Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Pattern of Pilgrimage and God's Covenant Race

In every dispensation since the beginning of time, God’s people have been characterized as “wanderers in a strange land” (Alma 13:23). The first couple on Earth, Adam and Eve, was cast from the Garden of Eden according to the Divine plan and thence left to roam the lone and dreary world, a sphere quite unlike Paradise—one full of opposition, uncertainty, adversity, and fear. Enoch, after receiving his divine commission, ventured “forth in the land, among […] people” who described him and his work as “strange” (Moses 6:37-38). Noah and his family drifted over the waters for what must have seemed an endless duration, bound for no place in particular, yet always bearing in mind their mission to perpetuate God’s kingdom anew in the recently purified world. Abraham was led by the Lord out of “the land of the Chaldeans, […] the residence of [his] fathers” to, as the apostle Paul expressed, “sojourn[…] in the land of promise, as in a strange country” (Abraham 1:1; Hebrews 11:9). The great wanderer, Moses, led the children of Israel into the Arab wilderness, away from Egypt, to struggle and to fight for forty difficult (to say the least) years.

On the American continent, far from these Old World counterparts, the Lehites (having already traversed the deserts of Arabia and sailed across the many waters, always led by the hand of Jehovah) wandered around and around for hundreds of years. And hundreds of years before this, the Jaredites filtered across the sea and drifted through the same land.

In his own time, Christ, who not only knew but is the Way, affiliated himself with this elite group of sojourners when he ventured into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights before the commencement of his mortal ministry, which in turn led him to wander the land of his own people, the Jews, all the while preaching, teaching, and healing. Indeed, as he once said of himself, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

And finally, in our own dispensation, headed by Joseph Smith (who seemed always to be on the move), the Lord’s saints—our forebears—were forced to move from city to city in America’s East, until, at last, the Lord commanded them, through Brigham Young, to “journey[…] to the West,” the barely inhabitable desert, to make their earthly home (D&C 136:1).

Such references to this pattern of pilgrimage are as endless as the wanderers and their wanderings. Certainly the whole canon of scripture, as well as much secular literature, is replete with humanity’s quest for something more, with homesickness, a wanderlust leading its possessors to leave their present abodes and to venture into the wilderness—whether physical, psychological, or emotional—in search of true belonging, something they’re never quite able to find. This yearning and its subsequent lack of fulfillment are perhaps best illustrated in Eliza R. Snow’s words, found in our hymn “O My Father”: “[O]fttimes a secret something / Whisper[s], ‘You’re a stranger here’” (Hymns, 292); and if strangers, then far from Home. T.S. Eliot, the 20th century poet, captured a similar sentiment in the following lines: “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling // We shall not cease from exploration” (“Little Gidding,” Four Quartets, line 238-9). Such homesick wanderlust is the common lot of all humanity, through time and through space.

Yet, some vital differences arise when we consider this pattern as it relates to God’s covenant race. Hugh Nibley, prominent Latter-day Saint scholar, explains these differences thus: “While some groups […] have been driven into the wilderness against their will—though always with a measure of calculation on their part—one church alone has had the honor of resembling Israel on the march in all details without having to resort to any of the usual artificial devices and theatrical plots” of those who simply take to the wilderness of their own accord, seeking to replicate in a laboratory, as it were, the conditions naturally surrounding the people of God. He continues:

The parallels between the history of the restored Church and the doings of the ancients are so numerous and striking that even enemies of the Church have pointed them out again and again—what writer has not compared Brigham Young to Moses, for example? But I think in the case of the Latter-day Saints these resemblances have an extraordinary force, and that, for two main reasons: (1) that they are not intentional and, (2) that they actually are the fulfillment of modern-day prophecy.

The prophecy in question is found in the Doctrine and Covenants 49:24-25:

“But before the great day of the Lord shall come, Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose. Zion shall flourish upon the hills and rejoice upon the mountains, and shall be assembled together unto the place which I have appointed.”

It is significant that all three of these “chosen people” were to suffer and dwell in the wilderness before the days of their rejoicing. The trials and tribulations of Zion in a very real wilderness in the remotest regions of the earth were matched by those of the Lamanites, driven from their lands and reduced to the last extremes of poverty and hardship in miserable and out-of-the-way tracts of wood and desert, and even more closely resemble the untold labors and dangers of the heroic settlers in the barren wastes of modern Palestine. All this is a sequel and vindication of the Book of Mormon, binding the Old World and the New together in a single divine economy, as the prophets foretold. The principal actors of the mighty drama are still the descendants of Lehi on the one side and the children of “the Jews […] at Jerusalem” on the other, and the scene of their trials and victories is still as ever the desert.[1]

As recipients and results of this pioneer past and as participants in the Lord’s continuing pattern of pilgrimage, through which he deems to keep us separate from the world and to make Saints of us, it seems appropriate to ask ourselves a simple question: Therefore, what? In other words, what does all this talk of pioneers and pilgrimage, wandering and wilderness really have to do with us? Does it mean we should trek through the wilderness (as our youth groups often do), trying to recreate for ourselves, in a sometimes, I fear, too sensational way, the extremities of our forebears’ lives?

I’m convinced that such isn’t required of us and that we can honor our pioneer heritage by learning of them and their experiences, yes, but also by living our own lives in faith, by being pioneers in our right, whether that be by leading the way into Christ’s Church as converts (something we all must do in one way or another) or by “build[ing] the […] waste places” that have been razed in our family lines and experiences, enduring the slings and arrows of our family (mis)fortunes by planting our kids in the firm foundations of faith and righteousness so that we might become, as Isaiah prophecies, “The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in” (Isaiah 58:12). Only then can we be “a light unto the Gentiles, and through [God’s] priesthood, […] savior[s] unto [his] people Israel” (D&C 86:11), bringing many to experience the paradoxesthe heights and depths, the joys and miseriesof sainthood as we press forward, our historical position notwithstanding, in pioneering faith.

[1] An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988. 154. Emphasis mine.