My brother, John, is a serious international traveler, and one of my favorite travel companions. I’ve been blessed to join him on a few of his many trips, as together we’ve explored San Francisco, Chile, Argentina, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Morocco. A current of excitement always flows through me when we start planning our next adventure.
A month ago, John and I sat together on the couch in our mother’s home office, discussing travel as we often do. I asked a question about a trip John took to Portugal a few years ago, and he pulled out his phone to show me some photos from his time in Lisbon. As he scrolled through the pictures, I was intrigued by a monument I had never seen before and asked to look more closely at the images.
O Padrão dos Descobrimentos–or Monument to the Discoveries–stands 170 feet tall. It has perched at the edge of the Tagus River estuary since 1960 and was created in commemoration of Portugal’s Age of Discoveries, when seafaring Europeans explored unknown regions of the earth between the 15th and 17th centuries. It was from this location that many explorers set sail.
Examining photos of the monument, I felt the same rush of excitement that always accompanies the start of an overseas adventure. Later, I researched the monument, looking closely at the detailed sculptures of more than thirty sea captains, pilots, writers, navigators, mathematicians, missionaries, and cartographers, imagining how they felt as they sailed toward uncharted waters. Were they afraid? What did they hope to discover?
My thoughts soon turned to another kind of journey: voyages of spiritual discovery–both intentional and unintentional. In the context of the plan of salvation, our entire mortal life may be considered a voyage of discovery, yet there are distinct voyages within the larger journey. Some, we choose to make, and others seem to be thrust upon us, but all of them have the potential to lead us closer to Jesus Christ.
Intentional voyages of discovery
I have long admired Nephi for actively seeking spiritual knowledge–even in his youth. When his father, Lehi, received a remarkable vision and shared it with his family, Nephi went on a quest: he wanted to see what his father had seen. He recorded: “… after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord …” ( 1 Ne.11:1, emphasis added) Nephi’s efforts were rewarded with his own vision–a marvelous voyage of spiritual discovery. He found out for himself that “… he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost…” (1 Ne.10:19) While few earnest seekers will be rewarded with a spectacular vision, spiritual discoveries can come in many ways.
President Russell M. Nelson is a stellar example of seeking voyages of spiritual discovery on a regular basis–even at nearly 99 years of age! In 2017, President Nelson spoke of consecrating a portion of his time each week for six weeks “… to study everything Jesus said and did as recorded in the standard works… I read and underlined every verse cited about Jesus Christ, as listed under the main heading and the 57 subtitles in the Topical Guide. When I finished that exciting exercise, my wife asked me what impact it had on me. I told her, “I am a different man!” (1)
Our prophet’s discoveries have sometimes led to invitations for church members to make some of their own, such as searching the scriptures to find the blessings the Lord has promised to covenant Israel.
During my second semester at Brigham Young University, I felt promptings to prepare to serve a fulltime mission, so I enrolled in a mission prep class. That entire semester became a voyage of spiritual discovery, particularly when our class studied the laws of justice and mercy. Previously, the Atonement of Jesus Christ was a vague, perplexing concept to me, which seemed important but was hard to wrap my mind around. However, as I prayerfully studied the laws of justice and mercy–my first serious attempt to study by topic–I slowly began to glimpse the significance of the Atonement, why it was necessary, and how it was even possible.
It was just a beginning. My spiritual voyage had only taken me to the tip of the iceberg, but at least it got me to the iceberg, paving the way for decades of discoveries about Christ’s Atonement.
Unintentional voyages of discovery
Some of the most spiritually significant journeys of discovery are not of our choosing. Frequently, the actions or struggles of others–a child, a parent, a spouse, a friend, even a stranger–send us on an unexpected journey. At other times, God allows us to experience our own serious trials. We may be blindsided. It may feel like we’ve been shoved onto a boat and pushed away from the shore before we even know what’s happening: the divorce we didn’t see coming, the mental illness that changes everything, a devastating loss, a testimony crisis, financial reverses, the hurtful choices of someone close to us. We reluctantly set sail without the chance to pack a suitcase or study a map.
Unintentional voyages do not automatically lead to spiritual discoveries or draw us closer to the Lord–we must consciously invite Him to make the journey with us. My friend, Stephanie, taught me a lesson about this recently when she shared her story of embarking on a host of unexpected voyages simultaneously:
“In  my family and I had more surgeries and illnesses, some potentially fatal, than our last ten years put together. Add to that a fall-out with a beloved child, falls and stitches, EKGs and echocardiograms, family members leaving the church, my own faith being challenged, mental disorders, children and grandchildren moving in with us, a child going through a painful divorce, and the feeling that I might have to become my family’s primary breadwinner.
It was difficult not to be whisked away into a whirlwind of anxiety and worry. I finally asked the Lord, “What do I need to study?” The thought came to research “how to find peace in the midst of the storm.”
I looked up every scripture I could find that contained the word “peace.” I researched General Conference talks on peace, struggles, endurance, and finding strength in our trials. I cross-referenced scriptures that stood out to me, looked up the definition of words, and recorded my thoughts. Then I asked friends and family to think of individuals in the scriptures who were able to find peace, even while they experienced their own personal trials. What I found in the details of each story created a vivid picture in my mind of my Savior–how he supports, inspires, guides, empowers, and heals us. Then I recognized a pattern. Every time an individual exercised an abiding hope, God showed up to keep His promises.” (2)
This is just a tiny taste of what Stephanie experienced when she transformed a stressful/painful season of life into a voyage of spiritual discovery by diving deep into the word of God, with a specific purpose. In doing so, she gave her “unintentional voyage” an element of intentionality.
Spiritual discovery takes sincere, persistent effort
Whether our current journey is intentional or unintentional, the process of spiritual discovery is essential for anyone who wants to grow in understanding of the Savior’s teachings and draw closer to Him. M. Catherine Thomas says it well, “… until we each experience spiritual realities for ourselves, there will be some distortion in our perception of things as they really are.”
Speaking on a podcast earlier this year, religion professor Steven C. Harper stated, “We live in a time where we are under the illusion that you can know something really deeply and powerfully by spending 15 minutes on an internet browser… That’s not the case. That’s not what it means to be responsible for our own learning: ‘I’ll google it myself’.” (3) Patrick Q. Mason concurs, “If we want answers to our questions, we have to put in the time. Research is hard work. If we have existential questions, we cannot be satisfied with blog-level answers… Give the issue the attention and care it deserves.” (4)
I once attended a gathering of temple ordinance workers where our temple president shared that many patrons make appointments to speak with him, desiring him to explain the various symbols involved in the endowment. The president told his workers, “First of all, I don’t know everything about all of the symbolism yet–I’m still learning. Secondly, if I were to share what I do know, it would deprive patrons of the opportunity to seek revelation and be taught by the Spirit.”
On many occasions, as I have struggled to discover the meaning of certain temple symbols and tokens, I’ve wished for a chart with two columns: “A” showing the symbol/token, and “B” explaining its exact interpretation. I can relate to the following observation of author Wendy Ulrich, “Church leaders tend not to explain much [about the temple symbols], leaving us the privilege of coming to our own conclusions. We are not always happy about this “privilege.” (5)
For a time, I actually gave up trying to understand temple symbolism. I still attended the temple and felt its blessings, but I didn’t make any spiritual discoveries. After evaluating my experience, I had to confess that I had never put serious, long-term effort into understanding parts of the endowment during my time outside of the temple. No wonder my understanding was small.
So, I made a fresh start–embarked on a new voyage of discovery–by engaging in focused, prayerful study outside of the temple, diving into many books from reliable sources, including the scriptures. The pace of my learning is still very slow, sometimes frustratingly so. But as I have persisted, the eyes of my understanding have occasionally been opened to tiny insights and faint impressions which are gradually enhancing my temple worship. I’m finally learning to be grateful for the painstaking “privilege” of seeking answers for myself. This particular voyage of spiritual discovery will need to continue throughout my life, but I am relishing the journey.
Intentional voyages can help us prepare for unintentional journeys
Just yesterday, I had a moving conversation with a friend who has been on an unexpected 2½ year voyage with his sweet wife as she battles stage 4 cancer. This remarkable couple has chosen to keep a miracle journal during this ordeal, to document moments big and small when they have felt the hand of God in their journey. I was moved to tears as the husband–even knowing the hardest part of the voyage lies ahead–expressed his faith that God is in charge of this situation.
This man told his wife recently that he wouldn’t trade this experience, because of what they have learned from it–and in spite of all his wife has suffered, she agreed. They have discovered, as did the Jaredites while they sailed toward the promised land, that it’s possible to “have light continually, whether it was above the water or under the water.” (Ether 6:10)
As I walked away from that conversation, I was struck by the fact that this good couple has weathered their perilous journey with uncommon faith because of previous decades of intentional spiritual discovery–building testimonies of Jesus Christ by actively studying and living His teachings. This has strengthened them to face their current voyage with admirable faith and courage. “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29:13)
Where will your next voyage of spiritual discovery take you? Whatever your journey entails, may it lead you closer to the Savior.
- President Russell M. Nelson, Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into Our Lives, April 2017 General Conference.
- Stephanie Francom, Bound to Him, Rooftop Publishing, pp. 19-20. stephaniefrancom.com
- Steven C. Harper, Follow Him Podcast, Part 1, Dec. 26-Jan. 2022, approx. min. 34:44.
- Patrick Q. Mason, Planted, Deseret Book, pp. 86-87.
- Wendy Ulrich, The Temple Experience, CFI, 21.