Monday, March 22, 2010

Veils and Nutshells

About twenty years ago I stood on a street corner at the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco watching a panhandler very closely. He had tricked me. He hadn’t taken my money, but he had hoped that I would give him some because I was amused. The man was very good. His art was with his hands. Repeatedly he led me to believe one thing, and then showed another.

You may have seen a similar nutshell game at some point in your life. The person performing the trick attempts to conceal a small ball or object beneath one of three nutshells. The point of the trick is to move the nutshells around so that you loose track of where the ball is. A good performer uses other slight-of-hand tricks to hide the ball. Rather than move the shells quickly, they will conceal the ball in some other way so that even slow moves will confuse the observer as to which shell actually hides the ball.

I carefully watched the panhandler for a while before leaving for my next destination. His game was rather interesting to see. Each time I would note which shell he used to cover the ball. Time after time, I was certain I knew where the ball was. Each time I was wrong, or at least he had a very good way of tricking me because I couldn’t see it. Though he would only perform when someone would pay to see his trick, there were enough people who paid the piper that I could observe without buying into his game. The man’s trick was harmless really, and it generated enough income that he gained some meager subsistence from it.

After leaving the Wharf and the tourist attractions at Pier 39, I went with my family up along the coast of Northern California. The weather and terrain was much different than what I was used to along the southern coasts. Instead of warm sandy beaches and perfectly clear skies, the northern coast had beautiful rock formations that jutted abruptly into the water. They were white from the flocks of oceanic birds that roosted on the tops of the rocks. The steep slopes of the coast were lightly covered in a sea of ferns that disappeared into forests of beautiful redwoods. Everything about the scenery seemed slightly hidden and veiled. And then there was the sky.

The marine layer of the coastal air adds another characteristic to the veiled landscape. Clouds that touch the ground in the form of fog shroud the beauty of the water and the slopes in varying amounts. Sometimes the clouds roll in from the distant horizon of the ocean. Sometimes the fog is so thick and present that you can scarcely see trees that are not far in front of you. Not everyone likes clouds, but I find them very beautiful at times, especially when I can have stretches of clear blue sky in between.

I am especially intrigued by moments of entering. The point at which a low flying cloud approaches the rocks of the coast can be very slow and imperceptible. Often it is as though the sky merely thickens until you realize it isn’t just sky anymore. It is fog also. Things that were once clear are not easily identifiable. Objects you may have recognized just minutes before take on a different appearance and seem less familiar. This can be disconcerting if you are already in a new place or experience. However, if you are on an established road with a good road map, you can take in the view a little more leisurely. The historian John R. Stilgoe said, "Storm makes sense of shelter, and if the shelter is sound, the shelter makes the surrounding storm good...." (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. viii)

In recalling my memories of that particular trip to California, I noticed a few similarities between the nutshells and the fog. Both tend to move. In both cases, the perception of the experience didn’t change reality. Though the nutshells moved back and forth, the ball never really disappeared. It just wasn’t visible. The same thing could be said of the waves, the rocks, and the forest along the coast. They didn’t vanish from existence temporarily, but their appearance was hidden. If there was one difference that stood out to me between the shells and the fog, it was the intent behind the things that were hidden. The fog had no intent, it was just there. It’s then up to the observer to formulate an opinion as to whether the fog is good or bad. The funny thing about the nutshell game was that the man performing the trick had the intent to deceive. Not only was he good at it, but the people who were watching him were entertained by the fact and were willing to pay him to do it again and again.

For the faithful Salty Pockets reader, you probably see the lack of subtlety in comparing a harmless nutshell game with the deception of the adversary. Were nutshells the main topic of this post, I would be guilty of being too obvious. But this post is not about nutshells. Rather, my point is to show what the fog is not. Remember that the fog has no intent. It just is. It is merely a condition for us to respond to. Before I leave the subject of nutshells altogether, however, let me just give my opinion about spiritual matters. I think you are nuts if you pay someone to trick you.

Changing circumstances can really make us uncomfortable, particularly when we cannot see clearly. Unless I am careful, it is easy for me to be grumpier when I am not comfortable. I have to be cautious so that I don’t take out my frustrations on others, especially those who are closest to me. During difficult periods of our lives it may be tempting to question God, wondering if he is trying to trick us, or wondering why he doesn’t offer more help when we can’t see clearly. While the fog, of itself, may not have an intent, it helps me to remember that Father in Heaven does. He has a careful plan that works toward that intent and that plan includes a very important veil.

It is a fascinating thought to consider that we are in the middle of eternity. Forever stretches in both directions. While you can’t measure forever, the distance behind us and that which is ahead of us is the same, which places us right in the middle. I may not be able to comprehend eternity, but I can focus on the importance of now. Every decision we make leads to another decision. It is a series of good decisions that will help us get back to our heavenly home.

As a condition of this mortal life, each of us has a veil that is placed over our minds. While we existed as spirits before being born into mortality, our premortal existence is hidden from our view. Reducing our memory of the first half of eternity to what we experience here on this earth affords us the opportunity to be tested on what we feel and not just what we see or know. We have to put our trust in something greater than ourselves, and that something greater is God.

The prophet Mormon taught, “For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night. For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. … And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully….” (Moroni 7:15-16, 18)

Because the knowledge we gained previously needs to be brought back to our remembrance as we learn from our experience, this veil also blurs our current understanding from time to time and causes us to feel as though we were in a cloudbank or a dense fog. However, when we turn to the Son, and His light becomes strong enough to evaporate the fog, we begin to make sense of things that we may not understand otherwise.

Whether our vision is obstructed so we cannot see, or that we see so clearly the things in front of us that they become obstacles for our faith, vision problems, and learning how to deal with them, are an essential part of life.

Just as change can make us uncomfortable, we are often afraid of what we don’t know. We fear the things we don’t understand. In a spiritual sense, the veil is something we cannot see. Because it is not tangible and is merely an explanation of why we can’t remember, we may be afraid of making decisions with the veil present. This fear can be an unfortunate road block that may impede our mortal progress. It is similar to being surrounded by a cloudbank in the redwoods and then deciding to stop until the marine air clears. Understanding why the Lord refers to this reduction of memory as a veil in the scriptures may give us some insight on how to make better choices.

In the writings of the scriptures, a veil is used to describe a piece of cloth that separates two rooms or spaces. It also refers to an article of clothing that may be worn for various reasons, many times in association with prayer or a marriage. A veil is also used symbolically to describe a covering or a separation of the mind from understanding. In each case, the meaning of the word suggests something temporary that may be easily removed under the appropriate circumstances. Knowing when and how to remove it is very important and worth consideration. But first consider the reasons the veil was used.

Anciently, the veil of the tabernacle or the temple separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The Holy Place contained an altar of incense, a candlestick, and the table of shew bread. Temple workers would perform some of their duties in the Holy Place. The Holy of Holies was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It was the throne of God. I think it significant that there wasn’t a wall or a door between the two places, but instead a piece of light fabric hung to separate or conceal. What does the Lord intend for us by suggesting such a light separation? It was His desire to have the ancient Israelites enter into His presence as did Moses, but they were not ready. Until such a time that they were ready, the veil was sufficient a separation to help them. (Exodus 26: 31, 33, 35)

A veil is often draped over something to show honor or respect for what is beneath. When the camps of Israel were to move, the veil before the Ark of the Covenant was to be taken down and placed over the Ark. The altar of incense, the candlestick, and the table of shewbread were also to be covered. (Numbers 4:5-15) Those who were to carry the holy items were not to touch them lest they were to die. The Lord wished for them to understand that holy things are not to be treated lightly. The practice of covering is used today in worship meetings where the Lord’s sacrament is administered.

After Rebekah consented to marry Isaac, his servant brought her to him. As she approached and saw him in the distance, she asked the servant, and he confirmed that the man was Isaac. It was then that Rebekah took a veil and covered her face. She did not cover her face as she traveled with the servant, it was only when she was about to meet her husband-to-be that she felt she needed this propriety. (Genesis 24:61-65) While this may only be a custom, it is worth noting when the covering took place. Covering is an act of modesty and defines personal space.

It was a Jewish custom at weddings, and still is in other cultures, for a bride to wear a veil as part of her wedding attire. The veil is then removed after the wedding is performed, symbolic of revealing and giving one’s self to a marriage partner. There is a difference between being acquainted with and knowing someone intimately. Lifting the veil is a symbol of removing the separation that keeps two people apart. This is significant in light of the description of separation above and the analogy used by Paul to describe the marriage between the Lord and the Church. (Ephesians 5:21-33)

A veil may also be used as clothing to protect the eyes from dirt and dust. In a spiritual sense it may be used to protect us from other worldly things that may pollute things that should be kept clean. It is also possible for that veil which shields the eyes to obscure what we see with our natural eyes so that we focus more on a deeper meaning rather than what is on the surface. In the case of a wedding ceremony, it is suggestive of marrying for inner beauty and not looks that will fade with time.

Each of these examples of a veil can teach us about our relationship with God. There is a sacredness that is not to be taken lightly, and yet the veil is light enough to be removed when we have sanctified our hearts. The Lord intends for each of us to remove this veil at the appropriate time, when we are prepared to meet him, when the Bridegroom returns for the wedding. Until that time when we are ready to present ourselves, we should not be afraid of the veil, or making choices with it present. Instead we need to rely on the Holy Spirit who will teach us all things and bring all things to our remembrance. (John 14:26) We need to consider when we should veil our face in prayer and when we cover other sacred things that we carry with us or wear as an outward expression of an inner commitment to follow the Savior Jesus Christ.

The Lord told Joseph Smith that this veil is often of our own making. “And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received – Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation. And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.” (Doctrine & Covenants 84:54-56) Vanity and unbelief will hinder our progress, just like stopping in the fog. The solution to correct this is to replace our fear with faith.

We demonstrate our faith when we are willing to do hard things. We exercise our faith by acting upon the circumstances that are given to us and making correct choices when we are surrounded by fog. Our faith grows as we gain experience in mortality, by trusting our spirituality, or by following the promptings of the Holy Spirit. When our faith becomes such that we not only believe in Jesus Christ, but we believe Him enough to follow Him through any circumstance, then we are prepared to meet Him. Then we are ready for the wedding where we can rend the veil of unbelief. We do not have to be perfect. We merely have to turn our hearts to Him so that He can show us the way. We only need to find a good place to start and begin.

The prophet Moroni taught us, “Behold, when ye shall rend that veil of unbelief which doth cause you to remain in your awful state of wickedness, and hardness of heart, and blindness of mind, then shall the great and marvelous things which have been hid up from the foundation of the world from you—yea, when ye shall call upon the Father in my name, with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then shall ye know that the Father hath remembered the covenant which he made unto your fathers, O house of Israel.” (Ether 4:15) The decision to rend the veil of unbelief starts with a prayer and requires a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

Knowing that the veil provided us by a loving Father in Heaven is not meant to be a trick or a deception can help us trust Him more completely that He will help us and He will not lead us astray. He has promised to comfort us, direct us, and inspire us as we close our eyes and listen with our hearts and our minds. It is more important to focus on what we feel and not just what we see and what we know. In a nutshell, it all comes down to faith. If you rely only on your eyes, the great deceiver may yet deceive you again and again. But if we learn to trust in the Lord by using the veil to help us, at least until our faith is sufficiently strong to rend it, we will be prepared for the wedding when the Bridegroom returns. I look forward to that day. In the meantime, I am grateful for my veil.

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This is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.