ARTIST IN EXILE
My Highest Regards to the reader. The next he will read in this volume will be written next year in the U.S.A... I typed a letter to Mother explaining my decision, telling her to wait for further news.The most important lessons about religion and life came from this period of intense emotional and mental effort. Going home seemed to be the obvious choice based on his new conclusions.
Tuesday morning we sent our luggage; I am sending my trunk to Firenze in anticipation of my trip home. I have endeavored even to sell this trunk; instead I want to fill the trunk with sweaters and statues to be sent home.
On the train we practiced the Piedmontese dialect songs we were to learn for the talent night. We arrived about 6:30 PM and took bus 17 red to the Youth Hostel.
Jack only told a few elders about his plans to leave the Mission. Otherwise he was proceeding normally until he could talk to the president and finalize his departure.
I went out early this morning shopping with three other elders and we bought sweaters and generally looked around. By chance we met Al Will, who was by himself, and he joined us for pizza. We took the bus to the first session of conference at 1:00 PM.
The conference proceeded much the same as the previous programs with Jack taking very little interest in the content. His attention centered on his personal concerns. He was tired and struggled to stay awake.
Then at 6:00 PM we began the talent night and we sang three dialect songs which came off rather poorly.Each time the Torino minstrels made a mistake or paused the audience interrupted with friendly jeers and taunts. What a pack of wolves.
The next day was Christmas and Jack looked for a chance to talk to the president.
I wanted to play football, but decided against it and shortly went to the president's house in the company of Elder Bender (who was newly assigned to be Al Will's companion.) We ate candy, punch and banana-nut bread until 6:00 PM or so when I finally got a chance to talk to him about my failure and decision.
"You've been having trouble with your testimony for several months now. This isn't a new problem is it?"
"No. It's a fight in my mind that comes and goes. Now it seems I don't want to win."
"What you're doing is jeopardizing your whole life; do you realize that?"
"I guess so but it's not something I can help."
"Yes it is, because you can gain your faith back. You aren't lost, you haven't done anything bad have you?"
"No. The only problem I have is in my mind, fighting confusion and losing."
"I want you to pray and fast during this conference and make one more try. Okay? You owe that to yourself and to your family. Talk to some of the other elders you think might help. You've made a lot of friends and they can help you. Then when the conference is over we will talk at length. If nothing has changed, then we'll figure out what to do. In any case, I'll have to assign someone else to take your new assignment."
"I understand and I'm sorry to be such a problem. I always like to be part of the solution. But this time I'm fighting desperately against an overwhelming logic." The president paused, unsure of how to respond to that comment about "overwhelming logic."
"You work on it, then let's get together later."
After some tears I was still resolved to my course of action. I decided to talk it over with a couple of friends first.
I went to a basketball game with Elder Will. We won 55-48 against a local team. I talked to Al after the game, before the bus ride and after arriving at the Hostel until 2:30 AM. I was still resolved. He explained why he hadn't already gone home and invited me to continue pushing with him. We prayed together in a small alcove in private.
Al's argument was typical of his complicated reasoning pattern.
"It isn't just wrong to leave early, its wrong twice. First this is a decision that will affect the rest of your life. If you quit you will be a marked man, a quitter, someone who can't finish what he starts. Not just in the eyes of others but in the back of your own mind there will always be a weakness, a withholding of self pride, a willingness to accept defeat."
"Second, a lot of the way you feel about religion is tied in with your emotional well-being. I know when you're hot you're hot; nobody does better at street meetings and at working tirelessly. And when you're not; well, you crash just like I do."
"Why can't I just be steady and keep my conviction from week to week? I'm like a yo-yo."
"That's the emotional part I was talking about. That's normal and everybody does that."
"How am I going to keep it up when I don't have the kind of conviction that you have?"
"You just have to stay in there until it comes to you. You're just thicker than most people. You're the most obstinate person I've ever met."
"You're doing a lot of good anyway, helping a lot of people open their minds and improve their lives. That's worth something."
"That's not enough to keep me convinced."
"There's a secret message out there, I know there is. It's that special phrase or verse that's going to hit you and one day you're going to say, `That's it, it's all so simple. That's the truth.' But if you don't stay in there it can't happen."
Jack thought he already had that message only with the opposite conclusion. "My problem is getting there, staying receptive and being honest about what I tell people. I can't just make up a testimony that I don't have."
"I didn't have the same problem. When I came here to leave for home it was because I wanted to go save my relationship with my girlfriend. Losing her was worse than I expected. It was worse than if she had died because of the promises we made. She sent me back her engagement ring. So when I got it, I went to the Ponte Vecchio and tossed it into the river, diamond and all. It was the only way I could get rid of her. My malaise was connected with her and I had to work through that." Al paused for a minute to recover his composure and then continued.
"You're the only one around here that I've told all this to. If you promise not to repeat it, I will admit I've learned a lot from you. You have to stay around so I can have someone with a quality intellect to talk to. Seaburg's smart but he's too dogmatic. This mission wouldn't be much fun for me either if you weren't around to harass once in a while. We have to work as a team."
"Thanks for sharing that. I know for you it's hard to share your internal problems and me too. I just let things get bottled up and then it all comes out at once."
"I hate to say this because it's too much of a compliment but you have a noble spirit."
"You just said I was obstinate."
"That's just part of it and it isn't necessarily wrong. You're the most honest, conscientious person I know and I know a lot of people. I don't like to admit it or show it often but I depend on your moral support more than you know. Just your being here validates my own effort because you think more deeply than any of these other bozo's put together."
Jack didn't share the details of his realization about infinity, because he thought it was so powerful it could be poison to the belief of other people.
"Thanks again but I can't let myself succumb to flattery. I'm still inside here, frustrated, wondering how to control and utilize all this energy. I don't feel in tune with all this anymore."
When Jack and Al finally went to bed Jack was still set on his intention to leave but Al had done a good job of diminishing his defenses.
The arguments pro and con were still fighting in Jack's mind as the conference reopened.
The first meeting was a testimony meeting. There were many good testimonies given. There was an emotional spirit in the group. I initially felt less subject to this feeling than were the others. It seemed everything said was directed specifically at me or at least it was all appropriate and useful. So, during the progress of the meeting I changed my mind. I decided that to go home would be giving up too easily. Near the end, I got up and delivered a brief statement directed to the president and Al disguised as a statement of support to the general group. I thanked the group for their spirit and remarks and told them I believed in their work and that I would continue to support it. I asked them to help me gain the testimony I needed.Other missionaries admitted having what they thought were similar concerns. They appreciated hearing how someone else had conquered these problems.
After that I cried intermittently and received the good wishes and best of luck from several friends with deep felt gratitude.
Jack had worked through the situation and come up with a winning plan. Throughout this ordeal he was honest about his lack of belief. He realized his decision to continue wasn't supported by his earlier conclusion. He didn't put that behind, he put it on hold again, recognizing that he hadn't completely formulated a clear explanation for others. His decision to stay was supported by the belief of those around him and the closeness he felt to his friends and family who wanted him to succeed in the normal manner.
By acknowledging the mystery implicit in infinity and the futility of inventing answers and rationalizing religions, he could sense that he had accepted a fundamental change in his life. He could explain that and handle that for himself. But, there was nothing in his revelation about the mystery of infinity or in his explanation of the Universe to help others. When you make a decision for yourself of this magnitude, you have to make it function well for others. You have to be able to clearly and simply explain how to create purpose and fulfillment in your life without a god in a way that others can understand without being poisoned.
When you make a moral decision you have to defend it as though you would recommend it for everyone. He knew he wasn't quite there yet, he had not satisfied the Kantian Categorical Imperative. He had to make an effort to create a system which would be useful not only for himself but for others. Sounds easier in theory, however, than it is to do.
When Julie received Jack's latest letter she was confused and sad. Jack was having problems with his conviction about The Church, and that bothered her because she had never felt any such concern. She wished she could think of something to say to help Jack.
Jack told her in general terms about having had a headache for three days and his conclusions. The description he gave was so brief and cursory she didn't understand it. He hinted at the possibility of coming home but did not give her the same message he had sent his mother.
Julie and her mother were cooking dinner. "Did you read that letter from Jack I put on the table?"
"Yes, and it is very disturbing. You should show it to your father and see what he thinks. He went through some of those kinds of questions when you were very young. He was a Bishop then and he just lost his testimony for a while. Then he got over it. By the time you were twelve he was going to Church regularly but he never recaptured his early enthusiasm and never had a responsible position again. Ask him what he has to say."
Julie had heard that history but had never discussed the details of those days with her father.
At the end of a rather quiet dinner she broached the subject. "Daddy I got a letter yesterday from Jack and he seems to be having some problem on his mission. I don't really understand it. Can you read this letter and tell me what is going on?"
"Hum. I guess I can try." He put down his newspaper and took the letter. He read it carefully but didn't say anything as the women were clearing the table.
Julie returned and sat across from him with her chin on her hands.
"This doesn't sound good for Jack considering where he is and what he's doing. He seems to be really struggling."
"What happened when you were younger, when you left the Bishopric?"
"I don't remember all the details but I don't recall having had the same kind of thoughts Jack has. I went through so many problems with so many people I more or less got burned out after four years and just needed to take a break. It seemed like there were so many people with problems and all those problems became my problems and I couldn't solve them. And then people would lie to me about what they did and then go right on doing obnoxious things. I just got frustrated and desperate. I would give them my best advice and they would agree and then go right on messing around. It doesn't seem like anything you can do really helps people. Either people help themselves or they don't."
That was as much as Julie and her father had talked about his past experience. "Did you ever deal with someone like Jack who fades in and out of being enthusiastic. He hasn't told me everything I'm sure. Even when we were in High School we used to talk about psychology and philosophy and it seemed he had some unusual ideas. He sent me his journal and I tried to read it but it seemed he was talking some kind of heresy so I didn't read the whole thing. Maybe I should have paid more attention to it."
"Well it's never an easy decision to make. But it seems like Jack has a whole different perspective about religion than you do and it probably won't get better. It looks like you have to face the idea some day that he will leave The Church and you have to decide if you want to help him, fight him or tolerate him. You have to decide if maybe it would be better to fall in love with someone who has the same ideas about religion that you do. There must be thousands of handsome returned missionaries at The BYU who feel strongly about their religious convictions. They would be much easier to live with than someone like Jack who fights against his own internal demons."
Julie's eyes watered with tears of fear and sadness. "I had so much hurt when he left because I loved him so much. Now it seems like I'm wasting away and he's disappearing again. Like he died then and now he's terminally ill and dying all over again."
"He'll probably keep dying over and over and you will suffer with him. Your mother suffered terribly when I left The Church community for a few years. If she hadn't been there I wouldn't have come back. But we were already married so that was different. There is no reason to put yourself in that position knowing the possibilities beforehand. It must be his nature. Maybe he'll just give up and where will you be. You'll be alone in the world. I hated myself for the way my decision affected your mother but it happened and that was that. You can be a lot happier with someone who thinks more like you do. You owe that to yourself and to your children and even to Jack. He would suffer more from the idea of hurting you than from any torture he would go through on his own account. I know I did."
Julie was crying completely with her hands over her face and the conversation ended.
Before returning to college Julie wrote a solemn letter to Jack urging him to pray and stay in Italy until he had come to grips with his beliefs. She would continue to support him and wait for him.
Before coming to the conference Jack had received a transfer from Torino to Verona as a Senior. That would have been a good assignment, but that transfer was canceled, of course. He was assigned to be junior companion to an Elder Rosen in Firenze, close to the Mission Office. They had already met and were friends.
Peter Rosen was an experienced missionary like Jack. "Lincoln, what brings you to the fair city of Firenze. Everybody else here has some story to tell. This is where they send people who need close observation, except for the basketball team, the district leader and the mission staff."
"I've been having trouble keeping my resolve. I have to work on the religious aspect of my mission."
"You're not alone. Most everybody else just slides over that. But, I'll take it easy on you. We'll get along fine."
"What's your story?"
"When I was in Naples I got emotionally involved with a woman. We never did anything serious but it was enough to get me exiled here to Firenze." He was in Firenze for a very different probation.
It was easy to see from Rosen's appearance that he would be attractive to women. He was of Italian decent with black curly hair, 6' 1" tall, muscular build and the perfect facial features of a masculine, male model. These two misfits were off to a good start. They were both easy going and easy to get along with. They had much in common even though they had been raised on opposite sides of the American continent. Elder Rosen was from Queens on Long Island, New York.
It took Jack and Elder Rosen several days to find an apartment; meanwhile Jack followed around Firenze more like a robot, not appreciating the beauties offered by the city. Jack received Julie's letter of support, but could see that the off and on-again attitude was not constructive of a long term relationship with a staunch Mormon with a clear, simple faith. In contrast, Jack's ninety three year old Grandmother wrote him a forceful letter of rebuke. She told him to get his act together and follow the principles of The Church. His father, a more kindred spirit, had let her read the letter he had sent describing his mental anguish, and she was very upset.
Jack's mother was more conciliatory and said she was praying for him. She was glad he had decided to stay and she would keep sending him money of course. She mentioned she would prefer to have him there than in Vietnam where some of the local boys had met their untimely end.
After a week Elder Rosen had a solid lead for an apartment and made an appointment for Sunday morning in another part of town.
We went early to evaluate an apartment and it looks good. Then we hurried back to Priesthood, a great 5 mile hike since the bus wasn't running yet...I said hello to the president and we spoke briefly...
"I'm glad you worked out your problems. You're doing an important work in whatever capacity you serve. You won't regret that you changed your mind. Make sure to contact me if you think I can help you."
President Downey was solicitous and vague. He said a few words of encouragement and went quickly off to attend his duties relating to the other 150 missionaries under his care. He had a simple, apparently uncomplicated faith. He never did understand Jack or attempt to offer the key ingredient missing in Jack's religious life, if he knew it. He assumed it was simply Jack's responsibility to thrive in The Church.
After lunch Jack and Elder Rosen began settling into their new apartment that was nearly as far from the Mission Office as possible.
My comp and I went to the train station for his bags. We bused to the new apartment arriving about 2:30 PM, paid the rent and got the keys. We returned shortly to a district meeting. I was given the assignment of Mutual instructor. Then Sacrament Meeting and after we went home with my trunk and such. My old friend Elder Goldman drove us in the Mission VW Bus.Elder Goldman, another of the "twelve apostles," had advanced in a more traditional way to being the local district leader. Jack was back in the rotation, a reluctant participant, and well outside the leadership loop.
Elder Rosen was coming down with a cold and the next day it took all his strength to find a pharmacy. Jack had a Time Magazine and a few other books to keep him content. They were sharing what amounted to a monastic isolation.
The two began working casually by Wednesday and were quickly reminded of their purpose.
We had two meetings right off the bat. Then we went around to several bookstores and looked for books. I picked up another Penguin catalogue. I had thrown my old one away...then dinner at the Mensa and bused home.The two had more success than they were prepared to handle. Two good meetings the first hour out.
Elder Rosen was still feeling poorly so the next few days they didn't take any chances. They didn't even try to knock on doors since they didn't want to have so much success yet.
Sitting on their unkept beds in their dreary room with the steam heat register clanging, Elder Rosen gave this advice: "You'll be glad you didn't go home early, because you would be a marked man. Everybody wonders what the problem was. Usually they think you had sex or just couldn't cut it."
"That doesn't seem to be a good reason to stay but I understand it. I really want to help people, maybe just opening up their minds to new ideas is a big benefit." Jack was trying to rationalize his decision away from just saving face.
"I almost got sent home, as I told you. But I'm not in any hurry to go there. I don't know what I'm going to do or study in school. I don't have anything that really grabs me. I don't want to enter my dad's business in insurance. I don't want to enlist in the military or be drafted. So I'm just as well off here."
The two shared a common spiritual despondency, but Jack kept his own council on his religious ideas. He didn't have a desire nor enough confidence to persuade others away from their convictions.
The most significant event in Jack's diary during the week was the Italian music festival.
Then we watched television with the house-owners. We saw the song contest, San Remo, some very nice new songs and then bed.This important cultural phenomenon, the music contest at San Remo, was a pleasant diversion. This was the first chance Jack had to watch it. This is where many of the best songs written by the best artists in the US and in Italy had their debut. These songs were repeated on radios during the coming year, and were a timely uplifting influence on both Jack and Elder Rosen.
Jack met another friend, Elder Seaburg, Sunday morning. He was one of the true intellectuals and thus something of a challenging spirit.
"I'm glad you decided to stay."
"You know what I'm dealing with. I talked to you about some of this before."
"I remember, in Pisa at the conference we talked about prayer. I wish we had taken more time to talk and get acquainted in Brescia. I was so busy memorizing lessons and involved with my own studying that I didn't talk to anybody. Since then I've learned that you have to make yourself receptive to the Gospel. Like you have to open the door to let it in. If you're not receptive then you're fighting it, there is no middle ground of indifference. So you just have to remove the barriers that keep you from accepting it and it will naturally flow into your mind. It's like a chronic infection that invades your whole body, of course it's good and constructive."
"I don't feel any barriers but I suppose I have created some. I'll have to think about that."
"You have a better testimony than you are willing to admit to yourself. It has to do with your willingness to get up early in the morning. You believe it will be daylight soon. Your acceptance of Jesus is so basic and subtle you take it for granted like the rotation of the planets."
"I don't think that's my problem. I've examined my conscience for that kind of simple knowledge and never found it."
Seaburg scowled. He had made a good point that most people accepted because they had overlooked it in their own thinking. It had worked for him in discussions with other missionaries but Jack had already examined his conditioning and couldn't honestly find that connection. Nice try. The two events are not parallel.
"Think about that some more. The Gospel can make you powerful. You have the capability to multiply the strength of The Gospel and become a better leader than almost anyone I know. You don't have to do anything except just remove the barriers and the Gospel will take care of the rest. It will act in you and produce a miracle."
"That's been hard for me to accomplish but I'm committed to continue working on it."
"You make it harder than it should be for some reason. I'll think about you and make you my special challenge. I'll help you gain the spirituality you need."
"There is a psychological aspect, an emotionality that controls spirituality, or so it seems. I'm still searching for the difference."
"The facilities of our bodies are limited, there are some redundancies and subtle interactions. Lymph fluids flow freely throughout the body, through the organs of the skin and muscle. Our spirituality is more like that and for sure it flows through our nerves and emotional system. But in an important way it is connected to the infinite spirituality of God."
"That's the connection I haven't recognized. I feel like I'm playing the piano without any fingers. I don't feel sensitive to any nuances other than what I can explain as emotional."
"You might have constructed that barrier yourself. You do have the capacity. You're not a spiritual mutant. It may appear as emotionality in most people but it's not the only explanation. We don't have time to get into that now. I know it's not true for me. But I'll think about you and help you find the key; give me a few days to think about it."
They both smiled and went their separate ways to the Sunday School Meeting.
That evening in his diary Jack evaluated their meeting in his typical skeptical fashion.
We, of course, discovered no new truths by our mutual exchange of ideas. He was convinced that there was a division between the two experiences [spiritual and psychological] and suggested that I myself had a greater testimony than I thought. Which is not the first time I have heard that. Because I do believe, for I surely do, I must continue to present this belief, holding in mind the three basic ideas of Faith, Hope and Charity. These can combine to make me an acceptable missionary. Seaburg's advice is good and well founded, and I plan to apply it.