Chapter 5
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Chapter 5
McConkie and Dad: Memories, Dreams, and a Rejection
A Personal Essay

David G. Pace

My father climbs mountains. Every year he takes several members of the family to the top of Mount Timpanogas. Sometimes we stay overnight at Emerald Lake; but most often we start out early, climb to the top, eat lunch, and then slide down the glacier on our way back down. Our feet become terribly sore, and our butts get bruised on rocks that have settled below the surface of the snow, but we go back every year anyway. Or so it seems.

Dad climbs other mountains as well: Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, the Matterhorn. One year he climbed the Grand Teton. The name makes him blush, now that my brother has told him what it means in French, but he still talks about that trip. The pictures he brought back show him in sunglasses on the summit, the murky valleys floating far below. I can imagine what it might have been like for him because of my own trips to the top of Timp. The air is thin and heady; the world sits below like an impressionist oil, but you can hear the gentle, far-off chawing of its gears, like a distant steel mill on a quiet evening.

When I went on a mission to eastern Massachusetts, I realized what a mountain could mean because there weren’t any—just miles and miles of trees and winding little streets that burrowed about madly from place to place. I could never see where I was. You need a mountain so that you know where you are. It’s a point of reference that gives everything some meaning—like a lost, human artifact does to a vacant field.

One time my missionary companion, who was also from the Rockies, climbed a tall tree behind our apartment. He told me what he could see and grumbled about the Unitarians because he could see their church but not ours—ours was too squatty. I had always thought that Mormons should build meeting houses like New England churches—at least in Massachusetts—with steeples that rose to the occasion, steeples that missionaries could at least see from the tops of trees.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I was growing up Dad climbed the mountain that rose sharply across the street from our house nearly every morning. He had a little spot about twenty minutes up the hill where he liked to go to pray out loud. It was a thing with him, to pray out loud, as if it helped break some ozone barrier to God.

On Saturdays he would go to his retreat during the day after he’d cleaned the garage or mowed the lawn. If we needed him we would honk the car horn a few times until he would appear on the ridge far above us and wave.

One evening when I was seventeen, he invited me to go up to the prayer spot with him. Because there was still snow, we took little corner pillows with us from grandmother’s old couch which sat, half-eaten by mice, in the garage. It was cold, and a nearly full moon cast shadows through the scrub oak. I put my pillow down on a rock and sat on it. Dad went somewhere else, and I listened for his prayer, but I didn’t hear anything.

Perhaps for the first time I felt a sense of mystery about my father. A communion was going on that was too sacred for me to witness. Although I felt safe, I also felt troubled, restless, wondering what a mountain prayer could possibly mean to me.

Another time Dad didn’t come back from climbing until my mother thought he was dead. At eight in the morning he had started hiking and one ambition had led to another. He decided to go to the top. It took him until 2:00 p.m. to go up and back; and when he returned, there were cars from the Forest Service in the driveway, and the ward was about ready to start fasting. My mother wouldn’t speak to him for a while after that. I think she really thought he was dead.

Sometimes my father, who taught religion at Brigham Young University from 1967 to 1993, would take his classes up to the prayer spot, where they would have testimony meetings. He looked like Charlton Heston to me—but shorter—laboring Moses-like up the hill and around the corner until he was out of sight, a ribbon of panting students close behind.

When they got on top of the ridge, my siblings and I could see the students’ heads scattered about, rising and then sitting one at a time. When we got tired of watching we would go inside and sneak the refreshments that sat on the kitchen table.

As I got older, I became embarrassed by my dad’s eccentric spirituality. It was becoming common knowledge in our ward and in the campus stake, where he was president, that my father took to the mountains for prayers. Some people didn’t like the idea of a lot of verbal prayer. In fact, some seemed really uneasy with the idea of a lot of prayer period. As I stood at the critical threshold of adulthood, the whole concept made me nervous as well. It was the same feeling I used to get when an older ward member would explain in fast meeting that she had seen a spirit in her bedroom the week before.

My father’s reputation preceded me at BYU. By 1979 when I became a freshman, he was teaching over 1,500 students per semester and was also a popular lecturer throughout much of the Church. At BYU, spirituality becomes codified and competitive, and I got negative vibes from other students, even from professors who disdained him and thought that he, however popular, was naive. I heard sneering references to "the Holy Ghost Club." Spending long hours praying in the mountains was okay for Enos and Nephi, but there seemed to be something excessive, even lame, about someone doing it in our day. At least he should keep quiet about it. That was the sentiment.

The stigma of my father’s daily rendezvous with the mountain was reinforced by my sense of being humored by others because of it. I felt I wasn’t being taken seriously, and nothing seemed worse to a college freshman than not to be taken seriously by those in academe who fancied themselves in academe.

There were many who admired my father’s spiritual life, but I began dismissing those who told me what a wonderful dad I had and how he had positively affected their lives. They were silly and emotional, I felt, groupies suffering from excessive zeal. It was hard being the son of Moses. For one thing—and this would never have occurred to Dad’s disciples—Moses is rarely around for his son. He’s too busy being Moses.

After a year at college, when I was called on a mission to mountainless New England, where a Utahn has to climb trees to get his bearings, Dad sent me a copy, hot off the press, of his book, What It Means to Know Christ (Provo, Utah: Council Press, 1981). I was pretty proud of him. I knew that the volume with the sentimental cover of a young woman looking up and reaching out to touch the pierced hand of the risen Lord, contained his story, every meaningful spiritual experience he’d had since he was a nineteen-year-old farm boy reading the Book of Mormon while he irrigated Idaho sugar beets.

And I was in mountainless New England in the fall of 1981 when Bruce McConkie gave his infamous "Keeping Balance" instructions at the leadership session of the BYU fourteen-stake conference. My father, as stake president, was seated on the podium, unsuspecting and unwarned. Ironically, it was Halloween. (Editor’s Note: See accompanying article: " Context and Analysis: ‘You Have Heard True Doctrine Taught.’") He gave a series of examples of what he called religious extremism and denounced efforts to develop a special relationship with Jesus Christ as a "fad."

When I called home at Thanksgiving, Dad told me what had happened and cried. Not that tears were unusual—he had always been expressive—but he was weeping out of a place that was deep and unknown to him. Perhaps if I had been in Utah I would have done something rash, something I would have regretted later. I don’t know.

Exactly what the point of contention was between the two men is unclear, but its effect was devastating to Dad, which is where devastation in the Church usually settles—that is, on the individual. Dad didn’t know what to do and neither did I.

When I spoke with him again over the phone the following March 1982, he didn’t weep. He spoke soberly, numbly. At a BYU devotional, Elder McConkie, in his characteristic brazen style, had continued the corrective, quoting Dad’s book and calling it "pure sectarian nonsense." My father took his book off the market. He was released as stake president. Approximately 50 percent of his class enrollment disappeared as rumors circled BYU like buzzard’s breath. It was whispered that he had even been excommunicated.

In the mission field, bad news from home is an open sore to a young man’s spirit. This pain was my personal wound. It was as though Elder McConkie’s remarks were directed at me, and every aspersion cast on my father afterwards seemed to have been cast at me.

My earlier ambivalence toward my father’s spiritual flamboyance collapsed into blood loyalty. After the second phone call to my father, I avoided turning my missionary flipchart to the photo of the twelve apostles during discussions. I didn’t want to broker an image of Bruce McConkie. "Elder," intoned my mission president as I wept during an interview, hoping for comfort, "no offense, but if your father was disciplined by one of the Brethren, he probably needed disciplining."

In central Maine, a tearful Relief Society president in a tiny branch, not knowing of my connection to the incident, told me that her niece, who was struggling anyway with her new testimony at BYU, had left the Church as a direct result of the insensitive attack. Letters from home continued to come, but they talked mostly about family news. I could tell that my family was spiraling into an agonizing hell. I felt betrayed by the very organization, and particularly by the very men, I sought to represent. It was a real struggle to carry on as a missionary. How, I asked again and again, could something I had a testimony of hurt me this much?

Despite my anguish, I finished my mission and was released honorably. But when I went home, my faith thinned until it seemed nonexistent. Cynicism swelled unanswerably inside me. No one could tell me that I didn’t have a good reason to question the Church because no one seemed to understand McConkie’s position, which seemed to contradict the direction of so many other Church doctrines. No one had an explanation, and no one was willing to publicly speculate.

There seemed to be nowhere to go with my anger at the Church hierarchy, so I lashed out at my parents, at their docility, their submissiveness. Outwardly, they remained loyal to the Church even though I knew they were full of anguish and confusion. Privately, some General Authorities said comforting things to my father. But I wanted Dad to strike back, to demand a public explanation and/or an apology.

I remember that first year after my mission as the darkest our family had experienced up to that time. I saw my parents as living corpses. My mother became ill. My father lost weight. My brother left for his mission to painful testimonies at a lifeless farewell. I went to church and said family prayers when called on, but these public gestures rapidly became faithless acts, carried out to comfort my parents. Prayer and church attendance contained no comfort for me. I hated the Church. I had devoted my life to it and now wanted nothing more to do with an organization that thought so lightly of the individual, an organization that to save face, to appear unified in its glib goal of attaining Zion, would sacrifice my father, one of its most loyal soldiers.

For almost two years, every family conversation degenerated into the unresolved confusion and anger that stemmed from this encounter with Christ’s special witness. As the summer of 1983 ended, I got ready to begin my third year at BYU. Ready like a bat out of hell.

On an August night in 1983, I had just come home from work. My mother and younger sisters were all sitting on the front porch in the dark. I was somewhat relieved to know that Dad wasn’t there. We couldn’t talk, because everything always turned to "the incident." Mostly, I tried to ignore him.

I remember that the night was mellow and fragrant, and the front door had been left open to cool off the house. Because of mosquitoes and moths Mom always insisted that the porch lights stay off; still, it seemed eerie that they were all sitting there in the dark, their voices muffled by the rustling leaves of nearby trees.

I sat down on the porch step, my mother’s bare white feet next to me. She was in her robe and the girls were all in their pajamas.

"You got here just in time," my mother said. "We’re waiting for your father to signal us."

"Signal you?" I asked. "Where is he?"

She pointed up toward the dark outline of the hulking mountain in front of us. "Up there—he’s staying overnight on the summit."

"I’m glad he told you this time," I said.

"Yes," she half-whispered, sensing my sarcasm.

I looked about at my three little sisters freshly bathed and pajamaed, sitting in quiet wonder.

"I let them stay up late so they could see the signal. I hope he’s all right up there," she added. I sighed. So, he’s still climbing, I thought. I don’t know that he had ever stopped as I thought about it. Me, I was the one who hadn’t climbed for a long time.

I had forgotten about the mountains. I couldn’t remember why we hadn’t climbed Timp that summer. It’s amazing how you can spend a whole year in the Rockies and not really notice them. In the past, they had been such a powerful reassurance to me, but that year they had been only a jagged backdrop to our painful family life. The thought of my father up there made me feel strangely uncomfortable and yet oddly respectful at the same time.

For a minute all of us fell silent. We silently watched two runners jog by, talking. They didn’t know that in the shadows we were all listening to them. Then, suddenly, there was a squeal from one of the little ones.

"Look Mummy, there it is!" Above us on the very highest peak was a tiny fire. We all stared in awe at the speck of light that continued to grow bigger and bigger until it seemed to light up the entire peak in a soft, irregular glow.

"He’s going to burn the mountain down!" my mother gasped.

Yes! I thought, the mountain is going to burn right down, the whole damn thing in one huge, resentful conflagration. How wonderfully devastating, I thought with rising ire, like man’s puny arm pulling the one pin that would deflate the whole of God’s universe.

But the fire spread no further. We were silent, even my little sisters. I was thinking of the loneliness in a dark world, the loneliness on top of a windy mountain at night. Suddenly there was a flash of light, a tiny precise beam of light, flickering on and off at us. Dad had a flashlight.

"Quick, go get a flashlight," exclaimed my mother, jumping up. "We’ve got to let him know we saw him. We’ve got to let him know."

I moved instantly, running into the kitchen, searching frantically through drawers, cupboards—even the hutch. I couldn’t find one anywhere. But I had to. I heard myself panting from the excitement, whispering, "Oh dear God, where’s a flashlight? Where’s a flashlight! He’s gotta know ¼ he’s gotta know!"

I ran back through the front hall. My sisters were screaming excitedly. My mother stood tensely looking up, her hands held tightly under her chin. The porch lights, I thought. We can use the porch lights! I ran to the switch and began blinking them off and on.

"Wait!" my mother said. I stopped. There was a pause. "ON!" she said. I flipped the lights on. "OFF!" I flipped them off. "ON ... OFF ... ON ... OFF ... " she continued. On top of the mountain the light continued blinking at us in sync with the porch lights.

My sisters squealed, "He sees us, he sees us, Mummy! Daddy sees us!"

The year 1991, the year I was divorced, found my father and me trekking in the Himalayas. As we descended into a valley that cradled what seemed at dusk to be an idyllic Nepalese village, we spotted our Sherpa guide’s familiar campfire.

The time together had been good, but in many ways I still wondered if I knew my father. His response to the McConkie "incident," nearly ten years earlier, was to profess his support for "the Brethren" and to view his pain as stemming from some Abrahamic test—that a God as cruel as Elder McConkie, in my view, had sent him to endure. And since I didn’t share my father’s highly literal belief in a personal Jesus anymore, I felt isolated from him.

Here’s the fix I was in. Mormonism and family closeness had been indelibly fused for me. There were no distinctions made between certainty of belief in the gospel according to Joseph Smith and family loyalty.

I also wondered if Dad could ever know me, or if T. S. Eliot was right when he said that you can’t understand what one believes until you believe it yourself. I wonder if the same works for disbelief—my disbelief, my rejection of orthodox Mormonism. How could my father understand my disbelief until he experienced it as I had?

I wondered if the ties that bind a Mormon family together were flexible enough to endure and stretch with the violent delineations that inevitably occur between family and faith as children mature into adulthood, mature into belief and, in my case, into disbelief. Today, I don’t think those bonds are flexible enough.

We stood there on a 19,000-foot peak called Kala Patar which overlooks Mount Everest with its flume of windblown snow trailing off into the stratosphere. "This is like living in the Church," I told my father wearily through the light-headedness and nausea that is often common at that altitude. "It’s like a trek that never descends from this rarefied air." He leaned into his walking stick, listening. "I don’t know," I continued, "it’s like you plod through your whole life just to find that when you reach what you thought was the top, there’s another ridge, and the whole time you feel lousy, like right now."

My father smiled, a thin, almost goofy grin, breaking the gray of his grizzled, fourteen-day beard. He was so familiar to me at that moment, in his silly blue hat, but in a distanced kind of way, like the Sherpa’s muted fire below us. He said nothing, but I thought, as we swayed together in a deoxygenated delirium, that this uncertainty was the way it was supposed to be, the way it had to be, and that it was all underwritten by God’s terrible honesty.

There seem right now to be only two ways of dealing with the human condition: we can deny the painful parts that came to us through our progenitors, thereby guaranteeing their eternal life or we can grapple with them, get bruised, and run the risk of becoming morbidly obsessed. Transcending pain appears to elude both those who deny pain and abuse, like the McConkie incident, and those who, like myself, continue to wrestle with the demons that it has spawned.

Maybe that’s why my father still climbs his mountains through thin air. Perhaps he is trying to convince himself that he is better because of McConkie’s hatchet job. And indeed he is better if Nietzsche was right when he wrote that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Privately, discussions about "the McConkie affair," as my father refers to it, are spirited and provocative, particularly among my eleven siblings. But publicly most if not all of my sisters and brother feel impelled to express only support for the Brethren, partly in deference to my parents’ public image but also, I believe, out of fear for their salvation.

And maybe that’s why I insist on sitting in the valley below, banging my head against the maddening silence of the Bride of Christ who proclaims, with sanctimonious regularity, that she is the Only True and Living Church on the Face of the Whole Earth.

Even so, I continue to look up for signals from my father. I hope that he can see mine.

DAVID G. PACE graduated from BYU with University Honors in English, an M.A. in communication from the University of Utah. He is a flight attendant in New York City where he lives with his wife Cheryl. They are both journalists and edit the newsletter for the American Theatre Critics Association. He wrote a theater column in Salt Lake City for ten years and was regional correspondent for Back Stage in New York for four. Among his writings is an article on producing theater in a church state, published in American Theatre, and used in teaching. An earlier version of this paper was presented in a session sponsored by the Mormon Alliance at the Sunstone Symposium, 11 August 1995, Salt Lake City.