Thirty years ago I was a missionary in Toulouse, France. We (four sisters) lived in an apartment on top of the hill called Jolimont, a few hundred yards from a beautiful red brick obelisk erected in memory of “les braves morts pour la patrie” in the 1814 Battle of Toulouse, the last great battle of Napoleon’s army, immediately after which Napoleon surrendered and was exiled to Elba.
Our apartment was an hour’s bike ride from the rural chapel, past trees arching over curvy, hilly roads – a beautiful ride in the springtime, although it was inconvenient for members without cars, and I was secretly skeptical of the wisdom of purchasing a building there. It was a stone mansion set in magnificent grounds. Our chapel was the great room, with polished woodwork, lofty ceiling, stone floors, and massive fireplace; it could seat a couple of hundred congregants comfortably. Other rooms were large enough for priesthood and Relief Society gatherings, and the bedrooms, reached by a wonderful curving staircase, were suitable for auxiliary classes. The multi-car garage held a baptismal font. All in all, despite its inconvenient location, it was a building you would have been pleased to bring investigators to visit.
Except that we wouldn’t have dared bring investigators.
The ward at that time was very disunited. As far as I knew there hadn’t been any single major cause – no scandal, no feud between factions. Possibly it was a holdover from the unsettled and unhappy ending of the Toulouse Mission, which had closed less than a year earlier, its territory divided between the Paris and Geneva Missions. Whatever the cause, it was a rare Sunday that some sister didn’t leave Relief Society early, in tears. There were harsh words in other meetings, and it was difficult to get the ward to socialize. The atmosphere was uncomfortable and tense.
A few weeks after I arrived, we missionaries decided to try something that had been suggested to us in the MTC. It was corny, and I can hardly believe it worked as well as it did. We – the missionaries – began to leave notes, accompanied by purchases from a bakery, at members’ homes under cover of darkness or otherwise in secrecy. The notes thanked members for some comment they had made in a testimony meeting, or for holding the door for someone else to pass through, or for any other little, positive thing we could think of. And they were signed L’écureuil – “the squirrel” – for the sole reason that some missionary had just learned that word.
It was imperative to the plan that members think other local members had noticed and appreciated their small acts of kindness and gospel living. Had they guessed the notes and gifts came from missionaries, it would have been dismissed as just another of those corny things that American kid missionaries did from time to time.
But even if any of us had spoken French like locals, our American handwriting, very, very different from French handwriting, would have given us away in an instant. So we got native Frenchmen and women to write our notes for us. Our investigators thought it was a grand joke. We imposed on friendly neighbors. We drafted children and old men and middle-aged women to write for us, correcting our grammar and spelling, and most of all using their distinctive French handwriting, to cover for us. Everybody loved participating in the secret.
And it worked, amazingly well and surprisingly quickly. The level of tension dropped noticeably. The brusque dismissals stopped, so the tears dried up. When a picture of a squirrel appeared on the bulletin board, with a note thanking the pseudonymous L’écureuil for appreciating one member’s efforts, we knew we had succeeded … although we didn’t understand what that note meant, of course, and had to ask an obliging member to explain.
We got caught once, by a single mother of three young children, who were promptly sworn to secrecy and who took over as L’écureuil.
But one day in the middle of our secret program, my companion and I needed to have a note written for us, and nobody we knew was available. I decided to approach a random stranger in the nearby park and ask for help. I explained briefly what we were doing and why we needed French handwriting. I was enthusiastic and bubbly – this squirrel thing was one of the more fun things I had done as a missionary, and everybody – and I mean everybody – we had enlisted to help us had caught our enthusiasm and was delighted to help, and I simply expected everybody else to catch the spirit of our effort.
The woman in the park was the exception. I was so busy being happy and anticipating the fun to come that I completely missed whatever signs might have been present in her eyes or body language. When I had finished my eager explanation and held out a pen and paper toward her, the woman let loose with a string of expletives, damning us as Mormons and Americans to the darkest and most painful corner of hell, instantly and for all eternity. I’d been cursed before, but never quite like this. It felt like a physical blow right to my chest, and I had difficulty taking a deep breath as I excused us, and my companion and I fled back to our apartment. The physical reaction persisted, and I had to lie down for a while before I could recover. My companion and I didn’t discuss it, and I don’t think I ever mentioned it to anybody before now – it was that awful.
I think the reason it affected me so severely was because I had been so innocently requesting and anticipating a simple bit of help, for which I would have been genuinely grateful – my heart had been wide open and defenseless, and instead of the good I had taken for granted would come, evil had been given instead. Those circumstances may be entirely normal and expected by many readers, but in my case, from the age I should have been a third grader, I have learned to build impenetrable walls around my tender feelings, permitting no one access to my heart except under my own terms, when I thought I was safe from emotional vandals. I had not become acclimated to such assaults, because I had kept my heart protected from much lesser bruising. My guard was completely relaxed that afternoon in the park, and that woman drove a tank right in, guns blazing.
This is certainly not the last time something like this has happened, although for whatever reason, it is one of the memorable times. If I were a mature woman now, instead of merely a 53-year-old one, I no doubt would have learned to handle such situations better, neither letting the stings hurt so much nor using one of my most common, yet most childish tactics for deflecting the stings before they can strike: If I suspect you’re about to strike, I tend to strike preemptively, sometimes in error and usually out of proportion to any hurt you could really do me.
In the bloggernacle, this happens most often when someone offers dismissive or caustic or lying remarks about the Church and believers like me. Haters can get under my skin this way when they can do it in no other way – I don’t have a family they can threaten or mock; I’m impervious to foul comments about my body; I’m so confident in what strengths I do possess that I can’t take seriously any denigration in those areas.
But my faith is tender to me in ways that nothing else is. I’m protective of it, and protective of the belief of others like me. Faith is one thing that can’t be locked up and kept safe from those who either mistakenly or willfully misrepresent and malign it – for faith to be faith, for faith to have any effect in the world, it has to be as open and as innocently vulnerable as my heart was that day in the park in Toulouse.
That doesn’t mean, though, that other parts of my character, for good or ill, aren’t standing by like tigers, ready and foolishly willing to fight fang and claw when that tender center is mocked or slandered. I’m trying to control that impulse – I really am – but it isn’t tamed yet.
Note: This is not an invitation for haters to evaluate my character or tally my sins as a commenter. Other blogs may give you free rein to do that as viciously and as deceitfully as you wish, but you don’t have that privilege here. See? Claws bared.