Monday, July 25, 2005

Mormon Rhythms: Part III of II... Lifeposts

Author's Note: This is the third in a three-part series. Please be sure to read all three!

So we're at the third and final installment of our two-part series on Mormon rhythms. We've looked at the daily rhythms of the pious Mormon... and we've looked at a year in the life of a congregation. I guess it's time to look at those mileposts that dot the life of a member as she traverses the length of her earthly sojourn.


Grace's mom and dad learned that she was there a few weeks into the pregnancy... and they couldn't have been happier. Grace was to be the third child of who-knows-how-many — and before they even knew her gender, they knew that if the baby was a girl, that she was going to be named "Grace" after mom's best friend from college. If the baby was a boy, he was going to be named Christian after dad's third-great-grandfather, who joined the Church in Denmark before coming to America and crossing the plains with the Mormon pioneers on their trek to the Great Salt Lake. There wasn't any hard-and-fast rule, but both mom and dad wanted their children to be ground in their heritage from their first breath.

Grace was born healthy, but for some reason didn't take to nursing, so for the first time, Grace's mom bottle-fed a child of her own. After a few weeks at home — being helped by Grandma and Auntie — Grace made her first trip out into the world... and it was to church. Grace had a lovely white christening gown on... a funny name for a gown worn by a Mormon infant, as she wouldn't be christened, she would be blessed. But as fast as the church was growing, there weren't enough Mormons in the world to influence fashion trends — at least not in Boston... At any rate, it was the first Sunday of the month, and along with it being Fast Sunday (see part II), it was a popular time for babies to be blessed. It was a very special day in Grace's life, and she was asleep. Snoring.

The small chapel's pews were bursting at the seems as a couple dozen extra friends and family members crowded-in to watch or participate in the blessing. The bishop stands at the front of the congregation, and welcomes the visitors and makes a few announcements, while his councilor motions to a deacon (a 12 year-old boy who holds the most junior of offices in the church's lay priesthood) to get an extra microphone ready (the microphone on the podium is fixed, so it would be of little use). After the announcements, the bishop invites dad up to bless Grace. Dad stands — as do six of his male relatives... a grandpa, three uncles, a first cousin, and a third cousin — as well as his best friend from high school, and his college roommate. They all make their way up to the front of the small chapel, and stand in a circle: their left hands on the man's shoulder to their left, and their right hands under the baby. The deacon — too short for the job — stands on a chair behind dad so that he can get the mic in-close. Dad begins to speak, and the congregation bows their heads, folds their arms, and reverently listens to the blessing. "By the power of the Holy Melchezidek Priesthood, which we hold, we give you a name..." Dad then goes on to state Grace's full name, and after a short silence, he pronounces a father's blessing. He says "amen", and the congregation echos it. The circle breaks, and Dad raises little Grace up for the congregation to see. Everyone quietly files back to their seats, and the worship service continues as normal.

When Grace is 18 months old, she's old enough to attend nursery at church, and she formally enters a lifetime of class instruction... in a couple years, she'll graduate to Junior Primary — with classes that look very much like kindergarten classes. And when she is eight, she'll graduate to Senior Primary.

Eight is a big year for her. Like most children born into a Mormon family, Grace will be baptized a few days after her eighth birthday, and will be confirmed a member of the church. She'll begin to celebrate the sacrament with the adults... and she'll begin paying a tithe on her weekly allowance.

When she turns twelve, she'll graduate from primary, and begin attending Young Women's classes... this is the formal beginning of gender-based classes. Just last year, her older brother Forrest turned twelve and he graduated from Primary, at which point he was ordained a deacon in the church's lay priesthood. The classes aren't that different, except Grace's classes focus a great deal of effort on reinforcing Grace's understanding of her infinite worth in the eye of her Father in Heaven. It's important, because many people mis-equate the priesthood with value...

Her brother, if all goes well, will move through the junior offices of the priesthood: deacon (age 12), teacher (age 14), and priest (age 16)... with each office holding more responsibility. Deacons pass the sacrament and do the bishop's errands (such as holding the microphone during baby's blessings). Teachers prepare the sacrament (setting up the table/altar and taking it down) as well as passing it... Priests bless the sacrament and pair-up with adult priesthood holders to do home teaching (see part I for more on home teaching).

( Sometime in the fog of pubescence, Grace and Forrest will receive their patriarchal blessing. This blessing is a prophetic blessing administered by a patriarch — chosen by an apostle — and it aims to guide the recipient in their lives, going forward. This blessing is recorded, word for word, and two copies are made: one for Grace, and another to be stored in the church's vaults in Utah. It is a wonderful gift... and it will be neatly folded and stored in her diary or in the front of her personal scriptures, read and re-read, until they are worn-through. )

Grace will also graduate from class to class... and when she turns eighteen, she will be invited to join Relief Society — the church's women's auxiliary, and the largest and oldest women's organization in the world by some estimates. Similarly, Forrest will be invited to start attending classes for adult priesthood members. Whereas Grace's invitation is without reservation, Forrest begins attending adult priesthood classes not as an Elder, but as a prospective Elder. As a young man, advancement through the ranks of the prepatory priesthood was practically perfunctory (even if the interviews with the bishop conveyed a much deeper seriousness to Forrest). But this, this is different... it's a serious matter for a young man to be ordained an Elder, as he is taking upon himself very weighty covenants of personal purity and commitment. In a few short months, if all goes well, Forrest will go from being ordained an Elder to going through the temple to receive his endowment... and then off, for a two-year mission as a lay minister.

Grace's transition into ecclesiastical womanhood is a little softer: she starts attending Relief Society classes instead of her young women's class... she gets ready to go to college... in a few months, she'll be off to college. She's chosen a school where there are enough students for a student congregation. She quickly finishes college — in no small part helped by a childhood filled with classes at school, at church, at summer camp... where she learned how to pace herself and the value of education. She graduates at the top of her class... and then she pauses.

Unlike a striking number of sisters in the university congregation who married at age 19 and 20, Grace is single. She's single and faced with a choice: should she go on a mission? Her brother was expected to go on a two-year mission at age 19. For her, it's optional... and to underscore the optional nature of the calling, sisters aren't allowed to serve until they're at least 21. She's only 20, but already it's on her mind. A few months before her 21st birthday, she decides to go and gets the physical and ecclesiastical clearances necessary to go... and she sends her papers in. It's such an important choice for young men and women alike, that the question "are your papers in" rings deeply in the halls of the chapels of the church. But as fate would have it, she meets a young man the day after she sends her papers off to Salt Lake City for processing. A serious relationship develops between them quickly, and at the last minute, Grace chooses to post-pone her mission to give the relationship a chance to develop. She knows that marriage is a higher calling than a mission, and she doesn't want to miss the forrest for the trees.

A few months later, Grace and Beau are engaged.

They start having weekly interviews with the bishop... in part for the bishop to get them ready for the temple wedding, and in part to help them keep a bridle on their exploding libidos.

For Mormons, the temple ceremony sealing a man and a woman as husband and wife is the culmination of their sacerdotal experience. A married couple is really the central figure in Mormon theology, and marriage, therefore, is taken very seriously... are they worthy, are they ready, do they know the seriousness of the promises they're about to make. For both Grace and Beau, this is the answer to the maxim they've heard their entire lives: the right person, at the right time, in the right place. Beau served an honorable mission, and so he has already received his first temple rites... but Grace has not (she would have, had she gone through with going on a mission), so not only is Grace getting married, she is also going through the temple for the first time. To keep the first time through special, and to keep the wedding day from being completely crazy, Grace goes to the temple for the first time a couple of weeks before the wedding. Because she is engaged, Beau will play an important role in the rite... a roll that reflects, in many ways, the roll that Beau's father might have played when he went through for the first time.

The ceremony in the temple is intimate and short... only the closest members of the family and a couple of life-long friends attend — 35 people total. After the ceremony, a reception is thrown in their honor and a couple hundred are in attendance... Grace is in her wedding gown, and Beau is in his tux and tie. Their wedding night is an amazing night of fear and passion... and their two-week honeymoon — away from prying family and the bustle of mundane obligations — is a time of wonderful discovery. They leave full of heady anticipation and return, as it were, traumatized by joy... And they don't mind one bit.

They've decided to wait to have children, to give themselves time to be husband and wife... but you know what they say about the the best-laid plans... Well, they have their first child a year later. Three years later, the twins are born. The cycle begins anew for the babies... but for Grace, life is just getting up to speed.

Over the next 18 years, Grace stays at home with the children... when they're out of diapers, she starts a home-based business... the years whiz by, and soon her first-born is getting married. A few more years pass, and she and Beau are alone at home. It's time for them to try out that husband and wife thing they had discussed back when they were newlyweds.

But life waits for no one, and with the last children out of the house and married, Grace and Beau start putting their affairs in order, so that they can serve a two year mission as a married couple for the church. Finally, Grace's dream of serving the Lord full-time is realized. They're sent to Mongolia on a two-year humanitarian mission. When they return, Grace starts another home-based business, and Beau "quits" retirement to take a leadership position with a small start-up company. Ten years pass, and they begin to plan for their second couple mission. This time, it's to Detroit, where they help out a small, struggling congregation in the inner-city.

Soon, they're back home... playing with the grandchildren.

Beau is outside turning the compost heap when he collapses. He's dead at age 73.

Grace is heart-broken. Her husband and life-partner is gone... but not for good. She knows that he awaits her on the other side. In preparation for the burial, she dresses her husband in the ceremonial garb of the temple. He practically glows in the casket — all dressed in white. At the chapel, when the service is over, she kisses him on the cheek, and teases him for finding a way to get out of doing yard work. She weeps silently as they drive to the cemetery.

Months pass, and Grace is back in the swing of things... she's handed-over operations of her little business to her grand daughter, who just got her last child out of diapers, and she's decided to do a little traveling. She's met a nice widower in the ward, and they hit it off... Gary and she marry — but not in the temple (a ceremony for this life only, as compared to the eternal vows taken in the temple) — and they take a few trips to Europe. But soon, the bug has bitten them both again, and they choose to serve one last mission. This time, it's just for six months, and it's in Salt Lake City... where they take people on tours of Temple Square.

A month after returning, Gary dies in an auto accident.

Grace buries her second (and last husband)... She lives many more years, and dies at the age of 102. All but the last four were spent either in her own home, or in the home of her first grandson, Kyle. Her funeral is attended by four generations of descendants... some two hundred descendants in all. She would have been proud.

But she was too busy to attend... her death, after all, was really just the beginning... and she and Beau have a lot of work to do.

1 comment:

wingated said...

I'd say this post sums it up pretty well. I like the tenor: a lifetime of service, framed by an eschatological perspective; an honest, sustained effort to devote your life to God, with the result that you live "after the manner of happiness." Nicely done.

One thing that I've noticed throughout the series is the absence of a discussion about collective and individual separation from evil. You've chosen to focus on the non-confrontational choices and values that we have -- non-confrontational in the sense that they're shaped by our desire to do our duty by loving God and keeping his commandments, as opposed to a resistance of evil. But Mormons consider themselves distinctly apart from "the world," and in fact, continual discussion of what we are not plays as big a part (if not bigger) in defining our religio-social identity as discussion of what we are.

Resistance to the influences of the world is integral to a Mormon lifestyle, at multiple temporal scales and at multiple social scales. On the small scale (cf. the story of Kyle), there are daily temptations to be avoided: Kyle won't go see an R-rated movie with his co-workers, and may endure a bit of ribbing as a result. He won't drink, smoke, indulge in a daily cup of joe, swear or tell off-colored jokes; he'll resist some fashion trends by dressing modestly (even if it means that he's hot), and will probably shave every day. He'll avoid music with explicit lyrics, and shun magazines populated with scantily clad women. Instead, he'll try to fill his life with things that are "praiseworthy, and of good report."

A lot of ideological resistance will shape his interactions. He may not be happy for his friends when they excitedly tell him that they've moved in together. He will probably resist the idea of evolution primarily on the basis of faith (not knowing exactly what to posit in its place), which may be a difficult position to defend to those around him.

There are life-choices: Kyle will be convinced of the importance of family, and may choose a career path which frees up time to spend with them -- even if that means that he ends up at a lower standard of living than he would have otherwise been capable of. Kyle may choose not to do any work on the Sabbath, which will cause him a variety of problems -- ranging from not doing homework, to missing a day of a professional conference, to declining a promotion which entails a different schedule. He will categorically reject a life devoted to the pursuit of money, instead focusing on "building the kingdom." As a result, he will have to either a) rely on the blessings of God to be competitive in a world where an unbalanced focus on career is the norm, or b) operate beneath full capacity, simply because he has prioritized other things.

He will resist at larger social scales as well. A Mormon's political stance will be strongly influenced by their faith, and will likely have a conservative bent shaped by resistance to liberalism. A Mormon business will (hopefully!) resist legal-but-unethical practices, even if they're "industry standard." And Mormons may band together to limit pornography in a local store, ask for some almost-explicit ads in a mall to be removed, or just try to cover up the covers of some magazines in the local supermarket checkout line.

Because of all of that, Mormons will always seem just a little peculiar, never quite fitting in -- but that's ok, because we believe that we are strangers and wanderers in a world that's all wrong, but which serves as a stepping stone to everlastingly more glorious things.