Note not only the coming of the angel, but that the angel does not come to Nephi for specific reasons of instruction or witness—not like the shepherds abiding in their fields or Joseph Smith praying for forgiveness. Here the angel comes to simply ask: “What do you desire?” Now admittedly, this appears to be a sort of test—all right Nephi, let’s see what you ask for, and then we’ll see what you get. And Nephi apparently chooses wisely, which leads to his vision. But God knows I’ll settle even for the test! Perhaps I choose wrongly and all I get is admonishment to repent and search the scriptures (the typical angelic injunction—maybe most folks choose poorly and Nephi really is prodigious). How could I not be infinitely content to be graced even with a mere test such as this? Is it that I fail all the preliminary tests, which block my path to the angelic one?
As noted last time, Nephi’s whole point here is to help recreate for his reader what he takes to be the essential context of having a divine vision like his own. Brother Joseph was driven by similar motivations to try and teach his people how to experience what he had experienced.
So far, here’s what we have:
- Desire to know
- Believe that God is able to make it known (and perhaps that he will make it known)
- Ponder—which seems to be an essential, intellectual element of both seeking and desiring
- Seek more expansively
- And finally (as noted last time), there’s the critical element of repentance.
There it is. Nephi’s recipe.
But despite Nephi’s emphasis on what the petitioner needs to do, there’s no question that ultimately, theophanic revelation is a matter of pure grace. Like his father Lehi, Nephi is merely pondering. It is God that intervenes, ruptures Nephi’s whole world, breaking in out of the heavens. God transports Nephi to a divine mountaintop. And it is the Spirit or the Angel or whatever divinity it is that is there to meet Nephi that first engages him in conversation. Nephi doesn’t even exert the effort to start the conversation. Rather, he is himself plied with questions.
There must be some sort of terrible loneliness involved in being called in this manner. And it’s certainly a calling. Looking at the end of this passage, the Angel (that’s what I’ll call him) is quite clear that this is all meant to function as a sign for Nephi, but not gratuitously. Rather, he’s being commissioned like Isaiah of old to bear witness—which he clearly takes quite seriously.
So there you are, the recipient of revelation in an utterly undeniable and epistemologically exotic fashion, thrown well outside the bounds of normal human experience, and explicitly commissioned to bear witness of the experience—as opposed to say, bury it, which would surely be a tempting thing to do. And if you’re not an absolute narcissist—and I don’t think you can be and have this sort of experience—than you’re going to feel a serious humility, perhaps even embarrassment—the embarrassment of riches. Why you? What makes you so special as to have such an incredible experience? Because unlike many faithful readers of his book today, Nephi was well aware of his fallible mortality.
I think all of this gives prophets—at least prophets like Nephi and Joseph—a deep motivation to bring others into their circle of revelatory experience. And so they default to trying to explain or instruct or lay out steps for how one can mimic their actions and bring about such experiences.
But of course it’s all hogwash. We can’t repeat their actions because we’re not them in their context. And even if we credibly imitate them adjusting for our own context, there still aren’t the external variables of need. Most of all, we can’t constrain God. Or at least, I haven’t been able to. And there’s nothing that Nephi mentions that I haven’t done and redone. There’s been no end to my repenting and pondering and pleading (although I can always doubt the quality of my efforts). What’s more, I’ve had deeply poignant needs of my own. But they aren’t God’s needs. And if angels have been sent to comfort me in my own Gethsemanes, I’ve not been notified.
The heavens remain silent and only my own heart speaks. Though I continue to trust that it speaks with heavens voice. I certainly hear it as such, at least when I feel myself aligned with the divine, and I do my best to listen.