Unique, but Familiar

Originally posted April 21, 2013

For Patrick Mason’s “Introduction to Mormonism” class this semester, each student in the course (all of whom are non-Mormon) was required to attend a full three-hour block of Mormon Sunday meetings and report on their experience. Several of his students have abridged their papers so that they could be posted on this blog. The following reflection was written by Teresa Crist, a first-year Master’s student in religion at CGU. Names have been changed.

Stepping into the chapel, I was taken aback by its simplicity.  Aside from the welcoming smiles on congregants in attendance, almost no adornments greeted a wandering eye.  Having grown up in a church where youthful attention could be distracted by pretty stained glass windows or detailed woodwork when the pastor’s sermons went beyond the child-approved length, I wondered what on earth I should look at if I became bored.  This never happened.  The very simplicity of the surroundings rendered the details and ritual of the sacrament meeting all the more interesting to observe.  Instead of being drawn to embroidered banners or detailed frescoes, my eye was drawn to the intricacy of the ceremony of distributing the sacrament, and the detail of each person’s face as he or she testified.

I suppose before continuing, I ought to make plain my own religious background.  I am a Christian from the Disciples of Christ denomination.  I was baptized Catholic as an infant, though my mother later joined my father in the DOC world.  As such, I have experience with both Catholic and Protestant worship.  I find cathedrals and churches beautiful, but have always preferred the less iconographic visuals to be found in Protestant churches – looking at judgmental statues and crucifixes set me on edge rather than recommending me to an attitude of worship and reverence.  That said, I was quite surprised to find myself so very shocked by the even sparer décor of the Mormon chapel.

Shaking off any initial surprise, I focused instead on the content of the first hour of church.  While the Sacrament received its due consideration and reverence – white cloth protecting it from everything else, young priests reciting prayers out of everyone’s sight – it was done with an attitude of routine.  All the participants already knew the process and so had no need to gawp and stare at the precision with which the eight young men moved like clockwork distributing the Sacrament.  I don’t mean that I saw a cavalier or dismissive attitude toward receiving the Sacrament – rather, they didn’t need to focus on the mechanics of the ritual, because they focused on what that ritual meant once they had ventured beyond the chapel.       The three talks offered during the meeting accented the extraordinary relevance to Mormons of a lived faith that is more than a remembrance of one lauded life.  In my experience, when Catholicism is concerned, the focus of liturgy, homilies, and reflection is on the crucifixion.  While less prominent among the Disciples, such a focus is still important.  In the Mormon church, I didn’t see a single cross or crucifix, which points to the optimism inherent in the community, the emphasis on resurrection rather than crucifixion.  Jesus appeared to the Americans following his rise.  Every day is a lived faith filled with God’s work.  The religion isn’t over; the canon is open, or rather, reopened by Joseph Smith and his revelations.

With an open canon, it is even more important to understand the content already established.  Given by a layperson, the Sunday School lesson was presented in much the same way I’ve always experienced – like a seminar, with the leader encouraging everyone to participate.  What I found interesting was that nearly everyone did.  We read D&C 6, 8, and 9 – the story of Oliver Cowdery asking God for the opportunity to translate as Joseph Smith did.  Two things struck me.  The first was everyone’s familiarity not only with the Scripture, but of history.  The second thing was the easy transition from a tangibly historical story to discussion of divine communication, which seemed just as tangible to everyone.  Cowdery’s revelation through Joseph Smith was direct communication with God.  In my church, we tend to talk about feelings or intuitions as divine communication, and I’m sure there are many out there who yearn for direct contact, for whom intuitions or signs don’t always seem like enough.  For Mormons with continuing revelation, such a problem is significantly decreased.

Moving on from Sunday School, I followed the crowd until I ended up in Relief Society, where all eyes trained on me, immediately recognizable as an outsider.  Along with pleasant greetings, I was encouraged to ask any questions I could imagine.  I admit to wondering whether this was some form of proselytizing at first, but as we entangled ourselves in discussions about our disparate but strangely familiar religious backgrounds, I came to see that everyone was just as curious as I was.  Many of the women had been born and raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and thus had little or no experience with other traditions.  But a good portion of women were converts, who understood an outsider’s perspective and were now privy to the insider’s.  It was easy to share my own perspective within such a mixture of experience.

We talked about conversion – little conversions in people’s everyday lives as well as huge life-changing movement from one religion to another.  Nearly every woman in the room was able to share her own story of conversion, whether large or small.  I felt my own conversion taking place – from a skeptic to one who felt right at home with this group of believers.

I was so grateful to have experienced such a unique but familiar Sunday morning.  Though the Mormons believe and practice differently than do the Disciples, it was still a great comfort to be among the wider community of believers.  Simply because communities practice faith differently does not mean that one group over another is excluded from experiencing God.  We all approach with wonder and gratitude, whether on bended knee and in deep reflection or by taking our reflections and beliefs out into the world with us every day.