Any essay of mine published last year in an anthology, A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saints on a Modern-Day Zion.
Here’s a review of the book that also includes a short review of the essay.
Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.— Eugène Ionesco
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. — Psalm 137:1
Could there be any ideal farther out of reach than Zion? For thousands of years various peoples have tried to build city-versions of it, only to have them captured or destroyed. Jewish and Christian communities have longed for it with such prolonged intensity that numerous locations— both past and future— have borne its designation: Zion was a ruined, once glorious city left behind in ages past; or it was a mountain, or a temple. Zion is simultaneously a future utopia, where the righteous will dwell in peace forever.
In the midst of seemingly eternal remembering and waiting, Mormons have found a place for Zion in the present: within the pure in heart, those who dwell together with one heart and mind. But who are the pure in heart? Where are those communities of people who willingly live side by side, who think and feel as one? Would any of us dare to number ourselves amongst these godlike beings, who dwell in the company of angels?
Seemingly the one place in scripture where Zion is a success—Enoch’s legendary city—was taken by God to heaven without a trace. Yet we learn from Enoch that even (perhaps especially) such a paradisiacal association is not without its cost. Before God removes Zion from the world, he shows Enoch the immense suffering and evil among the peoples of the earth, and Enoch is filled with sorrow and bitterness. He would eventually receive a fullness of joy, but not before he was burdened with the sorrow and despair of the world.
For Joseph Smith, Zion was almost all burden and little joy. The primary driving force of most of his prophetic career, Zion was everywhere in his letters and revelations, and he was far from alone among the Saints in his exuberance to build the City of God in America. The strict communitarian economics of this Zion, combined with physical exile from the divinely appointed site of the city itself in Missouri led to failure after failure in establishing the visionary city. Later, he would love Nauvoo, but Nauvoo was not the Zion of the revelations, it was not the New Jerusalem, and Joseph would be haunted his entire life by his failure to bring Enoch’s city back to earth.
Of course we know Zion eventually became any stake, or geographical grouping of LDS congregations, anywhere in the world. If all Zion amounted to was a gathering place of the Saints, then this would surely be fully adequate. Yet that demanding injunction to become one of the “pure in heart,” where those with “one heart and one mind dwell in righteousness,” and where there is “no poor among them” remains. Virtually no place or people on earth measures up to these standards. All of us fall far short.
This certainly doesn’t mean we cease to strive toward the Zion ideal. We are promised Zion will one day flourish, and it will still be a safe refuge from the suffering and death of the world. In our efforts to sincerely tap into the highest in us and build more unified, loving communities, other good things still often get built, though the City itself and its purified hearts may continue to elude us. Yet there is at least one commonality amongst all the iterations of Zion that seems to pervade all our various notions of the holy city: Zion is always mourned for and wept over.
Whether we are remembering a Zion of the past, or longing, because of the relentless conditions of the world we currently live in, for the rest and refuge of a Zion of the future, to consider Zion is to mourn for it. Zion cannot be understood without some sense of the staggering abyss between longed-for ideals and present realities, of the irrevocable hope for a place of pure love and belonging and the alienation and loneliness of a wilderness where only remnants, at best, of such a place remain. Zion is that safe place of the ancient past we cannot seem to resurrect; it is that impossibly distant Eternal Shelter of the future that seems further and further away the more insistently we move toward it and understand what is truly required to build it.
In the absence of a refuge where we can love ourselves because others see us truly, and we are not shamed or injured by one another, but instead flourish together, we build cities around our own hearts. The walls and buildings of these cities are made of comfortable gods who are better-looking, more confident versions of ourselves; its streets are ideologies that drive us into separate villages of soul-numbing sameness; it is populated by fear that we cannot be acceptable unless we prove our worth over and over again to those who often also have a hard time loving us, because they, too, are flying apart to show us that they, too, deserve to live.
These heart fortifications are responsible for much of the violence and loneliness in the world. Our overt efforts to combat these conditions often result in them becoming even more reinforced. The one thing that often (though not always) breaks through when all else fails is a mutual recognition of shared suffering.
Someone I only distantly knew suddenly lost a loved one. This person was (and remains) a difficult personality for me. I virtually always disagreed with him and still generally find him to be abrasive, passive aggressive, and narcissistic. The virtual distance between us made it easier to think what I wanted about him, and I am sure there were many things I believed that had no factual basis. So I conveniently despised him from a distance, and he would conveniently, with remarkable precision, live up to my judgments about him. Yet, news of his family’s loss erased, at least for a time, years of compounded antagonism. It’s humbling the effect another’s suffering can have on us. Animosity and invincibility fall away upon being confronted with their loss. The parts of our hearts that have been broken by our own sufferings reach out to the broken heart of another, and, sometimes openly, sometimes silently and invisibly, we weep together. We feel in those moments, as Joseph Smith was reported to have once said, the desire to take their cares and sorrows upon own shoulders, and cast their (supposed) sins behind our backs.
The mere fact of suffering doesn’t always have this effect. When our hearts soften toward others because of their grief or loss, we can scarcely believe this experience is not inevitable. But it’s not. There is nothing guaranteeing our empathy, compassion, and mercy. Sometimes the conditions for these virtues align themselves in such a way we feel compelled, against our natural, unthinking wills, to put aside our antagonisms. Other times, no matter the favorable conditions for forgiveness and compassion, we choose to bury these virtues, and reserve them for more worthy persons, often persons who can prop up our gods and make us feel better about ourselves. At times we feel irresistibly drawn to compassion; at other times confrontation with suffering presents itself as a choice. Unfortunately, we often choose hardness.
The work of mourning, which is ultimately the work of Zion that is most consistently present and available to us, is a knife that efficiently cuts away the outer protective shells we have carefully built to keep others away, obscuring our view of one another. At various times these shells are arrogant intellectualism, or an overbearing sense of humor, insensitivity to other viewpoints, or offensive remarks, irritating personality traits…. But what really changes here? Traits we formerly found so difficult or impossible have not magically disappeared. Instead, our eyes have changed, if only briefly. These things have faded into the posturing background noise (where they were always most at home) of a lived life. Now we see our enemy truly, and as we mourn with them, they become a person we can actually love. Mourning elides space-time in this way, and takes what would have been years (if ever) of bitterly hard work and condenses it into a shared moment where time stands still and we are left with only each other. Mourning makes us real to one another, and in the case of an enemy, real for the first time. It counteracts the usual human work of cutting out caricatures of people to better serve our needs. Such caricatures are easier to use, dismiss, or even kill, than real persons. Only in suffering are we really together. If Zion is one heart and mind, a unified people, then only under conditions of mourning and grieving do we lay aside that which separates us.
Mourning is the pure evocation of Zion.
Zion is far behind us and we weep for it. Zion will not come and we will weep for it. Zion is ever just out of reach. Sometimes we tend to the poor a little more; sometimes we have more precise charity for our neighbors; sometimes we enjoy the company of the Saints a little more freely. But this is not Zion. Zion is what we weep for, not what we have built. Zion is what we mourn, not a goal to be accomplished. Zion is what must be redeemed, not a flawless utopia. Zion is here but is not the destination of our striving. In the funerary corners of private and public lamentation we glimpse a redeemed city that will stand for eternity. Where there is no mourning, Zion is fled.