Along with requests for my talk, Seeking the Waters of Mormon, delivered in the Parley's 7th Ward, we've also received requests for the talk my husband delivered that day. His talk is below.
Delivered May 10, 2015 in the Parleys 7th Ward by Elliot C. Smith
Near the end of his life, Alma the Younger famously gives counsel to his sons, Helaman, Shiblon and Corianton. As he commends certain sacred records and objects to his spiritual successor, Helaman, Alma notes that the Liahona “did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land” (Alma 37:45). This promised land, of course, is where Alma and his family reside at the time of these father’s blessings. Curiously, however, as Alma begins comparing the Liahona’s navigational powers with those of the scriptures, he says that “if we follow [the words of Christ], [they] shall carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise” (Alma 37:45).
In this comparison, Alma refashions the earthly power of the Liahona, which helps Lehi’s family cross the great waters, into the divine power of Christ’s words, which helps the human family move from this mortal world to the heavenly. It’s a beautiful, salvific image, but what sticks out to me is the phrase “vale of sorrow.”
“Vale,” or valley, doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Book of Mormon. It has an archaic feel and, not surprisingly, does appear in the King James Version of the Old Testament a few times, describing places. It also has a poetic ring to it, especially when used as metaphor, as in Alma’s case.
One reason it may sound poetic to us, or to Alma’s translator, Joseph Smith, is because the famous Christian hymn to Mary, Salve Regina, written in the Middle Ages, includes the words: “To thee do we send forth our sighs, / Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” The original Latin is “lacrimarum valle,” or tearful valley. You hear this Latin in English words such as lachrymose. Although it’s doubtful Smith wanted to call attention to the Virgin in this passage, it’s reasonable to believe he wanted to connect Alma’s sentiment to his audience’s sense of grace, mercy and salvation.
While “vale” is notable for its unusual scarcity, “sorrow” is notable for its richness of meaning and emotion. Our contemporary church leaders tend to emphasize the formulation “godly sorrow” as found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where he declares that “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation... but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Cor 7:10). As President Utchdorf observed in the October 2013 General Conference, “Godly sorrow inspires change and hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Worldly sorrow pulls us down, extinguishes hope, and persuades us to give in to further temptation. Godly sorrow leads to conversion and a change of heart. It causes us to hate sin and love goodness. It encourages us to stand up and walk in the light of Christ’s love.” For President Utchdorf and many of his colleagues, “sorrow” means most often “regret for sin.”
It is this same sense that causes Nephi, in his Psalm, to declare: “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities” (2 Nep 4:17).” It’s also possible to feel sorrow for the sins of others. As Alma returns from a hostile reception in Ammonihah, he was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul, because of the wickedness of the people who were in the city of Ammonihah” (Alma 8:14). Later, as he reflects upon his missionary journeys and those of his companions, he notes “their sufferings in the land, their sorrows, and their afflictions, and their incomprehensible joy” (Alma 28:8). Here, it seems that the sorrows of the Sons of Mosiah are more general in scope. Indeed, when Ammon reunited with some of his brethren, “he was exceedingly sorrowful, for behold they were naked, and their skins were worn exceedingly because of being bound with strong cords. And they also had suffered hunger, thirst,and all kinds of afflictions; nevertheless they were patient in all their sufferings” (Alma 20:29). Sorrow here connotes a sense of deep distress at another’s suffering.
Alma himself further expands the sense of sorrow into more far-reaching terms. As he mourns a long period of Nephite wars, “an awful scene of bloodshed” complete with corpses “moldering in heaps,” Alma concludes (and it’s important to note that these are likely Alma’s words, not Mormon’s revision): “And thus we see the great reason of sorrow, and also of rejoicing--sorrow because of death and destruction among men, and joy because of the light of Christ unto life” (Alma 28:10-11,14). Therefore, not only sin, but human conflict begets sorrow. After all, “the many thousands [who] truly mourn[ed] for the loss of their kindred” were not beset by sorrow at that moment because of sin (Alma 28:12). Now, here is the great paradox. Alma states that these same survivors who are mourning their dead also “rejoice and exult in the hope… that they are raised to dwell at the right hand of God, in a state of never-ending happiness” (Alma 28:12).
For Alma, there is an inherent duality in life. He famously wants to be an angel as he preaches the gospel, but acknowledges that he is only a man (Alma 29:1-3). He preaches the “great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8) after witnessing the horrors of Ammonihah. He extolls the power of the Atonement while confronting Anti-Christs who deny its power. He fought against the church before he became its staunchest defender.
Like Alma, do we consider this life a “vale of sorrow”? Returning again to Nephi, he seems to shares Alma’s view and rhetorically asks in his Psalm, “O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions” (2 Nep 4:26). I imagine Alma had Nephi’s “valley of sorrow” in mind when he spoke to Helaman. Nephi’s words echoed through the centuries to Alma and now to us today.
Throughout my adulthood, I have struggled with feelings of sorrow, mostly unrelated to sin. Sometimes, I find that our cultural and doctrinal emphasis on happiness can create in me the type of “ungodly sorrow” President Uchtdorf cautions against: “when guilt leads to self-loathing or prevents us from rising up again, it is impeding rather than promoting our repentance.” Today, I am comforted to realize that prophets such as Nephi and, above all, Alma acknowledged the presence both of sorrow and joy. Indeed, our divine exemplar, the Messiah, was described as “a man of sorrow” and our Mother Eve, although cursed with “sorrow”, testified of the “joy of redemption” (Moses 4 & 5). In a final tribute to Alma, I know that sorrow shouldn’t prevent me from “sing[ing] the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26). In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.