Jacob lay down on stones for pillows and slept. And in his dreams he saw a ladder reaching up into heaven with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” It was a curious thing, to be sure, to find oneself sleeping on stones only to then discover that, as he says in the morning when he has returned to his natural senses, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.” Upon further reflection, this causes him to feel overwhelmed by what had once seemed so ordinary. “How dreadful is this place!” he says, “This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” And so he anoints the stone and calls it Bethel—House of the Lord. In the Hebrew, Ma nora HaMakom hazeh!, this can also mean “How awesome is this place!” Wonder and awe, maybe even a tinge of dread, all among the stones of the earth. And so he anoints his stony pillow with oil. This is the place.
My favorite stones are the river rocks that cradle the high mountain streams of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountain ranges. They are round like pillows, some tan, some pink, and some red or brown. They have been polished by who knows how many millions of hours of water impatient to reach some distant conclusion. Once while watching the sun shine down upon these stones as I stood in the middle of the Provo River, only moments after they had been sprinkled by a brief and gentle rain, they looked like small loaves of bread. I felt the river bank had been transformed into some kind of repository of seer stones, each one daring me to believe that they were just mute rock. There was no doubt that I felt startled by a presence, a kind of grace or holiness, but I want to be clear: this was no out of body experience. I was shivering, standing in the middle of a cold stream on a brittle October day, fully aware of my body and the body of the earth, but suddenly it was as if all of my physical experience were none other than the sum total of what heaven might be. How awesome is this place, I might have said. The native inhabitants of my valley had indeed called the canyon where I live, House of the Gods, so the impulse to make this earth a temple goes far back into time. It is an ancient but forgotten impulse. I don’t mean the impulse to build temples. That certainly is alive and well among the Mormons and certainly not a dead art in many other parts of the world. I mean the impulse to see ourselves already in one. To seize upon the ordinary qualities of physical places and see them as sites of traffic between this world and the next. Why else are Jacob’s angels ascending and descending? People are dying and leaving but it seems they are also returning.
A man well acquainted with grief was Joseph F. Smith; he was the nephew of the Mormon prophet whom assassins killed along with the boy’s father Hyrum. He then lost his mother at age 13. Several of his children died young, and he presided over the LDS church during World War I and the influenza outbreak. He also gave temples the most profound purpose of connecting the living and the dead. He had this to say about the familiar dead:
“I believe we move and have our being in the presence of heavenly messengers and of heavenly beings. We are not separate from them. … We are closely related to our kindred, to our ancestors … who have preceded us into the spirit world. We can not forget them; we do not cease to love them; we always hold them in our hearts, in memory, and thus we are associated and united to them by ties that we can not break…. We live in their presence, they see us, they are solicitous for our welfare, they love us now more than ever. For now they see the dangers that beset us; … their love for us and their desire for our well being must be greater than that which we feel for ourselves.”
If a place is made holy to us because of the experiences we have lived in it and the memories and ancestral connections it contains, is it enough to say that holiness is a human and physical notion, that we love a place because of the dead we have lost? I think holiness is a dual, Janus-faced concept. We make things holy in our very human and physical condition but we also do so because we catch glimpses of something beyond the physical, because the longer we encounter and wonder at the particularities of place, the less they feel like the delineations of what limits us and the more they feel like portals, sites of ascension and condescension, between what we are and what we will become. A place ends up being about so much more than what our human story has become but instead a way of connecting us to the whole of human experience and maybe even the whole of time before we ever emerged on this rock.
The great lesson of Jacob, then, is to walk gently where we are. Because if one stone is worthy of anointing, the world itself is our bed of dreams, the context that shapes the value of all our affections. And to its life-cradling powers we owe our best and most tender care. Some people have overdeveloped fears that if we start caring about the environment, we will have misplaced our affections for God onto the earth, but Joseph F. Smith once articulated a concept as old as, well, Genesis, or at least as St. Francis of Assisi, that our duty, as he put it, is “to love God in His creations.”