Deus Mea Lux Est: A Mormon among Catholics

By Petersen, Zina Nibley | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Deus Mea Lux Est: A Mormon among Catholics


Petersen, Zina Nibley, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


I am the Mormon among Catholics part of this equation. I was raised in Utah Valley-well I got taller, anyway. I got my undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University (BYU) and both of my graduate degrees from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. As an alumna of that school, and especially as a medievalist who studies the Catholic mystics of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, I love Catholicism and the history of Catholic Christianity. I do confess, though, that my knowledge of that vast history is spotty and particular, and that the parts I love most are the wacky bits-but more on that later.

I always loved history and was attracted to the high ritual of Catholicism even as a (weird) Mormon kid, but I didn't expect to go to Catholic school, so here is how that happened. One of the ways God has always answered my prayers is through music. When my father died I spent hours listening to his favorite records of classical music to help with my grief. I have had questions resolved by overheard snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and have had little epiphanies (epiphanettes, I call them) by recalling seemingly random song lyrics-they pop into my head fortuitously, and God and I share a chuckle.

But probably the most poignant time God answered a prayer with a song was when I was a new graduate student at the University of Maryland (I didn't start out at CUA), and I was terribly homesick. Boyd and I were married about four years and had never lived outside of Utah before. We moved at the new year, which meant unpacking our van of belongings into a tiny basement apartment during a cold snap harsher than any Maryland had experienced in years. We moved into the basement because it was all we could afford, and though it was adequate-a kitchen, a bathroom, and a bedroom-it also had two unforeseen aspects that did not help my loneliness and depression. The first was that the foundation of the house was severely cracked, which meant we awoke each morning to about an inch of icy water on our floor; and, second, Mrs. Cook, the landlady, who was bedridden in the final stages of aggressive and agonizing stomach cancer. She would cry out in distress and pain, and chain smoke to take some of the edge off. Our bed was about six feet below hers. Her distress, as well as the tobacco and medical waste smells would fill our tiny, splashy bedroom in all the hours she was awake, which was most of them. Dying of cancer is not for the faint of heart.

And I was in a completely inappropriate slough of self-pity as she did. My depression was fierce. I had been the darling of my graduating class at BYU, all the professors knew me and loved me, and here I was, a total stranger at an enormous state school, with professors who drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and did not care at all about the new grad student who paid out-of-state tuition and looked bewildered more often than not. They weren't unkind, particularly, but they were not my people, the way BYU professors had been my people, and where I had thought school itself could give me a purpose and a distraction from my homesickness, at the University of Maryland it merely exacerbated the longing. There was no financial aid or teaching assignment for me, so the financial sacrifice was shared out between student loans and parental help (Masterdad funding), and I felt guilty about that too.

Through the despair that winter, what I most craved was light. I had to get work as soon as possible-Boyd was on a political internship, which had a laughably small stipend attached-so I worked for a temp agency at a variety of unsavory odd jobs, all of which seem in my memory to be in very dingy and dark places. The sun was hidden behind dull clouds for those months, our basement had no windows anyway, and my graduate school classes were night classes, since I had to work days. I never seemed to find any light. So I begged for light. One particularly gloomy evening, before Boyd called from the metro station for a ride, I broke down and begged God for some light-any light! …

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