The opening chapters of the Book of Mormon are told through the eyes of Nephi, the son of the prophet and spiritual leader, Lehi. Take note of this. Nephi is just an ordinary member of the family, a younger son. Lehi feels compelled to prophecy and preach and has these amazing visions. In 1 Nephi chapter 8, Lehi has a vision of the tree of life. He describes it with little interpretation other than to use it as a way to implore his two oldest sons to shape up and partake of the fruit.
Nephi responds in the way typical of him. He wanted to have the same experiences. He knew this was possible because his prayers have been answered before. He already had a deep relationship with the divine. He describes it this way:
1 For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot.
Compare that experience with Lehi’s experience in the very first chapter of the Book of Mormon:
6 And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much; and because of the things which he saw and heard he did quake and tremble exceedingly.
Or with Nephi in the second chapter:
16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.
In chapter 11, Nephi was more experienced, he had greater faith, his heart was already softened. Unlike in chapter 2, Nephi was already converted. He believed, he was ready. And he was blessed with a transcendent experience, carried away to a high mountaintop, away from everything and everyone.
Lehi’s experience was darker, scarier maybe? Lehi quaked and trembled, he was visited by fire.
Faulconer asks whether or not Lehi is visited by a different being in chapter 1 then Nephi is in chapter 11. I think so. Faulconer also wonders what pondering something in your heart means and how is that different than pondering in your mind.
I’m actually amazed at these experiences. Again, Nephi is called to nothing. He is a son of a prophet but not the prophet. He is the follower in this little church. But in many ways, he goes beyond his father. His experience of the tree of life is more expansive, with greater explanation. I think this teaches me that these kinds of experiences are available to me as well, but there are conditions. We must act as Nephi acted. We must cry, have desire, ponder vigorously, strive.
But I think heavenly manifestations are beside the point. We don’t need angels from heaven to visit us. Adam Miller in a recent article put it this way:
I’m not denying that these supernatural things are real or that people don’t have the kind of direct contact with supernatural things that I never have. I’m just saying that they’ve never happened to me and that, at best, I can only speak about them in the third person on the basis of what others say.
But I don’t think that this is a disaster. And I don’t think it means that Mormonism doesn’t work. In fact, Mormonism seems to be working pretty well in transforming me in all kinds of ways that I find to be difficult and uncomfortable and extremely valuable.
But this transformation has also been profoundly ordinary and it has revolved around God trying to get me to stop speculating about other worlds and far off places and supernatural events and to, instead, pay attention to what’s happening right now, in this world, right in front of my own eyes.
This transformation has revolved around God trying to get me to pay attention to and care for the kinds of things that are so near and obvious that I’m prone to overlook them — the kinds of things that manifest God’s grace concretely at work in the world.
As best as I can tell, though, this is exactly what God wants. If I’m ever going to learn to see him, it will be by learning to see his hand at work in the air I breath and grass I mow. It will be by learning to see his eyes shining out from my child’s face. It will be by reading a book and hearing it read in his voice.
So, out answers to our prayers most likely will not come in this way, although they might. But even if they did, it would be beside the point. Does it matter how our answers come? Does it matter how our experiences with God are manifest? What matters is that they do come. But like Nephi, we need to seek and we need to listen. The answer to our prayer might come during sacrament meeting through a talk given by a barely audible youth speaker, who stands with trembling hands and reads her talk. Our answers just might be in there. Or at work, our answers might come indirectly from a colleague in a meeting. Or my neighbor may have the answer in their head if I only had the guts to come over and talk.
Really there are a multitude of ways, answers to prayers come, solutions to problems arrive in our lap. I am surrounded by angels. I need to pay attention.