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By Matthew Wickman

Originally published as Chapter 4 from Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor

Why do we need literature? Certainly, there is much to admire in thoughtful, beautifully crafted narratives, poems, and plays, in gripping stories, layered characters, and poignant turns of phrase. But need is more intense than admiration, more desperate than mere affection. A graduate school friend and Church member once remarked to me, astutely, that if one surveys all the world’s civilizations over the course of known history, one can find plenty of examples of societies that had no concept of private property or insurance industries or professional sports teams or universities or lawyers or finance capitalists or plastic surgeons (and so on and so on). But there is no example, not one, of societies that had no art. Art, apparently, is a universal human need. And that includes verbal art: literature. In that respect, literature is like religion: no society exists without it.

Let me then put my question somewhat differently: Why do religion and literature seem to need each other? Because while they are sometimes held apart in the modern world—I know plenty of religious people who read very little literature and plenty of literary scholars who are atheists—the two are mutually implicating. Imagine Christianity without the Gospel narratives of Christ, dense with such literary features as rising and falling action, protagonists and antagonists, and metaphors and paradoxes; or consider some of the lovely lyrics that grace our hymns. Literature is all through religion. And the reverse is also true. Literature is sometimes said to have usurped the place of religion in the secularizing world of the nineteenth century, to have become the focal point for our collective stories of love and loss, grace and perplexity, hope and redemption.[1] But this only displaces the religious impulse onto literature, such that the very wedge that would divide them becomes the linchpin that unites them more profoundly. If literature becomes a modern religion, then this is only to acknowledge we need them both.

But why? Let me present one thought that takes up the questions I posed in the previous chapter: What if we could live in such a way that the Spirit were always with us? Would our lives carry a new sense of purpose, of promise? Would our joys seem deeper and our sorrows, somehow, lighter? Would we feel more alive? Yes but with qualifiers: that is my experience. As Parley P. Pratt asserts, the presence of the Spirit increases our mental and emotional capacities, deepens our degree of virtue, goodness, and kindness, and even attends to our physical well-being. However, when I live more closely to the Spirit, I also become more aware of my personal failings, more mindful of my natural limitations, more conscious of the ways I curb God’s influence in my life. The Spirit opens, or at least reveals, the wounds it also heals.[2] And such wounds find expression in song, in story—in literature.

But there is something else, an additional dimension to that qualified yes. The Spirit enriches how I live, but it also complicates when and where I live. By bringing more things to my remembrance, it folds the past into the present; by magnifying my spiritual gifts, it makes me a better, more developed version of myself, thus merging the present with the future. It reduces—and expands—life to its essential elements, making the world as I otherwise experience it seem a shadow of itself. When Paul writes of an experience when he found himself transported—“whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell” (2 Cor. 12:3) —he is rehearsing a visionary experience. But really, he might be describing the effects of most any spiritual experience, all of which make us feel more alive by condensing and multiplying the effects of space and time. This seems true even of small spiritual experiences, the kind most of us have. For what is an answer to prayer or a feeling of conviction in reading a passage of scripture if not a connection between us and heaven? And, in its way, such connectedness is a literary effect.

I say this not because spiritual experiences are mere products of the imagination but because they bear a complex relation to matters of reality, truth, and meaning. The Spirit makes life more itself, which means it puts life in relation to itself: I am more—or less—myself depending on how spiritually I live. A life more like itself—this quality, labeled verisimilitude or trueness to life, emerged historically as an integral effect of literary narrative at the same time that modern scientific methods were being elaborated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As new ideas of factuality, or of what constitutes fact, entered the world, predicated less on philosophical reason than on experimentation in laboratories, literature evolved into a kind of virtual reality. It modeled itself on discourses of fact—on evidence and objective truth—even as it displaced itself from them. “I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner. . . .”[3] So opens Daniel Defoe’s 1719 narrative Robinson Crusoe, sometimes labeled the first modern novel. Defoe’s readers knew that Crusoe was a fictive character, but there was an authenticity to his story, a contemporary relevance to the way he presented himself and sized up the world. Defoe’s narrative was vividly life-like, true to life. It staked a position of proximity relative to these new ways of knowing, “in but not of the world” of fact, of science. This became literature’s strategic vantage point. It could mirror life in familiar ways even as it imagined new lives, new worlds into existence. If science gave us facts, literature accorded us meaning; it spoke not only to what is real but to why we care.

In the modern world, literature thus became a special sanctuary of meaning, a spiritual sanctuary. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that [Parley P.] Pratt’s eloquent paeans to the gifts of the Spirit parallel and anticipate claims made about literature. For, in a lesser but related way, literature is said to cultivate similar traits, stimulating the mind and stirring the heart, fostering greater empathy and thus increasing our capacity to feel and perceive. Literature helps us cultivate our sensitivity to spiritual things, opening us to new ways of thinking and feeling. This makes it an inspired medium for spiritual experiences. In some instances, like Denise Levertov’s “Poetics of Faith” (see chapter 2) or Louise Erdrich’s account of the conversion of “Father” Damien (see chapter 3), literature lends form to the sheer wonder of inspiration. It can sharpen our awareness of the variety and depth of spiritual feelings, expanding our appreciation and understanding of spiritual things. For this reason, literature can also act as a springboard for our own spiritual experiences, such that learning to recognize the richness of such experiences in or through literature can make us more receptive to them in the balance of life.

This brings to mind a verse of scripture often cited by members of the Church: “[A]s all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). Discussion of this passage often hinges on what these “best books” are, but I am most compelled by what these books do. Learning from “the best books” is necessary, we read, because “all have not faith”; that is, “the best books” serve as bridges to spiritual lessons we might learn in some other way. The implication is that truth is diffused across our experience, with “the best books” capturing and presenting it in richer clusters, making it more apparent and appealing to us. In this respect, these books serve as surrogates for the Holy Ghost, guiding us “into all truth” and showing us “things to come” (John 16:13).

By the same token, and as another passage of scripture suggests, literature can help clarify the spiritual experiences we already have. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul writes that “to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). While many people believe this to be true, they also recognize that spiritual experiences can be elusive: “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26). That is, spiritual experiences enrich our lives, and yet, such experiences are difficult to define, let alone retain, as they sometimes “cannot be uttered” or given form. This is where literature potentially becomes a vital tool. Long imagined as a reservoir of spiritual associations (as William Wordsworth puts it, of “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”[4]), literature lends expression to experiences that are of ultimate value, spiritual value, but also seem set apart from the rigors of everyday life and therefore can be hard to understand. Thus, when Christ on the cross utters his plaintive cry of agony—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)—he cites poetry: Psalms 22:1. Through that literary allusion, the Gospel narrative creates a set of associations for what is otherwise unfathomable. Empowering us to reflect on the unthinkable and intensifying our experience, literature makes us more human. And it makes our humanity seem more divine.


So, returning to the question with which I opened this chapter: Why do we need literature? Or, put somewhat differently, why does literature serve a spiritual need (and for secularists as well as the deeply religious)? The answer, I believe, has something to do with the gaps we experience as a natural part of life. In their ways, and sometimes by working in conjunction with each other, literature and the Spirit bridge these gaps.

In a vignette I share in the [book’s] introduction, I describe how my own need for literature emerged when I was a missionary struggling to understand the disparity, the gap, between the greatness of the gospel message and the mass indifference to it I encountered in my everyday experience as a missionary. Clearly, I was a flawed vessel for that message, but clearly, too, there was a complexity to everyday life that did not jive with the image of the gospel I proclaimed. Literature, I thought, might help me understand better, communicate better; at the very least, it might give voice to my angst. My need for literature only intensified when I returned from my mission in early summer 1988 and resumed my college education in the fall at the University of California at Irvine. My favorite class, perhaps the most influential of my life, was a year-long dramatic literature course titled “Drama as a Cultural Imperative.” We read play after play, beginning with the ancient Greeks and concluding, eventually, with work from our own late twentieth century. I imbibed the spirit of the course, so much so that during the first term, and in lieu of a final essay, I wrote a short play, driven by my own personal imperatives to express something impossibly vast. From my notes:

The protagonist is a young person who feels scared, angry, and discontented. Inertia drags him toward failure. But instead of fighting it, he begins to desire it. He feels as if he’s living at the edge of a black hole, getting dragged around something that is really nothingness at its core. He wants to experience that nothingness.

It was a strange, poorly conceived piece, plotless and melodramatic. And it was not the only product of its kind. For example, a few months later, I wrote a lyric for a talk I was asked to give at church, a youthful effusion about seeking God in times of disillusionment. Literary scholars sometimes label such work “juvenilia,” the immature products of an aspiring writer. I mention them because they capture what I try to describe above, my unformed articulation of raw need—of need for literature.

What is perhaps most curious about these pieces is their timing. I was fresh off a mission, back in school and loving my classes; I had a girlfriend, a car, and was renting a shack on the beach in Orange County. Life was good. But it seemed to me that something essential about it was ending; I felt as though I were falling.

What I was feeling were aftershocks of my mission, a coming-of-age experience that had vaulted me into adulthood by hurtling me, in some ways, into an existential crisis. (I remember the first few days after I returned home, jet-lagged and thus feeling myself in two time zones and also two age zones: twenty-one but out of step with my peers. It took me a while to find my bearings—not just where I was but who.) This was a dilemma of language as much as life. I had not only experienced exotic places but had felt things I could not fully describe or explain—like my love for God, my feeling of his for me and others, and my conviction, born of that love, concerning our divine natures. At the same time, I was beginning to formulate impressions that had accrued on my mission, impressions I did not yet fully understand: “God is not here: not yet, not ever”; “It is terrible to be left so alone.” Why these dour words? Where did they come from? They seemed, indeed were, out of step with the love I felt for and from God. They expressed deflated expectation, a sense of defeat and disillusionment. But why?

It was difficult to see it at the time—indeed, it is because I could not see it that I needed literature in the first place—but in effect, these words amounted to impressionistic responses to the gospel message I had been tasked to carry. Nobody had spoken them directly to me: no person I had contacted on the street or on whose door I had knocked. Nevertheless, they encompassed me as a collective voice of unbelief and flat rejection, a less prosaic version of “Non, monsieur, ça ne m’intéresse pas” [“No, sir, not interested”]. For most people I talked to, God was not there; they felt themselves to be truly, existentially alone. Almost traumatically, I found myself channeling their experience. In that way, I felt caught between important clusters of words, some I could not adequately articulate (like what it meant, ecstatically, to know that God lived) and others I was only beginning to understand (like what it meant, beguilingly, to experience through others the opposite reality). I thus approached literature, the art of difficult saying and layered understanding, as a spiritual need.

More important than whatever juvenilia I produced, I began reading actual literature. Not just the texts I had discovered, a little naughtily, as a missionary (as reading such books bent the mission rules): work by Camus, Sartre, and Jean Cocteau (I loved Jean Cocteau!). Now I was also reading Dostoevsky, the Brontës, and Nietzsche (I hated Nietzsche!). And in my year-long theater course, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. And so much more. I eventually changed my major from drama to English. I lost my teen aspiration to be an actor. And slowly, over years and decades, I began finding the words for my experience, my conversion—for that two-year adventure and crisis that had opened me irreversibly to God and to the things of the Spirit and to an experience of the world. And, therefore, to literature.


Levertov’s poem “Caedmon” eloquently, illustratively explores how spiritual experience and literature open onto each other, inform each other, are practically born from the same impulse. It rehearses the story of the composer of a short but famous seventh-century English hymn. Caedmon was an illiterate cowherd who, one night, had a dream in which an angel visited him and gave him a song about the creation. It turns out that Caedmon had a gift, and after monks at the monastery where Caedmon tended cattle taught him the history of the Christian church, he composed many more songs. Levertov’s poem is self-reflexive, meaning that it is a poem about the writing of poetry. Caedmon is the poem’s speaker, recounting for us the episode that explains how he acquired his gift—hence, and likewise for Levertov, how we see the poem before us. What is spiritual about the poem is thus, on its surface, the sheer existence of the poem itself, for it is the product of an angelic visitation, of inspiration.

But the poem also accentuates features of spiritual experience more broadly. Take careful note, for example, of the poem’s form as well as its content.


All others talked as if

talk were a dance.

Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet

would break the gliding ring.

Early I learned to

hunch myself close by the door:

then when the talk began

I’d wipe my

mouth and wend

unnoticed back to the barn

to be with the warm beasts,

dumb among body sounds

of the simple ones.[5]


Levertov’s use of free verse here is distinctive if understated; if heard rather than seen, little marks it as poetry as there are few rhymes and only delicate uses of alliteration among the enjambed lines. With subtle exceptions (e.g., “gliding ring”), this is poetry that sounds like colloquial speech, underscored by small, folksy details (like the use of inelegant words like “Clodhopper”[6]).

From here, however, the poem grows more poetic and then, suddenly, even more so, ecstatically so:

I’d see by a twist

of lit rush the motes

of gold moving

from shadow to shadow

slow in the wake

of deep untroubled sighs.

The cows

munched or stirred or were still. I

was at home and lonely,

both in good measure. Until

the sudden angel affrighted me—light effacing

my feeble beam,

a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:

but the cows as before

were calm, and nothing was burning

nothing but I, as that hand of fire

touched my lips and scorched my tongue

and pulled my voice

into the ring of the dance. (lines 15–33)


The poem flags itself as poetry with the delicate image of the “lit rush,” the candlelight’s glow illuminating dust motes against the deep shadows of the stalls. But then, with the appearance of the angel, a different poem breaks out: the lines burst across the page, marked by two dramatic indentations; alliteration breaks into the lines (“a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying”), as does Biblical allusion (with the hand of fire touching the poet’s lips, evoking a prophetic call [see Isaiah 6]). This is metaphor at more than a linguistic level, with angels mixing with humans, “poetry” and colloquial speech folding into each other, and past (the time of the actual vision) compounding itself with present (in the recreation of that vision in the poem). Relatedly, “the cows as before / were calm”; the spiritual experience is had by the poet alone, meaning that this is more a conversion narrative than a messianic one: it comes to one person, not to all living creatures. Nevertheless, spiritual experience changes us, the poem suggests, with the formal transformations in the poem reflecting that personal dynamism. These changes render Caedmon capable of literature even as it is the poem’s literary features—the subtle shifts of language and form—that reveal Caedmon’s conversion, his spiritual metamorphosis.

In “Caedmon,” Levertov portrays spiritual experience and literature as mutually generative.[7] The former is the origin of the latter—an angelic visitation makes Caedmon capable of poetry—but literature is also what makes spiritual experience communicable. For, minus the “literary” features of the poem, the dynamic uses of language, we would have no way to understand Caedmon’s experience, according us less understanding of spiritual experience generally. In effect, and as we witness here, God inspires poetry, but poetry explains the ways of God. Paraphrasing John Milton, poetry justifies the ways of God to humankind.[8] Including illiterate cowherds. And overwrought returned missionaries.


That we need literature is an anthropological truism. The realization that I need literature was a cumulative epiphany whose full realization only dawned on me once I had returned from my mission and was back in school. But the seeds of that epiphany were laid during my time in France. And one episode in particular stayed with me for years.

I was serving in Riom, an ancient walled town ten miles outside Clermont-Ferrand in the center of France. I had very much imagined my mission as a journey (with a defined beginning and end and a protracted, symbolically potent middle—who, over the course of two years, would God reveal himself to be? And who would he reveal me to be?) and had come to a crucial point in the narrative. I had one month left to serve and was reconciling myself to the reality that whatever happened over the last few weeks, there would be nothing substantively different during that time from what I had experienced during the preceding twenty-three months. No new cities or companions or assignments, no dramatic increase in my understanding of French or the scriptures or the gospel. Maybe we would find a potential convert, but we weren’t going to convert the nation. No, what I had experienced already in everyday missionary life was just about all there was. I was living the consequences of choices I had made (yes and then no to positions of leadership; no and then yes to reading literary texts in an effort to try to understand “the world” around me) and was distilling the meaning of my mission down to a few basic themes.

And what were these themes? Chiefly, there were two. The first involved the abundance of inspiration: God was all around us, in and through our work. I felt blessed by God’s presence every day: directed, filled, and changed. But the second, enigmatically, concerned the tangential relationship between that abundance and material circumstance. Spiritual blessings, I was realizing, did not always translate into measurable outcomes. For how many times—how many?—had I felt impressed to talk to a particular individual, knock on doors in a particular neighborhood, or share a particular thought, story, or scripture in a lesson? And how many times had that inspiration failed to produce any tangible result? But it was rarely failed inspiration, not entirely. Because God is a poet. And he had always managed to convert the emptiness of my experience—“Non, monsieur, ça ne m’intéresse pas”—into something meaningful, some sign of his love: perhaps something I learned, perhaps an important memory I made. Minus these redemptive qualities, my experience would have been merely disillusioning. With them, it was . . . complicated. Frustrating but lifechanging. Sanctifying, if hard to explain. Poetically true.

But now I had been a missionary for twenty-three months, and it was spring, and the days were growing longer in more ways than one. At the end of one of them, my companion and I were plodding back into the center of town, heading toward our apartment in our six-hundred-year-old building after knocking on doors all day in a new subdivision outside Riom’s city walls. We had chatted with kind people over the past several hours; some were people of faith, and many others doubtlessly lived good lives. Predictably, however, we had had no tangible success: no substantive gospel discussions, nobody interested in reading the Book of Mormon or learning about the plan of salvation or hearing the message of the Restoration. Nobody interested in talking about God at all, really. As the day drew to a close, we were weary, and on this day especially, I was flat worn out. Emotionally and spiritually spent. Exhausted by nearly two years of rejection, of irrelevance, of the ridiculous American-in-white-shirt-and-name-badge routine. Nobody took us seriously, and why should they? The rhythms of everyday life in France, or anywhere else, were so powerful, so pulsating, so insistent—who could hear the delicate, counter-rhythmic spiritual meter, the gospel cadence, occasionally lilting above our halting French?

The answer, effectively, was nobody. Not when conveyed by chatty YSAs like us at least.[9] And I didn’t blame them: I felt trapped by the absurdity of my missionary identity, constrained by the awkward version of the gospel message we were tasked to peddle with its schematic, sales-pitch-caliber brush-bys of profound concepts and narratives. Christ’s atonement in thirty seconds; the First Vision in two sentences: It would take more than a lifetime to fully grasp these things, let alone express them meaningfully. I wasn’t searching for a different gospel, but wow, did I ever desire a different way of communicating its message—one that merged more seamlessly with the actual lives of real people, one that spoke in their own language (not French but something more artful and divine: the language of the Spirit). I wanted the “tongue of angels” (see Alma 29), and I couldn’t find it. In the words of Levertov’s Caedmon, “Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet.”

I brooded often over all this. Brooded, raged. It seemed incongruous with the drama surrounding my decision of whether to serve a mission. I had sacrificed what my youthful, all too youthful mind saw as a glamorous opportunity, and I had been hoping to witness some affirmation of that sacrifice while in France, some clear manifestation of why I was there. Instead, day after day, month after month, I confronted the insignificance of my words, the purposelessness of my presence, the emptiness of my imagined sacrifice—and, apparently, the hollowness of my message. The incongruity, the irony, stung. And that pain was spilling over in my letters home, in my reports to the mission president, in my conversations with other missionaries (some of whom—generous listeners—were saintly beyond their years). And on this evening, it was shooting into my mind and heart and field of vision as we trudged back into town, the lurid sun dropping luridly over the lurid, medieval skyline.

But then, as we passed the train station, we saw an older gentleman crossing the street. His appearance was at once singular and utterly emblematic. Short and squat, wearing a shoddy suit and shabby old fedora, he seemed the personification of the old town in the old country, the perfect complement to the old missionary (yours truly) whose spirits were sinking into the old soil saturated with old, old—ancient, unmet—human cares. And as it happened, he was carrying two worn suitcases, no wheels.

My companion and I glanced at each other and veered in the man’s direction. We were destined to make a “contact,” although, clearly, there would be nothing reportable here in the numbers we charted weekly for our mission president: no gospel discussion, no copy distributed of the Book of Mormon. Certainly, there would be no convert baptism. Naturally—converts were the infinitesimally small exceptions to the general rule, the universal law, of public indifference. But that evening in particular, I was bursting with frustration at the nonsense of such accountability metrics, of their emptiness in a country in which nobody gave a damn. So why should I give one when it came to the normative missionary calculations that so frequently directed our attention? I wanted a different form of expression? How about simple Christian service? We were young, and this gentleman was not; he was carrying suitcases, and we were not.

Much of my mission, of course, was devoted to precisely such acts of service. What set this episode apart for me was not the desire to do a good deed but the backdrop of my thought process in that moment, my frustration at the very auspice of my presence in that place. I had been called to find, teach, and baptize. Allegedly. But there was seemingly nobody to be found, nobody to teach, and nobody to baptize. So I was there for nothing. Rien in Riom.[10] Therefore, I could reject my very reason for being. For being a missionary at least.

All this roiled through my mind as we approached the man and offered him a hand. He stopped, turned to face us, broke into a wide grin, and raised both arms. “No, that’s okay,” he said (in French), “these bags aren’t heavy. There’s nothing in them!” We all gazed at each other a moment in blank amusement, perhaps at the image of our collective strangeness there on the street corner: two conspicuous young Americans and an old French dandy. Then the man’s countenance grew more serious, and something happened inside me. My fevered mind cooled; the world fell still; the sunset behind him morphed into a kind of nimbus, a halo. “You’re missionaries, aren’t you?” We nodded, a little surprised, as we were the first missionaries—of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at least—to serve in that old city. He furrowed his brow, and he half-turned and gestured toward the horizon: “You young men have a great work to do. The world is growing darker, more evil. And you’re here to help change that. See that you proceed with dignity and honor.”

A little more than a month later, I would be standing at the pulpit of my ward building back home in suburban San Diego. In fact, I gave my homecoming talk three times in three wards: our stake had returned missionaries take their talks on the road. And I told the usual stories about people who had inspired me and blessings I had received and baptisms I had witnessed. But I concluded my talk with the story of my encounter with the old man. That experience had moved me with particular force. I did not quite know how to say it yet, but its message was essentially this: God is a poet. And because he is a poet, his word and ways radiate promise. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

What had so moved me about our brief and eccentric conversation with that old man? It wasn’t what he had said, not exactly. And it was nothing outward and obvious; as Levertov puts it, “The cows as before / were calm.” But I was “burning” with vision. In an instant, I saw something more clearly.

The old man had turned back to us and smiled again, thanking us. We shook hands, and he lumbered away. The month that followed, the last of my mission, passed mostly uneventfully. I recall walking around the town talking with people and heading occasionally into the larger nearby city of Clermont-Ferrand to attend church and our weekly mission district meetings. I recall writing a couple more letters home, the usual fare: philosophical, impassioned, maybe a little unhinged. I recall staying up late reading French poems, plays, and novels, dim neon drizzling through our top-floor window. I recall dragging my poor companion into a couple museum exhibits (Riom had received the French designation of a city of art and history—une ville d’art et d’histoire). And one vivid experience I recount in this book’s concluding chapter.

But these things blur. Because that old man’s words spoke to me so profoundly that it mostly consumes in memory the weeks that followed. “You young men have a great work to do”: It was cinematic, really, the old man playing the part of a wizard (a Gandalf or Dumbledore), imparting wisdom that was a little empty and hollow but deeply moving for all that. It struck me as more intimate, more meaningful than any desire he might have expressed to know more about our message. Why? As I’ve thought about it over the years, I think there were two reasons. First, the vision of a world “growing darker, more evil,” with young missionaries riding into town to save the day, fit so perfectly a myth nurtured by teenage fantasy as well as, to a degree, Church doctrine: “Yea, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess before [Christ]” (Mosiah 27:31). I saw myself, or wanted to see myself, in that myth, that grand story expressing the effects of Christ’s imminent, majestic arrival. Just as importantly, on that bright evening, someone else seemed to see me in it.

But second, I felt seen from an utterly unique place of vision. Not from the viewpoint of members in the branches in which I served and not from the perspective of family and friends back home sending letters of encouragement. Bless all of them; I will be eternally grateful for their support. But these words spoken by this old man came from out of the heart of the place I was serving, from out of the depths of France itself. What he said possessed, for me, symbolic significance: it wasn’t about that particular moment on that street corner or about the needs of any single individual behind any of the doors on which we had knocked. Rather, he seemed to be speaking about all moments and all people—a culmination of all things, all impressions from my mission, or (as I imagined it) from any mission. All of us part of the same world, all of us waiting for Something, Someone, greater than ourselves. In that respect, his words felt bigger than any of the myths I cherished, any of the identities to which I clung. To me, they expressed an almost visionary perception of the greatness of God and of a future when all human contingencies and absurdities—when life’s pulsating, deafening rhythms in France or anyplace else—would find themselves swept away, carried up, resolved—redeemed—in a grand orchestration of divine history. By implication, such a transcendent history had been slowly unfolding all along even when I couldn’t see it through the drudgery of knocking on doors.

It was a vision, a conviction, that had played at the back of my mind my entire mission. And if my sense of divine history was illusory, juvenilia in its own right, it was nevertheless stirring, calling to me in such a distinctive, primordial way. It reminded me that, contrary to appearances, I was not a missionary for the purpose of finding, teaching, and baptizing. No, I recalled (feeling myself transported back to that life-changing moment in the bishop’s office more than two years earlier), I was a missionary because it seemed to please God. And whether it led me to converts or to “Non, monsieur, ça ne m’intéresse pas,” God’s way is truth. And greater things than all this—all the realized and broken dreams, all the fulfilled and dashed expectations, all the wonder and ineffable absurdity of our humanity—awaited all of us.

God’s angel, it seemed, had spoken to me from out of the heart of France. And he pulled me, like Caedmon, into a new kind of dance: My future as a serious student of literature was probably born at that moment. Because God animates religion, but God is also a creator, a poet in the broadest, most dynamic sense.[11] And in this instance, or so it seemed, he had employed his infinite creativity to speak not from the Church (from his representatives, his missionaries) to the world but from the world to the Church, to me. He was Lord over all creation, and if I looked closely enough and listened carefully enough—if I learned to read, spiritually, between the lines—then I could catch that divine vision, hear that celestial chorus, from any corner of it. I could speak to it and it to me: a communion of souls united in Christ.

As a missionary, I carried an important message to the world, but the world, personified in that old man, also carried an important message to me. In that moment, I felt, I knew, that the Restoration of the gospel and the coming of Christ were greater than anything I could yet conceive in my narrow religious imagination. And so, I needed to learn more, to see and hear and feel more—to become a better, deeper reader—if I were to discern more of God’s beguiling and enchanting and breathtaking—poetic—word.


I saw that old man once more. It was back at the train station. This time, laden with my own suitcases (and memories and trove of indelible impressions), I was piling onto the train bound for Geneva and the mission home. My time was complete. I found a seat and gazed out the window at my companion. He seemed a little forlorn, a little envious. Just up the platform stood the old man. Same clothes, no suitcases. Neither boarding nor alighting, just standing there. We made eye contact as the train pulled away.

[1] This was not the last usurpation of its kind. Literature itself is often said to have been displaced by film, which in turn has had its place upset by TV, the internet, and video games.

[2] I may condemn myself for my inadequacies, but I never feel condemnation, as such, from God. When the Spirit is present, I never feel anything but God’s intense love for me and those around me. But its effect is subtle, nuanced; I liken it to what Moses expresses in the wake of a vision: “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I had never supposed” (Moses 1:10). The Spirit makes me, makes all of us, stronger, which is precisely why it also reveals my—our—weakness (see Ether 12:27).

[3] Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, ed. Michael Shinagel (New York: Norton, 1994), 4.

[4] “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” in Wordsworth, The Poems, 2 vols., ed. John O. Hayden (London: Penguin, 1990), 1:523–29, l. 204.

[5] Denise Levertov, “Caedmon,” in The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, ed. Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey (New York: New Directions, 2013), 766–67, lines 1–14. Subsequent passages are cited in the text.

[6] As my friend and colleague Miranda Wilcox, a scholar of medieval literature, reminds me, clodhopper is a compound noun, which is a distinctive feature of Old English poetry. So, while it may sound inelegant to modern ears, it represents an attempt of Levertov’s to capture the flavor of Caedmon’s writing.

[7] Levertov echoes the influential, eighth-century account of Caedmon given by Bede. See The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 215–18. I am grateful to Miranda Wilcox for this reference.

[8] From Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book 1, line 26.

[9] YSAs: Young Single Adults—a Church demographic of unmarried 18- to 30-year-olds.

[10] Rien: “nothing” in French.

[11] The word poet comes from a Greek word meaning “maker” or “creator.”



Matthew Wickman is Professor of English at BYU and Founding Director (Emeritus) of the BYU Humanities Center.