verb (used with object), knew, known, know·ing.
1. to perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty
2.to have established or fixed in the mind or memory
3.to be cognizant or aware of
4.be acquainted with, as by sight, experience, or report
5.to understand from experience or attainment
What do you know for sure?
My entire life has been driven by this question. KNOW… the most powerful word that exists in mormon culture. When I say or even think this word, I hear the definitive crack of a slamming of a gavel. It is done.
I left my faith because of the misuse and abuse of this word.
As a mormon girl, I ached to know. I wanted it so much, the need swirled, undefined and cloudy within me until unmet, it settled itself into my bones. Infused itself into my muscles and fibers and tissues.
“I know the church is true.”
“I know the scriptures are true.”
“I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.”
These declarations of truth are scratched into my psyche. Imprinted. The desire to make those words my own drove me to the brink of despair. I followed all of the mormon formulas, but the words were not mine to profess. To be surrounded by people with such concrete proclamations burrowed a deep well of failure inside me.
Once a month, mormon worship includes holding an open mic testimony meeting, where members of the congregation go up the pulpit and declare what they know is true.
[tes-tuh-moh-nee, or, esp. British, -muh-nee] Show IPA
noun, plural tes·ti·mo·nies.
1. Law. the statement or declaration of a witness under oath or affirmation, usually in court.
2. evidence in support of a fact or statement; proof.
3. open declaration or profession, as of faith.
4. Usually, testimonies. the precepts of God.
Although there is no script, the conditioning that begins in the preschool years leads to the inclusion of certain key phrases that most people use while “bearing their testimony.” It almost always begins with
“I’d like to bear my testimony…I know the church is true.”
There is no age restriction, so usually the open mic hour will begin with children in the congregation. Parents will lead their toddlers and preschoolers up to the mic, hoist them onto their hips, or let them stand invisible behind the thick wooden lectern. They whisper the words to their tiny children. The little ones must hold their breath with the strain of listening to their mom or dad’s sentences, which they repeat in a breathy burst.
I know this church is true…
I know the scriptures are the words of God…
I know Heavenly Father loves me.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Then the adults get up. They will often tell a story to illustrate their “knowing.” They often cry. I remember my mother’s soft hands, twisting tissues around her fingers, dabbing her eyes. She is moved to tears with ease. My father, sitting straight and attentive, was less emotive. Neither of my parents brought me to the pulpit. I never felt their lips and their breath tickling my ear, feeding me their words to declare. They did not pressure me as I got older to participate in this public ritual. I felt weak with relief that they never required it of me. But, the opportunity to “bear your testimony” was presented with great regularity throughout my upbringing. Sunday school, scripture studies, youth activities, church camp, and family gatherings. I have witnessed my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, parents, mentors and friends all tearfully bear their testimony throughout my life.
My best friend through middle school and high school was not a mormon girl. She was delightfully agnostic, and her life was not an internal storm of powerful statements and concepts (God, testimony, truth, sacred, salvation, purity, modesty, worthiness). She came with me to a youth overnight camp for teens ages 14 + when we were juniors in high school. It was one of the few times I ever invited her to a church activity. At the end of the overnight trip, there was a testimony meeting. I sat next to her, feeling as if I might erupt with expectation, as one by one, my peers and friends got up and declared their testimony. My friend began elbowing me, urging me to get up and do it. “Go. Go.” She prodded after each teenager sniffled their way back their seat. She wanted me to do it, she wanted to hear what it was that I knew. I shook my head in refusal, and finally, I turned in my seat and caught her eyes. I let her see it, for just a brief flash…the devastation I felt in not knowing.
I decided to give the mormon church one last chance when I was a young student teacher, writing to a mormon missionary whom I felt I was falling in love with. I wanted the door to be opened to me… the door that seemed to close me off from the knowing that my family and peers all spoke of so reverently… I had been knocking until my knuckles bled, and the mantle of shame, being shut out of this special place, was crushing.
I read the Book of Mormon. It took a while, because every few verses I would be overcome by doubt. I would read a passage and feel resistance. I would drop to my knees every few minutes and plead with Heavenly Father to release me from the doubts, to open my heart. To let me in. A steady stream of tears dripped from the end of my nose onto the flimsy pages of text. I finished the whole book this way, reading, weeping, pleading, praying.
I waited for the affirmation that what I read was “true.” I waited for the burning in my heart, the warmth and knowledge that had been declared to me by everyone I loved. It was a knowing I would not be granted.
It could not be formed out of my desire.
Over the weekend, Rick and I watched the fifth Harry Potter movie with my girls. In the story, Harry has to write “I must not tell lies” on a sheet of paper with a magic quill. As he does this, the words are painfully etched into his flesh. When he asks how many times he must write the words, the professor responds, “Until it leaves a mark.”
There did not need to be a magic quill like Harry’s to wound me, only the continual and absolute declaration of truth and knowledge by everyone important to me…and their insistence that my inability to join them was my own retched failings. The etched over words “I know this church is true” were not a delicious imprint, but a searing scar I carried.
They had left their mark.
I was never allowed to shape my own personal testimony. There is only one answer to arrive at… the church is true. How is a child supposed to explore and come to their own ideas about God, spirit, worthiness, sacrifice, scripture, and prayer, when the answers are whispered into their ears, etched into their souls since infancy, and kept there with the fear of losing their culture, their identity, the acceptance of their people? The notion that what one knows to be personal truth should also be accepted or can be experienced as universal truth is limiting, damaging, and confining. People need opportunity to explore who they are free of shame and fear. Children must not be spoon fed what we feel is our truth. It is our job to be witnesses to the unfolding of their own knowing. To present all the possibilities we can and watch with fascination as the differences and similarities emerge.
What do you know? What IS knowing?
I have known things. That knowing came in a flash of recognition, the way a deep breath fills your lungs and then is carried into every organ, every tissue, every cell, through your beating heart.
When I comb through my life for the most significant moments, KNOWING are the shimmering stones on my pathway. The moments I KNEW. They vibrate with tension and energy…. The moment I knew I would marry Rick. The moment I knew I was pregnant. The moment I knew the force of a mother’s love. The moment I knew that I must look for my own knowing. The moment I knew I must reclaim myself.
The only thing that we can truly know is ourselves. Knowing oneself is a work that spans a lifetime of inquiry and analysis and forgiveness and fortitude, and what I believe, is the purpose of our life.
To know oneself, is to know God.
“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” – Laozi