Manifestations: Personal Revelation and Art

Several months ago I was working through in my mind a project I was writing for my friend Danor Gerald and Jaclyn Hales. Danor and Jaclyn are very talented actors and I was hoping to design a show especially geared towards their particular talents. I originally was thinking of a one man show for Danor, which later turned into a two person show that included Jaclyn. I was really wracking my brains for this project and putting in some prayer. It was elusive… I didn’t know what kind of show it was, what form it was going to shift into, nor the approach I should take. I was literally thinking it about for weeks, ranging from a one man show about Barack Obama to a Church play about African American throughout the history of the Church to a kind of post modern, surrealist play. Some of the ideas were getting kind of odd and nothing seemed to stick, nor did they ignite a passion to write. I was getting frustrated over the apparent stupor of thought.

One night, however, as I laid in bed, unable to sleep, I was literally overcome with a rush of thoughts and feelings. I don’t remember there being much of a prelude to the onslaught of beauty and mental activity… I’m not sure if I was even thinking about the play. But suddenly my mind was alert with a flurry of thoughts and the play’s essentials formed quickly in my mind. I had recently written a lot about mythology in my play Prometheus Unbound, and less directly in my play about C.S. Lewis, Swallow The Sun. I’m in love with the ideas that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discussed about Christianity being the “true myth.” I believe that the Holy Ghost has revealed truths in many cultures and many mythologies, a kind of pre-existent memory that comes tumbling out in the form of stories. It connects in my mind to the psychologist Karl Jung’s idea of a collective consciousness, and to Joseph Campbell’s re-occurring mythical archetypes he discusses in A Hero of a Thousand Faces. That night this idea of “true myths” came back with a vengeance to me and it soon turned in a collection of world myths, connected by certain loose themes and two characters telling each other stories as their world fell apart. It formed into a very visual piece, with lots of multi-media and has since become one of my personal favorites of my work and I’m very excited for the time when the funding will be in place to do it right.

But, again, I was at a loss for a title that would encapsulate the ultimate meaning of the play, until I was driving to work one day and I was thinking about a title for the piece. The word “manifest” suddenly came to me. It really struck me, deeply. The more I thought and thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed. It’s connection to Moroni’s promise in the Book of Mormon came to me, “… if ye shall ask with sincere heart and real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:4-5).

Since then it’s been interesting how often I have found that word “manifest” repeated in all the standard works, especially the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and The New Testament. I keep stumbling upon it, and it usually has to do with revelation through the Holy Spirit or Christ manifesting himself to his people. If you look up the word “manifest” on the scriptures on LDS website (within the text, heading and footnotes) it comes up with 132 separate occurrences of the word. This idea of spiritual manifestations, of the Lord manifesting himself, can be found in everything from Genesis: “In a mount the LORD shall be manifest (seen)” (Genesis 22:14, footnote b); to the Gospels: “For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested; neither was any thing kept secret, but that it should come abroad” (Mark 4:22); to modern revelation: “But they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord” (D&C 130:7).

Manifestation, or revelation, is vital to a Mormon’s understanding of the Lord’s Gospel. It is by the Holy Ghost we receive a testimony of Jesus, it by a personal witness, a personal manifestation that we receive an understanding of all things true. So how does that apply to our works of art? As a writer and a dramatist, I’ve had many experiences like the one stated above, where I’ve felt that the Lord was assisting me in my writing. Does this make it scripture? No, I don’t think so.

I once had a conversation with a very talented playwright on this subject. He related a personal, spiritual experience with his writing where he felt specifically inspired, but then said that this in no way obligated anybody to feel in any way spiritually connected to his work, or to even like it. Which I completelty agree with. Too many times people think that just because something is supposedly “spiritual” that it somehow obligates them to feel a certain way about it. No, I think the Lord is more personal than that, “blessing us according to our desires.” But in my mind, that didn’t make it any less of a revelation to my playwright friend… just a personal revelation.

As an artist and a writer, I am not a prophet to the Church. I have no authority to receive any revelation for anyone beyond my stewardship. However, personal revelation IS my right. The scriptures are filled with such promises. I can receive revalation that relates to my personal life, work and experiences. I believe an architect, a plumber, a refrigerator salesman, a parent, etc. all have the same right, to ask for help from the Lord to magnify their efforts and make quality work. Obviously, a lot of what we do in our professions does not have a proselyting purpose. I’m a teacher, so it is not appropriate for me to be slipping Book of Mormons to my students. Nor should most of my plays have a proselyting purpose. But when we call on the Lord, we can still have his Spirit, his manifestations, inspire us to make a beautiful, quality work. A well made play to me is just as much of a revelation from God as a well made computer.

Sometimes I feel that we shy too much away from the more esoteric elements of our lives. The mysterious manifestations that occur and are difficult to explain to an unbeliever (or, very often, even a believer). Obviously, we never want to “cast our pearls before swine,” unless we put the things of God up to ridicule. But those deeply beautiful moments of light ought not to be ignored either. When we cultivate a spirituality, a connection to the divine, our whole lives are made bright.

Many people look around embarrassed when I pull out experiences like the one with my play Manifest. It’s become a kind of taboo subject to talk about certain kinds of spiritual experiences. Which is understandable, many people don’t want to be labeled a nut job or an extremist. But I am sure grateful for the experiences I have had. Sure, the Gospel makes sense to me intellectually. Sure, the morality of the Church improves my life. But there is something so much deeper. So much more personal. I believe God talks to me, even when I’m not listening. Just as I believe He talks to you, even when you’re not listening. He’s crying in the wilderness, crying our names. His voice is not heard on the wind, nor in the gentle crackling of the fireside. His voice is not heard in the echoes of the king or the pounding of the drums. His voice is not heard even in something as intangible and personal as our imaginations or emotions. Dig deeper, it’s even deeper… He will reveal Himself, and you will realize that there’s a Presence there with you. You will realize that He is made manifest.

8 thoughts on “Manifestations: Personal Revelation and Art”

  1. I’d like to thank my brother in law, Jon Ogden, whose conversations with me over Christmas break helped me as I was writing this post. He has an excellent article coming up in _Mormon Artist_ which addresses some of the issues with proselyting in our art which I glance on here… it’s an excellent piece.

  2. “a kind of pre-existent memory that comes tumbling out in the form of stories.”

    I find this idea quite intriguing, Mahonri. Thanks for sharing.

  3. .

    Thanks, Mahonri. The connection between revelation and temporal creation (not just in the arts, but also, for instance, scientific research) is an intriguing one to me. One I do not really understand. Not even fully within my own sphere.

  4. It’s a difficult balance, talking about and acknowledging the spiritual experiences that feed into our experience and work as writers without implying–or making others think that we’re implying–that our work is above criticism or that they should have a particular kind of reaction to it.

    This actually relates well (in an inverse way) to Darlene Young’s recent post over at the AML blog about spiritual sensitivity and the value of some art (or lack thereof). Once again, I think one possible answer lies in dislodging power from the text and transferring it instead to the experience of interacting with the text–as a reader, audience member, or even author. In short, even if inspiration is present during my experience as an author, that doesn’t mean it comes packaged as part of the resulting text. Unless, I suppose, I’m a prophet–which I’m quite aware that I’m not… Actually, even in those cases, scriptures about the importance of those hearing possessing the same spirit as those speaking suggest to me that the Holy Ghost isn’t in the text itself, but rather in the act of reading/listening.

  5. I think this is a gutsy post. It is often difficult to open up and talk about the part inspiration plays in the creation of story. Certainly sitting down to write is an act of faith, or a type of an act of faith. Faith in ourselves? I suppose, but I know once I’m in the middle of a work, I always find my self-assurance crumpling, and I turn to prayer, to meditation, in order to find the story. Thanks, Mahonri.

  6. Thanks for the great comments, guys! I didn’t quite know how to approach this subject… revelation is such a personal thing sometimes, but I feel this constant need to share, but have been pruned and trained by Mormon culture that it’s something that’s not really discussed, except in rare circumstances. And yet that desire bubbles to find kinship in spirituality…

  7. Back in the middle of writing my book, I had an important spiritual experience that seemed to me to confirm the importance of my writing, at least as something that was important for ME to be doing. I’ve been hesitant about sharing it, because I don’t want people to think I’m making any claim about the value or quality of my book. How do we acknowledge the reality of the Spirit as an element in our experience as writers without falling into the trap of priestcraft — that is, of claiming unwarranted authority for our works and ourselves?

  8. And that’s the trick, Jonathan, isn’t it? We want to acknowledge the Lord’s hand in all things, but we don’t want to be spiritually presumptuous. But I DO believe experiences like mine and yours are legitimate, and can even be shared, as long as we acknowledge it’s personal and makes no obligation on the part of anyone else.

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