Our house seems to be on an LDS migration route, and it’s kind of awesome.
Someone apparently gave our name to them as a joke, and now the missionaries just keep coming. These poor gals knock on our door with the papal flag decal, enter past the window on which hangs two kitschy Greek orthodox suncatchers of Mary and Jesus (with sparkly beard!), and take a seat at our table, the Rublev Trinity to their left, a torn poster of Mother Teresa to their right, a Daniel Mitsui print of the resurrection behind them, and of course, front and center, a crucifix hanging from a thumbtack.
Then we invite them for dinner and say grace in Hebrew.
I’ve gotta hand it to these mormons, their poker face is top notch. They are all about finding common ground, at least at first; and so are we. They believe very strongly in the importance of family, and so do we. I gather there is intense pressure for LDS moms (much like moms in some Catholic communities) to present a happy, smiley, calm-and-blessed face to the world at all times — well, it’s nice to be able to sit with someone who just plain thinks it’s neat to have a bunch of kids. It feels good to talk about God and not feel awkward. It doesn’t happen often around here.
We always make it very clear (if our uberCath decor didn’t make the point) that we’re not interested in converting, and that the Church is and always will be our home. But we are still interested in talking to them, for a few reasons.
First, they look discouraged. They are young, and New England is pretty tough territory. We don’t really want to talk to anyone about anything, much less to strangers about Jesus. It’s an act of charity to let them say their bit, because that’s what they’re spending eighteen months trying to do. We don’t pretend they’re persuading us, but we do give them a chance — including a chance to answer questions about what they believe.
And that’s the second reason we invite them in and have a chat. I hope that, after we establish that common ground, I can plant a little seed in their mind that there is something more than what they’ve grown up with.
They generally come in pairs, one more confident than the other. So I ask questions of the less confident one. This time, for instance, I asked whether there was any shred of archeological or DNA or historical evidence that Jesus had, as they claimed, visited to the American continent. They both acknowledged that it was a good question, and then somehow we changed topics.
They also mentioned that women’s relief society was the oldest organization of women in the world and I says to myself, I says, BUT SAINT CLARE . . . But I let it go.
One thing I couldn’t let go of: the idea that Joseph Smith was the only one who could read the golden plates with special glasses. Beyond the comical idea of crystal goggles and an angel named “Moroni” (I suspect both spectacles and the name “Moroni” sounded more exotic to American ears in 1823), I just couldn’t get past the idea that God would do something so important, but be so freaking proprietary about it.
Here is this thing, the Book of Mormon, that appears literally out of the blue and abruptly changes wide, wide swaths of our understanding of what the universe is like, who God is, what life is for, what happens after death and before birth, and so on — and it all gets funnelled through this one guy (aged 14!). And everything hinges on him telling the truth and getting it right.
It seems like the opposite of what God would do if He really wanted people to believe, understand, and, well, meet Him.
We thought back over the Gospels and couldn’t think of another time that God acted like that. There has been a lot of “Go out and tell everyone what you know!” and “Go forth and spread the word!” and “Don’t keep this to yourself! It’s for everyone!” There was a lot of “Nope, you have to let those other guys in, too!” and even a certain amount of, “Oh, sorry, you don’t speak Greek or Aramaic? Well, this must be your lucky day!” A few times, Jesus told his disciples not to say anything yet, but to wait until after the Resurrection.
But there was nothing about “Here is a secret, and you need special decoder glasses to see it, and there won’t be any evidence, and you just have to believe that this one guy who said this one thing is telling the truth.” That . . . is not how you act when you want people to know the truth. That’s how you act when you’re trying to convince someone that you know something important, so you can make them do what you want.
I asked the younger missionary: “Doesn’t that worry you, at all?”
She paused. They talked a bit about good fruits. So I took a chance and told them about Father Maciel.
Now there was an example of someone who knew how to use secrecy, how to manipulate people with faith. I told them how he set up and designed and organized an entire religious order entirely for the purpose of hiding and perpetuating sexual predation. Every aspect of the lives of seminarians and consecrated women, and the students in LC schools, was organized to make them doubt themselves, trust authority blindly, and never tell anyone what was really going on. The goal was never illumination; the goal was obfustication, so that dark deeds could flourish unchallenged.
This, I said, is what happens when you decide you’re just going to trust this one guy who claims to speak for God, and you have to believe him just as you’d believe God. This is what you get.
There have been good fruits from the Legion of Christ. They do good work. And they’ve also been responsible for countless, countless ruined lives. Children defiled, souls lost. Because they said they were missionaries for Christ, but it was all about putting your faith in that one guy, that one guy who isn’t God.
It’s a complicated thing. Catholics have their own “family issues” to work out, as we struggle with ideas of papal infallibility, the authority of bishops, private revelation, and so on. We do need faith, and not just reason. We do need to put ourselves in the hands of people we trust. But you will never hear a good Catholic say, “Don’t ask that question about our Faith.” You will never hear a true Catholic say, “Don’t read that book about another faith.” You will never hear a Father of the Church say, “God isn’t interested in revealing the truth to someone like you.” And you will never hear God say, “You people stink. I’m leaving for several centuries, so good luck without me.”
Instead, you see Christ, a light in the darkness, illuminating the past, the present, and the future; and after Him, there is no more need for prophets (with or without special goggles).
Anyway, they wanted me to read The Book of Mormon. I said that I would try to read at least some of it if they would read Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth, which is my standby for Catholic apologetics. It’s short, and small enough to keep in my purse. I don’t know if they are actually allowed to read it (maybe they will save it for after their 18 months of mission work are up).
You can’t convert anyone by arguing, or by crushing them with logic. But you can encourage people to ask themselves questions, and to show that you, for one, have asked those questions and have happily arrived at an answer that brings peace and joy at least some of the time.
These young LDS women had the guts and the strength to spend their time bringing what they thought was the truth to a very hostile territory. I hope I honored them by offering them my ears, my books, a few hamburgers and chips (I remembered not to give them Coke!*), and some questions. I came away from our conversation with a deep gratitude for my faith, and for its long history of intellectual rigor, and for Christ Himself.
If you are LDS and would like a copy of Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth, send me an email with your address and I will do my best to get one sent to you.
*EDIT: Some of my friends have let me know it’s a myth that Mormons can’t drink caffeine. Sorry! It was an honest mistake. I am ready to hear I’ve made other errors describing what I understand about LDS theology, as well. Please feel free to make corrections in the comments.
Image:by Versageek via Flickr (Creative Commons)
About the image: The original photo showed a young female LDS missionary. I found the photo on a photo sharing site which had apparently incorrectly tagged it as free for commercial use under Creative Commons. Several of the woman’s friends have contacted me, asking me to take the photo down, which I have done. It sometimes take some time for the image to be updated when it’s attached to shared posts on social media.