Holy Envy: Seeing Spiritual Symmetry in a Navajo Rug

Holy Envy: Seeing Spiritual Symmetry in a Navajo Rug

Val Edwards

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Over the years I’ve traveled to portions of the Navajo Nation a number of times. This piece of the American southwest is both beautiful and evocative. Long mesas, red rock pinnacles, and a unique mixture of old and new: trading posts and modern convenience stores; elders in velveteen and turquoise and their grandchildren focused on their I-phones; radio advertisements in both Navajo and English. The geography, the customs, the people all make the place sacred.

I am an Anglo Christian of Latter-day Saint persuasion and recognize the limitations of my observations. Navajo spirituality tricks me. I think I’ve grasped an insight only to see it change shape and point elsewhere. It is in the works of art that impressions hold together. Spirit and matter are joined.

I’m fortunate to own two Navajo rugs. One is of the Two Grey Hills style, named for the region in New Mexico where it originated close to a hundred years ago. These rugs are known for their natural colors — gray and brown hues, cream, white and black — their very tight weave, and their intricate patterns. At the center of this rug is a serrated diamond; seven borders in alternating colors and different edge designs radiate outward. In each corner are triangles, squares and terraced steps of different colors. A white zigzag line runs down the edge of the rug, just inside a surrounding black border. The entire rug is a perfect symmetry of numerous combinations of geometric designs and colors. When folded together, the corners or edges will match perfectly. Amazingly, weavers use no predetermined patterns or outlines. The design and detail of the rug is in each individual weaver’s mind.

The other rug (a different style) was made by a Navajo woman now in her nineties who completed the weaving in very traditional fashion. She raised and cared for the sheep from which the wool came. After shearing the sheep, she washed and carded the wool, spun it into yarn, dyed it with natural ingredients, and prepared the loom. Then the weaving began. While most rugs now are made of commercial yarns, the same levels of skill and patience are required in the weaving. The design is revealed through long hours (days, weeks, even months) spent running horizontal wefts of colored wool through precisely-spaced vertical warp cords. One expert has said that “weaving requires a unique combination and coordination of conceptual and manual skills.”[1]

The Navajo woman who made the second rug knows her sheep like her own family. When she married as a young girl in 1936, she was given twelve sheep. Decades later, she can still trace her current sheep back to those original twelve. Incredibly, some of those came from sheep her grandparents obtained when they returned to their native lands after the Navajo Long Walk from Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, in the late 1860’s.

I marvel at Navajo rugs — the beauty and art, the craft and history. For me, they also reflect two elements of a Navajo worldview I particularly admire: symmetry and sacred homeland.

Symmetry. To appreciate their meaning, one must look often at Navajo rugs like these two. There is a complexity and a completeness not noticed at first glance. Repeated views reveal not only new designs and combinations of colors and patterns; there is also a wholeness to be grasped, a harmony to experience. The balance, order, and symmetry — touchstones in a Navajo worldview — are extraordinary. “The Gods designed this world to be a beautiful, harmonious, happy and healthy place. To be maintained, beauty needs to be expressed and renewed in ritual, song, art, speech, dress and daily living.”[2] Such is a Navajo rug — individual creativity and cultural patterns that produce something beautiful, good, harmonious, and symmetrical.

Even older weavers, whose trembling hands or failing eyesight won’t allow for perfect lines or straight edges, still envision in their minds beautifully balanced and proportioned weavings. An aspiration and reflection of the lives they have lived. Such equilibrium in life reminds me of how Jesus would have me live.

Sacred Homeland. I think of those generations of sheep that link my rug to the joyous, distressing and necessary Navajo migration back to their homeland, a homeland surrounded by the four sacred mountains. The land was given to them by deities after they emerged from various underworlds. (Several other indigenous tribes have emergence and migration narratives, being led to sacred lands.) The wool for the rug is connected to earth, as are the plants from which the dye is made to color the wool. The connectedness and symmetry achieved in making a rug also exists in all things. The earth is “a living, breathing entity in an animate universe. The land with its water, plants, and animals is a spiritual creation.”[3]

In my own religious tradition, we do not separate matter from spirit. The Navajo worldview takes this thought further and helps me appreciate even more a statement from early church leader Brigham Young. “There is life in all matter, throughout the vast extent of all the eternities; it is in the rock, the sand, the dust, in water, air, the gases, and, in short, in every description and organization of matter.”

Much can be learned from a rug.

Val Edwards is a retired public relations professional and outdoor enthusiast living in southern Utah.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

[1] I am indebted to Gary Witherspoon and his clear thinking and understanding, especially as found in “Self-Esteem and Self-Expression in Navajo Weaving,” Plateau, Vol. 52, No. 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert S. McPherson, Sacred Land, Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners Region (Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Brigham Young University, 1992), 11.

Holy Envy: The Holiness of Kneeling

Holy Envy: The Holiness of Kneeling

Daniel Mark

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In Judaism, or certainly in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, we’re not supposed to imitate, much less envy, the ways of the gentiles, a name we give to those outside our faith. So when Krister Stendhal, the late Bishop of Stockholm, urged believers to look for the admirable in other religions, I did not entirely know what to make of it. Does my own faith, the one true faith if I’m right, lack something? Did God give other peoples better ways to serve Him?

These questions do not preoccupy me unduly. But there is one thing I particularly admire. It is, perhaps, the simplest religious act of all.

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” In America, a country whose religious culture is shaped by Christian ways of worship, it is the child kneeling by the bedside that often comes to mind when I think of prayer. This is so despite the fact that I recite the prescribed Jewish prayers three times a day. For Ultra-orthodox Jews, who are more insular, the dominant culture’s images play far less a role in shaping their religious imagination. But, for me, a Modern Orthodox Jew, who, in my youth, consumed the same books, movies, television shows as my fellow citizens, the image of the child knelt in prayer is strong.

What does this act of kneeling mean? To kneel is to humble oneself. It is to show reverence. Submission. Sometimes it is to beg. Other times it is to surrender to overwhelming pain. One story I will never forget is of a great rabbi who, upon hearing that his wife of many years had passed away, fell to his knees in grief, sobbing and wrapping his arms around God’s ankles, as it were. Perhaps being on one’s knees is so compelling because it is not always a voluntary act, but an involuntary expression of being physically, emotionally, or spiritually destitute.

In Judaism, we take kneeling very seriously. In ancient times, this act took place at the Temple in Jerusalem when, on the holiest of days, the high priest pronounced the ineffable name of God. Nowadays, we reserve kneeling (and bowing down from our knees) for a few moments during the High Holidays, especially in the part of the liturgy that recounts the Temple scene. But never besides then. In refraining from kneeling at all other times, in prayer and not, we demonstrate that nothing equates to the Temple experience. Indeed, depending on the flooring of the synagogue, we often put down a cloth or paper towel to avoid incidentally touching down on a marble or even wood surface.

Moreover, during the holiest prayers in our liturgy, including our daily recitals, we stand fully erect, feet together, in imitation of the angels who are said to appear to have only one leg (like our two legs together) and no knees. So, kneeling in prayer is not only rare for Jews but also not necessarily our most sanctified stance.

And yet—and yet—when I am feeling most humble (not often, to be sure) or desperate (not often, either, thank God) or praiseful (working on that one), I feel the urge to kneel. I don’t do it, but I almost wish I could. At those times, I am slightly jealous of my Catholic friends who kneel each week (or day) at Mass. We Jews are ever mindful of the fact that worship is not just a function of the mind and the lips, but of one’s entire being. We regularly enact the Psalmist’s image “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee” (Psalms 35:10) by swaying back and forth as we pray. It is a characteristically Jewish image — somewhat like the Evangelical Protestant with outstretched arms, hands high in the air — a trademark of our faith that is alien to all others.

So, it is not that my tradition is insensitive to praying with one’s whole self — with heart, soul, and might devoted in concert to God. Rather, it is being schooled in a faith that values embodied worship and at the same time in a culture that has powerful depictions of knelt prayer that may explain why I am tempted to take a knee from time to time. Spontaneously. Or perhaps the urge to kneel before God is built into our nature as humans, and the God of Israel disciplines us to genuflect only before Him in His house.

As an Orthodox Jew, I will continue to kneel only in the holiest of moments and places. As God would have me do. But whenever I behold seekers of divine comfort drop to their knees in prayer, I will still be moved to a spiritual solidarity that makes this world a humbler place.

Daniel Mark is a professor of political science at Villanova University and currently a visiting fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He also serves as the Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Sharing Deep Joy and Deep Pain in an African-American Church

Sharing Deep Joy and Deep Pain in an African-American Church

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

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I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I walked in the door of Christ the King United Church of Christ (UCC) in the fall of 2014. I just knew that I had to be in church, but I didn’t know where to go. My family and I had moved to St. Louis a year earlier, and it still felt like an unfamiliar place. When African-American teenager Mike Brown died on a street in Ferguson the previous month, just a few miles away from our house, I knew I needed a church community to help me mourn, to take this moment of fracture—both mine and that of the larger community—and nourish it into something new.

On the face of it, Christ the King was a lot like the church I had been a member of for 25 years in North Carolina. It was part of the same denomination, a liberal Protestant tradition that prided itself on advocating for progressive social causes, including women’s ordination. The minister at Christ the King, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, embodied what the UCC calls its “radical inclusiveness.” But my church back home, for all of its expansive outreach, consisted of a large, fairly traditional, white, affluent congregation in a college town. Christ the King, on the other hand, perched right next door to Ferguson, was small and strapped for money. And the congregation, at least the gathering I could see on Sunday mornings, was all African-American.

I’d like to say that this was an entirely comfortable transition. I’m a scholar of religious history and have taught and written about African-American Protestantism for over three decades. I have attended plenty of services in the black church tradition as a guest and observer. I knew about altar calls, shouting, and prayers that lasted twenty minutes. I even knew the words to some of the gospel songs.

It was harder to know what my whiteness might mean amid such raw racial fracture. But I was raw too, in my own way: I entered there in need of something I couldn’t even identify, an acknowledgment of feeling and experience, that I hadn’t found in the predominantly white UCC churches in town that I’d visited. I came not as an expert ready to interpret this experience, but as someone hurt and angry and in need, both for myself and for this new place I wanted to call home.

What did I find? I found a willingness to talk openly about the gaping wounds in our city that divided us by race. I heard a call for love enmeshed with a vivid and persistent thirst for justice. I saw a community that opened its doors to all-comers, including a homeless man who occasionally showed up and even interrupted the service a few times—and I saw his cries met with attention and acceptance. I met a congregation that didn’t find it weird to see a lone white woman showing up week after week; they just kept right on hugging me.

Most of all, I discovered at Christ the King an astounding mix of joy and pain, both of which were embraced and welcomed in. It is a church that can hold it all because it has to. One sunny Sunday morning we gathered outside the sanctuary after the service with over 100 red and black balloons. As Rev. Blackmon spoke the names of all the victims of gun violence in St. Louis over the past year, we let them sail away into the air. She then asked others to name loved ones who had been shot and killed. At least two dozen people in the gathering identified family and friends lost. So much grief to bear.

Yet it’s the joy and love that nourish people. There’s a lot of great music, and plenty of potlucks after church. And there is a great deal to celebrate: weddings, births, graduations. We take time during the service to praise the young people who are achieving remarkable things and getting good jobs. Sometimes I get antsy when the service goes past the two-hour mark or when the choir launches yet another verse. I’m never convinced I like the keyboard playing in the background during the prayers. None of this is the “white” Protestant tradition in which I was raised, where you felt self-conscious coughing out loud during the service.

Is this holy envy? Close, but not exactly. It’s more of a fellowship of the heart. Christ the King isn’t a typical “black church” any more than there is one typical “white church.” But I do think there is a lot that many white Protestants could learn about loving and living together in community from their brothers and sisters in African-American Protestant traditions. How to hold and share deep pain and profound joy, and most often both at the same time. How to sing and pray as if your life depended on it. How to welcome whoever God brings through the door.

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Interfaith Friends and Deep Gratitude

Interfaith Friends and Deep Gratitude

John Inazu

Photo by Chris Berry and BenRosePhotography

Interfaith friendship means finding common ground with others even when we differ in our beliefs. This requires clarity about our differences and charity across those differences. Religious differences are not trivial, like our preferences for sports teams or ice cream flavors. Rather, they concern the ultimate questions of existence, with serious implications for how we choose to live our lives.

The weight of religious differences means that I do not actually revere all the beliefs of my interfaith friends. I do not have “holy envy.” But I do have a genuine appreciation for these friends and their influence on my life. Let’s call it “deep gratitude.”

Respect for individuals can exist where beliefs diverge.

I have deep gratitude for the counsel and example of my dissertation advisor, Jeff Spinner-Halev. Jeff is Jewish, which means that his faith commitments differ from mine as a Christian. But we share academic commitments in what we write and how we write. Throughout my graduate work, Jeff demonstrated an ability to blend a commitment to excellence with a willingness not to take himself too seriously. But more than that, he never hid his faith or the obligations that flowed from it. To the contrary, Jeff’s integration of faith and work modeled for me the kind of scholar who bridges different worlds without neglecting any of them.

I like to think I’m a better husband and father from conversations with my Muslim friend, Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core. Despite our religious differences, Eboo and I experience common pressures in balancing travel and speaking engagements with family commitments. We have spoken together around the country and are currently co-teaching a class at Washington University. I always enjoy debating issues of pluralism and religious difference with him. But the defining moment of our friendship came during a walk around a park where we talked about our families. In that moment, and in many subsequent ones like it, Eboo encourages me as a person of faith and a human being to care for my family, to guard against pride, and to take seriously my own commitments.

My atheist friends challenge me with their honesty and eagerness in probing weighty questions. I won’t name these friends because they do not publicly identify as atheists. But they do not shy away from that label in our private conversations. I admire their willingness to articulate fear and uncertainty, which I sometimes find lacking in Christian friends who mask rather than confess their own doubts. This does not mean, however, that I think doubt and unbelief are good things. As a Christian whose hope is rooted in the life and death of Jesus, I wish that my atheist friends (and friends of other faiths) could share in that hope. But I value their depth of thought in our discussions about the difference between optimism and hope (the latter requires an object toward which it is directed). And I admire the integrity of their reasoning, though ultimately it can have the effect of leaving them without hope, absent a belief in God. This is a costly honesty, but honesty nonetheless, something that is missing in many of our social interactions. And their openness to share it with me signals trust, vulnerability—and friendship.

Interfaith friendships personify differences in a way that softens our assumptions and stereotypes. They allow us to experience charity that is rooted in relationships with real human beings. I do not think abstractly about Jews, Muslims, and atheists—I think of Jeff, Eboo, and other friends whom I have the privilege of knowing. And I thank God for each of them.

John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Holy Envy: A Mormon Learns to See by Jewish Lights

Holy Envy: A Mormon Learns to See by Jewish Lights

Betsy VanDenBerghe

Holy Envy: A Mormon Learns to See by Jewish Lights

A long time ago, back in the 1980s, I found myself getting depressed on east-coast subways. Their dank ambience and indifferent passengers, some of them crazy and yelling nonsensical rants, made certain commutes feel dystopian.

After exiting the train into a particularly gloomy station one night, I looked up at a billboard looming over the scurrying crowd below. Meant to encourage Sabbath observance in the Jewish community, the placard showed a serene woman hovering over the luminous glow of a Shabbat candle, shining a light in my subway darkness. I stared and absorbed its warmth while the horde passed me by.

That year the publishing industry in which I worked was overtaken by Jay McInerney’s poignant and funny breakout novel Bright Lights, Big City. But the lights in that book only dimmed the protagonist in cocaine-infused sleep and re-emerged as the sun’s harsh rays aggravated a hangover. All around, the city seemed a murky place.

How much more the radiance of that Shabbat candle lifted my spirits over the drab neon of urban streets. How grateful I was, in a moment of holy envy, for what the Jewish tradition had offered me, a Mormon, through the joy and cohesion I’d witnessed in communities many consider rigid. Even more lasting, how richly modern Jewish writers (from a variety of branches) have taught me not only about navigating the tension between secular pursuits and religious loyalty, but also about finding light when the world seems darkest.

Like many who outwardly observe Hasidic Jewish communities — men in dark suits, women in head scarves, day-to-day life constrained by more dietary and moral restrictions than even we Mormons grapple with — I considered certain sections of Jerusalem, where I lived during a semester abroad, oppressive. Then, some fellow students and I ended up at a Hasidic dance venue. Accompanied by an ecstatic musical ensemble, a group of men burst into a glorious dancing frenzy that emitted a joy so palpable my flesh stayed goose-bumped and my head awash in serotonin for hours. This paradox of highly restrained living co-existing with deep passion captured my imagination.

Later, living in a Jewish neighborhood in Boston, I watched families walking to synagogue on Saturdays. What a reversal, I thought, from my own upbringing in Utah where we were the ones walking to church on Sundays while those not of our faith watched me. I felt strangely jealous, even though my Sabbath was only a day away.

Appreciation of my own religious enclave, with our similar tight-knight communities, matured in important ways thanks to Chaim Potok’s novels. His Jewish characters navigated between the sacred obligations of their religion and the creative affinity they felt for writers, thinkers, and artists that the good world offers beyond the purview of the synagogue. While most modern and postmodern authors throw religion under the bus of a secular worldview, Potok remains wary of the nihilist and relativist directions those buses tend to move in. He recognizes that the gifts of belonging to what scholars call “intense” religions (interestingly, the kind that continue to flourish over declining “moderate” religions in this country) also entail the demands of high expectations and the irritations of communal idiosyncrasies.

Those who barricade themselves heavily within faith communities, Potok suggests, miss out on light and truth beyond the enclave. But those who discard their religion for the world risk losing meaning, a connection with the Divine, and a faith community, however flawed, to help them along the way. Perhaps balance is not only possible, I gleaned from Potok, but imperative.

Reading Holocaust memoirs sometimes left my connection to the Divine shaken. Elie Weisel wonders where God is as he witnesses an Auschwitz group hanging that includes a young boy whose light weight keeps him flailing helplessly in the noose. This and other biographical encounters with the unthinkable gave me a low-grade fever of religious malaise for a time. But other Jewish authors helped heal it, including Victor Frankl, who, in one of his concentration camp moments of despair hears a voice tell him “Yes” to his question about ultimate purpose. The confirmation was quickly followed by a light in a distant farmhouse glimmering on the horizon “as if painted there,” he writes. “Et lux in tenebris lucet — and the light shineth in darkness.”

Gerda Weissmann Klein signed my beloved copy of All But My Life after a public lecture. She survived not only the camps, but a thousand-mile winter march that started with four thousand girls and ended with two hundred. She survived because on the hot summer morning when she was to report for transport, her deeply religious father looked up from his Bible and told her to wear ski boots.

Before the departure, this father found Gerda in a sober mood, secretly contemplating suicide, and put his hand on the back of her neck, saying, “Whatever you are thinking now is wrong … Promise me that no matter what happens you will never do it.” Gerda makes a sacred vow, but the spiritual and physical impoverishment of the camps takes its toll and, given an opportunity, she yearns to throw herself under an oncoming train. “At the precise moment,” she writes, “when death seemed the only solution,” she feels a strange sensation on the back of her neck reminding her of the promise, and goes on living.

I also have a nostalgic copy of Bright Lights, Big City signed by Jay McInerney. Chapter Four includes a brilliant subway encounter with a group of Hasidim from Brooklyn. The protagonist, wracked by existential despair, sits beside one who is peacefully reading his Talmud. “This man has a God and a History, a Community,” he realizes and goes on to contemplate religion’s gifts of transcendence, hope, and community — gifts he’s never known. “Wearing black wool all summer must seem like a small price to pay,” the secular man thinks of his subway mate. “He believes he is one of God’s chosen whereas you feel like an integer in a random series of numbers.” But the insight passes quickly. After inwardly laughing about the Hasidic haircut, he disembarks and the partying continues apace.

“We religious believers, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, are often mocked as people who have lost touch with reality,” observes scholar Ulrich L. Lehner. “But I think the opposite is true.” According to Lehner, authentic religion invites us to not only accept the reality of our failings and those of the world around us compared to the greatness of God, but also to re-focus our desires and give certain things up. I’m grateful for the gifts of my Jewish friends, in books and in person, who have helped me understand that even the best the world has to offer is not worth the loss of my faith, which promises that “thou wilt light my candle: the LORD my god will enlighten my darkness.” (Psalm 18:28)

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Holy Envy: What Confucianism Taught Me about Mourning

Holy Envy: What Confucianism Taught Me about Mourning

Michael Ing


I have studied Confucianism for nearly 20 years. More specifically, I research Confucian ritual and ethics dating approximately 2000 years ago. Many of these rituals deal with death and how Confucians mourned for those who passed away. During my studies, I have been struck at how texts written long ago in a foreign place and in a foreign language could speak about grief and loss so poignantly.

One of the texts I work on discusses burial customs. It explains that the dead should be entombed with the things he or she enjoyed while alive. So if our loved ones enjoyed playing musical instruments like a flute or zither, they should be buried with such. However, the instrument they are buried with is significantly different from the instrument they played while alive. The buried instruments, the text explains, should not work. The holes of the flute are not to be carved, and the strings of the zither are not to be tuned. This is because, according to the text, our loved ones are in fact dead and will not actually play them, so there is no use in making them work. However, we should still put them in the tomb, because our loved ones are not entirely gone from us.

This is a remarkable attempt to make sense of the world after the loss of a loved one. To continue living as if nothing has changed is to deny the reality of the loss. To view the loss as something completely severed from our lives is to deny the reality of the relationship we had with the deceased. “Death,” writes one scholar, “marks both an end and a terrible new beginning.”[1]

My grandmother died several years ago, quite unexpectedly. Despite living far away (in Atlanta), she was an important part of my childhood. I grew up spending several weeks with her each summer. She taught me how to swim, fish, and play video games. Her death, in many ways, marked the complete end of my childhood and the beginning of my life as an adult in a world without Grandma.

Confucians practiced elaborate forms of mourning; and mourning is differentiated from grief. The latter is a feeling that comes upon us when confronted with loss. We are “stricken” with grief, often unexpectedly. Mourning, on the other hand, is what we do to cope with grief. In my faith tradition — Mormonism — we often suppress our grief and give it the shortest life possible. We comfort ourselves with reminders of the rewards in the life to come, consoling each other that families are forever, and hope this will remedy our grief. But I believe we could benefit from more constructive ways of mourning.

I am not discounting the consolation that an eternal family brings. At the same time we must not forget, as grand as these promises are, they do not always meet the immediate needs of the mourner. They may not, for instance, help the widow whose three children have come down with the flu and who now must navigate between work and sick kids at home with no one else to watch them. They may not hearten the widower who had been with his wife for 60 years and is now lying in bed at night unable to sleep. Nor will they soothe the friend who now has no one to talk with in her time of need.

It is the mundane parts of life that suddenly become significant when we lose someone. Yet all too often we pretend that the grand parts of the gospel make up for these ordinary moments.

I have learned from my studies that we can change the way we handle grief. Rather than seeing it as a problem in need of a remedy, we can view it as a constitutive part of a meaningful life. This may not lessen the amount of grief we feel, but it will open the door for more fruitful ways of processing it.

Early Confucian tradition had a custom similar to what we call a funeral procession. One text explains:

In following [the funeral procession to the grave], mourners were expectant and anxious as if they were following after [someone alive] but could never quite catch up to him. When returning, they… were hesitant and uneasy as if they sought after [their loved one], but did not find him. As such, when mourners follow [the funeral procession] it is as if they long to see [the deceased still alive]; and when they return it is as if they are bewildered [in not being able to find him].

Regardless of where they sought him, he could not be found. They entered the door to his home, but did not find him there. They ascended up into the main hall, but did not find him there. They entered his personal quarters, but did not find him there. Alas, he was gone; only to be mourned, and never to be seen again!

This is why mourners wail, shed tears, beat their chests, and falter. They stop doing these things only after they fully exhaust their sorrow.[2]

Much of this is foreign to us (and I am not necessarily advocating it) but is also profound. What I get out of this is a stark recognition that as hard as we try to live life as it was lived before the loss of a loved one, it cannot be done. Life before grief is never the same as life after grief. We need more ways to cope with our grief as we learn to live with loss. Death will never stop hurting, but as Confucian ritual teaches us, that hurt can bring new meaning to a new life.

Michael Ing is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. He focuses on ritual, ethics, and issues of vulnerability as they relate to the human condition.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

[1] Amy Olberding, “Slowing Death Down: Mourning in the Analects,” in Confucius Now: Contemporary Encounters with the Analects, edited by David Jones (Chicago: Open Court, 2008), 143. Olberding’s work on Confucian attitudes toward death informs my description in this article.

[2] Liji, “Wensang,” 36.1.

Holy Envy: What This Catholic Learned About Missionary Work from Mormons

Holy Envy: What This Catholic Learned About Missionary Work from Mormons

Brian Grim

“Where did you serve your mission?” That’s a typical question Mormons ask each other. And it’s one I can relate to. I served missions in China, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East, and converted from Baptist to Catholic along the way.

For a married Catholic like myself with four grown kids, that is perhaps a one-of-a-kind personal history. And even Mormons might view it as an unusual mission background. But I think it’s one that many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day can relate to.

On occasion I’ve been asked what I might say to Pope Francis next time I meet him. If given the opportunity, I’d ask him a simple question: “How different do you think the world would be if every Catholic young person aspired to serve a two-year mission like Mormon young people do?”

It’s not just the time young adults spend serving a mission and the lives they impact that makes a difference. It’s also the years of spiritual, financial, and psychological preparation supported by friends, family and congregations that make a difference. This all adds to the spiritual and temporal strength of the LDS Church itself.

It’s not that Catholics don’t have mission programs. They do – FOCUS Missionaries (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and Maryknoll Mission Volunteers to name a few. The difference is that serving a mission tends to be the exception for Catholics rather than the rule.

Of course, there are aspects of the Mormon approach to spiritual and temporal affairs that make it more possible for them than for Catholics to field a global lay missionary force.

First, Mormons don’t have professional clergy. Their operations depend on volunteer lay leadership at the local level. LDS local pastors (what they call bishops) devote scores of hours each week to attending to the needs of their congregation, or “ward.” And at the stake level, what the Catholics might call a diocese, the leadership is also voluntary.

Second, they have special callings for people to take a break from their careers, often mid-career, and travel to different parts of the world at subsistence pay to head up the work. These mission presidents answer a call that requires them to put their professional lives on hold for three years in order to supervise hundreds of young Mormons getting their feet wet as missionaries. Catholics don’t have a parallel.

And third, active Mormons by-and-large tithe. They give 10% of their incomes as offerings to the LDS Church, which helps make the global missionary endeavor possible.

It’s not that Catholics couldn’t rise to the challenge – they do in countless ways – but such an endeavor would require a paradigm shift in how they approach missionary work.

Nevertheless, one potential advantage Catholics have is that their missionary endeavor is not centralized – not all mission callings need to go through the Vatican. That might seem like a disadvantage to many Mormons, but the closer an initiative is to the local beneficiary, the more likely people are to wholeheartedly support it. Just think of the tremendous benefit of Evangelical Christian missions such as the Gospel Rescue Missions. Their billion-dollar impact stems from the legion of volunteers that help in each city without any central coordination.

These days I’m not working as a missionary. Or, to be more precise, my mission is to promote freedom of religion and belief for all. In that task I’m happy to say there is more direct similarity between Catholics and Mormons.

The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith said that anyone who “would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics.” In that sense, Joseph Smith was prophetic. We’re all in this together. In the 1960s the Vatican declaration on religious freedom – DIGNITATIS HUMANAE – acknowledged that it is the agency and response of each individual to promote salvation in Christ rather than rely on the government to defend what it deems to be “orthodox” beliefs.

Today, I’m heading the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, which helps businesses, governments, and civil society see the pragmatic benefits of religious freedom. It’s another area where Catholics and Mormons have a lot in common. But that’s an essay for a different day.

Brian Grim is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. As president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, he interacts with people of many different faiths around the world.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.