“Which helps you feel the Spirit?”
I’m in an LDS Institute class on world religions. The man at the front of the room holds up two pictures: a beautiful mosque with golden domes in one hand (think Hagia Sofia beautiful); in the other hand, the D.C. temple, white spires piercing a crystal blue sky.
Apparently, this is a rhetorical question. No one offers a response. I squirm uncomfortably in my seat. I am enrolled in several different Institute classes for my fall semester as a college sophomore, and I’m hungry for spiritual knowledge. Genuinely curious about other religions, I want to hear about them straight, undiluted, not through Mormon-tinted glasses. It is evident, though, that in this particular class, we are all expected to wear our LDS shades. I don’t feel threatened at all by other religions, just deep interest. Why the need to compare? I sit up and brace myself.
“Now, which piece of music helps you feel the Spirit?”
The institute teacher walks over to a small boom box and presses a button. I recognize the chanting of Buddhist monks. Several years ago, I had watched a small group of these monks in colorful orange robes as they bent over to sandpaint an intricate mandala. That evening they gave a concert of sorts, and I heard their voices mix together to produce deep, vibrating sounds I’d never heard before. From what I understood, the art and the music were intended to bless the people of my hometown. I felt deeply honored and awed.
After a minute or two, the teacher presses another button. The chanting stops and the room is suddenly loud with the unmistakable warm vibrato of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Something is out of place. At the time, over a decade ago, I am a true blue, totally orthodox, preparing-for-my-mission Mormon, but this is too much. My stomach is knotty and my mouth is dry. This simple object lesson is presented on the first day, and I know I will have to drop the course. I am there because I want to know about other religions, not to have them constantly compared to my own and found wanting. If I had been honest with myself, willing to speak up, I could have raised my hand and said, “Both. Both pictures help me feel the Spirit. Both songs help me feel the Spirit. That’s the truth.” I would like to see the look on the teacher’s face if I had been bold enough, articulate enough back then.
I walked out of the room at the end of the hour, bought the manual, and decided I would just study the topic on my own.
That experience has often led me to question the nature of spiritual experiences. I wonder if we are conditioned to feel the warm fuzzies we associate with the Spirit, and if those warm fuzzies are strengthened by familiarity. Would a Buddhist monk feel the Spirit, or what we call the Spirit, if he walked into a Mormon temple? Would a Mormon feel the Spirit in a mosque? Do we feel good because we are taught that we should feel good in those places? Or maybe there is a measure of the Spirit in all of those places. The same line of thinking applies to music.
Something I know for sure is that I have felt good, affirming, bosom-burning feelings in cathedrals. Not even in them. Just looking at their spires, or basking in colored light from stained glass windows. I have felt those same feelings in and around mosques, synagogues, and churches of many different Christian denominations. Let’s add mountaintops and porch swings, too. May as well mention libraries, museums, planetariums, and kitchen tables.
I have felt good, affirming, bosom-burning feelings listening to Mozart and Holst and Beethoven, listening to poetry recitations, listening to rivers, migrating geese, trains, and storms. Also, the sounds my children make when they are asleep. Heartbeats.
My conclusion: the Spirit is everywhere, in everything, not just the LDS church. Not even mostly in the LDS church. But abundantly everywhere, especially if we’re willing to cross the threshold of the familiar into new territory.