Friday, January 22, 2010

Love and Loneliness in the Christ-Centered Life

When Christ said: "I was hungry and you fed me," he didn't mean only the hunger for bread and for food; he also meant the hunger to be loved. Jesus himself experienced this loneliness. He came amongst his own and his own received him not, and it hurt him then and it has kept on hurting him. The same hunger, the same loneliness, the same having no one to be accepted by and to be loved and wanted by. Every human being in that case resembles Christ in his loneliness; and that is the hardest part, that's real hunger.

- Mother Theresa

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.

- Thomas Wolfe

That there is within all of us a hunger to be loved is a more or less universally accepted fact. Babies who are not touched, held, caressed, will wither and die. Children who are not shown affection will as a rule grow to be twisted mockeries of humanity. Adults who do not belong to some kind of community - whether it be a social group, a religious organization, or the most basic community of all, marriage - inevitably turn into themselves and become either mindless hedonists who live for the swiftly fleeting pleasures of the flesh, or plunge into depression.

But I wonder... is it really the need for love that we crave in our innermost selves, or the need for understanding? For loneliness is rarely cured by mere love - that is to say, a beggar on the street may be shown the charity of a passer-by who casts coins at his feet, but will the loneliness of that beggar's existence be cured? Doubtful. Sit with that man, however, and speak to him long enough to understand him, and that beggar will now carry within himself the knowledge that there is someone who is out there who knows him.

Such knowledge is the ultimate key to our salvation, as is shown by D&C 39:23:

And again, it shall come to pass that on as many as ye shall baptize with water, ye shall lay your hands, and they shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and shall be looking forth for the signs of my coming, and shall know me.

And again, in D&C 84:98, when the Prophet was speaking to a group of elders who had recently returned from their missions, he spoke to them of the essential terms and conditions of the return of Christ:

[Plagues and catastrophes shall be visited upon the world] Until all shall know me [Christ], who remain, even from the least unto the greatest, and shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, and shall see eye to eye, and shall lift up their voice, and with the voice together sing this new song...

And so this knowledge of Christ, this understanding of Him, becomes not only central to His return, but to our own Salvation.

But to return to the opening theme of this essay: of loneliness. How can we have knowledge of something in the way that Christ speaks of? Oddly enough, I came to the realization that I was doomed to loneliness after I had been married for some years.

This is not a reflection on my wife, whose goodness is unparalleled, but rather a mere recognition of the fact that this was the one person who had come to know me better than any other. To know my great works, and my moments of weakness; to know my sunlights and my shadows.

And yet...

And yet...

Still there were (and are) things about me that she does not know; that she never can know, either because I am unwilling to share them (who among us does not have some secret that they fear will make them unlovable to those around them), or - more often - because I am simply incapable of conveying to her the feelings that I am experiencing or have experienced. Years and years can be spent discussing one's worst day, or one's best moment, without scratching the surface of the actual feelings of that time.

Nephi spoke of this when he mentioned that mortal words could not capture some of the things that he had been shown - that he had felt - when in communion with God. And it is also the same with us, for we are children of God, and so have the power within us to experience emotions so great and so terrible that words fail, we are left powerless to communicate the experience to another human being...

And so we find ourselves, in a word, alone.

And then, being alone, we find ourselves lost. Because none of us can find our way in this life or to the next without a guide. We learn this in the scriptures, in the Temple, in the very structure of the Priesthood and the Patriarchal orders through which we learn and grow... and in which there is always someone above us, showing us the path that lies ahead, and helping us thereby to pass through the brambles and thistles of sin and temptation unscathed... or as unscathed as we are willing to be.

But still there is that hidden part, that secret part that lies within all of us. Be it because of sin that we fear to share, or righteousness that we cannot express, within each and every one of us is an area so vast and profound that it cannot be shown in any way to any other.

Save one.

And that, I think, is the true saving Grace of Christ. For only through His Spirit can we truly understand, not merely Him, but one another. Only when communing with the spirit can I truly commune with my wife. Only when a Bishop listens to the promptings of the Holy Ghost can he be inspired to understand the ailments of a contrite sinner. Only when the Prophet himself hears the still small voice can he understand humanity's woes - and oh what a burden, to be responsible for lifting not only oneself, but the world - sufficiently to succor them.

Loneliness is the art of the devil. It is the natural effect of the fall of Adam, for what did Adam and Eve first feel when they left Eden? I doubt it was the cold and misery of the lone and dreary world into which they had been cast; rather, I suspect it was the separation from the Almighty, and the sudden knowledge that they no longer fully understood their partner. For when they walked in innocence, understanding was unnecessary. And when they then graduated to knowledge, such knowledge was insufficient to encapsulate all of the experiences that each one's partner had gone through.

We are, after all, of finite mind. So how could we hope to understand the infinite perambulations of even one other person, no matter how close that person may be to us?

My wife still surprises me (generally and most often in a good way).

I know that I still shock her from time to time (probably less often in a good way).

How may I know her?

How can she know me?

And with those questions comes the greater: how can I ever hope to know Christ? For as we have seen, without that knowledge, He will not return. Without that knowledge, I shall never sing the song of His redeeming grace. Without that knowledge, I will not be saved.

And the answer, as so often is the case with the Gospel, lies within the question.

How can I know Christ? Through His Grace. Through His Spirit and Atoning intervention.

It is interesting that the first thing that God did after creating Adam was to "breathe" life into him. The base of the word "breathe" is "inspire," as in "inspiration" which means not merely to take in air, but to take in knowledge and truth.

The key to Adam's first moment of life was understanding.

The key to our last moment of judgment will be the same.

The loneliness that plagues all of us is a human condition, a mortal frame, a temporal reality. But it does not - must not - be an eternal one. For in Christ we may find the same breath of life that inspired Adam. We may find understanding of our Lord, and in understanding Him, will be like Him. We will be saved. We will be loved.

And never again, will we be lonely.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

That we Might Have Joy... That we Might Have More

While reading scriptures with my wife the other night, I came across an interesting verse in the Doctrine and Covenants:

Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired. [D&C 7:8]

It was one of those scriptures that stops me from time to time: not so much because it says something overtly pleasant or instantly impactful, but more because it is like an itch that I suddenly can't scratch.

I have grown to recognize this as the Spirit's way of telling me to stop moving, slow down, and think on what has just passed before my eyes.

Accordingly, I re-read it:

Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.

In this scripture, the Savior is speaking to John and Peter. To John, he has just finished saying that he (John) will be granted his desire of tarrying until the Savior's return in power and grace. John would thereby become "as flaming fire and a ministering angel," to minister to the "heirs of salvation" until Christ's Second Coming.

And to Peter? The Lord had said that he, too, would be granted his desire: to live out his life, then return to Christ in Heaven.

It might be noted that at this point, I having paused, my wife immediately spoke up and said how much she would prefer John's blessing and wouldn't I love that, too. I responded "No way, I want to get to Heaven asap." "But," she responded, "think of how amazing it would be to live as John lives, to have that power and do that kind of work!" "Nope," I said. "Heaven. Now. Me."

I suppose this says a lot about her level of dedication to the Lord versus mine.

At any rate, while we were having this mini-discussion, I continued reading the verse in question over and over, and at last it struck me. The thing that had captured my attention on a spiritual level was the fact that Christ said that both men would have what they desired, and then gave a very specific reason for it, to wit:

... for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.

So they got what they wanted... because they liked it?

But no, not merely that, for we know that joy is beyond merely "liking" something. One of the definitions of the Oxford English Dictionary for joy is as follows:

A pleasurable state or condition; a state of happiness or felicity; esp. the perfect bliss or beatitude of heaven; hence, the place of bliss, paradise, heaven; = BLISS...[emphasis in original]

And bliss in that same tome is defined thus:

Mental, ethereal, spiritual; perfect joy or felicity, supreme delight; blessedness.

So joy becomes much more than a mere liking of something: it becomes an actual state of being, of blessedness, of perfection. But this then, raises an issue: if we must have joy to receive a blessing, and a blessing requires joy, which is some state of perfection, then how can we hope to have any blessings at all?

The answer comes in Romans 5:11:

And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

Joy comes through God through Jesus Christ. So let us now wrap back around to our original scripture, D&C 7:8:

Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.

Peter and John were promised that they would have the things they most craved; most sought after, because they had joy in those things. They had pleasure, they had blessing, they received a measure of atonement in pursuit of those things. Atonement, the process by which one is brought closer to God the Father, the means by which the gap between ourselves as doomed souls and the Lord as Perfect Man is bridged. We receive that which will bring us joy, which will bring us atonement, which will bring us closest to God.

This last has amazing ramifications. Many of us are aware of them peripherally, but when I really think about them, I am awestruck. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) is credited with the philosophy that "Everything happens for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds" (or at least with its precedent concepts; for a more thorough description of this philosopher's works, click here). Modern philosophers and scholars have serious problems with this, the easiest and most wide-spread being that this cannot possibly be the case: if this is the best possible world, then a) God is constrained somehow, and b) we have the small problem of the evil clearly rampant in our world... how to explain it?

But those explanations are easily supplied when one considers that only those things are given to us which will provide to us the opportunity of atonement. For some this may mean an angelic visitation while on the road to sin or at least serious misunderstanding in the name of righteousness, as was the case with Alma the younger and Paul/Saul of Tarsus, respectively. Both of them were struck down by their heavenly visitor. Both of them underwent change that brought them closer to Christ. Both of them thereby received a measure of atonement.

Others, however, would not react so well to such visitors; they might require the humbling experience of a congenital disease, of a loss in income, of a tragedy caused by the "evil" actions of others. That there is evil is not denied, nor is it contradicted by the axiom that everything does happen for the best, if one interprets that not as meaning that we will be granted our every whim (I have yet to be covered in gold and discover a recipe for no-calorie chocolate), but as meaning that at every single moment of our lives the Lord stands ready to accept us and willing to aid us in our walk to him, then surely there could be no better world. For a world where the infinite joy - and there it is again - of eternal life at our Father's side is always a possibility that we may take advantage of - is indeed the best of all possible worlds. For what better world could there be, than one which leads to Paradise for anyone who wishes to go there?

And as for the rest, for those who do not make the requisite choices to achieve atonement - not only in this life, but in the life hereafter, for as we know there shall be at least some post-mortal activity and corresponding judgment for many - then it can be argued that this is still the best possible world for them. For in choosing not to be close to the Lord, they are demonstrating that they have not joy in His presence. Indeed, Joseph Smith made quite clear in his writings that to the wicked the glory of Heaven would be as destroying fire. So the level of atonement - that is to say, the relative closeness of that person to the bliss of the Lord - is what they are most comfortable with, and where they will find the greatest measure of joy.

How, then, may we find our desires fulfilled?

Simply? By making sure our desires are those of the Lord. And this does not mean that we must restrict our desires to hoping that the orphans are cared for and the widows given shelter (though this should be part of what we want). We can also desire our own personal spiritual, physical, financial, social, and emotional well-being. And this is not selfishness: the Lord desires to give us all things in the end; to make us co-heirs with Christ and recipients of all he possesses. Will He begrudge us a desire to get a raise of a few dollars at work (or to have work at all in these trying times), when in the end He intends to impart to us all the riches of the universe? Such a concept makes no sense.


The caveat is always that the desire must line up with the righteousness of the Lord. May I desire to be a millionaire and sincerely do so with the hope that I may help others and provide that money to prepare the world for the Second Coming of the Savior? Yes. And will that righteous desire be given? Absolutely. Either that or the Lord will communicate that such a desire will in fact have unforeseen side effects (He sees farther than we do, after all), and that we should shift our focus elsewhere. Either way, we will receive what we desire, because we have joy - a measure of atonement - in that desire.

May we reasonably expect the millions to flow from God's grace and bounty so that we may provide ourselves with a big-screen TV and a house upon a hill? The converse answer to the above: no. Unless this will be the best course that God sees to bring us as close as possible (i.e., as close as we will permit) to Him.

We must find joy in our desires. We must desire atonement from our wishes. And when our wishes align with the avenue that will lead us closest to God, then, like Peter and like Paul, our desires will - must - be fulfilled.