I am grateful to see a dialogue taking place among us, the people and especially the women of the LDS church, over our role within our community. Many friends that are balancing the pressures and responsibilities of work, family life, studies, new babies!, church callings and all the other general busy-ness have made the sacrifice to carve out the time and create a space to share their voice in this experience. It is exactly because I know I have come to a better understanding of my own thoughts as I have read and talked with many others, that I feel I want to share my own experience.
So in the dark hours while my husband and three young children are snuggled warmly in their beds, I am writing this. I hope to offer another voice in an effort to assist any attempt being made to understand the mindset of an active Latter Day Saint woman with a desire for an expanded role in the church/priesthood.
Now I imagine from what I have read in the comments across the blogosphere, the last statement would make many within my religious community think of me as being one of those volatile outliers. I am that woman. I am the woman that is “in bitterness of soul” and above all disruptive. I am Hannah.
If you remember the account in the 1 Samuel in the Old Testament, at a time that I imagine was similar to our gathering at general conference, many righteous Israelites gathered to celebrate and sacrifice at at the temple. At this time Hannah rose up and came before the temple gate. And “she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore…And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the Lord, that Eli marked her mouth.”
Now I have great sympathy for both Hannah and Eli. I believe Eli probably sat at the gates of the temple for the very purpose of trying to ensure the sanctity and reverence for the temple at a very busy time. I doubt Eli had an easy task. I imagine there were large crowds of people, lots going on. And here before him was a woman that appeared so out of sorts, so troubled, that on first impression he thought she was drunk. To make matters worse, she was not moving on. Hannah seems to have lingered at the gate for so long, that in exasperation Eli exclaims “How long will thee be drunken? put away thy wine from thee.”
Eli clearly found Hannah to be a distraction and hindrance to his attempts to provide his people with an orderly worship experience. Because she was. But I imagine Hannah and Eli coming face to face, and Hannah’s response after making it clear she is not drunk but praying and pouring out her soul to the Lord, is a plea, “Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Balail.” Please recognize that I am “thine handmaid” a faithful servant in the church, and dedicated to the doctrine.
Eli initially mistook Hannah’s engagement for disengagement. He was put off by her struggle before God, thinking that her struggling in such a public place and way originated out of a lack of reverence for what they both held sacred. But Hannah publicly “petitioned” the Lord because she felt in her soul a destiny that she needed the divine power in her life to accomplish. She had a vision of a work to do.
But what was the value of Hannah’s wrestle before God taking place in such a public space?
Would it not have been more productive for Hannah to work out her sorrows that were after all between herself and her God in a quiet space, a private space like her own home?
Hannah came to the Temple, to the place she recognized as a source of divine power. She came to commune with God in an attempt to make a covenant and be blessed with enabling power needed to fulfill the role she sensed.
If Hannah felt drawn to the power of the priesthood and temple, why not find a quiet corner out of the way rather than the heavily trafficked front gate? or a less busy time?
On reflection, I find Hannah’s public petition as a deliberate act of humility and a great sacrifice. Hannah was a woman described as “well provided for” and greatly loved. She was in a position where it would have been very possible to put away her sorrows and maintain every appearance of being complete and whole. Her husband Elkanah, having allotted an abundant portion to Hannah, sees his wife’s sadness and questions “why weepest thou? am I not better than ten sons?” Another person may have been satisfied. Because of her position of wealth and love, Hannah had no need to bear the reproach of her religious community. She could have continued as she was and lived a good life.
By stepping into the public eye in her state of grief, Hannah deliberately sacrificed her position. She took on the reproach she did not have to bear. She accepted the humiliation of her incompleteness and need. It seems she did this as a sincere offering to the Lord, in a step towards making and fulfilling a greater covenant.
It is a very different position to stand in public and with full knowledge, to preach to the people in prophetic wisdom. As harrowing as Jeremiah’s or Stephen’s or Abinadi’s position, all eventual martyrs, such prophets stood before all cloaked in the their conviction of the will of God. But Hannah came before everyone, the people, and the priests, and her God, bare in her need. She did not come to lecture or admonish but instead to witness, here am I, send me. That seems an incredible type of faith.
It is the faith of a leper who steps out into the light, before the crowds that will gape and gawk and likely geer, in order to come near enough to receive the blessing to be healed.
And Eli recognized her faith and blesses her petitioning of God, answering “Go in Peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him. …So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.”
Now I do identify with Hannah. And I identify most with Hannah before she ever approaches the temple gate. I have been abundantly provided for from the goodness in the church. I have an incredibly kind, loving, and dutiful husband. I have rich relationships in my immediate family informed by my understanding of the plan of salvation. I have an extended family that prays and fasts and loves each other. I have covenants that anchor my life. I enjoy revelation and inspiration and a relationship with Jesus Christ. I have experienced miracles, received healing blessings given with the priesthood. I have great reverence for the power of the priesthood. I teach and serve in church. I am served and taught by both men and women in my church community. Consequently, it is well within my capacity to exist within the church without making my sorrows and desire for greater understanding public knowledge. When I sorrow, it has been privately and quietly when I commune with my God or very close friends.
So what is the problem? What more is needed? All the goodness of Hannah’s situation, did not change the understanding she had the potential to undertake a greater work if she fulfilled her covenant with God.
As for the goodness of our current situation, we are often more equal, more at home with equality, than we give ourselves credit for or admit to. It is among my active Mormon community that I have witnessed men that lead their fields in law and science and business, responsibly teach and entertain the rambunctious three year olds in nursery. It is among active Mormons that I have watched the authority of one young woman bring direction and organization to hundreds of male and female workers during a busy service project. Our relationships are bound up in care and respect. Men and women teach from the pulpit. Men and women administer the different organizations in our ward. We are familiar with the practices of shared work, shared insight, and male and female cooperation.
That said, I am not a man. I do not want to be a man. I do not want to go to Elder’s Quorum. I do not want to tuck away or assimilate the life experiences that I have that are deeply tied to my female existence. I am a woman that lost several pregnancies then had three babies in four years. A large portion of my recent experiences are physically unavailable to a man, and these experiences are spiritually significant. My husband’s active participation in these events, though he is immediate and sensitive and understanding, is not the same as my own. As much as we talk and understand each other, as much as he can tell the story of what happened and the impact on his own spirituality, we live different lives.
I am a woman. I am a woman that wants and needs the Relief Society and Young Women’s organizations to have the power and the autonomy to grant space for the development and confidence of female spiritual power. So women’s spiritual experiences will be cultivated, taught, and remembered. So that we, the faithful women of the church, may gain confidence in our abilities to bless and administer to others.
I feel a great hope and longing that the many different lives of the women of the church might also become more familiar in the public spaces of the church. I want to have female spiritual leaders with a variety of experiences that teach and preach and enrich our understanding and decision making. When I use the word our, I mean our whole community male and female, young and old. Let us believe and recognized that women’s abilities and experiences are relevant and enriching to not only women, but everyone.
This is the work that I sense, the work to fill the places and spaces that are lying vacant. Grand halls built, but unfilled.
I believe the process has begun, the lower age for female missionaries, the doctrinally substantive addresses of female auxiliary leaders, the integration of the younger girls and young women with the relief society are all wonderful developments. But I feel the need for continued progress and revelation. As President Julie Beck, quoting President Kimball, explained in 2012 “There is a power in this organization [of Relief Society] that has not yet been fully exercised to strengthen the homes of Zion and build the Kingdom of God—nor will it until both the sisters and the priesthood catch the vision of Relief Society.” Notice the words “not yet been fully exercised” and “both the sisters and the priesthood catch the vision.” Now I know that the separation of sisters and priesthood in the wording may be discouraging to many of us but I find it important that she as the president of the relief society recognized a yet unfulfilled potential.
Now I wish I came before you as a wise prophetess, able to direct what should be done. But I am not a wise prophetess. I can’t direct what should be done. I believe the priesthood, the power of God, is not mine to direct. I believe God directs the church. There are many wise and faithful prophets and many faithful and insightful people that are and will continue to work with God and assist us to “catch the vision” of what is possible.
I have thought and prayed on these things. I believe by sacrificing the privacy of our sorrow and the satisfaction of our current state, we might gain greater understanding. I believe there is greater power available to us. I believe there are blessing God would grant us. I believe there is knowledge and greater understanding that could be revealed. I know there is healing we desire. I believe there is revelation that would enable us to greater work.
So before dismissing the Mormon women that will be demonstrating this weekend as dissidents and apostate, I ask that we consider the story of Eli & Hannah. I ask you to remember that I write this essay as Hannah stood, keenly aware of my sense of need and incompleteness. I ask that in the baring of my need, you “count not thine handmaiden as a servant of Balail” but as Eli did, consider if it is possible to offer a blessing to “Go in Peace, and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him.”