I read the Book of Mormon all the way through several times as a teenager. Between multiple readings and a knack for remembering anything that comes in the form of a story, by the time I was 19 I knew the Book of Mormon as well as any other 19 year old I met.
Now I’m 34, and I routinely meet people whose familiarity with the text far, far outstrips my own. Sure, some of that comes from the fact that I know more Mormon studies folks now than I did as a teenager, but I’m not talking about the pro’s and the semi-pro’s out there who are doing great devotional and scholarly work. I mean just in terms of your average member: my command of the text is just nothing to get excited about.
This isn’t surprising, because in the past 13 years since I came home from my mission, I don’t think I’ve completed a single cover-to-cover reading of the Book of Mormon. Other folks kept going. I didn’t.
When I was in the MTC, I started reading the Book of Mormon with a notebook open and a pen in one hand. I jotted down notes of anything that I found interesting and also of questions that occurred to me as I read. I loved doing this, and I kept it up throughout most of my mission. I still have stacks of these notebooks in my garage, and I went through the entire book several times.
And then one day, I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s one of my most vivid memories from my mission. I was looking through old photos a couple of months ago in preparation for my first trip back to the country where I served and I saw a picture of the room where I lived at the time. I was there for several months, but the very first thing that occurred to me when I saw the photo was the precise moment when I finished reading the Book of Mormon, flipped back to 1 Nephi 1:1, began reading, “I Nephi,…” and suddenly realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read it again.
I’ve always had a low tolerance for repetition. It’s something my wife and I squabble over on almost every single road trip. She wants to listen to Cake. I’ve got nothing against Cake. I like Cake. Who doesn’t like Cake? And it’s great road-trip music, but every trip? No, thanks. I’d prefer to listen to some obscure what’s-it that I picked up from NPR bumper music or the recent Samsung commercial. (Seriously, have you heard Leshurr’s Queen’s Speech (Ep 4)? Cannot stop listening. But I will, soon enough.) This is such a strong aspect of my personality that I often intentionally stop listening to music that I really love before it hits that point. I have to protect it from triggering my “not again” reflex.
Meals were always a problem on my mission as well. There were not a lot of members, so missionaries were on their own for food most of the time, and I had neither the time, inclination, nor the talent for decent cooking. Eventually I found a great solution: spaghetti, sour cream, and vegeta. It was delicious, and I ate it every night for months. Until one evening I took my first bite and realized I couldn’t do it. I could not eat it that meal again. There was just no way. I threw it out, brushed my teeth, and went to bed hungry that night. (I didn’t have anything else to eat.) I brought some vegeta back with me from my most recent trip. I have a vague notion that some time soon I’ll cook up some spaghetti, mix in some sour cream, and try it one more time. It’s been almost 15 years. Nearly half my life. Surely I can try it again, right? So far, I haven’t.
It’s not that I don’t read the scriptures. For starters, I’ve read an awful lot more of the Old and New Testaments than I ever did before my mission. I’m particularly enjoying the NSRV version of Paul’s letters (following Ben’s recommendation). I’ve also read from the Book of Mormon quite a lot, but generally I read the selected chapters to prepare a lesson. I’ve also tried to read it again start-to-finish. I don’t know how many times I’ve started with 1 Nephi 1:1 since I got back from my mission, but somehow I never make it out of 2 Nephi. (Insert Isaiah joke here, I guess, but really that’s not the issue.) It’s not that starting somewhere else—say in the middle of Mosiah or Alma—hasn’t occurred to me. It’s just that it feels like cheating.
It’s also not that I have lost my love of the Book of Mormon. I believe in it as much as ever, and I still love it. I think of favorite stories, favorite passages, and favorite people from it on a regular basis. In a lot of ways, the Book of Mormon defined my adolescence, and I still know it well enough that I can think of a verse or a story or a sermon and then find it on LDS.org when I need it for a talk, or a lesson, or a blog post and—while I’m at it—I almost always read a chapter or two around the quote that I looked up.
I couldn’t even tell you exactly what it is that makes it so hard for me to read, other than that I think it has to do with the exact words. It’s not that I don’t like them. It’s just that they are too precisely embedded in my brain. “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents.” It’s like those specific words wore a sharply defined groove in my brain with every reading. Eventually the groove got so deep it exposed raw nerves. (Since there are no pain-receptive nerves in the brain itself, this is a terrible analogy, but work with me.)
My wife and I went back to Hungary in August. It was my first time back since my mission. I was very nervous for a lot reasons, but the main one was that I was very self-conscious about the extent to which my language skills had atrophied over the years. I worked feverishly in the months leading up to the trip: re-reading grammar books, practicing conjugations, even finding folks to practice with via Skype and—in one lucky coincidence—at my kids’ swim practice. I also started reading Harry Potter in Hungarian, because naturally that’s what one does.
While we were visiting the beautiful city of Eger during our trip, we ran into some missionaries. I asked them for a copy of the Book of Mormon in Hungarian because the one I had at home was all marked up and falling apart from when I used it to study on my mission. As it turns out, not only did they have one for me (of course they had one!), but there had been a new translation since I served. Even the cover was different! (Old version translated “Another testament of Jesus Christ” into “Egy másik bizonyság Jézus Krisztusról.” Newer translation: “Egy másik tanúbizonyság Jézus Krisztusról.”)
I was very curious about the new translation, so when we got home I started reading it. Without even really thinking about it, I switched from reading Harry Potter for my daily dose of Hungarian to reading the Book of Mormon. Why not kill two birds with one stone?
I had a notebook and a pen out while I read to take notes of new words or interesting grammar. The passive voice is particularly interesting to me, ever since I learned that Hungarian sometimes translates English passive voice into third-person plural (without a third-person plural pronoun). If I ever knew that on my mission, I had forgotten it, and I don’t think I ever knew it. The quality of materials is vastly better now for studying Hungarian, and I’m jealous of what I could have learned if I’d had access to this stuff. The only grammar book anyone knew at the time was this old behemoth from the 1960s called “the Green Monster” that includes notes about the proper usage of “comrade.” These days there are all kinds of great textbooks you can pick up, to say nothing of finding folks to Skype with online to keep up your language skills.
Gradually, however, I started inserting my thoughts and questions in between the vocabulary and grammar notes, just as I had first done back in the MTC. It’s been two or three weeks since I started (this time with “Én , Nefi, jószül?kt?l születtem…” instead lf “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…”), and only tonight did it occur to me: Hey, I’m reading the Book of Mormon again. I’m reading it and I’m enjoying it. I look forward to it every day. Sure, some of this is for the language practice. Pronouncing Hungarian is sometimes like learning to do tongue-twisters (although not as bad as Polish from what I can tell), and there’s a kind of pleasure in practicing a difficult skill, even an obscure one. But more and more I just want to read the Book of Mormon again.
I think it’s possible that language can get in the way of meaning. That repetition can breed a kind of, if not contempt, aversion. Maybe I’m alone in this, maybe not. I don’t know. But when this aversion comes between us and the words of scriptures, it’s a serious problem.
I didn’t even really fully realize how bad the problem was until I started to slowly work my way past it. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stones, but it’s starting to look like one of those birds was a pterodactyl. (I told you I’d get to the pterodactyl.) Hungarian is a bear of a language to learn, but now I can come to the Book of Mormon with new eyes. I can read it for the first time again. I’m starting to think that this alone is worth all the time I’ve spent trying to learn the language.
The most exciting thing, for me, is the moment when I’m reading the Hungarian and I ask, “Now, how exactly did that go in English?” Sometimes, again, it’s just for the language. But more and more it’s also for the meaning. I’m starting to want to read the English again. That’s an old feeling that I haven’t had in a long time.
When that happens, I want to open up the English immediately, but I haven’t yet. For now, I’m sticking with only the Hungarian. So far, the desire to read the English again seems to me like small, flickering sparks. They have the promise of a healthy flame, but the heat isn’t there yet. Even a breath could extinguish them. I’m reading the Hungarian and stoking the embers, hoping—for the first time in many years—to experience that sense of love and immersion that I used to feel when I read the Book of Mormon.
It feels a little like realizing you have a chance to go home again, when you didn’t even know how homesick you were.
Spiritual health is like that; we can get so desperately weak without realizing it. Sometimes, at periods of stress, I forget to eat or sleep and wonder why I suddenly feel so weak. But the symptoms are always pretty obvious, and the solution is just as trivial. Eat something. Take a nap. Spiritual symptoms can be so much more subtle. As glad as I am at the prospect of working my way through this, I am sad it has taken so long.
A long time ago, I felt that I knew more about Christ than about Heavenly Father. This seemed like a problem, since Heavenly Father is the one I’m actually addressing in prayer. I’d like to know who I’m talking to, you know? You can say that to know one is to know the other, but that seems like a terribly technical approach to a personal relationship. And so I spent a lot of time praying to understand Heavenly Father more in a personal and immediate sense. Eventually, I learned that He was patient. It’s the first thing I learned directly, for myself about God. To me, it is still the most important. It’s the most important because I depend on his patience so very much throughout my life. This experience—going thirteen years without reading the scriptures that so many gave so much for so that I could read them—is one of those times.