Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Perfect Day

Every so often, on rare and memorable occasions, life hands out perfect days. These are days to savor, days that leave an imprint on our souls. I experienced the gift of one such day recently.  A number of years ago, two dear friends and I hatched up a Mothers’ Day plan while pushing baby joggers up steep Vermont hills on our ritual morning walk. What better way to celebrate motherhood, we posited, than by escaping responsibility for a day? So we ran away to Montreal for Mothers’ Day weekend, returning for Sunday’s bounty of cards and hugs and food cooked by hands other than our own.

When I left the Vermont hills for Midwestern cornfields, I brought the tradition with me and have sporadically lassoed various friends into my annual escape. This year, Mothers’ Day Saturday dawned brilliantly sunny and pleasantly warm. Four of us passed the two-hour drive to St. Louis switching comfortably between the trivial and the profound with ease born of long friendship and shared experience.

"The Washerwomen of Breton Coast," painting by Jules Breton
We stopped first at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM), drawn by the traveling exhibit: Impressionist France. Through the lens of Charles Marville and the brushes of Claude Monet, Jean-Francois Millet, Edouard Manet and their compatriots, we toured Paris and the French countryside, 19th century factories and the coastline. The washerwomen of Jules Breton struck a particular chord, goddesses in bare feet and white caps.

Leaving the stately columns of SLAM, we headed to 39th Street and Sweet Art, a neighborhood café, bakeshop and art studio owned by baker Reine Bayoc and her artist husband Cbabi Bayoc. While indulging in vegan eats and not quite so vegan but oh so amazing pastries, we discovered Cbabi’s “365 Days with Dad,” a project of 365 paintings celebrating black fatherhood. His paintings are worlds apart from Jules Breton but equally powerful in their own sphere.

Still munching vegan brownies, salted caramel bars and hummingbird cake, we made our way downtown to a fantastic production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph and his brothers delivered, as did the opulent Fox Theater.

Once back in the sunshine, we wandered for a time, drunk on summery air and the wonder of a few hours without schedules and demands. We stopped first at St. Francis Xavier College Church, pausing to meditate in the hush of intricate stained glass and worshippers waiting for their turn at confession. Around the corner, on the campus of Saint Louis University, we found a delightful collection of sculptures, a perfect picnic spot tucked among perennials, and a couple of stately stone lions watching over the Moolah Temple.

We rounded out our adventure under the tutelage of Mai Truong, the chatty founder of the OR Smoothie & Café in the Central West End. Sipping power smoothies and munching Vietnamese spring rolls, we reflected on a glorious day in the middle of lives that, for all of their twists and turns, have treated us remarkably well.

My grandfather loved the song "A Perfect Day," by Carrie Jacobs-Bond. "When you come to the end of a perfect day," she wrote, "and you sit alone with your thought, ...mem'ry has painted this perfect day with colors that never fade, and we find at the end of a perfect day the soul of a friend we've made." Ms. Jacobs-Bond wrote those lyrics 100 years ago after watching a magnificent sunset at the close of a glorious day spent motoring with friends. I think perhaps I know just what she was thinking that evening.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Not Just Good, But True

I belong to a church that claims to be the true church of Jesus Christ, restored by God Himself in modern times. This is a bold claim, to be sure, a sometimes unpopular claim in Christian circles. In a religious environment where the trend favors an “all paths lead to God” philosophy, the notion of a single path seems exclusive, restrictive.

Recently, I broke my usual rule of avoiding blogs that blast the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). I find such blogs and the accompanying comments divisive, contentious and frankly painful to read. However, someone I respect posted a link to a blog, and I took the bait. At the end of the essay, I found a comment that has caused me to ponder. Presumably defending the LDS (or Mormon) faith, the commenter wrote the following:

“I think a very large problem people have is judging a religion by trying to determine if it is "true." It's just not what religion is about. Good inclusive and loving religion is about goodness, not about truth. It's easy to disprove any religion technically - or any other superstition. Rejecting Mormonism by finding it untrue is silly. Judge it for its goodness. No religion is "true." Religions vary a great deal in how good they are, and Mormonism is one of the very best.”

Religion isn’t about truth? Really? If religion isn’t about truth, then what, exactly, is the purpose of religion? I can join a club or a social movement if I need an organization to help me to do good, effect positive change in the world. But I want something more powerful than that. I want the power that comes with having faith in something absolutely unshakeable, something greater than the universe, something beyond human control. I want truth.

I realize, in my quest for truth, that I will have to sacrifice to obtain it. I may have to sacrifice the comfort of personal habit or public opinion. I expect to work and find myself pushed to my limits occasionally, because I have never had a truly amazing moment of clarity and beauty that came without sweat or tears. In fact, the LDS prophet Joseph Smith once taught that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”

While Joseph Smith may not resonate with everyone, the concept that the worthwhile things of life require sacrifice certainly seems to resonate with people of all cultures and persuasions. Interestingly, as our modern culture moves away from organized religion, we seem to create our own sacrifices to replace those formerly imposed by the religions we shun. Record numbers of athletes run marathons and ultra marathons each year. Fitness enthusiasts from teenagers to grandmothers groan under the strain of a daily crossfit workout. We eat bitter kale and forego gluten and sugar and meat (which makes the WholeFoods skit by Studio C particularly hilarious). We sacrifice our families and our joy to devote most of our waking hours to our careers. We search and search and search…for truth, though we may phrase it differently.

So I will be bold and declare my search for absolute truth. I believe I have found the avenue (or perhaps the container) for that truth in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, not because the LDS church sets itself apart and closes its doors against the tenets of other faiths or the discoveries of science or academia, but precisely because the gospel encompasses and accepts all truth. The grandfather of LDS apostle Henry B. Eyring once told his son, “…in this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true. You go over to the University of Arizona and learn everything you can, and whatever is true is part of the gospel.” I have always loved that quote and have let it inform my life.

Another concept that I find critical in my search for truth and God is the notion that truth comes to me when I act, whether that action involves serving others, enduring with grace or wrestling through to the solution of a spiritual conundrum. Eugene England, an LDS intellectual, once wrote an essay called “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel,” an essay that has proved pivotal for me in how I approach my religious life.

In the essay, Mr. England points out that “the (LDS) Church is as ‘true,’ as effective, as sure an instrument of salvation as the system of doctrines we call the gospel-and that that is so in good part because of the very flaws, human exasperations, and historical problems that occasionally give us all some anguish.” We all experience the frustrations of imperfect leaders, doctrines that may clash with our comfortable existence or with each other, or opportunities to serve with those who may drive us to the point of insanity with their habits or prejudices. But as we seek divine guidance in working through these exasperations, and as we act rather than grumble (or even act while grumbling, sometimes), we eventually push through to astonishing vistas of truth that we could not have understood without the struggle. We come to know Jesus Christ by walking in His footsteps for a time.

Yes, religion should be loving and inclusive, should inspire goodness in the community it serves. And if a religion is to truly save souls and offer the riches of eternity, it should also be true.