Questions about the purpose of life springing up like crocuses

by Karen R. Merkley

Lacking Some Key to the Universe: Searching for Truth
I still remember standing at the top of the stairs as a child wondering who I was and why I was on the earth. I hungered for that knowledge like no other, and I felt spiritually starved. I attended Catholic Church but asked what to them were unanswerable questions. I posed a few like these: “Well, who lived in heaven and took part in that war besides Jesus? (If there was a war in heaven, as taught, then there had to have been more than two people there, I reasoned.); Why do I have to confess the same sins twice?” and “How can God and Jesus be the same person?” I lived as if on a daily spiritual fare of milk and toast, not knowing there was a buffet table divinely set and beckoning me.

Questions about the purpose of life sprung up as consistently as crocuses do in spring, any time I was willing to allow them to pop through the soil of my soul. At one particular point in my life, I began to despair that I would never know my purpose or the answers to the questions of my heart. Without those answers, the desire to live waned. The world looked cold and senseless. How could I function from day to day without knowing ‘why’ I was functioning? I couldn’t tick if I didn’t know why I was ticking.

Lacking some key to the universe, I sat despondently on the edge of my studio bed, staring at a bottle of sleeping pills. I thought about my circumstances. I had little impetus for moving forward from day to day. I was tired of fumbling for house keys in the cold, of working for work’s sake, of studying theories spilled over in classes without a rod to evaluate them. So I planned to take my life. Just before popping the pills, though, my efforts were aborted– by a gentle but profound strain of impressions from a loving Father through what I now recognize as His Spirit. I was told, through those welcome whisperings, that “every moment of love and every moment of discovery in my life had not been wasted” and that I “must have the courage to live on.” I was also told, in fact spiritually guaranteed, that I would find the purpose of life. I accepted with confidence those impressions though I didn’t quite comprehend their appearance on the screen of my soul.

Receiving a Spiritual Witness
I spent the next months contemplating my life. On one remarkable occasion, as I was jogging around the neighborhood under the exquisite light of a full moon, I received what I can only describe as an injection of truth–a stunning, indelible witness that God lived. I recall sitting down on the curb, sobbing, tears of joy. I was changed instantly. I felt loved and I felt an overwhelming inclination to love like never before. I knew there was a God which thing I hadn’t known for myself just moments before. I knew, at last, I had a purpose. This was so delicious to taste. I longed to know more about God , his plan for me and my duty and responsibility towards Him and others.

So Which Church is True?
I borrowed a Bible from a Catholic Church, lay out in the field behind their rectory, and read through the New Testament for the first time. I marveled that this book had been preserved for me– and anyone else looking for truth. I particularly recall pondering the word, ’saved” and the atonement of Christ. I was filled to know that the Lord, who had just literally saved my life physically, had also died to save me spiritually. I knew that I had an advocate in whom I could completely trust.

I then began to identify and list in my trusty silver notebook, points of doctrine Christ had espoused and the characteristics of his Church. I learned much from that first scriptural immersion. But three ideas particularly prepared me for the fullness of the gospel. First, I knew that we could become perfect even as God is, for the Savior Himself taught the doctrine of perfection to his apostles as recorded in Matthew 12:48. Second, I anticipated more revelation than the Bible for the Lord told His apostles (in Mark) that there was more to be revealed that they were not ready to bear. Third, I embraced the truth that there was only one, true way to salvation as the scriptures indicated: “one faith, one baptism.” In fact, I envisioned a time when all quarrels among churches would end, and all denominations would be subsumed under the one true church. I decided to begin a search for the true Church, thinking, again, that it was, likely, not on the earth. After visits to dozens of churches–from Swedenborgian to Methodist–and reading through many books and pamphlets, comparing their teachings with those I learned in the scriptures, I always came up empty. No one, it seemed, scored on every point. There was always some disappointing deviation from what I learned from the scriptures to anticipate in Christ’s Church.

Finding Truth in the Strangest of Places
On another investigative visit to the Baptist Church, I found myself, again, disappointed. This time, I was on the brink of abandoning my quest altogether. It was too painful to think that so many who professed the Christ did not know the full truth about Him or about the ways He indicated we should administer his ordinances. Just then, on my way out of the building, I discovered an “anti-Mormon” brochure on a rack in the vestibule. As I was in the habit of collecting whatever I could grasp on various religions, I clasped it eagerly and tucked it away to read at home. When I arrived at the Baptist minister’s home, where I was a guest, I began to devour this pamphlet. I read eagerly some of the claims of the Church, namely, that we could become more and more perfect as the Savior; that there was additional revelation than the Bible (something called a Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants); that there was a code of health (which I ‘d anticipated through the Spirit); and more. The critical comments seemed superfluous, and I recognized those “Mormon” claims as true from my own reading of the New Testament.

I was electrified and knew I had found something more than a kernel of truth. I searched for a Book of Mormon and found one in a small library in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania and took it home with a half gallon of ice cream. I dipped into both that night and hardly slept. I knew it was true. Before I found the book, I located in a different library a file of pamphlets on the purpose of life left by a missionary whom I do not know but will one day kiss. In there, I found the purpose of life clearly explained. It thrilled me and I barely contained my emotion. It was all I could do to refrain from squeezing the whispering librarians stacking the shelves .I recognized it immediately as the truth.

I eventually called the Church and entered the waters of baptism a short time later. And I must say that I feel like I’ve been eating lobster tails in drawn butter since. But this is all to provide a context for me to share one particular morsel of that feast with you here, one that pertains to the joyful delicious experience of partaking in family history and temple blessings.

Family History: A Pioneer Trek
With a maiden name of “Trifiletti” (rhymes with “spaghetti” in case you’re tripping over it!), you can probably guess my Italian-American roots. After joining the Church and serving my mission to Germany, I moved to Salt Lake City. I hoped that I would be able to find out more about my Italian ancestors. I guess you could say, “I tried on my pair of pioneer shoes.” I started out with a blank pedigree but willing and anxious feet. Yet, after hours of original research and sending dozens of letters to and from many organizations in search of family clues, and after many visits to the Salt Lake Family History Library waiting for needed films to arrive from Italy, I was not much further along in my search. I looked at my empty pedigree and longed to have it filled in–to know my family, to help them have the saving ordinances of the gospel, which I had found in 1980. Yet, my own efforts proved insufficient to complete my family’s work. I had packed up but gotten nowhere, it seemed. I guess it was a spiritual Winter-Quarters experience.

A Breakthrough
After additional fasting and prayer, I knew it was time for a breakthrough. That assurance came one Sunday afternoon when, besieged by a trail of family history papers sprawled over the kitchen table, I felt overawed and directionless. Leaving the papers as they were, I retired to the living room and sat down on the couch. I wept. Seeking some comfort, I opened what seemed like a heavy volume of scripture in my hands to the following verse in 1 Nephi 17:

And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led. (13).

This verse penetrated me. I thought to myself, “If ever I were in a wilderness, it certainly was now.” I was lost in a circuitous paperwork trail and what seemed insurmountable obstacles in a barren land of information. Through and in that wilderness, I felt the Savior’s promise–that He would be my light out. Through His words, I knew that He would guide me through the trail of my confusing notes to the “promised land”–to the temple, the place where my ancestors would receive their gospel ordinances and promised blessings and where I, too, would be filled with joy for them. Those pioneer shoes had their vision and hope restored of reaching the promised land and making it across the wilderness.

The Lord, of course, kept His word. I returned to the kitchen and began to review my files and notes. It was as if certain pieces of information were highlighted, and I knew what steps I needed to take to secure further information about my relatives. I wrote continuously for about twenty minutes until I had a full list of things to do, in order, to pursue the work. It was clear. I knew the direction was divine. From that point on, at every step of the way, the Spirit has told me either what to do or what to ask next in my spiritual journey to find my family. I have never been in a quandary since regarding the sequence of steps to take to continue this family history work. At last, I could breathe, “All is well. All is well.”

Finding Filippo and Concetta: Two Miracles
I was then elated to find the Italian microfilms I’d been waiting for. I remember finding my grandfather Filippo first. It was on his birthday when I first felt so compelled to make this pioneer journey back in time to piece together my family history. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I ran my hand over and over the film, feeling close to him. In fact, whenever I looked at films from then on, I felt as if I were walking through the streets of Italy or through a stake directory in another part of the world. I felt a warmth and closeness with these people as if I’d known them.

I remember the day I was looking for his wife, my grandmother, Maria Concetta Pastore. The films were worn and worm-eaten. The writing looked like invisible ink in many places–only the imprints were visible on some pages. I scrolled forward to the estimated year of her birth. The writing was illegible. I was discouraged–as if my handcart had broken. I had an impression. It was to return to the beginning of the film and to look for other relatives first.

I spent four afternoons doing this. On the last day, in the middle of a record, another impression came. “Look for your grandmother now.” I scrolled forward to the same bleak and musty pages I’d been to four days prior. My eyes were led to the bottom left hand corner of the page where I saw ever faintly engraved, ” Maria Concetta Pastore.” Had I not spent hours reading the front pages of that roll of film, I never would have had the capacity to discern the writing on the page on which my grandmother was listed. I felt her presence as I served as proxy for her in the temple and received a sure witness that she accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ and her ordinance work. Now I seemed to reach the valley of delight. My shoes were worn, but well worn. I was glad for every small pioneer step I had been privileged to take.

Wearing these shoes—doing this work–has altered the quality of my life forever. The richest fullest blessings attend family history and temple work–a joy that overrides the frustrations and vicissitudes of life. I still get frustrated occasionally when my lawnmower runs out of gas five minutes into the lawn, or when another pair of little shoes turns up missing, or when my body fat percentage isn’t precisely where I’d like it, but these minor frustrations pale in comparison to the joy I feel in my life. I find that the Lord orders my days better than I ever can when I spend prime time doing the prime work of the kingdom. My knowledge of Him and His plan has increased. And I know my confidence in Him continues to wax strong as I stay involved in it.

Carlomino Over My Shoulder
On another special occasion, I was looking at some additional films for the Bello line of our family who are from a small town outside Naples, called Pietraroia, Italy. I found a great-great grandfather but once again could not read his name. I prayed and waited for my eyes to be opened to it. I told Heavenly Father that I knew He knew the name of this person and that this person knew his own name and that I had faith that either one of them could reveal it to me. I sincerely asked that it might be revealed so this work could be done and so I could carry on with the line. Still I could not make it out. But after receiving a feeling of peace, I left the library, went home, attended to my family and retired for the night. The next morning, I was awakened from my sleep by a voice (though not audible) speaking the word, “Carlomino.” I woke up partially and wondered what it was that I heard–it sounded familiar to me. And then I heard the name again: “Carlomino.” Of all of the thousands of Italian names I had by then read, I had never before heard the name, “Carlomino.” I then realized whose it was. I woke my husband and told him what had happened. I dressed, ran over to the family history center, returned to the film I’d been working on, and looked again. Sure enough–the name I was unable to read the day before was “Carlomino.” Tears came. I knew he delighted in my joy and in my awareness of him. I have since felt so close to him. He and others who’ve seemed to hover over my shoulder as I’ve searched the past have given me strength; they inspired the lyrics of a song that I call “Redeeming Love.”

And then I reached the promised land–the opportunity to offer family the ordinances of salvation–to know that someone administering in the spirit world would unlock the gate of their prison and set them free. Since my family is from a small town in Italy, where people lived for generations, I have been able to secure the names of hundreds of my ancestors and serve as proxy while they receive their ordinances. The time in the temple has been exquisite, full of joy and personal insights on many levels. But beyond that, it has been wonderful to share the temple experiences with others in our ward and stake. It was thrilling in June of 1998 when the youth of the Sandy East Stake were able to serve as proxies for the baptisms of our Italian ancestors. It has been wonderful to share with them this purest of joys–for which there are many counterfeits in their world.

Thinness of the Veil
Since that time, I have felt the closeness of my ancestors. Where I once felt alone in joining the Church, I now feel I’ve an entourage of friends and family around me at various times. I have noticed that there is less and less contention in my home. I know without doubt that they are teaching and influencing my children. I have witnessed their protection of myself and of my children on several occasions. And I have felt a hedge of protection around my home–it is as if guarded by angels–those whom I have been privileged to serve. I no longer fear being alone in my home at night–or any other time. These blessings have attended this great work.

I remember another specific occasion in which I felt “in the company” of those beyond the veil. One day I went to the temple to stand as proxy for Italian relatives who needed to be baptized. As I was confirmed for these women, I received an unmistakable impression. I felt that the women for whom I’d been baptized were not only initiated into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in that moment–the grandest of initiations–but that they were initiated into my circle of friends. In addition, I felt that these women wanted to keep me company in my home and in my life. I recall the warmth and feelings of association.

Sealing My Testimony

One night in the temple, I pondered the changes occurring in some of my loved ones lives.Then another thought attached itself to the previous one like a precious string of pearls forming a necklace. The gems were these impressions: Just as your ancestors prepared the way for you to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ by prompting you along the way, you prepared the way for them to receive it fully through family history and temple ordinances. They, in turn, have come back in great beauty and force to teach, instruct, guide our extended families.

And then came the additional thought: In much the same way, but on a much more significant scale, the Savior prepared the way for us to receive the gospel, and we now have the opportunity to prepare the way for Him through missionary, family history, and temple work–sealing together the human family in preparation for His Second Coming. This pattern is stunning to me.

And these impressions have changed my life.

I have since come to see that family history is synonymous with family healing. The waters of the temple are the waters of life. Those who are faithful are called to work with the Savior in being “repairers of the breach”–or the gaps in the human family caused by sin and error (Isaiah 58:11-12). I testify that we can do this–we can help heal the human family through this glorious work made possible through Christ’s work of proxy for us–his atoning sacrifice. His endowment prepares us for ours and our provision of endowments for others will prepare us to receive the Second Endowment–to see the face of the Lord. It’s better than lobster tail. It’s the fruit off the tree of life itself–white, delicious, sweeter than any other–of that, I bear witness. tree-of-life