Well, this us leads us on in sharing our brushes with strengthening adversity, but first a few reflections on going through the heart press.
Pruned, Pressed, & Purified
Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have a new understanding of adversity. We learn through opposition and strain, against difficulty and struggle, regardless of the source and nature of the trial. Jesus Christ can succor us.
We, too, need to be pruned, pressed and purified, much like the olive tree and olive oil that symbolize the process, the Purifier, and the product of a pure heart. So here are a few thoughts I’ve learned about the process, and another story from my own life–The Twelve Days of Christmas…
Homer called it “liquid gold.” Athletes used to smear it all over their bodies. It was used to anoint, used in cooking, a source of light and therapeutic ointment for centuries. It was infused with flowers and with grasses to produce both medicine and cosmetics. This liquid gold is commonly known as olive oil.
I grew up with it, doused on tomatoes and parmegiana, in authentic Italian ‘gravy’ (non-Italians call it “sauce!”), combined with vinegar on salads, glittering in the bottom of a bowl waiting to be soaked up by crusty Italian bread. It was the indispensable oil of my Mediterranean forebears, the salutary ingredient in native cuisine, and the same golden base for the ordinations of kings and rulers.
I was intrigued with its healthful properties in my Gentile days, but am moreso now, having joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and having been anointed, initiated, blessed, and healed as this oil, has been placed upon my head-consecrated by rightful administrators of the priesthood of God. I have felt its purifying influence in and out of the temple and have come to more deeply appreciate its significance.
The Olive Press
Olive pressing is an incredible process and immediate metaphor. Before olives are even pressed, they are carefully weighed and poured through a mesh screen to separate out their leaves. They must be harvested at just the right moment and taken to the press immediately so they don’t deteriorate.
After they are washed and rinsed, they are sent to the crusher. I have seen photos of 3600-pound granite wheels used to crush olives. They are mammoth. The olives are laid out in a large steel container as the huge stone wheels relentlessly rumble in continuous circular movement over them, crushing them into paste. They are pressed into paste first, to help release the globules of oil. And then they are churned causing the oil to bead up for extraction. All of this, as you can imagine, is a labor-intensive and ingenious work.
Gethsemane: Garden of the Olive Press
The finest olive oil producers-just as the greatest Harvester of Souls-know the olive, the precise moment of harvest, the time to crush, the way to carry them to the press (they can be damaged even by their own weight), the best method of releasing the purest oil-creating an extra-virgin product.
As we feel the press on our hearts, then, we can know the Lord of the Vineyard is the one extracting godhood from us, and that He, too, went through the press-the combined press each of us will pass through, in a way we can barely begin to grasp.
Truman Madsen, Mormon scholar, exquisitely renders this description of the link between the olive press and the Savior’s atoning sacrifice:
[The Savior was, spiritually speaking,] trodden upon, trampled, crushed until the very tissues of he heart [cried] out for relief and release and until “mercy [had] compassion on mercy and [claimed] her own’ (D&C 88:40), ‘that he may know, according to the flesh, how to succor his people’ (Alma 7:12).
It is no coincidence, Brother Madsen underscores, that “the garden on the mount is called Gethsemane.” For “‘Geth’ in Hebrew means ‘press.’ ‘Shemen’ means ‘oil.’ This was the garden of the olive press….” (The Olive Press: A Symbol of Christ, FARMS, pgs. 5, 7).
It is striking and borders on inexpressible-the fact that the Savior was innocently pressed beyond anything we could ever bear, and that He now is our advocate in our own heart-presses, again, the One refining the oil-squeezing out the dross, the bitter, the less productive-allowing the nectar of godhood to produce in us.
We are, then, never alone in our own presses of the heart. I would hope that some recollection of that truth would be present for each of us in the crushing heat of the individual press….
The Twelve Days of Christmas
For some of us, it is letting go of loved ones that presses our hearts’ abilities to trust God and feel His loving purposes. In fact, some never recover from the natural loss of a loved one.
Failing to see God’s hand, some of us would use our own to grasp the person we love and keep them with us. As Elder Richard L. Evans asked, “When ‘would’ we be willing to lose those we loved?” (Quoted in The Birth We Call Death p.41).
May I share another personal story? My mother passed away several years ago on December 27th. An hour before the Relief Society (Mormon Woman’s Organization) Christmas Social in our ward, I received a phone call from Lori, my sister in Atlanta, bearing the news that Mom had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, metastasis to the liver. My father asked me not to fly home to Philly until the 27th of December, since my younger sister, Denise, was there to help care, and he believed he would need me more after she left.
In spite of Dad’s tentative thoughts, as I began booking my fare, I knew I needed to hop a plane immediately which I did. As a result of that gentle prompting, I was privileged to spend what turned out to be the last week of my mother’s life at her side. … Another piece of God’s signature which continued to appear through those next “twelve days of Christmas.”
How Much Pain Is Enough?
When I arrived at The Fox Chase Cancer Center, I ached for my mother. She was in great pain before the medical staff got the morphine drip going with a heavy enough dose to keep her comfortable. This was more than reminiscent of her 25-day stay in the hospital twenty years earlier with biliary obstruction and life-threatening surgical complications.
I was tracking Mom’s oxycodone by the hour and seeking to increase it, according to physician instructions-and hospital-protocol fliers posted in every other hallway-for Mom to be pain free. But the lag time between increased doses creating a valley of despair for Mom.
I recall the first night I asked to stay overnight and wasn’t granted permission. I later learned that she had writhed in agony between doses from 10-11:30 p.m. Finally, after a morning confab with the head of the pain management team, we got her meds and pain mostly managed. Morphine ran intravenously on a basal dose, and for extra bouts of pain, Mom was free to push the button for an extra, limited dose or bolus.
Nonetheless, pain is a difficult thing to see and understand, unless we have the bigger picture. If we don’t, this is where many of us bow out of God’s presence and think He has bowed out of ours, where we duck from our testimonies fearful they will let us down.
I remember several instances where Mom’s groaning was almost more than I could bear. I prayed that she would not have one more second of pain than necessary for her exaltation and purification (Mormons believe that there are degrees of glory, and the highest is known as exaltation.) And then I asked the Lord straightforwardly in a sort of spiritual gust: “How much pain is enough? How dost thou know that this specific amount or that is precisely the right amount? How dost thou quantify or qualify pain? I trust thee. But please help me to have increased understanding.”
My answer came in waves of recollection. The first remembrance was of the very story I had shared with my girls just after we sang Steve Green’s song in the Family Home Evening alluded to earlier. It was the story of “The Refiner’s Fire” which follows:
Some time ago, a few ladies met to read the scriptures. While reading the third chapter of Malachi, they came upon a remarkable expression in the third verse, ‘And He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver’ (3).
One lady’s opinion was that it was intended to convey the view of the sanctifying influence of the grace of Christ. Then she proposed to visit a silversmith and report to her friends what he said on the subject.
She went accordingly, and without telling the objective of her errand, begged to know the process of refining silver, which he fully described to her.
‘But Sir’ she said, ‘Do you sit while the work of refining is going on?’
‘Oh, yes madam,’ replied the silversmith; ‘I must sit with my eye steadily fixed on the furnace, for if the time necessary for refining is exceeded in the slightest degree, the silver will be injured.’
And, as if that weren’t sufficient answer, listen to this part:
As the lady was leaving the shop, the silversmith called her back, and said that he had one more thing further to mention-that the silversmith only knows when the process of purifying is complete, by seeing his own image reflected in the silver.
As this story re-entered my soul, I knew that every second of Mom’s pain-and, by extension, each of ours-was counted. I just received the answer to one of the two questions I posed-a sure witness that pain is quantified. And while I still don’t know how, that didn’t seem to matter. The Holy Ghost (whom Mormons recognize as the third Member of the Godhead) bore record,that God the Father and the Savior know to the second, what is apportioned and appropriate and sufficient for the refinement we require.
Notice how the second question: “How dost thou qualify pain?” Through this same account, the Spirit etched into my soul a knowledge that pain was also qualified by the Refiner. He would see our image when the work was complete. He wouldn’t just know how many seconds to keep us in the heat; He also knew precisely the intended, specific quality of the final product.
God, our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ were in control of the quantity and the quality of pain in this trial. There was no margin for error. What a marvelous response to a child’s question in time of adversity. God’s hand certainly had not disappeared nor had it been idle.
The second wave of recall came in the form of a poem I’d read once by an unknown author:
Pain stayed so long I said to him today,
‘I will not have you with me any more.’
I stamped my foot and said, ‘Be on your way,’ And paused there, startled at the look he wore.
‘I, who have been your friend,’ he said to me,
‘I, who have been your teacher-all you know
Of understanding love, of sympathy,
And patience, I have taught you. Shall I go?’
He spoke the truth,
this strange unwelcome guest;
I watched him leave, and knew that He was wise.
He left a heart grown tender in my breast.
He left a far, clear vision in my eyes. I dried my tears, and lifted up a song-
Even for one who’d tortured me so long.
Tragedy or Destiny, Spencer W. Kimball p. 4
I found strength in this affidavit for pain from someone who knew it first-hand.
The third wave struck. It was the following quote that came to me in part, but which I now share in full:
No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God (Orson F. Whitney Ibid).
In fact, whenever I asked, whenever I needed the bigger picture reinforced, I received an answer. Just as Mom was receiving an additional doses of morphine as needed, at the press of a button, I too, received spiritual boluses and intravenous injections of faith p.r.n..
Another bolus of the Spirit came, in fact, as the poignant words spoken by Elder Hales in October Conference were brought to my remembrance. Speaking on the sanctifying purpose of pain, Elder Hales testified first-hand, “Constant intense pain is a purifier.” (“The Covenant of Baptism: To Be in the Kingdom and of the Kingdom,” Ensign, Nov 2000, 6–9) I clung to those words, highlighted in my Conference issue. I know they are true.
I recall another bolus. Sitting quietly by Mom’s side as she lay unresponsive, and pained at my own father’s lack of context for suffering and death, I opened the scriptures. Still pondering my desires on his and my family’s behalf, my eyes specifically fell on D&C 31:1 & 2. As I typically do, I entered my name in the verses, so I read:
Karen, my daughter, blessed are you because …
2. Behold, you have had many afflictions because of your family; nevertheless, I will bless you and your family, yea your little ones; and the day cometh they [your family] will believe and know the truth and be one with you in my Church.
He continues to set our tables with divine dishes, and signs His name on the menu.
See Part III for the rest of the story.
Living out a great season of my life, thanks to Jesus Christ, and two wonderful daughters, a great life's work. Loving this opportunity to share faith online... I'm a single Mom, convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, second-gen Italian, from the East coast originally. Love the fine arts, dance, frozen yogurt, temples, scriptures, writing, jazz, helping others reach their potential, king salmon, ....and not in that order. God is good. I feel it deeply when people have a misconception of Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ, His Son, that lessens or cheapens Them and blinds one's ability to feel His presence or to trust in an ultimately good eternal end to life's circumstances.