe in, and I am sometimes frustrated at the lack of tolerance I see in our Mormon communities toward superficial differences. But I also know that many of my friends and ward members struggle with my more liberal political leanings, my comfort with doubts and ambiguity, and my own lack of tolerance. We struggle together, trying to work out our salvation as a community. In Mormonism I have found a home away from home, a community of faith, a tribe to walk with as I try to find my way back to my real Home.

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Boyd Petersen serves as the Program Coordinator for Mormon Studies at Utah Valley University, where he teaches classes like Mormon Literature and Literature of the Sacred for the English department. He serves as the Past-President of the Association for Mormon Literature and as the Book Review editor for the Journal of Mormon History, and has served on the boards of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities and Seggulah. He has published across the range of Mormon Studies, from publications like the FARMS Review and BYU Studies to Dialogue and Sunstone. He wrote the biography Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, which won the best biography award from the Mormon History Association in 2003. He graduated with an MA from the University of Maryland and a PhD from the University of Utah, both in comparative literature, emphasizing Romanticism and Religious Studies. He is the husband of Zina; the father of Mary, Christian, Nathanael, and Andrew; and has fairly close relationships with one dog, a gerbil, and a bunny.

His article “Soulcraft 101: Faith, Doubt, and the Process of Education” is on line at
http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=boyd_petersen

Posted December 2010