Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wine and Fragrance

In response to my recent post The Role of Trust, boskers posed a series of questions relating to how we tell the difference between the Spirit and what could best be described as just run-of-the-mill "good feelings." I started to answer this question and then realized that this deserved a separate post of its own.

There's a text in the so-called Gnostic Gospel of Philip that I think provides a useful analogy. Here, the intimate relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit is described as a kind of marriage, the bond of that relationship being described as "spiritual love":
Spiritual love is wine and fragrance. All those who anoint themselves with it take pleasure in it. While those who are anointed are present, those nearby also profit (from the fragrance). If those anointed with ointment withdraw from them and leave, then those not anointed, who merely stand nearby, still remain in their bad odor.
This analogy is helpful to me, because it clearly distinguishes between the feelings that accompany the presence of the Spirit (the "fragrance") and the anointing of the Spirit (the "ointment" of "wine") which is the source of the feelings. This text also draws attention to the confusion often experienced by those who do not recognize the source of the Spirit's fragrance. All they know is that when those who have been anointed are gone, they can't "smell" it any more. The only aroma that remains is "their bad odor."

Members of the Church frequently describe the feelings of peace and joy they experience in the Spirit's presence. But those feelings are not the Spirit. I have experienced a range of very different feelings in the presence of the Spirit. When the Spirit spoke to me in August 2005 prompting me to begin the questioning that eventually led me back to the Church, I felt anger and dismay. But, yes, I also experienced the Spirit as a peaceful, comforting, beautiful presence. The complexity of feelings I experienced helped me to realize that the presence of the Spirit could evoke different feelings, depending on what the Spirit is telling you, and depending on how you relate to what the Spirit is telling you.

My feelings were complex, because on the one hand, I felt like in order to follow the prompting of the Spirit, it would require me to completely re-evaluate my life and completely change course. And that was very upsetting. But at the same time, the Spirit was there just saying, "It's OK. You can do it. Things will work out. Just trust and everything will be OK, and you will be happy beyond your ability to currently imagine." I received from the Spirit a foretaste of the peace that I would experience if I followed the path the Spirit was prompting me to follow. And so, yes, it was simultaneously very peaceful and comforting. The presence of the Spirit left me feeling so incredibly joyful too. I felt so incredibly happy, and realized that I always wanted to be in the Spirit's presence and always experience this profound, pure happiness.

I could not deny the reality of this experience, though believe me, I tried. There was part of me that was working very hard to dismiss the Spirit as "just a feeling." But in the deepest part of my soul, I couldn't deny the reality of it. I knew that if I did deny it, I would lose something so profound I would literally regret it for all eternity.

Boskers described how throughout his life in the Church, he never really had any extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit, never anything more than just a "this feels right" kind of feeling. This is not unusual; I think this is very typical of many, if not most, members of the Church. Though I had a number of extraordinary spiritual experiences growing up and serving my mission, most of the time my experience of the Spirit's presence was of this more mundane order, the "this feels right" kind of feelings. I never fully appreciated the nature of the Spirit until, having been away from it for so long I suddenly experienced its presence again in a gathering of Latter-day Saints. This is why the "wine and fragrance" analogy from the Gospel of Philip struck me so profoundly when I first read it a few years back.

I would say that during the periods of my life where the Spirit was absent, I didn't think of myself as an unhappy person, nor did I think of my life as devoid of meaning. I did my best to find happiness and meaning, and succeeded to varying degrees. I had many friends and good family relationships, and I had my husband. I was not lonely. But looking back I see clearly now how I was what I would now describe as "lonely" or "alone" in spirit.

Existential philosophers often describe the condition of man as a state of profound loneliness or aloneness. No matter how many friends or family you surround yourself with, human communication is imperfect, and we can never completely overcome the aloneness that is an existential consequence of the fact that we are separate individuals. I was alone in that sense. And experiencing the presence of the Spirit as I do now, I am no longer alone, and I know that I never again could be truly alone unless I willfully drove the Spirit out of my life. That I could never do. Now I know far too much ever to do that again.

I can look back now and say that I was happy, but true happiness eluded me. I found meaning, but true meaning eluded me. I was not lonely, and yet I was profoundly lonely. And I can say that the existentialists were right, but only partially. True communion with God and with others is possible. It is not only possible, but it is the end and purpose of our entire existence. It is the "joy" for which we were created, of which the scriptures say we are, that we might have it. But that true happiness, meaning and communion are possible only in the Spirit. Men and women in and of themselves, without the Spirit, are exactly what the existentialists describe us to be: lonely in our nature.

I presently am blessed in many ways, but the blessing that is most profound, without which all the other blessings would mean nothing to me, is the blessing of having the Spirit in my life again. I can feel its presence now very powerfully as I write this. But if there is a physical place where I can say that the Spirit's presence is most powerful, I would say it is every dedicated chapel and temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I can't go into the temple, but I love being on those grounds. I can go into my local ward meeting house, and I do as often as I can because I love being in the presence of others anointed in that fragrance of the Spirit, and because the channels of communication between me and the Spirit there are always clear and pure. The people of the Church are imperfect, sometimes painfully so. They can be ignorant. They can make mistakes. They can and have done and said things that have hurt me deeply. But the Latter-day Saints have the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is my testimony not only of the Gospel but the Church.

I have been to many other churches, and I have nothing bad to say about any of them. They are good, loving people. Many of them are far better people than many Latter-day Saints. In terms of their attitudes toward gay people and gay rights issues, some churches are far ahead of the LDS Church. The Spirit is at work with those people and in those churches, of this I have not the least doubt. But all I can say is I know where I feel the Spirit most powerfully and consistently, and it is at the LDS Church.

I know that the Latter-day Saints will come to understand and see homophobia for what it is. The Spirit will be their greatest asset in overcoming their own homophobia and in coming to fully embrace and love their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters because the Spirit -- and only the Spirit -- permits the kind of perfect communion between a gay brother or lesbian sister and his or her straight brothers and sisters. In that true and perfect communion we will all -- gay and straight -- find our purpose and happiness.

In the meantime, homophobia, like any other worldly, sinful attitude, will block that communion and be an impediment to the Spirit. Homophobia can be a form of pride (the pride of feeling you're somehow superior because you're attracted to the opposite sex, or the pity you feel for those who somehow aren't "like you"). It can be a form of hate (projecting all your anxieties about sexuality and sin on gay and lesbian people, blaming them for the downfall of civilizations and seeing them as "destroying the family"). The Spirit winks at our ignorance. But we can't hold on to those kinds of attitudes indefinitely and still keep the Spirit.

The possibility for perfect communion and understanding as regards this issue hangs -- for better or for worse -- on those Saints who are gay or lesbian. The opportunities and blessings, if we can find the courage and the patience to give love instead of hate, are incredible. We can be the light in the darkness.

But that is not just hard but impossible to do on our own. We need the Spirit in our lives. At some point -- as soon as we are ready! -- we need to make that fearless inventory of our lives, and push aside whatever obstacles are keeping us from the Spirit. And we need to ask for the Spirit, and then wait for it. If we do that, if we get grounded in the Spirit, we will know what we need to do, and we will find a spring of living water in our souls, flowing up and giving us all the love and patience and light that we need in order to do it.


Bravone said...

J G-W, Thank you for this post. The feelings expressed by Boskers and others have been weighing heavily on my mind for a few weeks now. Although I struggle with my own questions about certain aspects of the LDS Church, it breaks my heart that some feel compelled to leave because of lack of acceptance from members, family, or perceived lack of acceptance from God, disparity with doctrine and their natural desires, feeling that they can't measure up to others expectations, feeling the weight of 'needing' to be perfect, or questions of testimony.

I do, however, understand those feeling because I have felt them, and also left because of them. My testimony, while maybe not as strong as yours, comes, in part, from having abandoned my faith and then returning to it, and feeling the peace and joy of my association with saints.

My hope is that the Church will become the gospel hospital for all of us that it can be. All of us are spiritually wounded in some way. The Church offers a wonderful way to learn of and implement the healing gospel in our lives, but we must open our hearts to it, and do our part as you so well stated. "The possibility for perfect communion and understanding as regards this issue hangs -- for better or for worse -- on those Saints who are gay or lesbian. The opportunities and blessings, if we can find the courage and the patience to give love instead of hate, are incredible. We can be the light in the darkness."

Let's not abandon our faith out of doubt or frustration, but rather take the good we can from our association with the Church. I attend because of my need to worship, my need to be spiritually fed. What others think of me or my circumstances no longer concerns me.

J G-W said...

Bravone - Thanks so much for this... I'm not sure I'd say my testimony is "stronger" than yours; as I said, the proof of a testimony is always in lives lived, and yours seems pretty strong by that measure.

Our moments of doubt, our "apostasies" and failings are all a part of the journey. If we don't allow people their doubt and struggles, or if we in any way think that someone else's doubts somehow make them "less than" us or anyone else, we've missed something fundamental.

Getting home is the goal, and I have often had the sense that someday, a thousand years from now, we'll all look back on this and we will cherish every moment -- the good and the beautiful as well as the bad and the ugly. We'll recognize it all as precious for having been part of the way that brought us home to the everlasting embrace of the Eternal.

Bravone said...

J G-W, Thanks for the perspective in your response. One of the lessons I cherish most from my 'apostasy' is that Mormons don't hold the corner on goodness or truth. Most people are good and desire to do the right thing, to be good neighbors and citizens. Breaking away for a while allowed me to meet some really wonderful people that I wouldn't have otherwise associated with because I shed my previously distorted piety. I especially appreciate your comment about not thinking less of others because of their doubts. It is a necessary part of the process.

Good to be Free said...

J G-W, I've often wondered how you are able to reconcile statements such as this one from Elder Scott:

"Sexual immorality creates a barrier to the influence of the Holy Spirit with all its uplifting, enlightening, and empowering capabilities. It causes powerful physical and emotional stimulation. In time that creates an unquenchable appetite that drives the offender to ever more serious sin. It engenders selfishness and can produce aggressive acts such as brutality,abortion, sexual abuse, and violent crime. Such stimulation can lead to acts of homosexuality, and they are evil and absolutely wrong” (“Making the Right Choices,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 38)."

I think this may be a major stumbling block to those who pursue a same-sex relationship and wish to stay in the church. The church teaches that you can't have the influence of the spirit while engaging in homosexual acts.

Your experience seems to contradict this notion. Is this teaching by the prophets and apostles incorrect, or just misguided?

J G-W said...

GTBF - I think the general principle is true. A person who allows his or her life to be governed by sexual lust cannot have the Spirit. In order to have the Spirit, our lust must be "bridled," i.e., we must be in control of our passions, not our passions in control of us.

However, the idea that various forms of sexual sin "lead" to homosexuality is just demonstrably false. In fact, it seems contradicted by more recent statements of general authorities on the subject of homosexuality. To me that suggests that while Elder Scott is teaching a true principle here, some of the particulars of how he applies that principle may not be correct.

As you say, my experience also "seems to contradict this notion." I prefer not to draw overly broad conclusions from that. To say the teachings of Church leaders must therefore be "incorrect" or "misguided" to me sounds like saying that Church leaders have no teaching authority, and I prefer not to go there (though some do).

I have applied as many of the teachings of Church leaders as I can within the framework of a same-sex relationship, the same way I would apply them within the framework of a heterosexual relationship, and I've found the principles to work and have been blessed by them. So I'd prefer to affirm what is right in Elder Scott's statement -- namely that we must bridle our passions and be in control of our sexual desire if we wish to have the Spirit in our lives -- than argue with him about what I think is wrong in what he says as regards the specifics of homosexuality.

Or to state it differently, I have found in my own personal experience that sexual self-restraint and reservation of sexual expression for the context of a committed, loving relationship leads to greater spiritual sensitivity, while sexual excess and immorality dull spiritual sensitivity. My experience in that regard actually affirms Elder Scott's teaching of the general principle in question.

Good to be Free said...

I am in agreement that sexual immorality as defined as unbridled sexual excess is a sure way to dull spiritual sensitivity, if asked however, I believe that Elder Scott would include homosexual activity in the general classification of "immorality."

By his reasoning immorality, including homosexual acts, will decrease sensitivity to the spirit, he provides no exceptions (ie monogamous same-sex relationships) to this generalized rule. Your experience, however, directly refutes this concept.

It is my contention that examples such as yourself provide evidence that this rule cannot be applied to everyone.

Many young gay men fear the loss of the spirit even if they are willing to commit themselves to a monogamous same-sex relationship because that is what they have been told will happen. I am grateful to see evidence in your life to the contrary and I hope these young men will use your example to find greater spiritual fulfillment in whatever situation they find themselves.

I am also interested to know how you feel about the gift of the holy ghost as an excommunicated member. Do you feel as though you have "lost" the constant companionship that is promised as a blessing during confirmation?

Sorry for the personal questions. If you'd like you can respond by email, it is in my profile.

Andrew S said...

I am also interested to know how you feel about the gift of the holy ghost as an excommunicated member. Do you feel as though you have "lost" the constant companionship that is promised as a blessing during confirmation?

Yeah, this one *is* an interesting question...

Quiet Song said...

From Matthew Chapter 1: 22-27:

22) And, behold , a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying , Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil . 23) But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying , Send her away ; for she crieth after us. 24) But he answered and said , I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25) Then came she and worshipped him, saying , Lord, help me. 26) But he answered and said , It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. 27) And she said , Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. 28) Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt . And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

Quiet Song said...

Oops, make that chapter 15 (one five)!

J G-W said...

Quiet Song -- Thanks! That's a great answer to the question posed by GTBF and Andrew...

I would add this:

"For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" (Matthew 7: 8-11)

I need the Spirit in my life in order to be the kind of husband, father, son, brother, friend, neighbor(, Saint!) my Father in Heaven wants me to be... I have asked humbly for this gift, and it has been given me.

The above passage from Matthew is immediately followed, in verse 12 by perhaps the most famous commandment in all of scripture:

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets."

Note the "therefore" here, connecting this commandment directly to Christ's teaching about how our Father in Heaven willing grants us all good gifts for which we ask. Our Father in Heaven in unstinting in his kindness to us, therefore we should be the same to each other, treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

I don't see any clause in here excepting people on the basis of sexual orientation.