A week or so ago, I wrote about focusing on a single passage while thinking about--though not reading--the scriptures. Zooming in on a (mostly) memorized passage is only one of many options, though. During the same hard hospitalization, I also spent time thinking about the whole Book of Mormon.
It worked like this. After years of reading, I know what the books of the Book of Mormon are and what order they come in. I also know roughly what's in each one. But in my regular reading, I'm too stuck in chapter and verse to think much about how they all fit together.
It was different in the hospital. It was a pain to pull up chapter and verse, but even lying down with eyes closed, I could just think through the books and kind of feel for a rhythm or shape to the whole book. I'd try to feel the rise or fall of each group of books and then play the shape in my head like music.
Trying to put it into words afterward, here's roughly what I noticed:
THE BOOK OF MORMON
Origin Story: 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi, and Jacob cover the origin of the Lehites. There's a strong forward rhythm through 1 Nephi as they follow crazy faith to get to their promised land, then this shift to a slow, long notes feel as they try to lay out the core of their spiritual foundation for the new life in 2 Nephi and Jacob.
The Grind: Enos, Jarom, and Omni shift to a new rhythm. They take life for granted in the land, and the routines of everyday life--from hunting for food to fighting wars for survival--are just part of that life. Little strains of spiritual life streak out from time to time, but it's mostly about the grind: this is what we do, this is who we are. The musical phrases get shorter as you go as if to say "this is shorthand. This is shorthand for the song that never ends."
Complications and Reversals: Mosiah and Alma. It's almost like the song wants to talk back at itself. It's been saying "this is the same old, this is the same old..." and then all at once it splits into these different streams of new melody and starts intertwining them. It's saying that it's not just all the same old grind after all.
New songs. We've got people following a dream, a mirage, of claiming the old land of Nephi. But everything turns around. Zeniff is supposed to hate the Lamanites, but he sees good in them. Then he tries to trust them and things fall apart. Noah is a great king for building and prosperity, but spiritually empty. Abinadi compares him to a cloth dropped in flame, but it's Abinadi they burn. Then a bad priest named Alma turns good, but can't dodge the curses Abinadi prophesied. Except that for almost everyone, sooner or later, curses turn to deliverance. And did I mention half of this is told backwards in to a report to a man from a people our heroes thought had all died in a field of bones?
Never mind that. Get back to the story. By most of the way through Mosiah, all is set right. People have wandered in the woods, so to speak, but after the troubles four groups finally come together and there's a good king and a good priest and...the next generation is trying all kinds of crazy stuff out and their sons are at the head of it.
So then boom an angel and another big reversals, and now it's Alma #2 on God's side and trying to unwind the consequences of his past. Two-life father, two-life son and the histories of their people chugging on below them with equally dramatic reversals. Remember the constant war with the Lamanites that was the constant rhythm through the Grind? During Alma, so many people leave Nephites to join Lamanites or leave Lamanites to join Nephites it's almost impossible to tell who's who anymore.
And the mixed up rhythms of a new melody of war, where it's hard to tell where the real enemy lives--this snake of an enemy that works it way through Nephite and Lamanite nations, that wreaks havoc whenever there seems to be a chance for peace. The mixed up rhythms of the new war rise, and strains of the old origin melody of faith and courage shine through, and things resolve sort of neatly in the end with a new set of sons and new lands to disappear off to and the old generation passing reverently away. And it almost feels like it should stay that way, like the piece should pause at this moment of calm where the torch is passed and the hard won tranquility should stick. It almost feels like the song should end here.
Rising Toward Climax: But of course, it doesn't. Helman. Third Nephi. Fourth Nephi. How can it? When things are going well, for one thing, you naturally want to build on them. And sometimes you do that by building big, heavy castles in the air.
It's not just the same old song of human pride, though, because this time there's this urgent underbeat: the prophetic "the time is coming" from the rest of the book is now "the time is almost here." And it gives this urgency and direction to the prophets' story. And in time with it, the stories of pride get faster, wilder, more desperate. Kishkumen running with a dagger bathed in blood. The secret oaths of Gadianton. Then more plots, more blood, more machinations and divisions and resolutions followed fast by collapses until WHOOSH the whole world seems to go up in flames and then descend into three days of darkness and a moan rises through the land.
And then in the midst of the moaning, there's a calming whisper. And in the midst of the darkness, darkness so thick you can feel it, there's a light. And then there, before you, is the promised Redeemer and there, on his hands, are the prophesied marks and he blesses the children who grew up in chaos and the peace of it flows through their families for generations.
And we've done it now. We've finally learned what it's like to live right and live well and live in peace.
Warnings: Except. Mormon, Ether, Moroni. Except.
Something melts in the melody of righteousness. Something small gives way, and then it all gives way, and then we're sliding fast again into an oblivion which we seem to want, which we seem willing to make all kinds of horrific sacrifices for. Not much of the faith-filled beat of the origin stories, not really any of the reversals of Mosiah and Alma. It's like the grind again, but this time under the grind is just something ugly. This rising and swelling will to meaningless power and through it to death. And over it, the only song is Mormon's lament for his people, his beautiful people, who gave themselves over piece by piece to the will of destruction.
And the tales that were hinted at early in the book: of the valley of bones, of the records found telling the tale of the people of bones--all that ancient history rises here to the foreground. For this people, and for the next people who will inherit it, the truth: that the will to meaningless power, the will to destruction, can consume an entire people. Yes, they all die at this part of the book. Everyone. Or rather: they were all dead to begin with wherever we started to look for something new. They had been great, like we strove to be, and they all killed each other as thoroughly as a nuclear holocaust.
And I'm alone now, says Moroni, through the layered memories of two dead peoples. A man sitting on the bones left by a people who sat on strangers' bones. And I will speak out from the grave to warn you and to give you what little teaching and ritual and spiritual gift I knew from a time when this fate was still something to be avoided.
And the day will come, Moroni says in the last plaintive note, when I will meet you before God oh people-who-lived-over-bones-and-bones. And then you will all know that what I tell you is true.
That is a long-ish written version of what the scripture-study-without-scriptures in my head felt like. I didn't do all the details every time, just started simply thinking about what the books feel like, and then ran through it again and again until it fell it the sort of loose groups or patterns I described above, and tried to just listen to them.
And the point was: to think. To remember. To engage in whatever way, whatever way I could come up with eyes closed stuck in the bed and in my head, with the book.
Because it's in that life of connection, not just in disciplined routine (though discipline is a great thing) that we come to know the scriptures.