Although I was born and raised a Wasatch Front Latter-day Saint and was baptized early on in the sea of Mormon culture, I didn’t begin to test these deeply ethnic waters until Eugene England’s intellectual specter called me from the comfort of my newly christened craft to join him in the waves. It happened something like this: A number of years ago, shortly after submitting to a growing passion for words, I was surfing our new internet connection, searching for an entrance into Mormon literature when I serendipitously crashed into the Association for Mormon Letter’s website and found myself, moments later, somehow caught in Dialogue‘s current of back issues (an interesting feat since Dialogue isn’t officially connected with the AML).
Impressed that the best place to start something is usually (though not always) the beginning, I linked to “Volume 01, Number 1, Spring 1966,” then to “Contents.” Having embraced Eugene and his piercing insights and rhetoric after finding “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects“ on the Mormon Literature Database a few months earlier, I was especially drawn to his short essay, “The Possibility of Dialogue,” and to his poem, “The Firegiver.” Deciding it best to begin at the end this time, I’d linked to the poem, read it, and laughed, first off, at the interplay it illustrates between a curious and gifted child and the all-knowing, merciful, and just Parent, Muse, and Mentor he seeks to please; then at how perfectly his language captured (and still captures) the subtle tugs and pulls of my own nascent intellectual discipleship.
From line one in this psalm, Eugene leaves no doubt as to whom he’s speaking and why: “God,” he says, “forgive my pen its trespass, / And I forgive thee the sweet burning / That drives it on through thy dominion.” Approaching his Creator through this playfully candid revision of Christ’s statement that “if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matt. 6:14), he highlights not just the often transgressive efforts we exert in our yearning for an eternal Parent’s approval, but the desire we all feel compelled towards at times to faithfully bargain with God while following the path of duty, talent, and love into the depths of consecration. Abraham exercised this entitlement when he negotiated with Jehovah for the sake of any saints left in Sodom, as did Jacob when he wrestled God’s messenger for a blessing and was afterwards renamed Israel because, in the messenger’s words, “as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Gen. 32:28). Jacob’s strength and persistence thus became the ecclesiastical and political might of Israel, God’s covenant nation.
Likewise, when Mahonri Moriancumer approached God with the “sixteen small stones[,] [“¦] white and clear” (Ether 3:1), that he’d crafted from a rock, he acknowledged at once his weakness and God’s power while very specifically and persuasively laying his case as to why these stones were needed for the Jaredites’ journey across the sea. Then there’s Joseph Smith who, after several dark months in Liberty Jail, recapitulated his desperate pleas for grace in a direct and influential prayer for God’s power to be extended in favor of his afflicted saints. And finally we have Christ, the Great Mediator who begged for the weight of our collective burdens to be lifted from his soul before ultimately submitting his will to the Father’s, earning himself the power and the right to save this round of Creation from the demands of justice. Only through his submission and his determined pleading in our behalf is it even possible for us to come to Elohim with our desires in hand.
Elsewhere Eugene borrows from this prophetic legacy when he relates how he, as the president of a sprawling branch of Saints, had laid his hands on his family’s unresponsive Chevrolet and, in his words, while “explaining to the Lord that I was about his work, that my branch needed me, and I needed some extraordinary help to get there,” blessed that it would perform so he could, too. Drawing from these experiences when he’d been able to petition God for help in the seemingly minute details of mortality (why should God, after all, really care about a dying Chevy?), he concludes that such opportunities—the times when our needs can only be met by a miracle—“come often, and the Lord’s response forms a bright thread in the texture of gospel living.” Eugene turns this thread through his poetry and prose as a subtle witness that God can be found in the details of a life and that, even without “fully understand[ing] why or how” God does what he does, as we “continue to ask” and then “acknowledge the Lord’s hand in all things,” he rewards our question with an increased measure of faith and a greater understanding of his infinite character and the intimate touch of his love.
He conceives this petitioner’s heritage further in “The Firegiver” with his obvious allusion to Prometheus, that crafty Greek titan who took fire from Zeus’ hollow reed to share with the mortals. Though he doomed himself to eternal punishment with this defiant act of compassion, his agency ultimately saved humankind from destruction at the gods’ hands, giving them, by Aeschylus’ account, a “measureless resource” of life and inspiration, the infinitely (re)generative muse “of all arts,” a mediatory presence through and with which they might discern and embrace the wonder of their created and creative universe and beyond.
Reading thus, I can’t help but connect Prometheus and his gift with the cherubim given a flaming sword and commissioned “to keep the way of the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24). Wielding an instrument representative of the purifying, illuminating, and separating power of God’s Word, these sentinels guard the tree against the filthiness of sin; they protect those who would approach the tree in ignorance or willful disregard of the rules governing such a celestial road lest these should partake of the fruit and stay forever cursed by sin; and they maintain the path for those ready with “the key words, the signs and tokens” (Journal of Discourses 2:31) required for admittance into the fullness of God’s glory, teaching and testing such individuals before allowing them to advance to the throne of Deity. However tenuous this association and however opposite its characters might seem—Prometheus challenged the gods by offering their power to humanity while the cherubim retain the tool and power given them by God as they act under His direction—each culturally distinct fire-bearer gives more than just heat and illumination to their patrons. They transmit, sustain, and protect the glory of the heavens in and through the living conduit of language, as typified by the pen, which, in this case, is not mightier than but analogous with the sword.
Such a correlation suggests that the guardians and conveyors of God’s holiness are not just the divinely-placed cherubs, but ultimately all those given charge over the word and the Word, either through the laying on of hands or through the incessant and undeniable call of vocation: the prophets and seers, priests and teachers, poets and critics, storytellers and storymakers, soothsayers and truthsayers of Zion. Affiliated thus with the Holy Order of God, either through an official setting apart or an act of self ordination, these wordsmiths essentially come to us “in a manner that thereby [we] [“¦] might know in what manner to look [“¦] to [the] [“¦] Son for redemption” (Alma 13:2). In other words, their mediatory deeds function to one degree or another as types for the Atonement and presence of Christ, ultimately serving to draw people from the comfort of established ideas into new psychological, philosophical, and spiritual trajectories and marrying Self to Other (especially to God) through the mind- and soul-expanding acts of language.
Through his poetic entreaty and , Eugene assumes this role of prophet and creator, mediator and seer, uniting elements from his literary and religious traditions in ways that illuminate the saving principles of a life lived “to serve [“¦] [God] wittily, in the tangle” of one’s mind and that breathe life into the Mormon scholar’s struggle to engage the gospel with both heart and mind, to be faithful to both God and their intellectual facility. Eugene once described this intellectual gift as something that comes
from the Lord [and] that makes you delight in ideas, alive to the life that goes on in your mind as well as outside it, that makes you question set forms and conventional wisdom to see if they really are truth or only habit, whether they endure because right or merely because of fear or sloth; [“¦] the gift [“¦] that makes you curious about why as well as how, anxious to serve him by being creative as well as obedient.
In “The Firegiver” he acknowledges this divinely-ordained burden, recognizing that, as a self-ordained artist endowed with a keen intellect, an affinity for words, and an insatiable drive to explore and understand the range of God’s “dominion” in his personal quest for enduring knowledge, he has the obligation and the opportunity to develop and employ his talents in service to others and knows that God is bound, as an omniscient and eternally just Being and the ultimate Source of the artist’s passion, to hold him to as well as to help him carry that yoke. Firm in this awareness, he can confidently ask God to “Indulge the hand that reaches into flame,” exercising faith that the Creator will somehow gratify and make a place for the mind (of which the pen is merely an instrument of expression) that probes the creative yet potentially destructive “burning” of the soul even as it moves to synthesize “shapes of love, [“¦] [God’s] face, or being / itself [“¦] in its [avaricious] question.”
From what I’m able to know of Eugene through our limited textual interaction, I’m convinced he understood that such risk—both to reach and to ask—is necessary as the fully-engaged disciple seeks to explore and express the depths of their unique and independent selfhood and, in so doing, to commune with God, the Eternal Self whose agency propagates and grooms to potential other eternal selves. Through this risk, the artist and the man seems to have weighed and counterweighed the essential paradoxes of existence against his own being: of love—its sources, shapes, and possibilities; of life, as lived in a community and in the marrow of one’s soul; of the breadth and depth of God’s character and his relation to his universe, especially with us personally and as comes through his institutionalized Priesthood. Moving to prove these contraries in the deeply personal and at times mischievous dialogue that inhabits and informs his work (including “The Firegiver”) and the tragic depths of his (for us) too short venture through mortality, he prompts us to read God, his kingdom, and his saints through the lens of reasoned faith. He moves us to progress into that dialogue with our deepest selves and with God that will ultimately lead us through the principles and ordinances of his gospel into at-one-ment with him and into the fullness of our being as potential heirs to Eternal life, a dynamic condition, as Joseph Smith taught, that we “have got to learn [“¦] the same as all Gods have done before [us] [“¦], namely by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation.”
And so, compelled in part by a passion for language and some prodding from those who’ve come before me (like Eugene), I move from one small fire to another, hoping not to get burned. And if I do, hoping that God will “suffer my searching” because I’m doing it in my stumbling effort to become more like him. And what Parent can deny such adoration?
(This is an ever-so-slightly revised version of this.)