These two words could mean anything to us. It could mean, “I’ve been waiting for weeks for a chance to cast out the demon of Mormonism, and you two look just like ideal candidates to find the real Jesus today.”
It could mean, “I’ve been looking for Jesus’ true church all my life. I’m full of doubts and questions, but I’m willing to listen to what you have to say.”
Between these two extreme possibilities, and even on the fringes of them, lay experiences that recently-retired boy scouts from mountain states, like Elder Murello and I, could never be trained to anticipate. “Elder.” It wasn’t his first name. It wasn’t mine either, but that’s what we called each other; a title we took seriously, but which non-Mormons tended to treat with a mixture of bemusement and contempt. I, for one, didn’t need anyone’s approval.
But I need to back up a little. The middle-aged woman behind the screen door asked us to come in. She was about the age of our mothers, the lines on her face revealing doubt and sadness, and crow’s feet on her eyes that betrayed moments of joy. It had been Elder Murello’s turn for the door approach. I lined myself up at the doorknob in a well-practiced maneuver that made Murello the first face to be seen by whoever answered the door.
“Hi! We’re missionaries from Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We have a wonderful message we’d like to share with you about how God has restored Christ’s true church to the earth. We’d love to come in and share this wonderful message with you. Do you have a few minutes now?”
“I’m a witch,” she said, in a conversation-ending tone.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said in his overly folksy, door approach voice that always made me wince. “You seem nice enough to me.”
Then it dawned on me. He thought he was talking to someone with poor self-esteem, or someone warning us to go away or she would be mean to us. Murello was three months out of the missionary training center. That sounds like a short time to you, but it was long enough for him to have at least heard of Wicca, especially in Humboldt County, California. And after all, like Idaho where I’m from, Utah wasn’t entirely Mormon anymore.
I hung my head a little, simultaneously embarrassed that Murello was living up to a stereotype, and amused that he could be so naïve.
But then a strange thing happened. She said, “Come in.”
Murello looked at me. I looked at him, and gestured to the threshold. He was the one doing all the talking here. He could go first. I resigned myself to let him handle it. I’d been out too long, a year and a half, to worry that some soul would be lost forever if a greenie said the wrong thing. It would at least be entertaining.
Still, I wasn’t sorry she asked us in. I wanted to be there for some reason. It wasn’t until well after we’d left that I would know just why.
The place didn’t look like a witch lived there. Nothing inside or outside could possibly be made of candy. Flying-monkey poop was nowhere to be found. Instead there was distressed green shag carpeting, an old television tucked away into a corner, buried under books with titles like “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner,” “Earth, Air, Fire & Water: More Techniques of Natural Magic,” and “Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle.”
She invited us to sit on the stained beige microfiber couch. We sat on the edge, almost in a squatting position with our elbows resting on our knees. Murello already had out a copy of the Book of Mormon, studiously marked ahead of time for the beginning reader.
Murello’s naivete still had me flabbergasted. “Did you think she said ‘bitch’?” I wanted to ask him. It would wait until later, or until the course of the conversation revealed to him what she had meant in referring to herself as a Witch.
Elder Murello held the slim, but lengthy volume in his hands, sandwiched between them, both withholding it and pushing it towards her; a coy approach to proselytizing.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked her. No pleasantries. A typical greenie blunder. This would be interesting.
“I don’t know if I can answer that question.”
“Why did you invite us in, lady? Can you answer that?” I wanted to say. I was getting impatient after all these months in the field--wary of people wasting our time.
“Well, uh,” I could practically hear the moving parts in Elder Murello’s brain clicking into place to retrieve the memorized presentation. “We believe in God. Most people believe in a supreme being, even though they may call him by different names . . .” and off he went.
I wondered if she would interrupt him at all – stop him with some kind of objection or argument.
She didn’t ask a question. She didn’t try to get us to follow her down some tangent. She didn’t raise any concerns.
“Building on common beliefs” – that’s what the training manual called it--a shorthand for listening carefully to the beliefs of others, and then capitalizing on similarities to present our own doctrines. That’s what we needed to do here, but I couldn’t imagine how that was supposed to happen. Where would we even begin? That people should be nice to each other? No littering?
Sometimes it was a good thing when they would sit quiet and let us do our spiel. Mostly, it wasn’t.
Elder Murello had reached the end--the time when we would leave the marked book with assigned readings, ideally with the promise that they would pray about what they had read, asking God if it was true.
She took the book when he offered it, and made no explicit promises other than that she would take a look at it. This, in my experience, meant using the book as a coaster or tearing out the pages to roll joints.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“Of course,” said Murello, sounding a little relieved. I have to admit that I exhaled too.
“Can you give me a blessing?”
This request should have come from a member of our church; someone who wanted us to lay hands on their head and pray for healing or comfort. That’s what it meant to us. Who knows what it meant to her.
Elder Murello and I looked at each other. Before he had the chance to deliver an insufferably pedantic explanation of the ritual, complete with a quotation from the book of James, I said “Of course.”
A hundred reasons for her request entered and left my brain in rapid-fire succession: she was a former member and had seen the light, she’s just crazy, and (the most unnerving possibility) she was expecting something entirely different than what I was about to give her.
I stood up. Elder Murello followed my lead. She stood and grabbed a chair from the kitchen, placed it roughly in the middle of the room, and sat down—the ideal position for us to stand behind her and place our hands on her head. I was about to suggest it myself, but she beat me to it. She knew the routine!
I asked her full name.
I closed my eyes and placed my hands on her head. Elder Murello placed his big hands over mine, and did the same.
I called her by name and began to speak. Her name, I feared, was the only thing I would get right, sounding like an inept tarot card reader rather than a confident messenger from God’s true church. I tried to let go, trusting that I would know what she needed to hear.
As I spoke, a strange magnetic feeling began to rise in my chest. It wasn’t the warm, familiar feeling I expected, but it wasn’t unpleasant or unwelcome. Whatever help I could get.
I finished, saying “amen,” and lifted my hands from her head.
Elder Murello just looked at me, his mouth agape, his already wide, blue, Disney character eyes the size of quarters. His look made me wonder if I had done something patently unthinkable, like closing in the name of Elvis Presley instead of closing in the name of Jesus.
Patricia was in tears. She hugged us both, smiling and gently cupping our cheeks in her hands.
“We’ll come back sometime soon,” I said, not willing to break the spell of the moment by fumbling with my planner to make another appointment.
As we walked down the long gravel drive, Elder Murello and I were silent. Half way to our apartment, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
His hurt tone annoyed me, but I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“My sister served in Ireland. Why didn’t you ever tell me you spoke Celtic?”
“I don’t,” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“The blessing. What did you say, anyway?”
The gift of tongues, we called it, when God gave you the power to speak a foreign language otherwise unknown to you when someone wouldn’t understand your words otherwise, and you were saying something important and sacred. The term had no sense of the “spiritual” babbling embraced by the local Assembly of God.
I had been the gift of tongues, we were sure, and I determined that it was too sacred to share—something too special to be bragged about. At least, this is what I told him. I expected it was too sensational an event for Murello to keep out of his next letter home, or even in a letter to the church magazine.
But we were half wrong. It was a gift, but it had nothing to do with speaking Gaelic without being aware of it.
I understood this the following Monday, our day off, when we hiked with the rest of the zone missionaries in the redwoods over Fern Canyon. I could hear the whisperings of the trees, and could discern ancient forgotten truths spoken in the rustlings of the small animals, and in the high and gentle singing of the birds.