Emily Spencer is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormon woman”), freelance writer, concert artist, sacred choral music arranger, and mother of four.
I was once asked in an interview if I had a role model for the ideal “Mormon woman” (female member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). “What exactly is meant by ‘ideal Mormon woman’?” I asked. “Does such a prototype really even exist?” The discussion that followed was an intriguing one, because it hadn’t been too long before that, that I’d pined for female role models in my own life – ones that were iconic, prophetic, visionary – and mused not only about this elusive “ideal Mormon woman,” but more broadly about “ideal women” in general. What exactly was considered “ideal,” according to whose standards, and why?
Around this same time, I sat in a Gospel Doctrine class (one of the Sunday school classes offered to adult members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nicknamed “Mormons”) where the topic of the day happened to be Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life from the Book of Mormon, a book regarded by Latter-day Saints to be a volume of scripture witnessing alongside the Bible of the divinity of Jesus Christ. I’d read the account what seemed like a thousand times, and so, admittedly, I felt my interest wane as the instructor guided the class through its verses. The passage, found in the early chapters of the Book of Mormon, details how Nephi, the son of the prophet Lehi and himself a prophet, desired to behold and understand the interpretation of a dream his father had had regarding a glorious tree whose fruit was “most sweet, above all that [he] ever before tasted” and that “filled [his] soul with exceedingly great joy” (1 Nephi 8:10-12).
Nephi’s desire was granted, and he found himself “caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain,” where his own visionary experience followed (1 Nephi 11:1). The Spirit accompanied him, acting as a sort of “tour guide,” highlighting and explaining salient elements of the dream in order for Nephi to understand its meaning. It is a beautiful account, indeed, yet my mind drifted. I found myself wondering especially about Nephi’s wife. What transcendent visions could have been hers; had she had her own mountain heights to ascend? ..If it had not been her lot to haul water, or scrub vessels in the creek? Or, if she did in fact have them, how would we ever know? Considering her time and culture, would her writings have even been seen fit for inclusion in any existing body of canon? Was she even literate?
Lost in my thoughts, I skimmed the familiar verses, apart from the class discussion going on around me. As I sat there, a striking epiphany quite suddenly began to emerge in my mind – a perspective I’d never considered before, and one that hit me with great force. Here was Nephi, having been whisked up to a mountain top, where the Creator of the Universe had at his command a vast array of powerful and stunning cosmic demonstrations with which to instruct his pupil – a pupil who happened to be a prophet. How would God choose to distill perhaps the most important concept of all – the nature of His love – upon one of his most elect servants? What astounding object lesson would He employ? In the passage, 1 Nephi chapter 11, the Spirit shows Nephi a virgin “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” and asks him, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi answers, “I know that He loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” Then the Spirit explains, “Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” Then Nephi looks and beholds “the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.”
Prior to his vision, Nephi had “sat pondering in [his] heart,” wondering about the possible interpretations of the tree. These questions apparently weighed on his mind a great deal, as the text suggests he’d devoted some time to their reflection. In spite of this, enough uncertainty remained that he ultimately went to the Lord , Jesus Christ, for definitive answers. After having given Nephi the opportunity to observe this sweet and simple scene of a mother holding her child, the angel asks him the culminating question, and the very question that initiated Nephi’s quest in the first place, bringing him full-circle: “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” This time, Nephi knows, and he knows instantly, requiring no time at all to ruminate. He beholds Mary bearing her precious baby in her arms, and declares: “Yea, it is the love of God….” (v. 22).
My heart swelled as I sat in that classroom and contemplated this exchange. So this is how God teaches a prophet about the nature of His love! I had just been wallowing in my dismay over the seeming inequity of Nephi’s wife’s comparatively lackluster mission (and the fact that we don’t even know her name!) when my Heavenly Father enlightened my mind and showed me that, even with the entire universe as his classroom, it was through the most simple and most fundamental act of womanhood and nurture that his own mission could most clearly and potently be exemplified. And it was modeled through a role in which I currently found myself! Loving and caring for little ones – obviously important, but unglamorous and easily lumped in by the world with the other seemingly pedestrian tasks of day-to-day living – was in fact the summative symbol of God’s love for humankind!
To whom did the Lord point when this ancient American prophet, Nephi, needed a model? When Nephi needed the key to the dream’s interpretation? Not to figures adorned in glory, wielding might, courageously striking down foes. Not to riveting orators or captivating statesmen. Not to men or women with dazzling intellectual acuity, stunning beauty, or accolades streaming endlessly from their names. God’s own mission, nature, and character – his ideal – was demonstrated through a quiet, one-to-one act – one which expressed tenderness, compassion, love unfailing, and without attachment to any public display or acknowledgement. It was also portrayed through a role we can all relate to, as all of us have been nurtured by our own mothers, are parents ourselves, or have the opportunity to nurture those around us in some capacity.
I’ve reflected on that experience many times since. I think there were several things my Father in Heaven intended me to glean in that moment of introspection that day. I think He wanted me to know that the greatest hero of all, Jesus Christ, He who possessed “no form nor comeliness; …no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2), beholds every act, knows every sincere desire, and esteems every noble endeavor, even when they aren’t widely known or extolled. I think He wanted me to know that all, “black and white, bond and free, male and female…are alike unto God,” and the Savior and that “He denieth none,” that “He inviteth them all to come unto Him and partake of his goodness” (2 Nephi 26:33). I think He wanted me to know that His love, the most joyous to be had, would not be found in striving after the ideals held up by others, but instead by embracing the ideals held up by Him, Our Redeemer. I think He wanted me to know that what He cares about far more than what I have accomplished is if my heart has been transformed – if I am prepared to subjugate the ever-beckoning cause of self in order to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (Modern Revelation: Doctrine and Covenants 81:5). I think He wanted me to know that His love, “the most desirable above all things” and “the most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:22-23) is far more accessible than I might have imagined, and that the opportunities to partake of it abundantly were right under my nose, to be had at any time or place.
Upon having partaken of the precious fruit, Lehi declared his very first impulse: “I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also” (1 Nephi 8:12). As we are filled with the love of our Father and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we are moved upon to in turn shed that love upon others; in so doing, we discover that sharing is, in fact, partaking – a gift that is always multiplied but never divided. So goes the Lord’s one, eternal round, as he ceaselessly works to make sanctified creatures of each one of us. Herein is his ideal accomplished, which in the end is what makes us “ideal”: through the love of Christ purified, through receiving, through giving, He makes us his own.
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.