Sunday, July 21, 2013

Spirit Prison

Today our Sunday School lesson focused on the doctrine of vicarious ordinance work and "redeeming our dead." After introducing the LDS doctrine of "Spirit Prison," our Sunday School teacher posed a question: "Are those who are in Spirit Prison all there because they are bad people?"

The answer was: No.

Many of those who are in Spirit Prison are there because they have not yet received the saving ordinances that need to be performed on their behalf by those of us who have bodies. He used a particular turn of phrase that struck me forcefully: "They are locked in there until someone unlocks the doors for them."

In that moment, I opened my journal and wrote: "I am in Spirit Prison."

*****

I know lots of Latter-day Saints would respond, "Of course you are not. You are excommunicated from the Church, but you have the power to rectify your own situation. All you need to do is leave your husband and go through the requisite repentance process, and then be re-baptized into the Church and have your priesthood and temple blessings restored. In fact, if you don't do this right now, knowing what you know and having the opportunity right before you, your opportunities in the next life will be greatly diminished. So repent and do it now!"

But the problem with that line of reasoning as I understand it is that my fullness of joy cannot possibly lie in "remain[ing] separately and singly" (D&C 132:17). Whatever I understand of "fulness of joy" I understand through my marriage with my husband.

The nature of that joy has become particularly poignant to me as we've begun to face the challenge of my husband's kidney disease together. I've realized there is something powerful and visceral within me that is willing to put everything on the line to fight for his life. I understand that to be "one flesh" with someone is much more than about having sex with someone. It is about having your life entirely intertwined with the life of another human being; to know that your whole welfare, temporal and eternal, is tied up in him.

To tell me that my only way out of hell is to leave my husband, is not showing me any way out of hell at all. It is only to point out to me what I understood most clearly in Sunday School this morning: that I am in Spirit Prison, and that I cannot get out on my own. Somebody else has to unlock the doors for me.

*****

It could be viewed as a cruel doctrine, this notion that the spirits of our ancestors languish in prison until we do the work to free them. Of course the early Saints did not see it as cruel at all. To the contrary, they saw it as compassionate and enlightened compared to the doctrine it replaced: the doctrine that all of those who died without baptism were banished to eternal hell. To the Saints, the doctrine of vicarious ordinance work was proof of God's justice and mercy.

Yet, the doctrine puts the responsibility for saving the dead squarely in the hands of lazy, egotistical, and imperfect humans. Is that actually a mercy after all?

Many Latter-day Saints have heard stories in Church of members who were contacted by dead ancestors or family members, through a dream or through some other miraculous parting of the veil. Their ancestors often contact them to remind them of their responsibility. 

I had an experience of this nature myself in February 2008. I awoke in the middle of the night, and sat up in bed. As I sat there, I saw quite clearly in the northwest corner of our bedroom a man. He had very dark skin, aquiline features, and wore clothing I recognized as African style clothing. He gestured to me, and then he vanished.

This encounter did not frighten me. Quite to the contrary, I was filled with tremendous peace and a sense of well being. This was not a dream. I was wide awake, sitting up in bed. I immediately got up out of bed and went downstairs to our living room. The feeling of peace and well-being lingered, and I got down on my knees and prayed for understanding about who this was and what this meant. And then the impression came very clearly to my mind that this was one of Göran's ancestors.

Another impression immediately came to my mind. We had recently attempted to make contact with Göran's biological father in Memphis, Tennessee by sending him a letter via registered mail. The letter had been returned to us unopened, and at that point we felt stuck. We weren't quite sure how to proceed. As I was praying to understand the meaning of the presence of the man in our room, it also came clear to me that we needed to try sending the letter again. The next morning, I spoke with Göran about it and told him it was urgent we try making contact with his father again.

It took us a few months to actually get around to doing it, but when we finally did, our second contact attempt succeeded. We finally met Göran's biological family for the first time in August of that same year.

There are a few things that intrigued me about this encounter. First of all, I thought it was interesting that Göran's ancestor chose to appear to me rather than Göran. Was that because, being a Latter-day Saint, he knew that I would understand the importance of making contact with Göran's family, both for the sake of the living as well as of the dead? But it also intrigued me that if Göran's ancestors were attempting to make contact with Göran, that they did so through his same-sex partner. Was that an acknowledgment that, on the other side of the veil, our relationship is recognized as having validity? Do Göran's dead ancestors see me as a part of the family?

Another interesting thing had to do with the timing. It was only later, in August 2008 when we finally met Göran's family in Memphis, that we learned that Göran's grandfather had passed away in January of that same year. Less than a month before the spiritual experience that prompted us to renew our efforts to find his biological family.

When we arrived in Memphis, I had a notebook with me at all times, and a copy of "Mac Family Tree" installed on my computer. By the end of our visit, I had assembled a family tree with about 350 names in it.

Whenever I hear lessons of the nature we heard in Sunday School today, I feel a bit guilty. It's been a while since I've worked on Göran's genealogy. And it bothers me that even if Göran and his family were agreeable, we couldn't do vicarious ordinance work for them because both Göran and I are barred from the temple.

Are Göran's progenitors gnashing their teeth right now over the uselessness of their descendents, including that white Mormon guy who married into the family?

But why speak to me in the first place if I'm so frickin' useless?

*****

I wept in Church today, during Sacrament meeting, particularly during the singing of this hymn:
Father in Heav'n, we do believe
The promise thou hast made;
Thy word with meekness we receive,
Just as thy Saints have said.
We now repent of all our sin
And come with broken heart,
And to thy covenant enter in
And choose the better part.

O Lord, accept us while we pray,
And all our sins forgive;
New life impart to us this day,
And bid the sinners live.

Humbly we take the sacrament
In Jesus' blessed name;
Let us receive thru covenant
The Spirit's heav'nly flame.
I don't know what to make of my current predicament. But what I do know is that my salvation is tied up with Göran's, and with his family's. I've had numerous other spiritual dreams and experiences that have confirmed that. So I can't be saved by divorcing him. This much I know.

But I also know that I'm waiting on the Church to unlock some door for me -- for us.

4 comments:

GeckoMan said...

John,
Thank you for sharing your insights, they have caused me to pause and think about your predicament, as well as realize how easily I take certain things for granted.

Today we sang the same sacrament hymn in our meeting this morning! These words are indeed rich with the yearnings of our hearts, reflecting the purpose and intent of our spiritual journey and the continuing need we have for renewal by the Spirit.

I look upon your current status in the church not as one in Spirit Prison, but rather in 'Spirit Detention'!! You are a student sent off to another room by the principal (maybe because he doesn't know what to do with you), and denied certain privileges, but still a promising student that will graduate some day. Meanwhile, I see you dutifully doing your homework, and learning valuable lessons that may not be apparent to the masses out enjoying the playground.

You might also consider that after mortal death and until we are resurrected with glorified bodies, all men and women remain in a type of spirit prison. Who we are in mind and spirit, as well as by grace and faith, will determine the final outcome.

I wish it were not so, that you cannot at this time have access to priesthood ordinances, but I firmly believe that Heavenly Father and Mother will compensate, worlds without end. In my mind, you are the Nelson Mandela of the LDS Church! I love you, brother.

LCannon said...

Here's hoping the doors unlock soon

the Garden Mom said...

oh my gosh! this experience is amazing.

I strongly believe that you and your partner, as well as others in your situation, are absolutely doing the right thing and are in the path God provided for you. You are sharing with and caring about one another for the duration of this life and beyond.

I also strongly believe that the “prison” you and your partner are experiencing WILL be unlocked by God—hopefully in this life, but for sure in the hereafter.

Perhaps the Lord will inspire his leaders to actually DIRECTLY ASK the question of Him; “Is it permissible to change what has been done in the past for this population?”

Better yet, create a plan with a list of ideas intended to embrace the gay population in general, and give ordinance privileges if they are in a committed relationship, (like all us heterosexuals)—and present it to the Lord, saying, “If this is not right, tell us…” (sort of a “negative revelation”, like what was done for the blacks getting the Priesthood…)

J G-W said...

Thanks, GeckoMan, LCannon and Garden Mom!

I think one of the most important things faithful Saints can do is pray for those of us in this situation!