Spiritual Journeys

The more I tune in to the source of my own being…, the more anger, sorrow, and fear seem confined to the shallows of my personality, while my true self — and yours, and that of every being — is like a sea whose depths are always tranquil, however troubled the surface may become. Pain reminds me to return to the deep, calm, gentle sea, so that I find myself crying because I’m happy, and because I’m sad, but never because I’m in despair. Once you’re sure that God is waiting in the acceptance of every true thing, even pain, I’m not sure despair is even possible. —Martha Beck, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, page 303 (hardcover edition)

During my recent visit to Utah, I purchased a book I had been hearing about for a while: Martha Beck’s controversial memoir, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith. I was about half-way through it by the time I was jetting home to Pittsburgh (feeling a little self-conscious about revealing the spine to any passers-by in the Salt Lake City airport), and it took me a while to finish once I got home, what with all the busyness that greeted me on this side of the continent. During our afternoon in Park City, I purchased a copy for Lana; so many of the insights I was reading — and reading aloud, to her — were eerie echoes of observations she had already made to me about life in Utah Valley, either in person or via her blog.

There is a lot to say about this book, which I may or may not address some other time. I found it a fascinating, entertaining and disturbing read. For those unfamiliar with the book, here is an excerpt of the summary published at amazon.com:

When graduate student Martha Beck’s son Adam was born with Down syndrome, she and her husband left the chilly halls of Harvard for Utah and the warm, accepting embrace of the Mormon community. Determined to assimilate back into her childhood faith after years of atheism, Beck’s disenchantment resurfaced when censorship from the church heavily influenced the curriculum at Brigham Young University where she taught part-time. More disturbing was Beck’s eventual belief that her father, a virtual celebrity in the Mormon Church, had sexually molested her as a child.

My own interest in Utah and Mormons started a long time ago. I was nine years old when I “fell in love” with Donny Osmond, who was then exactly twice my age. At 8 p.m. every Friday night, I faithfully parked myself (and my clunky tape recorder) in front of our remote-control-less TV set to watch the Donny & Marie show. (During the pre-VCR era of the mid- to late-1970s, I was resourceful!) Often, my friend Lisa — and her tape recorder — were parked right there beside me. And my younger brothers can tell you about the ban on conversation during those hour-long variety shows, lest my recordings be polluted by their commentary. Instead, they were polluted by every loud “SHHH” I uttered each time someone in the room dared to cough, sneeze or — heaven forbid — speak.

Anyway, back to Utah and Mormons.

Any true blue Osmond fan who read as many issues of Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine as I did knew full well that Donny was a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and his future wife would be one, too. My pre-adolescent brain reasoned that Mormonism couldn’t be much different than Presbyterianism. I would happily convert, should Donny propose to me.

Of course, this never became an issue. In true Mormon tradition, Donny got married at age 20, breaking many young hearts. I was disappointed, but not heartbroken. Let’s face it: I was only 11 years old. I heard somewhere that many of the fans who were deeply disappointed by Donny’s marriage, and by the marriages of his many brothers, had actually converted to Mormonism. Donny and his singing brothers and sister may have never embarked on the traditional two-year mission that most young men in the LDS church serve, but they did reach thousands with their own testimonies. (For the record, I’m still worshipping in a Presbyterian congregation.)

By the time I started junior high, I was embarrassed to admit my earlier crush on Donny. I didn’t give much thought to him or his religion for many years. It wasn’t until 1993, when I took a CCO Spring Institute class in “cults and alternative religions” taught by Dr. Ruth Tucker, that I discovered what Mormons actually believe. My immersion in orthodox Christian theology gave me an actual framework through which to view the doctrines and legalisms of the LDS church. Spending almost a week in Mormon country last month has added new dimensions of understanding and insight, as has reading Martha Beck’s memoir, dismissed as fiction by many faithful Mormons.

I’ll let any interested parties pick up this book or read the many online reviews (positive and negative, from both LDS members and “Gentiles” alike) for themselves. After finishing the book, I’m curious about how Martha Beck would describe the faith she ultimately “found” after leaving the LDS church. She’s not very specific about it — by design, I suspect — but it certainly seems to be a more grace-filled spirituality than what she left behind.

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