Quite a few of my friends have posted similar notes about what their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints means to them personally, and while I have always considered such a move to be both brave and admirable, I never thought I would write such a note. Religion to me is a private matter, and for most of my life I have thought that it's nobody's business what religion I am, and I should only bring it up when someone asks. This is, as it turns out, a very Hungarian attitude.
Apparently, I have been a little too private about this. The other day I posted a link to the blog I keep (mostly for myself) that chronicles my study of the Book of Mormon, and not too long after I received a message from a high school buddy that said:
"wait... you are mormon? since when?"
"Haha yeah. I've been Mormon since I was a kid. I was pretty under-the-radar about it in high school so it's not a huge surprise that you didn't know. I generally didn't mention it unless other people brought it up."
To which my friend responded thus:
"Ah that makes sense... I was half kidding, but I think you got my point (I did have no idea you were religious at all in highschool)
So how much of the (seemingly really silly) stuff that people *think* Mormons believe are common beliefs that Mormons actually have?
Example: Have you seen the Southpark episode?
Basically what I'm curious about is 'what does your religion mean to you personally? And what, if any, widespread misinformation would you like to see corrected?"
First of all, props to you, Owen, for not assuming that everything you heard about Mormons is true. I'm sure much of it isn't. Secondly, I must have started a thousand messages to you in my head attempting to summarize what being Mormon means to me, and none of them were even close to sufficient. So I am just going to ramble for a few thousand words, and anyone who is interested can skim through it. Trust me, it will be epic.
It's hard for me to explain my faith without explaining a little about my parents. I come from a very diverse family, faith-wise. My mother's side is deeply, stoically Catholic, and my mother was actually a nun for twenty years before she left the convent and got married in 1982. My father also hails from a traditional Catholic family, albeit a disillusioned one, but he became Hindu in the 70s and lived in an ashram in India. I am not making this up. My parents were married in a Catholic church despite my father's vehement protestations, and I consider my upbringing to be quasi-Hindu-Catholic. I meditated with my dad in the mornings, but said a traditional Catholic prayer every night before I went to sleep.
My mother is a scientist and a cynic, and perhaps because of her hesitation about religion, I became obsessed with it at a relatively young age. She was paid to be the choir director at St. Mary's when I was young, and I spent hours hanging out during choir practice amongst the statues of saints and avoiding the giant crucifix that hung at the front of the chapel. It disturbed me. Once, when I was about four, I told my mother that I had some questions for God, and I wanted her to help me write a song about them. She dutifully wrote down all of my questions as I dictated them. "What do your angels look like?" "Who made you?" are the only ones I can remember, but there were much more than that, about three minutes' worth. I sincerely believed that if my mom could get the choir to sing my song, then God would hear and answer my questions. My mom said that she would, but of course she never did.
My father taught me how to meditate and read me Hindu philosophy in lieu of a bedtime story when it was his turn to put me to bed. I hated the Hindu philosophy, by the way. It was boring. One morning as I meditated with him (I must have been about six because it was right before my little brother was born), my dad said he was going to teach me a new thing to do when we meditated. He said that instead of concentrating on nothing, like we usually did, we should try to talk to God and ask Him questions. I liked that, and I started doing it often. I later learned that my dad had been reading a great deal about Christianity, which had prompted this newfound interest in the Christian God, and that was how I learned to pray.
My dad and I searched for truth together, I guess. I have some memories of attending various Christian services with him, but none of them ever felt right. We would walk out of each one together, look at each other and shake our heads. I was about seven by then. My dad's best friend, my Godfather, is Mormon (although he was excommunicated when he went to prison for fraud 30 years ago) and he had given my dad some books about Mormon doctrine, so after some study my dad decided to take me to a Mormon service, to see what we thought.
I don't remember very much about my first time at a Mormon service except that it was very, very quiet, and the carpet was a deep, ugly orange. However, I do remember when the time came to take Communion (Mormons call it the Sacrament) I put a small chunk of Wonderbread in my mouth, and was overwhelmed by feelings of happiness. I couldn't make sense of my feelings, really, and for some weeks I thought they had put something in the bread. It's funny to me now that for quite some time the only reason I kept coming back to church for because of the magic bread that gave me such a good feeling.
All religions, I think, have a name for the positive feelings through which God communicates with His children. Most Christians call it the workings of the Holy Spirit, or something akin to that. That term is good enough for me.
After some time, my dad was baptized Mormon, and not long after this I turned eight. Mormons baptize at the age of eight rather than at birth, subscribing to the idea that one who gets baptized ought to be old enough to choose to do so. I felt a strong, personal connection to the things I had learned at the Mormon church, and very much wanted to be baptized. However, when I mentioned this to my mom (and I don't blame her for this reaction at all) she realized that although she had been politely uninterested in the Mormon faith from the get-go, she was, in a way, losing me to an enemy of our family. Catholics believe that Mormons have a fractured version of the Truth (note the capital T) and Mormons believe the same about Catholics. I would be bucking a longtime family tradition by becoming Mormon. And so my mother refused to give permission for me to be baptized.
I am actually extremely grateful to my mother for forbidding my baptism. I know that sounds strange, but it motivated me to a level of soul-searching I don't think many eight year-olds have the opportunity to experience. For several months, I attended Catholic mass one week, Mormon service the next. I prayed on my own about which Church I should join, and while both had aspects that appealed to me, I felt strongly that the Mormon church was true (more on that in a minute). I felt the same way I had felt initially when I had taken Communion at a Mormon mass: a positive, peaceful feeling in my heart, almost physical in nature. I have even heard some people compare it to a drug trip. I feel, like any rational person, that one's choice of religion ought to be a personal one, and so I can't really rationalize my decision in any other way except to say that I felt in my soul that God existed, that He was aware of my search for truth, and that I could find truth and happiness in the Mormon faith.
Eventually, my mom allowed me to be baptized. That was many, many years ago, and I have never regretted that decision. Even when I struggled with doubts and unanswered questions, I can always look back on my experiences and know that God is aware of my search to this day.
The Mormon faith is founded on the principle of individual searching. If you have seen the South Park episode about Joseph Smith, you have an idea of how it went down. An easy summary is this: Joseph Smith lived at a time when various Christian sects were gaining immense ground in the United States. At fourteen years old, he read a verse in the Bible that exhorted anyone who lacked wisdom to turn to God with their questions, so that is what Joseph Smith did. He prayed directly to God and ask Him which church he should join. In response to this prayer, Joseph Smith had a vision in which God and Jesus Christ appeared to him and told him that the entire truth was not on the earth at that time, but through Joseph's work it would be restored. The Mormon church is based on the principle that authority from God can only come through those He calls, and Joseph Smith was called to be the first real prophet in recent history.
There are many other tenets to the Mormon faith that set Mormons apart from other Christians. But the most important one is the concept that God communicates with His children, us, and answers our questions. He answered Joseph Smith's and He answered mine.
There are many ideas purported by others about what Mormons believe. Most are gross misrepresentations or outright lies. The stuff in the South Park episode about him translating an ancient religious record is true (That, my friends, is the Book of Mormon) but the part about him looking into a hat is ridiculous. Most educated people realize that Mormons were once polygamous, but haven't been for many years, and those who practice polygamy nowadays might call themselves Mormons, but are pretty much looking for an excuse. A lot of the misinformation about Mormons is bred by fear, and spread by those who don't want to understand Mormons or are too afraid to ask. For the record, I don't know the answer to many questions, but you will never offend me if you ask.
Rumors abound about Mormons doing crazy things and leaders of the church being imperfect in this way or that way. Some of those stories are probably true. Some were most likely misunderstood. To be honest, I find a great deal of comfort in that imperfection, because I am so grossly imperfect. To know that God is flawless, but those who believe in Him are not, makes me feel hopeful. However, I strongly believe that no leader of the church would falsely tout his own personal opinion as God's will. A thought is distinctive from an answer to a prayer. So I also take comfort in knowing that the truth I receive from the leaders of the Mormon church is perfect even when its members are not.
On a more pragmatic level, my membership in the Mormon Church influences everything I do. It influences what I eat and drink, how I treat others, how I spend my time, and how I view my life in every possible way. There are some things I don't do, because I believe that God doesn't want me to, and some things I do even though I don't completely understand why, because I trust that God knows better than I do what is best for me. At the same time, I know that when I have doubts or questions (and I do) I can seek the answers on my own and ask God about them through prayer, and He will answer me eventually. I honestly do not consider my faith blind in the least, but rather based on intuition.
There have been many times in my life when the choices I have made have been difficult or even painful. However, I know that God has a plan for me as an individual, and I am always happier when I seek to know God's will in my life and abide by it. I served for 18 months as a missionary in Hungary, and although it was one of the most difficult and painful experiences of my life, I know that I have grown from those experiences in ways I never could have grown otherwise.
There were times, when I was a young child, that I asked myself, what if these things I believe aren't true? What if I have been duped? I have never been able to consider the non-existence of God, but the fact is, there are thousands of churches, and each one of them claims to be carrying out the will of God on earth. What if I am wrong? What have I lost?
Even if I think about it objectively as an adult, the answer to that aforementioned question is: not much. I have found so much happiness in my faith and in living my life as if God exists that even if I were to find out He doesn't, I don't think I would regret any of the choices I have made. I like living my life by a pretty strict moral code, and I like having something to believe in. I like feeling that there is a grander purpose to my life and everyone else's. I especially like believing that everyone on earth is my brother or sister.
At the same time, I cannot believe that God does not exist. I have felt that He does in ways I find difficult to explain. Suffice it to say I have felt His influence in many minute ways throughout my life. I see God in the details of humanity, in nature, in art, even in dinosaur bones. I can't explain the origin of everything, but I strongly feel that everything in existence was orchestrated by a wise and compassionate artist. Nothing in history has approached the grandeur of plants and animals, of the human body. Additionally, so many of the wonderful things discovered and created by humans simply had to be inspired by God. There is not other explanation for it.
I recognize that many Mormons seem to the outside world to be peculiar and secretive. I think a lot of us are just preoccupied, maybe even a little afraid of anything outside their realm of experience. Some Mormons are nice people. A few aren't. Some can be narrow-minded or difficult to get along with. But the crux of the Mormon faith is a belief in God and what He has revealed to His children, and because of this faith, I feel united with people I could never have felt united with in a million years. Apart from the commandments Mormons live by and the tenets of the Mormon faith, there is a distinctive Mormon culture, just like there is distinctive Jewish culture, and I sometimes find myself at odds with the trends this Mormon culture perpetuates. As a former Hindu-Catholic, and as a liberal, I do not always fit in. However, this disparity stems from human assumptions, and has nothing to do with God. I strongly feel that most of Mormons' clashes with people of other faiths stem from this culture, and not from the religion per se.
I love talking with other people about their views on God and religion, with the understanding that we won't always agree. I like finding common ground with people of other faiths, and hearing the ways those who share my faith lives their lives and strive to make sense of this world and their role in it. I really really like being Mormon. That's all that I can say.