Matt has kindly invited me to continue guest posting at will. And I’m glad, because my mind is spinning this week with thoughts I’d like to dump on you guys. I’m going to start with a long preamble: this sacrament meeting talk that was assigned to me a few months ago. More to follow tomorrow.
We don’t call this earth life “the lone and dreary world” for nothing. We are strangers here, homesick for our heavenly parents, our heavenly home. In our mortal bodies we are subject to all kinds of difficulties and infirmities, both mental and physical and emotional. Our spirits struggle too. We are tempted, we make mistakes, we sin. And we are also subject to the mistakes and sins of others. All too often, it’s all too easy to feel that we are far, far away from the Lord, from his goodness and comfort, his peace and his joy.
There have been many days that I’ve felt this way. On one such day I was struggling with deep feelings of discouragement and even despair. Nothing was really wrong in my life, it was just a normal day, but I felt so down, so lonely. It seemed that no matter how hard I worked, I was always behind. Every time I accomplished a task there were ten more that had piled up in the meantime. Every time I repented of something, it seemed to be just a drop in the bucket. There was so much that my family wanted and needed from me, and so little I felt I had available to give them. At one point I felt so weighed down by discouragement that I sank into my rocking chair and wasn’t sure when I’d be able to stand up again. I was overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings swirling around within me. I said to myself, It feels like I’m in the middle of a thick, dark cloud.
I grabbed my Book of Mormon. You know all those open-the-scriptures-to-a-random-page stories we hear about? How people just happen to open their books to a passage that holds powerful message for them? Well, that’s what happened to me. I opened the Book of Mormon and I found myself in Helaman 5. This is the part where the prophets Alma and Amulek are in prison with about 300 ungodly people, both Lamanites and Nephites. Guards come to kill Alma and Amulek, but aren’t able to lay hold on them because Alma and Amulek are “encircled about as if by fire.”
Hel. 5: 26 And it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi did stand forth and began to speak unto them, saying: Fear not, for behold, it is God that has shown unto you this marvelous thing, in the which is shown unto you that ye cannot lay your hands on us to slay us.
Then the walls of the prison shake. And then the inmates and guards become overshadowed by–surprise–a cloud of darkness. As you can imagine, I was a bit freaked out to find myself reading a passage that quoted my very thoughts. The story goes on to recount how the prisoners see Alma and Amulek lifting their faces towards heaven and speaking, as if they’re having a conversation. The prisoners wonder what’s going on. One of the Nephite prisoners, Aminadab, explains that Alma and Amulek are talking with angels of God. Since he seems to know so much, the prisoners ask him another question: What shall we do, that this cloud of darkness may be removed from overshadowing us?
41 And Aminadab said unto them: You must repent, and cry unto the voice, even until ye shall have faith in Christ, who was taught unto you by Alma, and Amulek, and Zeezrom; and when ye shall do this, the cloud of darkness shall be removed from overshadowing you.
42 And it came to pass that they all did begin to cry unto the voice of him who had shaken the earth; yea, they did cry even until the cloud of darkness was dispersed.
43 And it came to pass that when they cast their eyes about, and saw that the cloud of darkness was dispersed from overshadowing them, behold, they saw that they were encircled about, yea every soul, by a pillar of fire.
44 And Nephi and Lehi were in the midst of them; yea, they were encircled about; yea, they were as if in the midst of a flaming fire, yet it did harm them not, neither did it take hold upon the walls of the prison; and they were filled with that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.
45 And behold, the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire, and they could speak forth marvelous words.
46 And it came to pass that there came a voice unto them, yea, a pleasant voice, as if it were a whisper, saying:
47 Peace, peace be unto you, because of your faith in my Well Beloved, who was from the foundation of the world.
48 And now, when they heard this they cast up their eyes as if to behold from whence the voice came; and behold, they saw the heavens open; and angels came down out of heaven and ministered unto them.
Now, what impressed me most about this passage, as I sat in my rocking chair, so excited to finally be having my very own random-scripture experience, was the fact that there were two manifestations of spiritual fire in the story. There was the spirit/fire that came down from heaven after the people repented; it filled their hearts. And there was the spirit/fire that encircled them. They were surrounded and they were filled by God’s presence. (And by presence I mean his spirit, his influence, his power and awareness. His very consciousness.)
I read the passage again. When I hit finished verse 43 it struck me that this encircling fire didn’t show up when the prisoners repented. It had been there all along, behind that cloud of darkness that overshadowed them. They just couldn’t see it.
I sat and thought about that. There was a cloud of darkness overshadowing me, but there was something marvelous–the spirit of the Lord–behind it. How could I get rid of the cloud and feel the love and peace that the Lord’s presence brings? I thought about Aminadab’s answer: repent, and cry unto the Lord. The crying part was easy enough–I can cry with the best of them–but repent? Was I guilty of something?
As I thought about this I remembered a snippet from an essay by Elder Henry B. Eyring, where he explained that the word translated as repentance in the scriptures means to turn the mind. (And for those of you who enjoy this kind of thing, I’ll report the specifics here: the Hebrew word translated as repentance is shub, meaning “to turn from.” The Greek word is metanoeo, which means a change of mind, thought, or thinking so powerful that it changes one’s very way of life.)
This concept resonated with me. When I feel separated from the Lord–namely, whenever I feel an absence of his peace and his love–I need to turn myself towards him. Repentance of sin is a big part of this. Confessing, apologizing, and trying to do better is a daily, even hourly exercise for me. But sin is not the only thing that causes me to feel lonely and discouraged. Many times, I am simply stuck in the dark cloud of this fallen world.
Five times in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord says:
D&C 10: 58 I am the light which shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.
The Lord is all around us and even within us. He speaks these words repeatedly in the scriptures: I am with you. I am in your midst. But in order to cast away the shadows of the fallen world and recognize him, I often need to change my state of mind, my state of being.
I’ve been practicing this mind-turning for some time now. I’m not especially good at it, but I have found some practices that work well for me that I’d like to share. They all have to do with prayer.
Pray with his promises in mind.
When I pray I often ask the Lord to be with me. But he’s already promised that he is with me. What if, instead, I thanked him for being with me and instead asked him to open my understanding so I can recognize him? It might help if I took a minute or two to remember what the Lord has promised about his availability to me. Sometimes those promises might feel hollow and I may need to ask the Lord to help me believe them. I might need to “cry unto the Lord until I have faith.” That’s okay. The very fact that I’m asking is evidence of faith, and gives me hope that my faith can increase.
Sister Hatton told a story in one of our Relief Society lessons a while back that perfectly captures this idea. She told us about the basement bedroom she had as a youth. This room was very dark, being below ground, and only had one light fixture–a ceiling bulb that was turned on by pulling the string that hung from it. But she could not see the string when she entered the room. She had to walk forward, with her arm stretched out, and her hand reaching, until her fingers felt the string. Then she could pull on it, and the light would fill the room.
We need to approach the Lord with confidence that we’ll find him, even if the room is dark. If we don’t feel confident, we can ask for confidence as we start walking.
Pray without words.
My favorite way to pray is to reach out to the Lord with my mind and heart. Instead of saying in my mind “bless so and so” I picture that person. I summon up my feelings for that person, my yearnings and hopes and fears. I offer those images and sensations to the Lord. It’s hard to describe the process exactly, but to me it feels like I’m stretching my soul outward and upward, and connecting with the Lord.
This kind of praying is especially powerful when we’re in holy places, like the temple. In the celestial room the veil can be very thin, and when we reach out for the Lord we may touch him more easily than at other times. But we don’t need to make prayer a formal occasion. In fact, my most frequent way of praying is just to reach out from within myself, in the midst of whatever I’m doing, to touch base with the Lord. Like a child who suddenly feels alone, and goes calling for her mother, just to make sure she can find her.
Even when I do use words this seeking, stretching motion within me is essential if I really want to feel like I’m connecting with the Lord. If I just use words, without feelings, I am not praying with “real intent.” At the end of the prayer I feel like my words haven’t gotten anywhere–they’re just floating around the room.
Pray for a remembrance of blessings.
In a General Conference talk Elder Henry B. Eyring encouraged us to have prayers of gratitude. He said, “Begin a private prayer with thanks. Start to count your blessings, and then pause for a moment. If you exercise faith, and with the gift of the Holy Ghost, you will find that memories of other blessings will flood into your mind.”
If I am feeling separated from the Lord, remembering his blessings is one of the easiest ways to feel reassured that he is, was, and will always be with me. The trickiest thing about this is opening myself to receive the memories of blessings. I have to want to feel better. If I insist on feeling sorry for myself, this technique fails miserably.
Matt. 6: 22-23
22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
23 But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
D&C 88: 67 And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light ccomprehendeth all things.
When I’m focused on God’s glory I begin to see it everywhere. I see it in the events of my life, and I see it in the faces of the people around me. I even see it in my own face.
Use meditation as a form of prayer.
President David O. McKay once said, “In our worship there are two elements: One is the spiritual communion arising from our own meditation; the other, instruction from others. . . . Of the two, the more profitable . . . is the meditation. Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord.”
We don’t talk about meditation much in our church meetings. Perhaps we are scared off by its associations with Eastern religions. Or perhaps for the life of us, we could never bend ourself into a lotus pose. But basic meditation is very simple. We still our body, by sitting or lying down comfortably. We let our thoughts keep parading through our heads, but we politely ignore them. We focus instead on just being. The point is this:
Ps. 46: 10 Be still, and know that I am God.
Being still can be a challenge. The body can be restless and the mind is even more so. That parade of thoughts keeps trying to engage us. So to help keep our minds focused away from our thoughts, we pay attention to our breathing. This is a marvelous way to connect with the presence of God within us.
Mosiah 2: 21 [The Lord] is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even support[s] you from one moment to another.
Something very interesting happens when we manage to keep our minds centered on our miraculous breathing. We realize that we are not our thoughts. We are only the audience. It’s like we’re in a movie theatre watching a very engaging film–it keeps making us laugh and cry. But we are not the film, only the audience. And if we are very still, we will notice that we are not alone in the theatre. There’s another consciousness, another “I am,” sitting next to us. God is also watching the movie. He is with us.
This kind of experience is one way the Lord’s promise can be fulfilled. He says,
3 Ne. 12: 8 And blessed are all the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
When we are still, we can let all the layers of mortal life slip away. We can allow the dark cloud to disperse and we can tap into our truest selves, our pure and simple eternal selves that have always lived and will always live. It is here that we find God.
If all of this sounds a wee bit too mystical for you, or even if it doesn’t, there are many other ways to connect with God’s presence in and around us. Simply noticing that we are alive is one way. We could not be alive if the Lord was not with us.
D&C 88: 50 I am the true light that is in you, and you are in me; otherwise ye could not abound.
This verse reminds us again that the Lord is within us, and all around us. He is in us, and we are in him. The fire is in our hearts and encircling us. We can feel this when we step outside and see all the other living things. Everything we see is evidence that the Lord is with us. The whole earth and the heavens surrounding it exist on life support, connected to God’s power.
Isa. 6: 3 Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
7[Christ] is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made.
8 As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made;
9 As also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made;
10 And the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand.
11 And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;
12 Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space–
13 The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.
Just noticing these things can help us feel close to God. If we take a moment to reach out for him, to stretch our souls out in prayer, and connect with the marvelous power that fills the earth and all living things, including ourselves, we can know without doubt that the Lord is with us.
Now, if we do these things, if we pray in faith and pray with real intent, and pray for an awareness of the Lord’s influence on us, and pray in stillness, seeking to feel the presence of God within us, does that mean we can keep ourselves from ever feeling sad or lonely or discouraged again? Can we cast away the darkness whenever we so choose?
No. While we may be successful most of the time, there are times that no matter how diligent we are, no matter how sincere in our efforts, we just can’t seem to break through the gloom. We may walk and walk in the dark with our arms outstretched, waiting to feel that string against our palms, and begin to think we will never find it. Or we might pull the string, and realize the bulb seems to be burned out. Why?
Sometimes the Lord is simply allowing us to see what we’re made of.
Mosiah 23: 21 [T]he Lord seeth fit to chasten [or teach] his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.
Brigham Young once counseled us to be faithful even circumstances are “darker than 10,000 midnights.” Being faithful means we do not curse God for withholding his presence. We trust that he knows what he’s doing, and that the separation is temporary.
In times like these we would do well to double-check our status before the Lord. Sometimes there are sins standing in our way, perhaps sins we aren’t aware of. We may need to ask the Lord to bring our sins to our remembrance so that we can repent of them. We can ask for his assurance that we are in good standing with him, so that we do not despair while we wait out the darkness.
But if darkness is a consistent pattern in our lives, as it has been in mine at times, we may need to seek help. We can prayerfully seek help from our bishop and from professionals. There are many different options for treatment; we will be able to find one, or a combination, that work for us.
I spent many months in darkness last year. None of the usual things worked. I’d kneel down and feel nothing. I’d read scripture, and I might as well have been reading the back of a cereal box. The only way I could maintain the barest sense that the Lord was with me was to notice that I was alive. That I was breathing. I couldn’t feel his presence, but I knew it was there. It took a long time, and professional help, for me to begin to feel better, to feel the Lord with me again. But I did get better.
We are in the lone and dreary world, but we are not alone. We do not have to wait for the millennium, or for the eternities that follow, to be with the Lord again. He is with us. When we are stuck in the darkness of this world, we cannot see him. But through his grace, and through our effort and patience and faith, everything that hides him from us can be removed. Like the prisoners, we can feel his presence within us and around us, that “joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.” Like Alma and Amulek, if we are turned toward the Lord, his power will prevent our enemies from slaying us, even when our enemy is our own weak, discouraged self.
D&C 61: 36 And now, verily I say unto you, and what I say unto one I say unto all, be of good cheer, little children; for I am in your midst, and I have not forsaken you;
D&C 100: 12 Therefore, continue your journey and let your hearts rejoice; for behold, and lo, I am with you even unto the end.