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12/4/11

and the soul felt its worth

I like to think that all literature lovers are like me, and walk around with lines of poems repeating in their head. If this isn't true, don't tell me, I don't need any more evidence that I'm a little bit nuts.

When I'm stressed, the repeating line comes from e.e. cummings, "and staggered banged with terror through/a million billion trillion stars." Don't we all feel that way, at least some of the time? I've staggered my whole life, even more so now pregnant.

Recently, I remembered the words to the John Donne poem I studied in high school. "Batter my heart, three-personed God." I couldn't remember the rest of the poem, but remembered relating to it strongly when I was 17. (I was a weird 17 year old. I don't think many of my students relate on a personal level to John Donne.)

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Did you skim that? It is okay, you probably already graduated from high school. Essentially, the poem's speaker asks God to batter his heart, because his usual tactics to "knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend" are not enough to save his sinful soul. Instead, he needs God to "break, blow, burn, and make me new." Married to God's enemy (Satan,) the speaker asks God to "Imprison me...enthrall me....ravish me" in order to gain spiritual freedom.

Why did I like this poem? A poem about God raping (ravishing) a soul married to Satan in order to purify it sounds fundamentalist at best. But after re-reading the poem, I remembered the line that interested me as a senior: "Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend/ But is captived, and proves weak or untrue."

The idea that God gave us reason to defend us, but said reason is captive and weak in the mind of man made sense to my often unreasonable teenage self. I felt comforted by the fact that while I may sometimes misuse it, God had indeed given me reason.

Growing up, I was desperate to be Good, more specifically, I was desperate to be a Good Mormon. I felt often like my God-given reason had betrayed me, when I struggled to understand Church practices and doctrine that seemed to defy reason, and frankly didn't make sense. (Wait, I'm really more righteous than my 7 year old brother? And that is why he will someday have the priesthood?)

So I loved John Donne's plea to his three-personed God to batter his heart. The brute force of God would still be kinder than the mental beatings I gave myself every time I flippantly refused to accept that God sees homosexuality as a sin, or dared to believe a woman could choose to stay at home or work outside it and still be a good mother.  If God could somehow break and bend my cognitive dissonance into a temple recommend, into perfect Mormon compliance, I would be happy.

Still, I distinctly remember postponing my Patriarchal blessing because I was afraid God would tell me what I already knew. He would reveal my secret heretical thoughts to the patriarch and my parents. Until God battered the rebellion out of me, the least I could do was pretend.

Maybe I should just stick to e.e. cummings.

I was thinking about John Donne while driving home yesterday, listening to Christmas music on the radio. I've changed my position on God, but I think John Donne did get one thing right: God gave us reason to protect us.

It wasn't rebellion or sin to question my role as a woman in this church, it was the reason that God gave me. It wasn't sin to love my fellow man, Gay or not Gay. It was perfectly, beautifully, reasonable.  God never answered my prayer to batter my heart, because my heart, though broken, was perfect as it was. I knew this driving home, just as the lines of "Oh Holy Night" played through the radio:

"...Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices."

That thrill of hope sustains me, as I stagger and bang with terror through the million, billion, trillion stars that constitute being Mormon and not-so- Mormon at the same time, especially at Christmas. Pulling into my driveway, I let go of my guilt for the last time, and rejoiced. My soul felt its worth. Now, instead of fearing the beating of a three-personed God, I simply and sincerely hope that what they say about Christ is true.

 His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

24 comments:

GrittyPretty said...

beautiful. thanks for that. i sometimes cling to a similar sentiment as expressed in 2 timothy when it says god gave us the gift of a sound mind.

Stephanie said...

@ GrittyPretty

That is one of my favorite scriptures too. And my Mom's. :)

lifeofdi said...

It's a weird thing to pull out of what was a very beautiful blog, but I'm glad I'm the only one that had angst over getting my Patriarchal blessing. I was terrified for several years that had I been a "better" person, a more righteous person, when I got it, that I would have gotten a "deeper" blessing. I had already put it off, afraid that my semi-heretical thoughts would taint it and my parents and the patriarch would know my heart.

Naomi said...

John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Morning" is one of my all-time favorite poems, having discovered it during my senior year English class. So, no, you're not alone in your love from Donne. That man was a word genius.

UK Yankee said...

This post brought tears to my eyes! *sniff* Really needed to hear this today, and will be sharing this with someone else who needs that comfort. Thank you!

Rachel said...

for the record, I have bits of poetry floating around in my head...I was actually just trying to explain this to my husband, saying, "it's like having a song stuck in your head, but there isn't a tune," and he didn't understand. I'm glad you do!

in my head today, because I'm writing an essay on Shakespeare:

Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child/ Warble his native wood-notes wild"

And as for John Donne, the poem of his I most often get stuck in my head is the one talking about "oh my America, my newfoundland" (talking about his lover's body) and asking her to "license my roving hands to go/above, beneath, behind, below".... I don't know...just taking that Donne conversation from religion to sex.

MJ said...

You are simply one of the most awesome women I have ever met. WHY are there not more women like us? Or are there, but they're just trying to "fake it til they make it"?

I love this poem. Never read it, but imagine that it would have struck a chord with me. The poem that stuck with me through high school was Robert Frost's Bereft.

I love our faith, it's the right one for me, but I sometimes wonder just how much we have wrong down here in the mortal realm. I honestly think we get brownie points for trying, so long as we don't make another's life miserable for not "fitting in". And one of my biggest pet peeves is the mainstream thought that it's ok to pray about things as long as you ultimately agree with everything the prophets say, and don't argue. GRRRRR!

I put off my patriarchal blessing, too, for the same reasons. Sheesh.

I once went to a fireside where President Hinckley was speaking, and was terrified to make eye contact with him because I just knew he'd see what a horrible person I was. It meant everything to me when he looked me in the eye as he shook my hand and told me I was beautiful. I know we aren't supposed to have favorites, but he's my favorite, anyway.

MJ said...

Oh, and I totally linked to this post. Because you are brilliant. And inoffensive. To me, at any rate. :)

Stephanie said...

@MJ

President Hinckley is my favorite too. I used to think that it was just because he was "the prophet of my youth" but I really believe he made an effort to incorporate the doubters like me.

Faith said...

I was a Donne freak in high school, and still love his works. The poetry bits most likely to come out of my mouth these days are either Eliot (No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be...), Shakespeare, or Chaucer.

Emily said...

I so needed this today, thank you.

Sunny said...

Beautifully said. Thank you. :)

bunkersdown.com said...

I am amazingly grateful that I didn't join the LDS church until I was 18. While I love the gospel in its pure form, my youthful years as a random born again Christian helped to solidify my own identity before I joined such a large 'herd.' I think sometimes as Mormons we focus so much on the 'doing' and 'being' that we forget to focus on feeling how much we are beloved.

(By the way, my own poetry idol in high school was Emily Dickinson. That woman just seemed to get my teenager-angst ridden soul.)

Heather said...

Gorgeous, gorgeous post. I relate so deeply to the constant struggle between faith and reason and the cognitive dissonance that constantly bangs in my head.

And yes, I have lines of poetry floating through my head all day, every day. If that's weird, I don't want to be normal.

Thanks again for a thoughtful, inspiring post.

Anna said...

:) Beautiful, thank you.

Moises said...

Thank you for sharing this poem. It made a special connection to me, as I allow myself to accept me as gay and Mormon. :) Thank you very much

It also reminds me of one of my favorites Brazilian poets from the baroque period, where his desire to serve God and his lust and weakness created great angst in him. I always loved reading it.

Deja said...

Never commented before, but I think you are my friend. Love this poem, love having lines of poetry in my head, love hearing someone else letting go of distorted ideas of what it means to be "good." We are good. Our souls are very good.

(Incidentally, the poem that comes into my head when I think about this "good" thing is Mary Oliver's, "Wild Geese." First few lines: "You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.")

Thank you for a beautiful post.

Hannah Lee said...

we are crossing into interweb friendship...comfortable with that? haha but in all seriousness, this is absolutely one of my most favorite poems since i myself was a weird 17 year old. donne is real and raw and this poem hits you hard in the best way. loved this post :)

ChristyLove said...

Hinckley's my favorite, and I'm not even Mormon.

Stephanie said...

@Deja

I love that poem! I wrote about Mary Oliver here: http://mormonchildbride.blogspot.com/2011/06/in-family-of-things.html

Sorry, I don't love fancy linking apparently.


@Moises: You're welcome. :)


@Christylove Hincksters are better than Hipsters.

Rose said...

Brought a tear to my eye! ''And the soul felt its worth" has been going through my mind almost the whole last month (From when I started celebrating Christmas a bit early) haha.

I love love love this post. I feel like you've been reading my mind. I could go on and on forever. But I won't, I'll just thank you for that great post.

(by the way...I was just as nervous about my patriarchal blessings. I thought God would reveal to the patriarch some imperfection that made me unworthy for a blessing...turns out my patriarchal blessing is the piece of scripture that I refer to the most)

Katrina said...

beautiful, beautiful.

I love that I know you in real life, because now when I read your posts I can hear your voice in my head. :-)

Mrs. Clark said...

I think this is the most beautiful post you've ever written. Thank you for it. And congratulations--you are embarking on the best experience ever in life. You'll be a great mom!

Bryan and Sarah said...

Beautiful. I believe in a God that loves us for who we are and always will be.