Lately I have come to understand that spiritual conviction, like the beautiful lotus blossom in Buddhist iconography, is often found sprouting from the mire of everyday life. In my case, the flower of testimony bloomed during my teenage years in the middle of an ugly and difficult family crisis.
I was raised in a small northern Utah town, overwhelmingly Latter-day Saint, with both sets of grandparents close at hand and family lines running back to early nineteenth-century LDS conversions in Great Britain, upstate New York, and the area around Nauvoo, Illinois. My immediate family, extended family, and even the surrounding community exuded Mormon heritage. That is not to say everyone was orthodox or perfect. One of the conclusions I drew early on in my life, in fact, was not that Mormons were good and non-Mormons were bad, but rather that Mormons were human like everyone else. In our town it was Mormons who burgled homes and embezzled, got drunk on weekends, cheated on their wives, and beat their kids, just like it was Mormons who gave generously to the poor, went out of their way for the needy, served tirelessly in lay church callings, and were as honest as the day was long. For many of my role models, who had been raised in similar rural Mormon communities, the question of goodness was not about whether or not one belonged to the faith per se, but rather whether one’s individual actions were virtuous. Integrity, rather than affiliation, was what mattered most, and the codes to which the general community subscribed—largely Mormon in nature—were those by which I learned to judge myself. This helped me learn to recognize and try to avoid the strong Us-versus-Them smugness that can prevail among the piously faithful.
Our family generally had maintained a modest reputation for virtue, integrity, and hard work. So, when the scandal of divorce hit in the mid-1970s, despite a growing national divorce trend, it was something of a sensation that tarred all of us with a broad brush, quickly and suddenly moving us from our secure place into a different, and less respected, echelon of society. I felt the impact in several ways. What had been a secure home and family life interrupted here and there by the usual sibling tussles suddenly became ‘a broken home.’ Socially and emotionally I was suddenly cast into a great insecure void.
During the summer following my parents’ divorce I worked at a Boy Scout camp near Yellowstone National Park. It was in a remote area, with no electricity and an hour’s drive by dirt roads to the nearest town. I love the outdoors, and had always enjoyed scouting, and each day was exciting and challenging for me, filled with teaching merit badge classes, leading hikes, swimming in a deep blue (and ice cold) lake, and enjoying some of the most pristine wilderness in America. It was nice to be away from the nerve-wracking world of family trauma.
Although camp staff life was busy, there was ample leisure time as well. Before arriving, I had chosen to read the Book of Mormon again (I had read it through when I was eleven), determined this time to test Moroni’s challenge at the end of the book and seek a confirming spiritual witness. I consequently spent many hours absorbed in its stories and pondering some of its truths. Providing counterbalance to this rich spiritual preoccupation were a few of the staff members at the camp, whose convictions varied from committed doubt to sneering contempt. After dinner, casual chats would often lead to gripe sessions about wrongful actions by Church leaders or outspoken criticism of Mormon doctrines at odds with scientific or philosophical theories. As I watched the reactions of other staff, some of them grown men with families, I also became aware of the apathetical comfort of those who chose not to invest too much of themselves in whether or not the Church was true. I was new to such ideas; I had either been insulated from or avoided them to date, but here, alone and on my own for the first time in my life, I decided to try on some of those attitudes. Although they felt dangerous, and filled me with anxiety, my mind felt challenged and awakened by the possibilities that these ideas offered, a brave new world, unbound and unmapped by the codes of my upbringing. In a certain sense it paralleled the surrounding wildness of the remote Wyoming world—both dangerous and liberating—so I was less prone to adhere to the trusted beliefs of my youth. Life took on a hard edge as I felt my soul turning into an arena within which churned a battling array of opposites: good and evil, tradition and progress, belief and doubt, optimism and cynicism.
I finished up my second reading of the Book of Mormon one Saturday evening, and the following day (our day off) I opted not go with most of the staff into town. Instead, with family turmoil in the background and some new questions arising from my forays into doubt, I felt compelled to take a walk in the woods. After meandering a bit, my mind filled with turmoil, I found myself some distance from camp on a bluff overlooking the lake. My personal prayers to date had never lasted more than a few minutes, but that afternoon something deep within my soul drew me to my knees to pour out my heart. It was, as I look back on it now, a watershed moment for me because I was teetering on the edge of faith: no one else was around, nobody was watching me or knew what I was doing, no challenge by an adult nor compulsory deadline had forced me to my knees. It was just me and either God or not-God, and I was determined to wait on Him for some kind of answer or fall through the paper window of illusion into a godless world.
After several hours of a combination of meditation, prayer, listening to my heart beat, and painful, silent waiting, during which time a great anxiety of soul arose within me and seemed to grow larger, I finally concluded that either I was out of tune or timing with the Divine and must continue to walk in blind faith, or that the gaping hole in life’s security that had opened with my parents’ divorce had, with God’s disappearance, just turned into a black, infinite abyss. I stood up and began to walk back to camp. On a whim I did not retrace my steps, but instead worked my way down to the base of the bluff and began walking through the thick pines toward a lakeshore trail.
Disheartened, I climbed over fallen logs and made my way through the underbrush until I suddenly came out into a small clearing shaped like a teardrop, the point of which was uphill, towards the late afternoon sun. Light streamed at an angle through the trees at the top of the clearing, illuminating the round white flowering tops of bear grass clumps that dotted the meadow. And, in the instant it took me to register that light reflecting off the flowers, I suddenly was overwhelmed, and felt showered with a deep sense of love and peace and well being. In that same instant something happened inside me as well; it was as if a dark window in my soul had suddenly been thrown open, and I knew, could sense and feel, that my soul was infinite, eternal. Prior to that moment I had inhabited a two-dimensional world where I defined existence by the coordinates of time and place alone. Suddenly, a third dimension of existence came into being. It is very hard to articulate, but I suddenly could feel myself having existed before I was born and knew that my existence would continue on forever after death. And, unlike other mystical or ephemeral impressions I had experienced before or have had since, this existential awareness anchored in my consciousness, becoming as much a part of me as an arm or an eye. And, in retrospect, it was not just a simple cognitive acquisition, like learning why it rains; nor was it a fact to be processed and remembered, like π to ten decimal places. It became part of how I interacted with life, and filled me with an immense awe at the magnitude of both the world I inhabited and also the infinite love of God.
Walking back through the woods I was filled with both elation and a more sobering sense of life’s gravity. God’s existence was now a personal matter, not just an issue for debate or casual doubt. It was a verity around which the rest of my life must necessarily revolve. It was as though I had been born blind, unaware of the sun save for the fantastic descriptions of it by the sighted, which were often drowned out by the skepticism of the blind majority, when suddenly my eyes could see. God’s existence became for me like the daily presence of the sun, illuminating my walk through life. I could no more doubt God’s existence than my own, and from that moment until now I have walked the earth under His light. Sometimes clouds of despair have dimmed that light, and I have had nights of the soul when I have walked on in darkness, making my way dimly through trials and challenges by the reflected light of others’ faith. Yet I knew, and know, that God is out there, that even during the darkest times the sun will rise again, and that my faith has been and will be rewarded.
From the mire of my confusing and troubled adolescence came the beautiful flower of conviction that has filled me through the years since. I firmly believe that, regardless of one’s upbringing—and especially for those raised in the faith—achieving personal conviction through faithful action initiated on our part is the most important step we can take towards building a relationship with God. I know that the flower of faith has sustained me during life’s turmoils and has been the basis for some of the greatest insights I have gained in my subsequent life as a spouse and as a father, and in my professional life.
J. Scott Miller is a Professor of Japanese and Comparative Literature at Brigham Young University. Following a mission to Japan, he received his B.A. from BYU in comparative literature and later earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in East Asian studies from Princeton University. (He has also studied at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.) He was an associate professor of Japanese at Colgate University, in Hamilton, New York, prior to joining the faculty at BYU in 1994. At BYU, he has served as chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, associate dean of Undergraduate Education, Honors Program Director, and co-director of BYU’s International Cinema program. His research and publications revolve around nineteenth-century and modern Japanese literature, oral narrative and translation theory, and early Japanese sound recordings.
He has served in various Church callings, most enjoyable among them Primary pianist, stake music chair, and young men’s president.
He met his future wife, Judy Caccavella, in the Princeton Ward while going to graduate school. They are the parents of Michela and Joseph.
Posted February 2011