Monday, March 7, 2011

A Tale of Two Gymnasiums

I went to church today in two different gymnasiums in Provo, Utah. If you know anything at all about Provo, you’ll guess correctly that one of them was a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The other was Saint Francis Catholic Church, a growing congregation that serves a multi-cultural community.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect of a Catholic church in Utah Valley, where the population self-identifies as 96% Mormon. I found the same service I would encounter anywhere in the world, on the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time. We sang, we stood, we sat, we kneeled. In a community of Africans, Koreans, Hispanics, we recited the Lord’s Prayer together and said, “Peace be with you” to our neighbors, who were as likely to be wearing jeans and t-shirts as their “Sunday Best.”

The gym had been transformed for the service with an altar and crucifix. The Stations of the Cross adorned the walls. Near the front was an image of Saint Francis, and Mary with the infant Jesus looked on from one corner. The candles and vestments, the altar servers and liturgy, all spoke of oneness, of a truly catholic faith.

Later I went to a service in the religious tradition in which I was raised. The Latter-day Saint ward my brother attends is housed in one of the older church buildings. Like the Catholics, the Mormons boast that you can attend a service anywhere in the world and feel right at home, a claim I have found to be generally true. Like the Catholic service, the Mormon service follows a strict pattern, beginning with a congregation-member leading a hymn and a prayer. After the bishop conducts ward business, the sacrament is blessed and taken “in remembrance” of Christ’s sacrifice. On Fast and Testimony Sunday, ward members then have the opportunity to share their feelings about their faith—what evangelicals call witnessing.

The standard Mormon testimony consists of three parts: I know that God lives and that Jesus is His Son, I know that the gospel was restored to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the latter days, and I know that a prophet of God leads the church today. Members will also often talk about the importance of eternal families, or some other gospel principle, sharing their gratitude for church teachings and stressing the positive impact the gospel has had on their lives. After the testimonies, a song and prayer conclude the Sacrament service.

In my brother’s ward, I looked like everyone else. Mormons dress up for church—men wear dark suits, white shirts, and conservative ties (you can spot the rare liberal male members because they wear colored shirts and green suits with trendy ties). Women wear dresses or skirts, plenty of makeup, and have carefully coifed hair. Children—there are plenty of them—are dressed in matching outfits and wriggle in their seats while their parents scold them in hushed whispers. The whole event bears some resemblance to a late 19th century upper-class British cricket match, minus the entertainment.

There are no images of Jesus anywhere in the sanctuary.

The climax of the Catholic Mass is Communion, when the priest recites the ancient prayers that transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. “This is our faith,” he says—and at its root, all Catholic dogma, doctrine, and teaching rests on that single moment, when Christ told his apostles, “Take, eat. This is my body.”

In contrast, the Mormon Sacrament is blessed early in the service.  The talks which follow are as likely to be about food storage as they are about the Savior. I know many Mormons who have a sincere desire to know Christ, and who seem to find what they need in that second gymnasium. But for me, the weekly fashion show wasn’t enough.

This is why I am no longer a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They/We are good people. They/We love family, church, country, and God. But where they/we differ is on that last point. I want the mystery and majesty of the Trinity. I want to surround myself with symbols of an ancient faith. I want a modern day gymnasium to become a place where a miracle that has been happening for thousands of years continues to have relevance in my life.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who Needs Adverbs? Life, Death, and Beauty in Ken Rodgers' Passenger Pigeons

Ken Rodgers taught me to write without adverbs.  He loathes them, those lazy lounging “ly” words that let the verbs get away with murder. I found just one offender in Rodgers’ latest lean and sinewy collection of poems, Passenger Pigeons (it’s on page 43, and it works hard, for an adverb).  Rodgers excels at communicating—with strong verbs, whenever possible—the essence of two essential things: nature’s immutable, infinitely variegated beauty, and death’s heartbreak/horror/joy (yeah, you heard me—I said “joy.”).  

Since it deals with lots of big, uncomfortable stuff—death, war, heartbreak, loss, Joseph Stalin, for starters—this little book can be tough to chew on--no amuse-gueule here. But the stringy parts are seasoned with lines of sheer beauty, especially when Rodgers juxtaposes life’s little, banal horrors with nature's impartial and placid beauty. In the first poem, “La Luz Canyon” (which I can and will argue, with fists if necessary, tops Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”), the themes of change and permanence settle around the reader like aspen trees shedding their leaves in autumn. In the Spartan, elegant “Japanese Poetry” (perhaps the most succinct description of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ever written), nature provides a respite from “memory’s black scent of death” (p. 40).

I like words that make me uncomfortable (“Jap Camp/Hard words/Bleak words/Jap” p. 12); words that challenge me (“small asteroids delivered by the god of cuckoo clocks” p. 16); words that force me to look them up in the dictionary (“Lenticular clouds glower over the front behind the town” p. 46). I like images that pile around me (“Arrow leafed balsamroot/stabs the noon-day light/devoured by a vast tyranny of yellow” p. 28); that drift like snowflakes {“And the light    a subtle syrah/Like rubies” p. 6); that come on sudden like a Texas thunderstorm (“And the glass shards on the piazza/And the shattered hands of baby dolls” p. 32, in a poem with the delightful title, “Are Disney Stars Selena Gomez and Nick Jonas an Item?”). There are plenty of those kinds of words, those kinds of images, in this book.

Don’t be afraid to die. More importantly, don’t be afraid to live, to see, to experience the aching, transcendent beauty of your existence.  That’s what I took away from this powerful collection, a lifetime’s work, from a man who has, at times, been afraid to live—but is not afraid to find the words to tell about it. As long as those words are not adverbs.