On Monday, I attended a lecture celebrating the Relief Society Commemoration given by Sharon Eubank, Director of LDS Charities, sponsored by the Church History Department. Her comments were titled “Matriarchy” and she indexed the many ways Mormon women have historically performed acts of charity and whose legacy of service continue to have influence on the many projects LDS charities executes today, albeit on a much grander scale.
She specifically named Ellis R. Shipp, one of the first female medical doctors in Utah. Shipp trained at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and paid for her living expenses by guarding the cadaver lab at night. Remarkably, she studied at night by candlelight– all while pregnant. Eubank suggests that Shipp’s legacy of charity and her dedication to medical training “has great resonance” for people around the world. LDS Charities teaches skills such as Neonatal Resuscitation Training in places like Syria and Turkey, and, like Shipp, use this training to save the lives of thousands of children each year.
Ellis R. Shipp was not unknown to me. Having pushed my small infant son on a swing in a micro-park on 4th avenue bearing her name, I have long pictured Shipp with amazement and awe, while simultaneously feeling that my charity (as manifested by listening to this small boy tell his stories and pushing him gently in a swing) seemed perhaps not as large, nor as important, in comparison.
But of course, such feelings were an inaccurate gauge of what it means to practice charity in our every-day lives. Said Eubanks, “The skills of mothers are not canning, driving, sewing. That’s just ridiculous. That’s not the skills of mothers. It’s nurturing; it’s getting revelation; it’s testifying of Jesus Christ; it’s sacrificing for the good of the whole group. It is practicing the art of everyday things.”
Practicing the art of everyday things—what a wonderful statement. Eubank’s notion (at least as I interpret it) is that there is holiness in the everyday, and even in the mundane. Practice, of course, means many things, but an exploration of this term is one of the central premises of the exhibition Practicing Charity: Everyday Daughters of God, which opened at the Church History Museum on February 28th (full disclosure: I curated it, so come see it!). One of the goals of the exhibition was to celebrate women who daily practice their religion in the art of the everyday. Because of this selected lens, the next few paragraphs will be directed towards women but should not be seen as limiting, as men obviously also daily practice their religion outside of the ceremonial and ritual locations of white shirts and ties, sacrament meetings, and priesthood callings.
In the introductory panel, I expand the notion of practicing as defined within these terms:
Practicing charity is something we as women of God do every day. We practice our religion as one practices a musical instrument. We practice being friends, neighbors, and Christians. In small gestures of service, in pondering and in seeking knowledge, and in our sincere and often private expressions of faith, we live in celestial ways. Practicing charity means that we are trying to live like the Savior and even though we are not perfect, our service mirrors eternity and our efforts manifest a deep devotion. Through these acts, we slowly come to see, in hints and shadows, our divine nature, our true and eternal selves. Indeed, as everyday daughters of God, we participate in a grand work.
Implicit then in the word practice is a sense of process, or even in more dramatic language, it is a sense of failure. To practice is not to have mastery but rather to have persistence, determination and resilience, and to continue in a noble effort within the grittiness of mortal stubbing. Thus, the frontispiece of the exhibition is a work called Halo Repair painted by artist Brian Kershisnik in 2006. In this painting, angels descend from heaven to comfort a woman and to repair her halo. This whimsically serious painting reminds us that our halos are in constant need of repair and adjustment. To practice faith is to remember our immeasurable individual worth amidst the messiness of our humanity, and then labor each day to repent, to change, and to trust that we do not labor alone.
In his video interview, Kershisnik expounds this idea of being in process, of practicing, when he says, “Just like when we are watching an infant learn to walk and we are so excited even when they fall down, that God is so excited at our silly failed attempts at trying to be better and trying to do well. He is as delighted with our mistakes as we are with the falling infant. I feel more of a connection to God who is helping me become something, rather than waiting for me to become something splendid before he has any time for me.”
I organized the exhibition around the work of three artists—Lee Udall Bennion, Brian Kershisnik, and Kathleen Peterson. I selected them because they consistently depict women as ennobled while simultaneously celebrating the importance of their everyday lives, lives that in the ceremony of the everyday perform their covenants and their religion in important and symbolic ways. These women are not painted as ideal or placed on a pedestal–an important and significant distinction for me, as a curator, to make. Rather, they are authentic, noble, everyday daughters of God, who are, as Kathy Peterson explains, “seed of Deity…absolutely of divine nature.”
Again, from the interpretative panel:
To practice charity is to “remember the worth of souls is great in the eyes of God,” the Savior declared (D&C 18:10). Every day, in countless ways, women express their understanding of this divine truth. The life of each righteous woman can be thought of as a gesture of good works and acts of service—given every day in often unnoticed ways. In comforting a child, in bringing a meal to a friend, women are in very real ways enacting the covenants they made at baptism when they promised to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” and “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8–9).
Thus, perhaps these daily gestures can be thought in ritualistic terms or at the very least as clear manifestations of what it means to practice one’s religion. For this, I turn to two more paintings as an example. First, Lee Udall Bennion’s Daily Bread, which is a self-portrait of her and a tribute to the bread she makes and the family she feeds. Yet, her bread is no ordinary loaf. Rather, it is levitating, floating in the air, just outside the reach of her elongated fingers. For Bennion, bread making is not just a domestic task. Instead, it is rooted in deep feelings about a family gathering around a table and the often sacred and symbolic gesture of eating food with one another and the symbolism that comes in particular with nurturing those we love with bread in particular. It is then sacramental (at least as a metaphor) as her painting makes reference to the rite of religion while being framed within the tasks of daily life.
Another painting that highlights religious practice is Kathy Peterson’s Saplings, a painting of two women, one comforting the other. It is, of course, challenging to create a painting that embodies notions of what performing true charity looks like without being overtly sentimental, but Peterson succeeds in her simplicity of gesture. The hug between two friends captures the quality of service we are commanded to give to one another as we take on our baptismal covenants. As we serve others with love, the line between who is serving and who is being served—the friend in need or the friend who comforts, the mourner or the mourning—is blurred.
During the founding meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Emma Smith declared, “We are going to do something extraordinary.” Extraordinary indeed is a society whose motto is “charity never faileth.” Of course, charity is manifested in many ways, but so often it is shown in simple, everyday acts rather than in grand terms, in “practicing the art of the everyday.” Thus, like so many things we do, it is a practice, a wonderful stubbing, an imperfect yet daily offering of holiness that mirrors the eternal and utopic principles we strive for and commit ourselves to through ritual, when we call ourselves Christians, Mormons, God’s people.