Monday, April 21, 2014

An Irreverent Catholic's Take on a Sunday Spent in a Mormon church: A Modified Re-Post

Nothing very charismatic happens in Sacrament meeting. Remaining awake for the duration can be a challenge.

The first thing you will see after driving into the parking lot of a meetinghouse for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the back door to the church. You will probably enter the church through the back door. In Catholic churches and just about every other church I know of, worshipers enter through a front door into a foyer or vestibule, leading into a sanctuary. Mormon churches have front doors leading to foyers or vestibules, but no one, and I mean no one enters through those doors. Once I left my sweater in my aunt's car and had to go back to get it. Just for the novelty of the experience, I walked around the building to enter through the supposed front door. It was locked. I knocked. No one heard me. This was roughly ten minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, so it's not as though whoever was in charge of opening the buildings shouldn't have been expecting people to show up at that hour.

Another thing I soon learned is that if you arrive at the scheduled starting time of an LDS service, you're early. In Catholic masses, it's rare for a priest to begin his procession down the aisle even as late as 8:31 for a mass scheduled for 8:30. The Mormons admittedly operate on a different time frame, which they call Mormon standard time. It's ten to fifteen minutes later than the standard time within the zone. Even allowing for the later-than-scheduled starting time, about one-fourth of the members will walk in after the service has begun. It would be disconcerting to Mormons if this were not the case: they would wonder if something unusual was happening, as if maybe the Powers That Be had issued some special decree that Jesus himself was to conduct the meeting that day.

Once you've entered the church through the back door and have walked across a wooden floor that seems suspiciously like a basketball court, especially because of the hoops with nets at either end and the painted-on three-point and free-throw lanes and lines, you'll hear the strains of organ music. It probably won't be the best organ music you've ever heard. In other churches with which I've been associated, if an organist is needed, an application process of some sort, usually with auditions, takes place. At some point, payment is discussed, because church organists often are paid for their services. In a Mormon church, the bishop picks whomever he feels inspired to pick to be the organist, and if the person chosen wishes to remain a Mormon in good standing, he or she agrees to take on the (non-paying) job. Usually the Mormon chosen to be organist isn't brand new to the organ or at least the piano, but often the person lacks the experience or talent to perform in front of a group of people, much less to play fluently so that the congregation can sing along with the playing. I've heard terrible organists at Mormon churches, and I've heard some who were modestly skilled. The ones you see on TV appearing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are typically among the most skilled and talented the church has to offer, although I've yet to hear one of them whose skills rival those of my mom. She could never play at a Mormon church even if she were visiting, though; she's the incubus: a Catholic whose in-laws think she seduced their son into being a Catholic.

Next, a man will approach the pulpit, which Mormons call a podium, and will speak a few words before announcing the opening hymn. The hymn will be sung with members seated. It took me a long time to figure this out, but Mormons have so many children at these services that they don't want to risk letting them stand up for fear they'd run all over the building and hijack the meeting. Unless it's a really popular hymn, the Mormons will only half-sing it. Someone will be standing next to the organist waving a music director's baton around. This person is termed the "chorister." Theoretically the chorister is setting the tempo and leading the congregation. Such is not really the case. The organist plays the hymn at whatever the hell speed he or she wants, and the congregation only looks at the person waving the stick to see if he or she (usually she) has gotten off-beat or is doing anything really weird.

Then they'll have a prayer, followed by any church business. This includes announcing new members, announcing people who are starting or leaving church jobs, announcing anyone who has been excommunicated [I think] and blessing babies.

Next comes preparation for The Sacrament [translation: communion], beginning with  the Sacrament hymn. The hymn usually contains graphic descriptions of the crucifixion and of Jesus' time alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. As the Sacrament hymn begins, members of the priesthood secure the doors and stand guard as though some covert CIA operation is about to take place. One is not supposed to enter or leave the chapel during this time. I've always wanted to announce that I was going to barf immediately just to see if they'd let me out during this apparently secretive phase of their worship. Then the Sacrament (communion to everyone else) prayer is said over the bread. Little twelve-year-old boys pass it out in trays. Sometimes they screw up, and then they all giggle. Sometimes they giggle even when they don't screw up. Don't expect anything special by way of bread. It's Wonder Bread or the store-brand equivalent. (Once it was my cousin's job to bring the bread, and his mom gave him whole wheat bread to take. One would have thought from the reaction of the members that rock cocaine was being passed out in place of white bread.) The most important person in the building is given the Sacrament first. If one of the twelve-year-old boys screws up and hands it out to someone else first, there will be hell to pay later.

Then the same thing happens with "water," which represents the blood of Jesus. Grape juice is apparently too expensive. I understand the reluctance to use actual wine, but it seems a church of such wealth could spring for a couple of bottles of Costco grape juice each week.

Then the CIA covert operation ends, and the doors open up. On a normal Sunday, speakers are announced. Mormons don't have paid clergy at the local level. (My grandfather, who is far above the local level, is living off the membership's dollar, but local bishops and the like slave away for the pure privilege of doing so.) Often there's a youth speaker, who very rarely has anything of intelligence to say, and is very rarely interesting enough to hold the attention of even his own parents.

Sometimes a musical selection follows. It very often sucks. Mormons seem to have the attitude that it is acceptable to throw any song together at the last minute and then perform it in church, and this lack of preparation is evident. Usually this is a vocal solo or ensemble. If you're lucky enough to have an instrumental selection, the quality may [but not necessarily] be higher.

Then comes the featured speaker or speakers. Once a month someone from the "Stake," which is the rough equivalent to a diocese, comes to deliver a message on a specific topic. This person may be a very interesting speaker, or he may be the most boring, unprepared, and incoherent speaker on the planet. (It's always a "he." The Mormon church is run by males.) the more important in the church the person is, the more boring his voice will be. On two other Sundays in a month, the bishop and his counselors assign speakers. In most cases, these people would rather be sitting in the inner sanctum of hell, within striking distance of Satan himself and surrounded by flames, than be speaking before the congregation. Nonetheless, they speak when asked to do so because Mormons are accustomed to doing as they are told. What these speakers say is rarely thoughtful, organized, relevant, or remotely interesting. I know this, because I've actually paid attention a couple of times. I was, however, the only person in the building paying any attention, except for my parents and brother if they were present. For the most part, the speaker could be reciting from the Koran, telling about his hemmorrhoidectomy, or speaking in tongues, and no one would notice, because Mormons pay little to no attention to speakers. They don't look in the direction of the speakers as they're speaking, and they don't listen to what any of the speakers have to say. Some Mormons have the ready-made excuse of having small children to corral. Others are just blatantly rude. They rest their elbows on their knees and hold their heads in their hands, looking down, quite possibly napping. They thumb through hymnals or other books in their possession. They use their iphones if they can do so discreetly. They do anything but pay attention to the speaker.

My mom says Mormons think they've done such a great thing by just showing up for three hours each Sunday that they have God's blessing to be as rude as they want while there. My father doesn't disagree. On the rare occasion my family attends a Mormon service together out of some family obligation, my parents look directly at whomever is speaking the entire time he or she (usually he) is speaking, and they demand that my brother and I do the same. It seems somewhat disconcerting to the speakers to actually have someone looking at them while they give their "talks." Boring as it can be, I've come to rather enjoy the aspect of making the speaker uncomfortable merely by paying attention.

Then there's a closing hymn and a closing prayer, followed by a short break before the Mormons divide up by age for Sunday School, to be followed by Priesthood Meeting and Relief Society for the adults, and Primary, for the kids. I won't talk in great detail about Primary except to say that women have the unenviable job of holding children's attention after the children have already sat through two hours of church. Such cannot be easy. I also will shate that the songs sung by Mormon children are intended to indoctrinate them from a very early age to the principles of the faith. If a little kid grows up from the age of three singing about golden plates that were buried in New York until a young boy was shown where to find them, that child will grow into an adolescent who will take it for granted that such is the truth rather than questioning it, as my father did. If my father had started attending the LDS church early enough to sing those songs at an young age, skepticism may never have hit him. Also, some of the songs are insulting to the intelligence of the least intelligent kid present. I got into big trouble with an aunt once for refusing to sing along on a special song they were practicing for a program. The song was something about  "When I grow up, I want to have a family, four little, five little, six little babies of my own." If at that age (probably seven) I had spoken of such in my own home, I would have been forced to endure a lecture about overpopulation and the earth's dwindling resources.

The first Sunday each month offers a slightly different routine in LDS churches. In place of speakers, the Mormons have an open microphone. They don't call it that, of course. They call it "Fast and Testimony Meeting." They customarily fast for about twenty-four hours prior to their meeting. Then whomever is inspired to say something goes up to the microphone and speaks his piece. Usually it's boring sameness. "I know the Church is True. I know Jesus is the Christ. i know Joseph Smith was a prophet." Etc. Many try to relate brief faith-promoting stories. Some relate long, convoluted stories that they may find to be faith-promoting but that no ones else does. The most exciting possibility occurs when a truly crazed person makes it to the microphone, in which case all bets are off, and anything and everything may happen.

I've only been to five testimony meetings. I slept through one of them because I was two years old and had tired myself out by screaming and fighting to escape as my grandfather and uncles blessed me in front of the congregation. In the other four "Fast and Testimony Meetings," I've heard: a woman say that Satan had appeared in her bedroom two nights earlier  and had tried to take her life because she had gone to bed without wearing her sacred undergarments; a man confessing to his wife and the entire congregation that he had committed the sin of adultery, pointing out his alleged adultress who was present in the congregation; a man declaring that he knew for a fact that Jesus Christ wore a crew cut and had no facial hair; and a woman declaring that the death of Martin Luther King had been accomplished by the priesthood in order to do the Lord's work of ridding the world of evil. These are just a few of the highlights. Many other less remarkable but funny things have been said in these meetings. I should have kept a list.

I've taken care to be tasteful here. My father has been through the temple, where secret covenants are made, and those present at the temple ceremony are told under severe penalty not to ever reveal them. While my dad never sat me down and told me, "Here's exactly what goes on in the temple ceremony," he's answered any questions I've asked. I could have provided information here that would have, not at all in fun, placed the church in a very bad light. I've tried not to poke fun at the things Mormons hold most sacred and dear. The things I've discussed are matters I'd like to think Mormons themselves could either laugh about or look at and ponder as to whether change is in order. Whether certain readers will take what I've written in the spirit it was intended remains to be seen.


  1. I can't believe your mother seduced a Mormon! Oh, the humanity!

    1. My mother was a modern-day Delilah as far as my paternal grandfather was concerned.

  2. And I used to think two hours of church was a boring form of hell… My mom was a church organist for over fifty years and would probably hate attending a Mormon church for the terrible organ music alone.

    1. You'll get the occasional decent organist in an LDS church -- more often than not a convert -- but for the most part it's pretty grim.

    2. My replies keep getting eaten by the l
      Lucifer of the cyberwaves. In any event, if you ever attended a ward featuring proficient organist, you were in a most distinct minority. In today's world, TPTB would spruce up your chapel, put in a pipe organ, and start taping the sacrament meetings for BYU-TV programming in order to make people think Sacrament Meetings were like that everywhere.

  3. Here's the thing, I've heard many Mormons boast that they have "really good music" in their wards/stakes. They think that because an inordinate number of them (mostly girls) are pressured into taking enough piano to learn to play a hymn or 2, since their future congregations will need a free accompanist. Since their musical careers are fueled by guilt rather than enthusiasm, the result is as expected. -- Something akin to the efforts that many of the boys apply to earning their Eagle badges. Great description, Alexis. I felt as if I was sitting through another church service. Meaning it creeped me out. lol

  4. Good post Alexis. It never occurred to me that I spent my entire life entering the church through side and back doors. There was one building (the stake center of my youth) that was actually entered through the front doors more often than not. After reading your post I must admit; I kind of want to attend a Fast and Testimony Meeting after 28 years of not attending. hmmm the thought is intriguing.

    I will say that the Ward I grew up in had an excellent organist; this always became obvious when there was a substitute organist.

    1. Jill, it's amazing just how often many of us do something because the people ahead of us do it, and how often we do so without giving any manner of thought to just why it is that we do it that way.

    2. Donna, if you attended a ward with a proficient organist, you were a part of a very elite minority.