A Book Review (Of Sorts): Way Below the Angels
Not very long ago, I read this post, that made me want to read this book, Way Below the Angels: the pretty clearly troubled but not even close to tragic confessions of a real live Mormon missionary. Even shorter ago, I did.
While it isn’t a woman’s story, I still feel that it is worth reviewing here, in this women’s story space for two reasons. 1) The author, Craig Harline, does a fairly good job pointing out when women’s stories, voices, and presence are forgotten.
One example of this is when his Salt Lake Mission Home President tells a mixed group of Elders and Sisters that they are to dress like “local businessmen.” Another is when his going-Belgium group was moved to the Rexburg, Idaho LTM, and they held a nightly devotional with the older going-Belgium missionaries, that fully excluded the Sisters because it was in an Elder’s dorm room. The saddest examples took place in Belgium. The first question they asked women who answered the door was if they could speak to their husband. Not because they weren’t allowed to speak to women, but because they were taught that they should focus on the man. A woman named Lieve demanded focus, because she had a dream and a wish to be baptized. She also had a husband who did not share that dream or wish. He was required to sign a permission slip, which he did. But then he took it back. Lieve learned that if her husband had the dream and wish, her signature would not be needed.*
2) Harline’s ofttimes funny/ofttimes insightful words created a space for me to remember my own mission story.
He wrote about his going-foreign dream, that I shared, and his going-foreign acceptance letter, that I did not share, as well as a phone call with a friend who was called stateside. I remembered my own letter and my own day, and my own comparison with a friend. I had driven to her apartment in Provo, with my letter in tow, because she received her’s the same day, and because someone told us that going-foreign letters weighed more, and thus had slightly more expensive stamps. It was true. Her’s bore the more expensive marker. When I opened mine that evening, surrounded by a small number of close friends, I forgot how to read, for approximately thirty seconds. I looked at the words, but they didn’t mean anything to me. And then they did. Sacramento, California. I read it out loud, and felt sad for approximately two more seconds, but then my friend Davis said, “Of course you’re going to Sacramento!” in an excited and kind, rather than mean way, and I remembered all of the good experiences I had had in that particular city, which was actually quite a few, because I was from exactly one state away, and drove through it every year to get to my grandma’s, and drove to it other times to watch national track meets with my dad.
A bit later Harline wrote about the difficulties of being with someone, nearly every second of every day, even if you admire that someone, and how the last time he experienced it was with his mom.** I remembered one of my own incidents, including how I thought my first companion in-the-field hated me, but probably didn’t. She was from another country, where it was not particularly customary to show or speak affection. Or say “You’re welcome,” when someone else said, “Thank you.” There were three whole weeks where we didn’t speak to each other except in lessons and shared study time. I felt a loneliness beyond lonely. In one of Harline’s difficult times, he wrote an “unlawful letter” to his father, and his ever-rule-abiding companion grew upset. In one of mine, I read a letter, lawfully, and my companion told me how the previous Mission President––the one she had had for 17 months of her mission––challenged the missionaries to read letters only on Preparation Day. I stated simply and truthfully, but not very kindly, “He’s not my Mission President,” and she started to cry. (I would feel bad, but only afterwards.)
Harline wrote about the awkwardness of trying to speak with every person you see, and the guilt that can come when you don’t, as well as the guilt that can come even when you do. I felt responsibility and guilt for whole cities, as well as myself, for infractions as small as arriving home three minutes late. Many days, for many months, I would look at a picture of Christ we had facing outward in one of our apartment windows, and sense His eyes looking back at me, in disappointment.
Thankfully, Harline also wrote about how with other people, in different places (and sometimes with the same people, and the same places), missionary work could be a joy and a delight. Even more thankfully, I knew what he meant, because I experienced that, too.
He wrote about hard weather, and hard hours to do missionary work in. For him, poor weather was gray weather, that made everything gray, and a wet and cold that made everything wet and cold. Hard hours were all of them, but especially holidays, dinner times, and so forth. For me, poor weather was 110+ weather that would make me pray really hard for every person who offered us water at their door, even when they weren’t interested in what we were offering them. Hard hours were morning hours when few people were home, and hardest hours were the nighttime ones, when it was almost, but not quite, time for us to go home. Harline had a phrase for some of the people he would visit in those times: Precious Old Ladies. I didn’t have the phrase, but had them too. The one difference was that his were not LDS and not interested in being LDS. Mine were very LDS. They were the types of widows Tommy Monson always talked about visiting, so I always felt like time spent with them was among the best time.
He wrote about letters being like gold, especially if they were from a certain person he thought might be like gold. I remembered that he was exactly right. Even though my gold person would remain gold, but also one day come out as gay.
Harline didn’t write about having someone younger than you, and of the opposite gender call you up every night, and tell you what your goals should be, because he couldn’t. (I can write that one.) Nor did he write about having a better, but still younger than you leader of the opposite gender call you up every night and ask how he could help you, and you couldn’t answer, because while you know you needed help, you also knew that he couldn’t give it––he couldn’t teach with you, hold a one on one training session with you, or even cry with you, in De Brouckere Square on one of the worst days of your mission. (I can write that one, too, excepting De Brouckere Square.)
He wrote about some things that I can’t write about, like aspiring to leadership callings, including District Leader, Zone Leader, and Assistant to the President. The only leadership opportunity open to me was Senior Companion.*** It came halfway through my third transfer, when my beloved called-to-Temple-Square companion went back to Temple Square, and… became an Assistant.
Reading Harline’s other words made me remember more general things:
My first preparation day in the field, I saw a stack of just-released Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince’s sitting on a table in a store, and had to repeat “Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven” over and over in my head, to be able to walk past. I had to recite it again when we checked our email at the local library and the local teens were on Myspace. And again a few days after that when a local teenager we were teaching told me that Dumbledore died. I also had to pray very hard to forgive her. When I did, my companion and I gave her Hogwarts-eque letters inviting her to be baptized, with pictures of us wearing robes and riding broomsticks into the meeting house and font.
I remembered that another companion and I showed up at that same font for another individual, who didn’t come, and didn’t come, and didn’t come, and how after all of that not coming, we learned that his dad died that day. He tried to reach us, but we couldn’t have cellphones then and couldn’t go home to check our messages, either. He would be baptized one week later, thinking very hard about his father. And my Mission President would be there, to tell me that I was being moved away from the area where I had served for over half of my mission, and where I felt like a living, breathing area book, to open a new area with a new sister who arrived straight from another mission straight from another country. I started to cry. And my companion started to cry, and said, “You’re not leaving me, Sister Hunt.”
I remembered my worst week, from my worst letter,**** that brought so many tears, every night, when I was finally in a space where I could cry. I remember coming home one day, during that worst week, and finding the biggest flat of farm picked strawberries on my desk, during a broader period when all I wanted to eat were farm picked strawberries. There was a note from one of the Spanish speaking Sisters in our shared apartment that simply said, “From my people.” Grateful tears came then, and loved ones, and not-as-alone-as-I thought ones.
Way Lower than the Angels also made me remember some of Adam Miller’s words,
Like everyone, you have a story you want your life to tell…God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and, minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him.
Like every missionary, Harline had a story he wanted his mission to tell, and it was both bigger and smaller than God’s work in his mission. My very favorite parts of this very good book are every time he writes about this genuine story struggle, and the quiet places he gets to where a little tiny bit of light can break in, and he hears something simple like, “Be yourself,” or “Not this. Not this. This.” or ‘Eat three meals a day, rather than only two,’ or ‘Be a friend.’ And he tries, and forgets, and tries again. And his story gets big enough to talk to the foreign people that are not so foreign to God as real human beings, rather than as someone he needs to conquer or convert. Love breaks in, as well.
I appreciate this, and many more passages, besides:
Jesus had a pretty strong view about friends, as in laying your life down for them.. That’s what the whole mission business was about, it now seemed to me. Maybe even the whole religion business. Maybe even the whole life business.
I recommend reading this book. It is both more funny, and more thoughtful than I know how to describe, and the themes it considers are important for anyone, missionary or not. If you have served a mission, memories will flood back, in beautiful, and perhaps painful ways. If you are preparing to serve a mission, it more accurately describes what makes a mission hard than anything I have previously read. It also describes what can make one good, for an individual missionary, and how missions as a whole could be made better (hint: more Real service).
There is not One True Story to tell, about being a Mormon Missionary, a Mormon Mother, a Mormon Feminist, a Human Being. There are many stories and many people. And a God who can work inside of them.
What stories and experiences do you have to tell, about being a Mormon Missionary or Human Being?
What stories and experiences do you have to tell about trying to find that quiet, light filled space, where you can hear yourself, and maybe even possibly God?
*The First Church Handbook of Instructions currently states “Persons Who Are Married: A married person is not baptized without the consent of his or her spouse.”
**As a mom with a small baby-child, I can attest that it isn’t easy to be with someone nearly every second of the day, even then.
***Today’s Sister Missionaries can aspire to lead whole groups of sisters.
****Not a Dear Jane.