she is risen

For all those standing at the door of the tomb.

I always hesitate when people ask me to explain the catalysts that led me to my current state of post-Mormonism.

I hesitate because there was no single event, thought, or behavior that truly caused me to question my identity as a Mormon. My faith narrative is complex, and when I try and explain things in a chronological narrative, the significance of those things always feels diminished.

But gun-to-my-head, why are you no longer practicing? I'd say my primary motivator concerned my visibility, or, more accurately my lack of visibility, within the church. One day, I could no longer "see" myself in the church institution, so I left to look for myself elsewhere.

My first experience with invisibility occurred in in high school, during a lesson on "The Proclamation to the Family." It was the first time I really studied the document’s implications, and I immediately felt bothered by the very rigid gender roles exemplified in the document:

“By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children." 

At this point in my life I already knew I wanted to work outside the home. I wanted children, but I fully intended to pursue and advanced education and career. I did not intend to be "primarily responsible for the nurture" of my future children. I was comforted by the next line of "The Proclamation," which states, "Fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners… other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.” I hoped my deep passion for my education and future career as an educator would be enough for God to grant me an exception under the "other circumstances" clause, and I hoped that the claim of "equal partnership" somehow negated the “fathers are to preside over their families" rhetoric. I did not intend to be presided over by anyone, even someone I loved.

In 2007, I was newly married and considering applying to graduate school. In the fall session of General Conference, Relief Society President Julie B. Beck gave her now infamous "Mothers Who Know" talk. For me, Beck's talk represents the first time women like me were publicly and openly derided as "less than" the Mothers who conformed to the gender roles outlined in "The Proclamation to The Family."

"President Ezra Taft Benson taught that young couples should not postpone having children and that “in the eternal perspective, children—not possessions, not position, not prestige—are our greatest jewels."

I fully intended to postpone having children. My goals were focused on my degree, (a possession) my career, (position) and becoming the best educator possible (fortunately public educators never need to worry about prestige going to our heads-whew!) At this point, I could clearly "see" myself in the church. Unfortunately, that vision of myself was one of failure and sin. Clearly, I was not a "woman who knows." My role in the church was one of the cautionary tale, the prideful woman unwilling to give up the things of the world in order to conform to a one-size-fits-all template for divine womanhood.

"Another word for nurturing is homemaking. Homemaking includes cooking, washing clothes and dishes, and keeping an orderly home. Home is where women have the most power and influence; therefore, Latter-day Saint women should be the best homemakers in the world."

“Mothers who know do less… These mothers choose carefully and do not try to choose it all. Their goal is to prepare a rising generation of children who will take the gospel of Jesus Christ into the entire world. Their goal is to prepare future fathers and mothers who will be builders of the Lord’s kingdom for the next 50 years. That is influence; that is power.

And suddenly, I was invisible. I don’t begrudge or invalidate the value of women who do fit into this description of a “mother who knows.” But where was the woman like me? Why was there no mention of Mothers who know, and therefore pursued advanced education and degrees in order to help sustain their family’s economic well-being? Of women who worked carefully and faithfully in order to "choose it all," and influence the world both inside and outside the home? Of a woman who knows how to provide her children with multiple examples of successful parenting, including examples of women enjoying successful careers and happy families?

I couldn’t see myself as a woman in the church, let alone a mother. I went searching for examples of womanhood and motherhood elsewhere. I hoped other examples of “modern revelation” would allow me to “see” myself in the church. Instead, I found statements like this:

In the world today, there are observed strenuous efforts to distort and desecrate this divine pattern. We hear much talk -- even among some of our own sisters -- about so-called 'alternative life-styles' for women. It is maintained that some women are better suited for careers than for marriage and motherhood, or that a combination of both family and career is not inimical to either…God grant that that dangerous philosophy will never take root among our Latter-day Saint women…” -Ezra Taft Benson

   "We have often said that this divine service of motherhood can be rendered only by mothers. It may not be passed to others. Nurses cannot do it; public nurseries cannot do it. Hired help cannot do it; kind relatives cannot do it. Only by mother, aided as much as may be by a loving father, brothers and sisters, and other relatives, can the full needed measure of watchful care be given. The mother who entrusts her child to the care of others that she may do non-motherly work, whether for gold, for fame, or for civic service, should remember that 'a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” –Spencer W. Kimball

“Your wife will be fortunate indeed if she does not have to go out and compete in the marketplace. She will be twice blessed if she is able to remain at home while you become the breadwinner of the family." –Gordon B. Hinckley

While I naturally found a few instances of talks encouraging women to pursue an education, or of heroic mothers forced to work outside the home due to unforeseen circumstances, I never found an image of myself in the descriptions of righteous, good, LDS women. President Hinckley once gave a talk praising a woman who managed to work outside the home as a nurse with flexible hours, thus eliminating a reliance on outside care. This was comforting, but still not a fully formed image of a woman who worked successfully while creating a happy and functioning family, even if that meant using outside care. I could not see myself in the church, and that hurt.

Apologists are always quick to point out that personal revelations make it okay to deviate from the ideals described above. (Unless personal revelation leads one too far outside church norms, and you start acting crazy and asking for female ordination.) Many told me happy anecdotes of their aunt who worked as a UN Ambassador, or Dads who stayed home to raise children. But anecdotes do not represent institutionally and doctrinally supported roles for working women. If you are a true believer (which I was) who trusted that church leaders spoke for God, the lack of visibility feels like a very real emptiness. I’m consistently reminded of the comfort many Mormons take from Genesis 1:27, which states than man is made in the image of God. We need to “see” ourselves in our divinity.  Visibility and familiarity within our faith tradition creates the stability, community, and closeness that makes organized religion appealing. But according to LDS doctrine, I was not made in the image of anything divine. Instead, women like me were worldly, selfish, alternative, not divine but unholy, not sacred but ungodly.

For people still  dismissive of the very deep pain feeling “invisible” causes a member of the community, I’d first ask you to check your theological privilege. Do you fit the sanctioned role for femininity or masculinity? Do you seem to fit within Beck’s description of a mother who knows? Are your decisions regarding employment and family planning supported, praised, and even glorified as divine by the church institution regularly and publicly? Visibility within your community is like air. You often don’t consciously acknowledge its necessity. Your church, like your body, automatically sends messages to your respiratory system telling you to breathe, telling you that you are welcome, that you are godly, and that God sees you as a member of his church.

Lack of visibility is like dry-drowning. Often it doesn’t look like you are drowning at all, you bob above the water desperately snatching breaths of air from snippets of scripture and doctrine that reaffirm your belief in self-divinity.

But still you drown. Mormonism talks a lot about spiritual death as a result of sin or distance from God. From my experience, spiritual death comes from lack of visibility. If you cannot “see” yourself at church, you cannot breathe.

In the next few years, I continued to look for myself within Mormonism, only to realize that I could not “see” myself within the doctrine. I did not “see” myself when the church supported Proposition 8 in California, or in any of their subsequent statements opposing marriage equality. I could not “see” myself after the first Wear Pants to Church Day when hundreds of self-described “active” Mormons collectively held my head under water and told me to leave the church, fully supported by coinciding church leadership talks reaffirming that “women of God did not need to lobby for rights.”

I could see myself with those who also felt invisible within the church. The LGBT activists, the feminists, the members of Ordain Women, the historians, the hundreds of other people searching for air in the closed tombs of our faith. I stayed there, looking at my reflection, “seeing” myself for the first time, drunk on fresh air. I will forever maintain that I simply went to where I believed the Savior would go: to the Samaritans, to the lost sheep, to the outcasts, to those deemed “sinners” by Pharisees masquerading as Prophets. I mourned with those who mourned, and in loosing myself in Christ-like empathy, found myself again.   I don’t regret my time “seeing” myself in the fringes or unorthodox Mormonism, but when the people who allowed me to “see” myself in the church for the first time lost their membership, or were disciplined, I knew I needed to continue looking elsewhere.

For me, the most beautiful story in the New Testament occurs in the days after Jesus’ death. In John 20, Mary Magdalene goes to Joseph’s tomb to prepare the body of Jesus for preservation. She finds the tomb empty, and after telling the disciples of her discovery, returns to the tomb and weeps.

Years after my initial faith crisis and transition, I can still feel her pain echo sharply in my chest. I know the pain of searching for a Savior and finding and empty tomb. I know what it feels like not to see what you believed was there.

And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.

And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.”
Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

When I couldn’t see myself in the tomb of my former faith, I felt like Mary searching for Jesus. I felt like someone had taken away my identity, and I didn’t know where to find myself once the stone was removed from door. I didn’t recognize myself when I first left my faith, I didn’t know how to see myself as anything other than the image presented to me at church: the unholy and ungodly distortion of an idealized feminine form that didn’t match how I saw myself in my heart.  I kept searching the tomb and weeping when no one was there.

What if Mary never left the tomb? What if she never found Jesus, and never learned of the miracle of his resurrection? What if she never heard Jesus’ message: “Peace I leave unto you,” because she never turned back?

Mary couldn’t see Jesus until he called her name, until he recognized her, until he “saw” her. Only then was she able to see her Master, only then could she stop looking for Jesus in the empty tomb, only then could she run and tell the world “He is risen.”

What if I never left my own tomb? What if I continued to drown searching for myself in a gospel that did not recognize me? What if I never learned to see my own worth outside the confines of Mormonism, and what if I remained a spiritually dead corpse, never finding a resurrected soul in the graveyard of my faith?

Like Mary, I turned myself back. I stopped looking for my body in the tomb of my former faith, and begun to to see myself: a living, breathing, fully visible self. I heard my name. After years of mourning and grief, I could finally leave the tomb and tell the world of my resurrection.

So weep not, she is risen.