Hot, quaking, chicken-skin metaphors

[Oriignally published on April 12, 2009.]

A number of times during this morning’s Easter program in church the music so moved me that I felt a thrill fill my body as tears welled in my eyes . . . which leads me to some thoughts on those familiar feelings.

In addition to the Easter music, a recent presentation at BYU-Hawaii by S. Michael Wilcox — a Latter-day Saint Institute of Religion teacher at the University of Utah — helped spur these thoughts:

I recall as a teenager growing up in Salt Lake City that East High Seminary teachers, among others, used to tell us the story of how after Oliver Cowdery served for a while as primary scribe to Joseph Smith Jr. in 1829 , he desired to help translate the Book of Mormon. After unsuccessfully attempting to do so, the Lord told him in a revelation through Smith that the key — indeed, the key to knowing the truth of many things — was to first:

…study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right [Doctrine and Covenants 9:8. A note to any non-Latter-day Saint readers, the Doctrine and Covenants is a canon of modern Mormon scriptures].

There it is: That “burning in the bosom” phrase that essentially defies the ability to clearly define it to someone who hasn’t actually felt such a sensation.

I know I’m not the only Latter-day Saint who has struggled over this phrase — or even wondered if it had ever been felt. In fact, the subsequent Doctrine and Covenants verse states if the subject of one’s desire to understand is …not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong… [v. 9].

I could say that not clearly understanding the “burning” feeling has something to do with almost-200-year-old English language, but the “stupor of thought” notion still comes across clearly, perhaps almost too familiarly for some . . . so just what is the modern equivalent of a “burning bosom”? Or is there something else that would help me, and others, understand better?

Enter Wilcox, who in his lecture at BYU-Hawaii explained the “burning bosom” is a heat metaphor that helps us understand the feelings or our inner responses to truth and beauty. More importantly, he added that the heat metaphor might not be the most applicable one for all people — and that there are other metaphors more appropriate to different people.

First, however, just a dictionary reminder: A metaphor — which originated as an ancient Greek word meaning “to transfer” — is a “figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance…to represent something else; an emblem or symbol.” Or in other words, one’s bosom doesn’t literally get hot…but there’s definitely a physical, spiritual and/or emotional response.

For example, Wilcox pointed out that Alma the Younger, in his masterful discourse on building faith in the Book of Mormon [Alma 31-32], used a “movement metaphor” of a “swelling” feeling, and that Joseph Smith used the phrase, …the still small voice, which whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake… [Doctrine and Covenants 85:6]. The latter is a feeling that, perhaps, members of the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers might historically appreciate to describe the “inner light” concept of their beliefs.

Wilcox also noted that the Doctrine and Covenants “sometimes says you’ll feel peace, joy, love. Maybe you can relate to that, if you’re not sure you’ve felt the other sensations.”

I believe these metaphors are definitely more familiar to most people’s experience. In fact, I believe these and other feelings are our internal barometers of spiritual and emotional truth. They explain why a selection of beautiful music can move me to tears of appreciation, or can inspire me. They are why I can “feel the spirit” of the war dead at places such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Bomana, New Guinea; and why I can feel the spirit of my Celtic ancestors in the skirling of the pipes…and thousands of similar life feelings.

I believe these are all forms of personal revelation — and that they extend to ideas and inspiration, even dreams and forms of creativity that often come unbidden to us — spiritual gifts, if you will. For example, I’ve mentioned before that when I sit at the computer to write, the words often just flow.

But perhaps the most easily understandable, and therefore the best metaphor for me is the one we use in Hawaiian English — chicken skin: That tingly, slightly hair-raising thrill people physically feel when something “touches” them, inspires them, thrills them. Sometimes in American English that feeling is described as “goose bumps,” but I prefer the Hawaiian English chicken skin.

That’s the one I like the best . . . but I’ve also felt the heat. Aloha, everyone, and happy Easter.

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