While admiring the Sistine Chapel, a passerby asked Michelangelo how the artist had once taken a block of stone and turned it into such an unparalleled rendition of King David. The sculptor said that every stone had a statue inside of it and it was just his job to carve away everything that wasn’t the statue. Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.” The artist opened his spirit to what is described in 3 Nephi 11 as “the small voice that did pierce them that did hear to the center.”
My husband and I are converts, as is my mother-in-law, and although the man who I’m now sealed to was raised as an atheist, I grew up being pulled this way and that by many different denominations of Christianity. I was raised knowing that whether as a Pentecostal, a Baptist, or non-denominational, I was supposed to love God with all my heart and to love my neighbor as I loved myself. However, I must admit that I struggled, badly, with both of those commandments as a teenager.
I lacked faith, especially when it came to the possibility of ever rising above the circumstances I faced in my personal life. Things got so bad that I eventually dropped out of school. Even after I took the classes necessary to get my GED, I still felt as if, at 17, I had already failed at life. How could I love my neighbor as myself if I didn’t even love myself to begin with? How could Christianity be true if the people in my life who called themselves Christians followed their own whims and bore nothing but bad fruit?
There was no Word of Wisdom, no agency or repentance, and no behavior that would befit a worthy priesthood holder. I developed a genuine bitter streak but despite the pain that I felt, I decided that I would be the person in my family who repented. I would apologize to God, as I knew that I was wrong in my anger and resentment. Deep down, I did understand that God was the most real thing in my life.
In that chaotic world in which I lived, I knew that He was the last person that I needed to push away. I knew that since He heard my cries in the darkness—since He saw the angel underneath the stone—I was never truly alone. Once I understood that I wasn’t alone, I could begin to start to care for myself and to serve others.
A lot of those changes started eight years ago, when I met the man who would become my husband. I wasn’t going to church on a regular basis and he still considered himself an atheist, but he did always respect my Christian faith and I didn’t hide it from him, either. As we are told in 1 Peter 3:1-2, “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.”
Of course, I could have been far more pure and reverent, but my husband (then boyfriend) said that he wanted to be a better person, that he could see that I wanted to be a better person, and that he respected the effect that my faith had on our lives. It took years for us to gain momentum, and from day to day, it often felt like we weren’t getting anywhere at all.
We endured our share of woe. There was sickness, financial trouble due to the sickness, and even eight months spent on opposite sides of the world. Eventually, though, I finally won him over and he accepted Christ as his Savior. As we began living the Gospel together, though, things got more lonely and we became more isolated. We shared less and less in common with friends, family, and coworkers who wanted to move further and further away from God.
Honestly, It was challenging for me emotionally—I watched the people that I loved make one horrible choice after another as the years went by. Despite that, I still wanted to spend time with the people I had grown up with and it hurt when my husband told me that we would find new, godly people to share our time with.
When, though? We still didn’t have a church. We’d investigated a number of different denominations but they all seemed to be moving further away from God, as well, or just falling apart from a lack of members and commitment. It was my childhood all over again. There were no young couples, no babies running around the pews, no people sharing their testimonies, no dollar bills in the collection plates, no callings, and no ministering partners.
The best churches were the ones where we spent an hour each week listening to the pastor try to carry the entire load of the congregation himself while also trying to win over the parishioners with free coffee and Christian rock bands. I knew it didn’t feel right but maybe, like our old friends who had committed themselves to lives of debauchery, maybe this was the best we could do.
Then, one day, my still-not-yet husband told me that he’d been looking into a new church. They didn’t drink alcohol but they also didn’t drink coffee or green tea. They also observed the law of chastity so we would have to be abstinent while we were investigating. Also, we would have to finally be married before we could be baptized if we wanted to live in the same apartment.
Now, after seven years of dating, I was happy to hear that we would finally be married— but I didn’t know much about this new church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Honestly, it seemed both too extreme and too perfect from the outside. Really, though, it was just the godless world that had gotten extreme, not this church.
I was self-conscious that, even though I considered myself a Christian, it suddenly became clear to me that I hadn’t been living like one. By the other denominations’ standards, we were doing pretty well. If I accepted that God wanted more of me, I had to acknowledge that I was under-performing—but I also knew that if this church was true, I didn’t want to disappoint my Heavenly Parents. I didn’t want to tolerate sin anymore.
In fact, what had first drawn my husband’s attention to the Church was the fact that objectively evil people were attacking it. That was a good sign, he said—the Church was willing to preach the Gospel rather than the whims of man. Naturally, I was very happy when my husband accepted Christ but I did, briefly, worry if following this church was the wrong path.
When I first went online to investigate, I saw pictures of the temple fonts which, to me, looked like they sat upon golden calves, so I confronted my husband about this. He said that he doubted the members he had met were idolaters, so he told me we should look into it. As we investigated further, he showed me images of Solomon’s Temple and that the bulls represented the twelve tribes of Israel, as they had for thousands of years. The truth was that I wasn’t Christian enough to recognize the divine imagery when I saw it. This hurt—and it humbled me.
Now, I already knew that Christ had taught us how to determine a false prophet, namely by his fruits. A bad tree does not produce good fruit and the people I had met while investigating were the best people I’d ever met in my life—thankfully, that trend has continued at each ward we’ve been a part of.
Now, understand that I said ‘best,’ not perfect—it’s ‘good, better, best,’ not ‘good, better, perfect.’ Honestly, the best can seem pretty humble, at times. I’m reminded of Peter falling asleep at Gethsemane, as well as his denial of Christ. We’re all flawed, though I honestly can’t think of another culture on earth that compares to what my husband and I have found here in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I definitely know what I found in the 27 years which I spent outside of the restored Church. Outside of this church, I found nothing.
So, while the rest of the world seemed to resemble Sodom more and more by the hour— even in other churches we’d visited—here, in this church, we found people living the Gospel. Like Elijah, fearing that we were alone, God showed us 7,000 Saints. Like us, they were far from perfect, but their testimonies were heartfelt. They were kind and open and honest.
They introduced us to their families, asked us over for dinner, took our questions seriously, and treated me like a sister before I was even a member. These women, whom I’d only known for a handful of weeks, offered to throw me my bridal shower without hesitation. The young people had enough faith to go on missions to cities on the other side of the country or the world. The children smiled and were comfortable speaking in front of the congregation. This was not normal. This was a rare and peculiar group of people, indeed.
So, a couple of months after we began investigating, my husband and I were married and baptized on the same day.
About a month after that we left our jobs and our home and drove a trailer across the country to Utah, in good faith, to be closer to this church—and it worked. My husband got a job the first week we came out here, I found an apartment one month after that, and all the other little things fell into place. With so many people gathering in Zion, it also felt like it was our responsibility to try to help fortify the Church and do our small part to make sure that this place stayed wonderful.
And this place is wonderful, a land that is not perfect, but choice above all others. We came here because we wanted to start a family and give our children the best start in life that we could, surrounded by the Saints. When members of this church gather together, things become possible that aren’t possible in other places.
In our first year here, we went from having essentially nothing to walking into that sealing room at the temple, surrounded by dozens of friends. Four returned missionaries from our investigation attended the sealing, one from as near as Payson and one from as far as Arizona. That’s a miracle. That’s proof of God.
Just on the day of our sealing and endowment alone, there were so many small miracles. Carl Jung said that the modern man can’t see God because he won’t look low enough, he won’t spend hours chipping away the flecks of stone to reveal the angel inside of the rock. In this place, in these challenging times, the small miracles seem magnified every day.
I’m reminded of the Ronald Reagan speech, wherein a refugee from Cuba recounts to a pair of Americans what life was like under Communism. The one American turns to the other and says, “Boy, we sure are lucky to have been born here in the United States.” The Cuban then says, “You’re lucky? I had somewhere to escape to.”
This is how my husband and I feel—we hope that members born into the Church have joy in the blessings that they receive, but that they also realize the responsibility and fragility that comes with those blessings. There is nowhere to escape to outside of the Kingdom of God. For my part, I have made a covenant and I don’t plan on breaking it. It took years to earn my soul back and I’m not going to give it up now. I’m very blessed to be here.
Even with church gatherings suspended due to the Coronavirus, this remains a place where people have lived their faith for generations. Likewise, as we try to have our first child, the Coronavirus has destroyed our family income—but our faith is unshaken. Many people have experienced far worse and still find the courage to start a family. I take solace in reading about Lehi, Sariah, and their family’s trials in the wilderness and what those new mothers endured. As someone coming to this church from the wilderness, I beg you to endure to the end and to not get taken in by calls of those in the great and spacious building.
President Nelson has taught us that in the coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost. There are so many ways that Saints live the Gospel every day. Temple work, missions, sealings, patriarchal blessings, fast and testimony Sundays, the Priesthood, the Relief Society, the Prophet and the First Presidency, General Conference—these touchstones, whether temporarily suspended or not, have brought so much joy to my life in such a short period of time. Perhaps most of all, our president has focused on a home-based, Church-supported structure integrating the ‘Come, Follow Me’ Program—a prophetic decision, indeed.
I know just how many challenges and hardships are out there, especially in these troubling days. Without God, though, nothing is even possible—not over the span of an entire lifetime. My mother-in-law left the Catholic Church in the 1960s and it took fifty years of regret as an agnostic before she found the Restored Church, grabbing onto it with both hands, fueled by a broken heart and contrite spirit. I hope that she will be able to receive her endowment in the temple shortly.
To those people struggling with fertility or divorce or temptation, on top of the global threats of sickness and unemployment, I can tell you that, despite those challenges, having God and the Church in your life will make those problems easier to bear. There is simply no way that turning away from God will make the burden easier to carry. I know—I tried it.
Thousands of years of struggle, guided by our Savior, from Abraham, to Ruth, to David, to Lehi, to Mary, to Paul, to Martin Luther, Michaelangelo, Joseph Smith, and President Nelson, has led to this dispensation, and to you sitting there at your laptop or in bed with your smartphone, reading this, today. You asked to be here, in this time, in the pre-mortal life. You asked for this challenge, to live the Gospel in the Latter Days, in the time of stock market crashes and COVID-19. Like the Pioneers, you chose to live during great and terrible times that would be spoken of by your descendants for generations to come.
Thank you for making that choice and thank you for living the Gospel each day, as best you can. Thank you for a broken heart and contrite spirit. God is with you. Under the stone, there is an angel inside of you.
By Bob and Kandyce Ciarrocchi (say Cherokee with a hard ‘o’)