Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison (courtesy of Mette Ivie Harrison)

Today and tomorrow we have a guest post from Mette Ivie Harrison, who was a rock-solid member of the very first ward I was ever in back in the early 1990s when I converted to Mormonism in Princeton, NJ.

Mette was at that time getting her doctorate in German lit at the university. I think she gave the talk on the Holy Ghost at my baptism. After she got her degree she went back to Utah to teach at BYU. We lost touch for a long time, only to reconnect a couple of years ago (where else?) on Facebook.

I learned she’d had quite a journey since grad school. She left academia, found her voice as a successful novelist, and — most surprising to me — lost her testimony. As you can see from her candid, vulnerable posts, she’s endured some impossible things and has some very good reasons to question her faith.

She’s now trying to put Mormonism back together in a way that makes sense for the person she is now. I hope you’ll welcome her story with compassion. — JKR

Leaving Mormonism . . . and finding my way back (part 1)

by Mette Ivie Harrison

When I lost my sixth child Mary Mercy at birth in 2005, I went back to church the very next week. I went back to work. I went back to exercising even before I should have. I was convinced that I would feel normal again if I acted normal. I believed that I would get through the worst and come out on the other end if only I hung tight to my religion and trusted in God.

We blessed the baby with the permission of our bishop in the hospital. We gave her a name and spoke about her as a member of the family. We told our other children they would see her again when they were in heaven. I gave several “inspirational” (according to friends) testimonies in the months following, explaining that I trusted that God would teach me about “Mercy” through her namesake and that this was all meant to be.

When a woman told me just a few days after my daughter’s death, in the nicest possible way, that this was a good thing for our family because she was sure that now we would work even harder to be a “forever family” with all the members determined to make it to the celestial kingdom, I told myself she meant well. I made excuses over and over again for people who said unconscionable things, including those members of my ward who were certain that my decision to home birth had led to my daughter’s death.

I believed that I’d stop feeling sad and that random, stupid things people said to me would hurt less. But as the year following Mercy’s death passed, I didn’t feel better. In fact, I got worse. I began to feel suicidal after church on Sundays. I fantasized about cutting myself. I dutifully agreed to a calling in the Primary Presidency, though I warned my bishop, flatly, with no tears, that I was suicidal and I it might damage my health to deal with children who would be able to do all the things my dead daughter never would.

I asked a woman in the ward what I should do since I had prayed and fasted repeatedly for “peace.” That was all I wanted. I wanted to stop desiring to be dead. I wanted to care fully for the five remaining children I had. I wanted to be someone like the person I had once been, faithful and happy. This woman insisted that I just needed to fast and pray MORE. But the more I fasted and prayed, the more frantic I became. I spent at least a year unable to sleep and another year after that only sleeping when on prescription medication, after my GP became seriously concerned about my suicidal thoughts.

At this point in my life, reading the scriptures became agony. I would read stories about other people whom God had not helped. Sometimes people recommended that I remember the pioneers. But it didn’t help me to think that others had it worse than I did. It made me angry, despairing, and more suicidal. I tried multiple depression medications. None of them worked.

At church, I continued to feel the unrelenting doctrine of happiness. One entire sacrament meeting was dedicated to the insistence that we should all just be happier, that if we trusted God fully and had faith, we would be happy no matter what our circumstances. The stories of faith healing that I heard in our ward over the next several years (one returned missionary who nearly died when he fell at a construction site, another man in the ward who suffered similar injuries, and multiple pregnant women who were given healings that led to the survival of their children) made things difficult. Why them and not me? Did God not love me anymore? Why couldn’t I hear him in prayer?

The message at church seemed to be that I wasn’t worthy of being healed, or didn’t have the faith, or was being tested to see how long I could last. At this point I gave up. I realized that I could not worship this God that others in the church insisted was the true one. I couldn’t worship a god who would kill an innocent unborn child so that I would learn some grand lesson. I couldn’t worship a god who refused to speak to me anymore when I felt I had done nothing wrong, or at least no worse than other people to whom he seemed to speak.

I quietly withdrew from the Mormon church. Oh, I kept attending Sunday meetings so the kids wouldn’t notice. But I was an atheist in my heart.

This self-protective impulse had some benefits. The hurtful things that people sometimes said didn’t touch me anymore. I began to see Mormons differently, as an outsider rather than as someone within the fold. I viewed behavior as tribal rather than personal. And I realized that many of the things that people said out loud were an attempt to reassure themselves that what had happened to me would never happen to them. If tragedy occurred because I’d done something wrong, then they could make sure never to do that, and their children would be safe. I understood these behaviors much better without faith involved, and even began to forgive a little in my heart.

[Continue reading Part 2 here.]

 

Mette Ivie Harrison is a nationally ranked triathlete and Mormon mother of 5, including one missionary in Texas. She is the author of six YA fantasies, including The Princess and the Hound and The Rose Throne. She also has published a memoir of her experiences in loss and triathlon called Ironmom and has an adult mystery coming out with Soho Press in December called The Bishop’s Wife. You can find her at www.metteivieharrison.com or on twitter (@metteharrison), facebook (Mette Harrison or Mette Ivie Harrison), and tumblr (www.metteivieharrison.tumblr.com).

14 Comments

  1. Jana, how beautiful you can speak about this. Only God knows the mysteries at hand. Why do we think we have all the answers and put God in that box of familiarity. He’s not like that. He is real and His character doesn’t change. Our effort in prayer and fasting are just that – our efforts. When as some point we have this crisis of faith that screams from every fibre of our being:”God either you’re real or you’re not” then we have entered that place of discovery. At some point you relinquish all rights to self. This is a powerful place, the place of the yielded heart. He can do much with a soul left in His hands and not in own preconceived faith. This is the power of the yielded heart. http://www.chrismalkemes.com

  2. Jana Riess

    Well, I can’t take any credit here. The beautiful voice is Mette’s, as she struggles to come through this pain to the other side.

    I like what you say about relinquishment. At some point some of us may pray the most honest prayer — perhaps the *first* truly honest prayer — which begins with the humble admission that we really don’t know what we believe anymore.

  3. Matte ‘ s words are profound, honest, and what I experienced when I lost my baby. While the lost of my child was not THE event that lead to my disbelief, it certainly started me on the path. My exit from the church took another eighteen painful years. I understand.

  4. This story feels familiar to me in so many ways, Mette. I think there are a lot of us who hide our suffering and desperation in that way. We go to church believing that it should be a safe place, that these people should understand us and have compassion. We believe we can go there and not be judged. But then…we are judged. And treated without true compassion. And we get beaten down for our inabilities to pile on more in the form of church callings, because service will make everything better. We wake every Sunday with dread, and leave church in tears, and everything about our lives become so heavy because of our “religion.” My entire family has been experiencing this in one way or another, and so we have been focusing on our personal well-beings, as we believe Heavenly Father would want us to do. But we rarely ever attend church meetings or functions. And I’ve decided that’s really ok. We’re better, mentally and spiritually, this way. For now. Thank you so much for sharing this experience with the world. It reminds me again how it’s ok to view our religion differently than the collective organization thinks we should. Hugs!

  5. It takes a lot of courage to be honest with yourself like this, both in doubting and believing. Mette has inspired me as a writer, and I’ll be following this story with interest.

  6. Thank you for your honesty and wisdom, Mette. I appreciate both the vulnerability and the strength it must have taken to write a piece like this and share it with us.

  7. Why is it that when we need the church the most, it is the church that is the most hurtful to us? I experienced pretty much all of these same things. I understand why people say them. But God, really, is not just God of the happy. The Psalms of lament and the prophet’s tears, and the real ending of Job, are where I find my comfort. Our God does not cause our pain, but walks with us through the darkest valley. That is my credo, what I set my heart on.

  8. Thank you for this. I can hardly wait to read the next half of the story. I am so sorry you suffered so much. What does one say when trying to comfort someone who experiences a loss that we can’t even comprehend?

    I remember a young woman I worked with once, whose baby’s heart stopped beating a few weeks before the due date… What could I have said? I said nothing. Is that any better than saying something wrong?

    My own grandmother had only 5 children and 2 died shortly after birth. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering she had.

  9. Mette: I think we might know each other; I have this vague memory of you, I think, from BYU? Sorry, as we get older, we have a harder time remembering people from our more distant past. But I remember I liked you!!

    Anyway, I want to tell you I love you. Like you, I was a “valiant youth,” and stalwart member. I thought I was super strong in the Church, with what I considered to be a rock-solid testimony. The quick version is that I had a few little mini faith crises, each time coming out stronger. But one day, a lot of little things that had been difficult, without being able to pinpoint exactly how it happened, I found myself in a darker place than I’d ever been, hanging on with a thread. I couldn’t deny my past experiences with God, but it seemed that no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to find Him, and the darkness lasted a long time. I had tiny glimmers here and there. I never got to the point of saying I was atheist, nor did I leave the Church, but it was dark, lonely, scary, and painful. And then one day, a miracle came into my life. I had done nothing to deserve it. It was simply the grace of God, starting through the inspiration of another person. It was a clear, unmistakable answer to so many deep down, unspoken prayers. And what was important was that it was a clear confirmation to me that God loves me more than I ever could have imagined, that he’s ALWAYS mindful of me and was there all along (and that He feels this way about ALL of his children) . . . and I started to feel much more empathy for others and a desire to be a better disciple of Christ. Since then, I’ve had other trials and difficulties, other dark moments, and other miracles. A continuous journey.

    I’m learning that we in the Church have nearly lost the ability to find our faith in times of crises because we have nearly lost the core meaning of Christ’s gospel. I’ve changed the way I view many concepts. I see now that the law does not save us: we can obey the law and be “righteous” all the day long, but that in itself will not help us find the pure love of Christ. But the pure love of Christ immediately cleanses us and gives us only a desire to be righteous. That love comes from Christ, unconditionally. That’s all we have to have faith in, the love of Christ (the Atonement of Christ). –(Christ taught the two great commandments: love God, and love thy neighbor as thyself). It seems so easy, but when there’s darkness all around us, it’s nearly impossible to believe that enough for Him to reach us. I don’t believe I deserved this blessing from God anymore than anyone else. All I can do is thank God and hope that I can help bring others unto Him. I know He loves you and pray that you will find that glimmer and feel that love very soon.

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