Church of Latter Day Saints
May 17, 2009
There was a light rain as we ascended the the stairs into the Church. Jeff noted that the building looked more like a school than a Church. It did, with its solid white Jeffersonian columns. Inside the pews were packed. We did not know at the time, but today was a special event. Almost four hundred people were there to participate in a thirty-four state wide conference being simulcast from Utah. We grabbed the last row in the balcony section.
Their mastery of technology was impressive; the live media show was carried out with precision. A small digital clock counted down on the projection screen as a Church official carried on with public thanks and votes of hands. There was much talk of brothers, wards, high priests, and voting on various offices. When the clock hit 00:00, Bruce D Porter of the Seventy took the podium onscreen and began his speech, all the way from Utah.
Brother Porter talked about his “deep roots” to the New England area. He spoke of all that is “all that is good, right, and true”. He told a great story about a boy in Mormon preschool who gave thanks, one at a time, for every letter in the alphabet, and then every number from one to twenty. (It reminded me of the time my best friend in high school came into class stoned for his final and played whole note scales on his trombone.)
The theme of his speech was: Don’t feel guilty - you always think you should be doing more for the Lord, for your brethren and sisters, but you are doing enough. He told a story of a Mormon who had to choose between temple and his son’s concert and how, either way he chose, as a Mormon he would feel guilty. This drew laughter from the pews. Apparently Catholics don’t have the lock-down on guilt.
Porter made passing references to the Mormon mythology. Familiar names and places interwoven with strange foreign ones. The fear that Catholics and other Christian sects have of their Mormon brethren must stem from their similarities. Too close for comfort.
There was to be a cross country sing-along at some point in the conference. I was excited to experience tribal teleresonance firsthand. This was technology being put to work to directly amplify the power of the ritual. It would be experiential proof that network fibers can transmit brotherly love. The song would be sung, but by thirty three rather than thirty four churches.
Porter invited the worshipers to let “the peace of conscience open you to the love of the heavens above…”. Why is upness and aboveness so special to us humans? I’ll leave that for another post.
The next speaker was a woman. She took to the podium and expounded, with robotic intonation, on the virtues of of virtuous women. She spoke of her grandmother, who had “no desire to do evil, but good to all men…”. In a shot straight from the Home Shopping Network, the camera cut to a closeup of the broach that had been passed down from her virtuous grandmother to her virtuous mother to her virtuous self. Her lifeless tone was unsettling. Jeff agreed.
I set my iPhone on the pew to record the sermon. Jeff snapped a picture with his. This is possibly the last picture ever taken and the last recording ever recorded of a service inside the sixty year old house of worship.
A fire alarm sounded. The woman on the screen continued preaching as if nothing was afoot. How could she know? (I wondered later, given their telecommunications sophistication, how long it was before she stopped talking, having been informed of what was happening at the Cambridge worship house.) The sound got sharper as a door opened and we were instructed to leave. I remember feeling disappointed that I would probably not get the same seat upon returning and would not be able to read the note scrawled on the title page of the bible by a seventeen year old girl.
As we all slowly and calmly exited the building, there was talk of smelling smoke. We slowly shuffled past moms rocking babies on their shoulders. I made big eyes and silly faces at them and thought about how they probably didn’t even know why people were exiting the building. Up until the moment we passed through the Church doors, everyone assumed it was a false alarm.
Stepping outside and turning, we saw the smoke. The fire was real. A lone churchgoer stood in the bushes beside the church spraying the side the building with a garden hose in case it might help. Within minutes, four distinct colors of smoke were pouring from the cracks and crevasses of the building. White, yellow, gray and black. They seemed to take turns coming out of different holes. This was the infrastructure of the Church being scanned and compressed into lines of smoke. These were the first souls of inanimate objects meeting an early return to their source.
It didn’t take long for the first flame to emerge from the rooftop.
There was an eerie calm and order among the congregants on the front lawn of the church. They conversed, laughed, and raised their cellphone cameras in a toast to the fire. There were isolated instances of runny mascarra, but for the most part disbelief kept a cool over the crowd. The first wave of firemen were strangely calm as well, almost sluggish. It is their job to stay calm and focused so I gave them the benefit of the doubt.
A fireman yelled out to all the able men to help with the hoses. Two dozen young Mormon men scattered out of the crowd and began to wrestle the writhing water serpents on the front lawn. They all began to march into the building, hose in hands. No sooner was a fireman hollering for all of them to back out. It was too hot to be marching in without protective gear.
A lone fireman appeared on the roof. There was a rip of a chainsaw and soon the roof was peeled back like a can of peas. Shortly after a thirty foot flame rose up from the building. The sound of an axe breaking open a second story window was the most unsettling thing I’d heard up to that point. We are tuned to the speed and qualities of human movements and their resulting sounds. The crystalline sound of breaking glass always turns heads.
About twenty minutes in, the fire began to fill the pews. The two-story high main hall was flooded with a deep orange glow. The windows were still in tact as pieces of rope and curtain fell. There was a dark beauty in those flames. With speed and grace, the fire flashes through all of the forms that make up the universe. It is a dance of shapes like no other.
The heat of the fire pressed against the crowd from across the lawn. Lauren caught the flames on her cellphone. In stops and starts, the firemen herded us away from the building in case the steeple came down. A middle aged woman walked down the sidewalk, nervously consoling people and informing them of tea and coffee nearby. She addressed us as if we were Mormons.
I question current theories on mirror neurons that preclude empathy with inanimate objects. When the roof of that building caved in, my chest caved in with it. I wasn’t alone. It was the first collective gasp of the crowd yet; an almost unison chorus of “Oh My God”s. For the next half hour, my face was twisted into an expression akin to watching someone slowly burn. I could only watch as my body danced with the fire.
For the next hour, I felt a curious high. My chest heaved, gasping for oxygen much like the fire. Then pins and needles in my face. My hands trembled as I feverishly scribbled on whatever scraps of paper I could dig up from pockets. What makes one body react this way and the next not? Jeff seemed fine. So did Lauren. I suppose the question What makes one body want to dance to a song and the next not? gets at the same set of answers.
This physiological reaction is alternately called shock, acute stress response, or the fright, fight or flight response. It is considered to be a stage in general adaptation syndrome. (Funny how evolutionary adaptations can turn into syndromes. In fact, I’d venture to bet that most of the things we call syndromes now were at one point beneficial for our survival.) In the face of a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, releasing a cocktail of hormones, including epinephrine, into the body. The hormones in turn trigger increase in heart rate and breathing, constricting of blood vessels, and tightening of muscles. This is the feeling of a body being primed for combat or escape.
Here I was feeling that fear we’ve been talking so much about, that evolutionary pressure for religion. It was an unexpected moment of visceral education. The same sympathetic nervous system at work here is responsible for states of spiritual ecstasy. The meditative techniques of religion literally give us control over our fear, allowing us conscious access to the autonomic nervous system. As I scribbled with shaking hands, I understood anew the processes of fear, awe, and aesthetic creation.
Through a relatively well known neurological pathway, shock makes one hyper alert and attentive to the environment. Since I wasn’t ever scared for my safety or even the safety of those around me, I could forgoe the fight and the flight for a heightened aesthetic response. It was much like the first bodily whisperings of a hallucinogenic trip. The yellows of the police tape and firemen jackets burned as hot as the fire against the drab of wet asphalt.
On the far side of the Church sat a lilac tree. Surrounded by water, smoke, steam, and fire, it stood delicately showering the ground below with flowers. They fell with no care for the havoc unfolding around them. Like the newborn babies on the arms of mothers, they knew not fully what was transpiring. In the violent armpit of that fire, life was moving forward, flowering and replicating itself. Later in the day, this got me thinking: How many couples would form in the wake of these flames? Would this fire, like a cold snuggley winter night or a stuck elevator, spurn new human life? After all, a mission of this temple was to connect (read marry) single young adults from the first and second Cambridge wards. And after all, the same randomness that was responsible for this fire was also responsible for all life on the planet.
Onlookers and rubber neckers accumulated along the sidewalk. What could bring people together more than church? A church on fire. Do Not Cross. The police tape evoked strange metaphors at this particular juncture in time and space. No one could leave. It took a good hour or two for the Mormon contingent to start thinning. I wondered how much of what kept them was a need to see it through, to say good bye to their Church, and how much was just the seductive dance of the flames.
A half hour must have passed and the fire alarm was still sounding. It was a shrill electronic screech and played out against the backdrop of the burning church like the soundtrack to a Hitchcock movie. It only added to the tension in my muscles. I don’t know when it succumbed to the fire, but it faded away under the mounting din of twenty fire engines, seven ladder companies, and nearly eighty firefighters. At one point, the trucks started to haphazardly honk in unison. On one of the ladders, in a jagged comic book font, were the words “THE BEAST FROM THE EAST”.
Tight streams of water crisscrossed above the building, sagging at the ends, sending armies of droplets to their new life as a gas. Water began to pour from the edges of the roof. It moved much like the smoke fingers that curled up out of the building earlier, but down instead of up. At more than one instant, the entire body of the church was engulfed in steam, with the steeple rising into the sky. The church was dying, ascending to heaven on a bed of clouds. The sidewalk alongside pounded with marble-sized raindrops. I daydreamed, imagining we were watching a rainstorm from across the street. (I’d always wanted to do that since my mom told me how it used to rain on one side of the street in Queens when she was a kid.) The water jets raged on, even after all the major flames had been extinguished. Mist fell from the jets, making a pacifying waterfall-like sound.
Peering through a circular window on the brick face of the building, where we sat three hours ago, we now saw sky. Looking downwind of the Church, Mt. Auburn street trailed off into a thick gray haze. As we walked toward the fog, I expected the fire to have the sickening stink of burning plastic. Surprisingly, it smelled like a campfire. There was a lot of wood in that church. As we walked toward Harvard Square to grab a bite, we passed a cross street that had become an asphalt pit of vibrating serpents. Our Zipcar was blocked in by swollen hoses in the street. We called to extend the reservation.
A giddy clarity came upon me shortly after the incident. Perhaps this was my parasympathetic nervous system countering to balance the sympathetic hormone rush. My shaking gave way to child-like laughing and joking. Several times I rebuked myself for giggling; it felt inappropriate in the somber wake of the fire.
In the end, there was a small piece of of the steeple that had amazingly remained untouched, still white as it was when the service started.
Watching other people watching their church burn to the ground makes you realize the power of a building to hold the collective memories of a society. A place can become so entangled with the memories of events that happened at the place that they become inseparable; so intertwined that it feels like the memories themselves are burning, being violently erased.
Jeff’s iPhone pics.
Eric’s iPhone pics.