It is in moments of distress that the Lord intervenes and anchors the testimonies of his children to their covenants with Him and to the assurance of deliverance and the hope of salvation.
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Hanging on the wall of my home is a large painting of Christ in Gethsemane rendered on purple velvet. It had arrived shortly after my mother died in 1987. Someone had taken it down from the place where it had hung in the Idaho Falls temple for over twenty years then stored it in the basement of the temple. Later, my sister requested that it be returned to the family.
My mother had painted it when I was a youth. Previously, she had painted many pictures depicting sacred subjects, most of which ended up in our ward house in the Junior Sunday School room or in the foyer outside the chapel. Such practices were common in the 1950s and 60s. Each week when our family went to church, I saw Mom’s paintings, which taught me more about gospel truths than any sermon I can remember.
It was during that period in her life that Mom determined that she would attempt to express her testimony through art. It was to become the sum of her spiritual yearnings, the fullest extent of her belief, and the crowning artistic statement of her life. She chose for her subject Christ in Gethsemane, intending to display it in our home as a gift to her family.
Recently, Mom had read of a technique of painting on velvet rather than canvas. The idea rang true to her. In her mind’s eye, she envisioned the painting as elegant using this backdrop: the perfect way to display a sacred subject. She purchased a purple swath and went to work. For the next few days, I watched in fascination as she built a frame, stretched the velvet over it, and carefully sketched figures. Then began the long, tedious work of painting Jesus in the Garden.
I recall that she set up shop in the kitchen of our little home, because that area of the house had more light and because, as homemaker, she spent so much time there. Her effort became days then weeks. She was in no hurry; every stroke mattered. Each day when I came home from school, I would sit on a chair next to hers and observe for hours the progress. I think I can safely say that I witnessed essentially every stroke of her brush as she drew from her testimony and interpreted it through her hands. Later, when time came for her to paint the Savior’s clinched hands, she asked me to pose, one hand over the other, and strike a position that she imagined Jesus would have taken. Imagine! I was Jesus’ hands!
At long last, Mom finished her masterpiece, and she and Dad hung it in our living room. But it wouldn’t remain there long. Boise was a little Idaho town then. With only two stakes, word spread fast among the members about the beautiful painting my mother had created. What was to be our family’s possession was immediately requested by our bishop then our stake president. Within weeks, the painting migrated from our house to the ward building to the stake center. Shy about praise, Mom deflected that honors as best she could and focused more on the good that her consecration to the Lord in whatever manner His servants might request. And of course, she hoped that the painting would help others.
Then one day, to our astonishment, word came that the special painting had come to the attention of the Idaho Falls temple presidency. Now they were requesting the painting, asking that it be placed in the temple. The honor was beyond anything that any of us, especially Mother, could have imagined. To do so, the temple president asked Mother to write her testimony and address it to President McKay. When I think back on the events of those few months, I find it difficult to describe how our family reacted to the painting’s meteoric rise in prominence. We had never experienced so much attention. For a moment, I suppose that we thought life was perfect.
But blessings often attract adversity—sometimes severe adversity. My mother would not be able to deliver the painting to the temple. My aunt and uncle took the painting there instead. Remarkably, the picture was placed immediately outside the celestial room, where all the patrons passed in departing that most holy place. But it would be years before Mom would see it there. From the moment she completed the painting and wrote her testimony to President McKay, her life began to spin out of control. For nearly twenty years she felt that she could not return to the temple until she could pull her life together. Only a year before she died did she see her beautiful painting hanging outside the celestial room of the Idaho Falls Temple.
In the meantime, my mother’s life began to unravel like an old sweater wearing away thread by thread. Nearly everything in her life that she held of value was threatened or taken away. Her precious marriage collapsed. After the birth of her fourth child, the doctors chose an early hysterectomy that left her shattered. With her health seriously impaired, the doctors gave her multiple prescription drugs with little discrimination, and soon she became addicted. Then to ease the symptoms of sudden menopause and stress, they prescribed even more drugs until she was taking hands-full daily. She had no employable skills, so the jobs she could land earned her little money to rear her youngest children. Every time each of her four children was married, she stood outside the temple and waited. Finally, she was hospitalized and nearly died trying to rid herself of the addictive prescriptions.
For twenty years, all she wanted was her life back and to see her children happy. And those desires were answered. She conquered addiction, gained skills and employment in an alcohol and rehabilitation center, and taught classes to children of alcoholics. She had an affinity for handicapped children and volunteered to teach them to swim help them with physical therapy. Through all the suffering, the tragedies and the setbacks, and despite the fact that she had been denied so much, she never lost her testimony. She attended church every week and faithfully led the singing in sacrament meeting. She remained true in the face of some of unimaginably difficult tests.
About a year before Mom died, addiction-free, she felt that she could return to the temple and see her beloved painting. She was 58 years old. A few weeks later she became very ill with what was later diagnosed as pancreatic and liver cancer. Then suddenly she was gone. Shortly thereafter, someone at the Idaho Falls Temple made the decision to remove the painting and place it in storage, and later my sister retrieved it.
The painting has hung in my house since that time, and once in awhile, I recount its history to my children. I tell them about their grandmother and all that she went through to express her testimony through art and stay true to her church and her God against incredible odds.
After one of these recitals, perhaps two weeks after I had hung the painting in our home, I stood before it one night alone contemplating its fascinating journey. Suddenly, a singular thought crossed my mind: This painting wasn’t all that spectacular. I was ashamed of myself for thinking such a thing, but it was true. I had spent most of my adult life working with LDS artists, authors and composers, some of the most creative minds in this dispensation. My mother’s painting just didn’t measure up. Why, I wondered, had this particular work attracted the attention of people in high places? Why had it been chosen to be placed in the most holy and prominent location in the Lord’s House? What was so special about this painting that caused it to touch the lives of tens of thousands of people over the course of two decades?
As I stood puzzling, a whispered answer came powerfully into my mind: “I didn’t put it in the temple for everyone; I just did it for Doris.”
What a fool I was! Throughout my entire life I had thought that Mother’s painting had been created for the masses and placed in the temple to inspire countless patrons. I had discounted completely the Lord’s personal interest and love for my mother. He had known the trials that were in her future, so He took her testimony and anchored it in the temple. Throughout her long ordeal, despite the storms, she always looked toward the temple and knew where her testimony was secured. Then when she died, the painting came down. It had served its purpose.
From that moment to the present, I have never discounted the Lord’s personal awareness or care for his suffering children. It is in moments of distress that, according to his infinite foreknowledge, He intervenes and anchors the testimonies of his children to their covenants with Him and to the assurance of deliverance and the hope of salvation.
Receive a free sample of my book, The Three Pillars of Zion. Click here.