Friday, February 01, 2008

my thoughts on a great man who lived an exceptional life

I have a complex relationship with God, faith and religion. There are many things I don't understand, specifically how and where this trio of God, faith and religion intersects which leaves me with doubts, questions and often a sense of being on the outside looking in. But under the questions and sometimes lost in the confusion there are a few things I know with certainty. Things I cannot and would not deny.

One of those things is that Gordon B. Hinckley was a man of God and a living prophet. He was a remarkable leader of my church and as has been said over and over he was a man who charmed you into loving him even if you never had the opportunity to be in his physical presence. It is difficult to use the past tense as I write this as the reality of his death has not managed to register with me as of yet. Within hours of his death last Sunday evening I received several text messages passing along the news. It was late and I had spent most of the day on my couch fending off the tail end of my cold and babying my tender head lest it explode. I was numb and didn't feel ready to examine how this man I never knew has touched my life.

On Monday I read blog after blog filled with touching encounters and simple quotes. Each shared personal experience deepened my desire to sort out for myself how I feel about this man and what kind of legacy he would leave behind for me personally. Monday night my home teachers came to visit and naturally President Hinckley's death dominated our 30 minute discussion. My home teacher (who is incidentally the stake president* for my stake and was my bishop for several years ago) and his son shared some of their personal experiences with meeting and interacting with the prophet and I shared my brief encounters and it was amazing how similar we each felt in President Hinckley's presence with our very divergent experiences.

Perhaps solely for my own personal history and so I don't forget, please indulge me while I delve into the spiritual side I rarely expose for public viewing and take a moment to describe how this man touched my life by relaying the salient intersections when he crossed my path most prominently.

[Note: please forgive the meandering and seemingly unrelated and unnecessary details included, they flooded back with the rest so I've chosen to leave this as it came out, slightly stream of consciousness]

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After (and while) I went through my divorce, I became mired in a crisis of faith. A true crisis. I was young and broken in so many ways. I was flailing around for answers and only encountering further questions. I turned away from God and then I somehow managed to turn back to Him again with a great deal of help from family and friends. During this crisis I was also attempting to finish college, sort out a complex relationship and plan the rest of my life. At one point I asked my bishop to send me on a mission in a desperate attempt to escape the adversity I was currently facing. He was a smart man and recognized my motives and my desire to hide in a foreign country and put me off and instead encouraged me to pursue my goal of applying to law school. In my somewhat hazy memory of that time in my life, I believe I took the LSAT on the same weekend as General Conference.** While I was entirely focused on going to law school, I was less than a year removed from my divorce, a few months post-college graduation and within a month or so of yet another heart break. I was a social recluse living with my parents at 22 questioning God, love and what in the world I would do with the rest of my life and I had no idea how I performed on the test that would make or break my law school possibilities and I was filled with doubts about whether I had a realistic shot at getting in to law school.

That night I ended up alone in the family room after my parents rushed off somewhere leaving the tv on broadcasting the male-only Priesthood session to me alone eating my dinner. I am not sure why I left the tv on - whether I was really interested in the talks or I was too lazy to change the channel I do not know. What I do know is President Hinckley spoke directly to me that night. Buried at the end of that talk he said:
There seems to be growing in the Church an idea that all young women as well as all young men should go on missions. We need some young women. . . . I confess that I have two granddaughters on missions. [sidenote, I was later friends with one of those granddaughters and years later we once spoke about how she remembered this talk for a very different reason than I did!] . . . Now, having made that confession, I wish to say that the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve are united in saying to our young sisters that they are not under obligation to go on missions. I hope I can say what I have to say in a way that will not be offensive to anyone. Young women should not feel that they have a duty comparable to that of young men. Some of them will very much wish to go. If so, they should counsel with their bishop as well as their parents.
This perked my ears as I was wondering whether I had made some horrible mistake by getting married and divorced so young and missed something I was supposed to do. Specifically whether I had ruined the path I was supposed to pursue and that was a mission. Plus I was not entirely sure whether I was supposed to go to law school, even though I knew I wanted to. Now here is where my memory and the written text of this particular talk do not match up. After reassuring young women generally - and me specifically - they were not required to serve missions, in my head, President Hinckley further explained the importance of women gaining an education. For years I tied that admonition to this talk and was confused when I pulled up the text only to discover this second instruction was perhaps spoken only to me to confirm the direction I needed to go in at that moment because it was absent. As premised above, there are some limited things I do not doubt and the memory of President Hinckley telling me to focus on an education is one.

There was one more component of that talk that lives in my memory that was in the written version: "Now, that may appear to be something of a strange thing to say in priesthood meeting [where there are no young women contemplating missions]. I say it here because I do not know where else to say it." And when he said those words I knew why he had said it there and then - for me accidentally happening upon a television that someone forgot to turn off so I could be reassured that I was heading in the right direction.

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A few months before that day, while I was still toiling through the end of undergrad, balancing work and a challenging boyfriend, my Uncle Lowell passed away. Uncle Lowell is my mother's uncle making him my great uncle. He was a General Authority and had lived in exotic locations such as South Africa, Hong Kong, various South Pacific islands and Australia while serving as a mission president and then a Seventy.*** Since I was very young I was fascinated by their life and felt a special attachment to his wife, my Grandpa's sister Aunt Lorna. While living in Hong Kong she began collecting fresh water pearls and learned how to make beautiful necklaces. During that same time frame I was in high school and enjoyed making necklaces out of cheap plastic beads. One Sunday when they were in town my mother and I spent an afternoon with them at their apartment in downtown Salt Lake and Aunt Lorna, after learning about my hippy beading, taught me how to make pearl necklaces and gave me a large ziplock bag of odds and ends pearls to play with. They were beautiful and I still treasure a couple of those necklaces I made (even though one was made for my wedding).

Uncle Lowell's death was unexpected and premature. I did not hesitate in my decision to forgo classes and take some time off work to attend his funeral. Since he was a General Authority I suppose I knew or should have known and perhaps others speculated about whether the Prophet would be in attendance but I was not entirely prepared. Before the service started we were able to join the large extended family in the relief society room for a family prayer prior to entering the overflowing chapel. I felt conspicuous and out of place walking into the chapel behind my parents, my mother's many siblings, her parents, Aunt Lorna and all her children and grandchildren with everyone standing all around us as we walked to the front few pews (I'm sure we filled 5 or 6 rows total). On the stand was the entire Quorum of 12 Apostles and the First Presidency, most notably President Hinckley, all standing as the family filled the front pews. When everyone was seated I realized I was in his direct line of vision and throughout the service I felt as if he was looking directly at me. I know he spoke but I don't remember anything he or anyone else said that day. What I do remember was the prophet's serene gaze that pierced into my heart and seemed to recognize me and love me individually. I felt he knew all my sins and flaws in a time when I felt full of both, yet in that gaze he seemed to forgive me on the spot. It was intimidating and peaceful all at once. He was searching my tattered soul and still loved and accepted me.

As we filed out of the chapel that day I had the opportunity to shake his frail hand and was too intimidated to say anything to him but was once again overwhelmed by the pure love that seemed to flow from him and radiated from his countenance.

Perhaps it was that moment alone that caused me to listen to him months later tell me it was ok that I didn't go on a mission and that I needed to pursue an education. Considering he once wrote the following in his book Standing for Something, this admonition to gain an education wasn't such a stretch for me to fill in: "It is not enough just to live, just to survive. It is incumbent on each of us to equip ourselves to do something worthwhile in society -- to acquire more and more light, so that our personal light can help illuminate a darkened world. And this is made possible through learning, through educating ourselves through progressing and growing in both mind and spirit." Everyone has a favorite quote and this is among mine. He was filled with more light than anyone I have ever met and gladly illuminated the world with it whenever possible.

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Years later, after I became acquainted with one of his vivacious granddaughters (with whom I have unfortunately lost contact since she married and we scattered to different states), I was able to get to know my prophet through the personal stories relayed by his grandchild. These simple, everyday stories only deepened my love for President Hinckley by making him real, attainable and perhaps approachable.

When my friend got married she had a largely attended wedding reception on the top floor of the Joseph Smith building. When I arrived the receiving line was excessively long and while I waited I overheard well-meaning friends of the family exchanging relieved comments over this daughter finally getting married at whatever old-maid-ish-mid-to-late-twenties age she had reached (I am a year older and am now about 4 years removed from that date) and patiently waited for my turn to briefly hug and greet the newly wedded couple.

When the line moved down the hallway toward the couple, I was offered a rare glimpse at an intimate moment between President Hinckley and his wife. When they first came into view they were greeting people, shaking hands and chatting amicably with admirers. Then they were left alone sitting on a love seat in a corner, holding hands and looking very content to be in attendance and to have a stolen moment to themselves. My initial instinct when I saw them alone was to abandon my spot in line in favor of shaking each of their hands. But the tenderness of a shrunken couple who had weathered so many years together stopped me. And instead, I locked the scene in my memory and reasoned I would greet them after my friends as others were doing. However, after I made my way through the line and back to that love seat, they were gone. I was disappointed that I had waited but also happy that I was able to witness that small example of time-tested affection from a distance and not intruded.

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I will miss President Hinckley's spark and verve and the way he would wave his hankie to people and the affection and compassion he had for all people. Even me on that day when I felt so lowly and not worthy of his compassionate eye. Although I will miss him, I do not mourn him. He lived 97 long, full years during which he did not just live, he did not just survive, he gathered enough light not only to illuminate a portion of my darkened world but the darkened world of nearly everyone he encountered throughout this world.


*individual congregations are organized into wards and several wards are organized into stakes. A bishop (akin to a priest, rabbi or pastor) leads a ward and a stake president presides over a stake (I have no analogies for this).
**General Conference is a biannual conference that is broadcast to every congregation in our church worldwide and is essentially ten hours of speakers spread out over two days in five sessions. The speakers are the leaders of our Church (the General Authorities) and other general auxiliary leaders.
***I have no way of explaining what this is other than a General Authority on the lower end of the hierarchy.

4 comments:

Tiffany said...

Alyssa, this was so fun to read. I share so many similar feelings and President Hinckley was a rare and special anchor in my faith. I will really miss him!

Kami said...

That was nice to learn about you. That is neat that you met him in person, he was an amazing man. Thanks for sharing your feelings.

P.S. I just learned your real name, thanks Tiffany! :)

Keith said...

Doctrine and Covenants 107:34
The Seventy are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Twelve or the traveling high council, in building up the church and regulating all the affairs of the same in all nations, first unto the Gentiles and then to the Jews.
....
I always thought of them as "traveling evangelists".

autumn said...

Beautiful thoughts, thank you.

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