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Going to Church with Janus

By Karen Austin

Photo by muskva

As my husband and kids exit our minivan, I remain in my seat.  I flip open my lipstick case and peer into the tiny mirror. Have I absent-mindedly brushed my hand against my mouth on the way to church?  By adjusting the mirror, I also check to see if I have put on my Sunday-best visage.  Like Prufrock,  I found the  “time/ to prepare a face to meet the faces that [I] meet.”  I let out a deep sigh and scurry to catch up with my family. Walking down the hall to the chapel, I try to compose a stance for interacting with the women in my ward.   Should I walk with my chin high, or should I stoop over?  Over the last few months, I’ve had some odd encounters.

On the Sunday closest to the Relief Society birthday, I tried to sing “As Sisters in Zion” in sacrament meeting with twenty or so others.  I started to cry because I did not feel as though I could achieve the ideal expressed in the lyrics.  To hide my tear-strewn face from the congregation, I stepped behind the sister singing next to me.  As I struggled to stifle my sobs, another sister standing in the row behind me placed her hand on my shoulder.  Her soft-yet-firm touch conveyed her love and concern for me. When the Relief Society choir finished, everyone moved out of place quickly. I never put that hand with a face.   Not knowing who reached out to comfort me, I vowed to respond with warmth to every sister at church.

Just a couple of months later, my husband handed me two letters mailed to me, each lacking a return address.  They arrived on different days, and neither one was signed. One thanked me for the talk I delivered on Mother’s Day; the other called me a hypocrite for giving the same talk.  If the same act provoked two opposite responses, how could I feel confident when participating at church?   Now the composite woman representing the Relief Society had a name and a more complex identity: I go to church with Sister Janus.  

My first response after meeting Sister Janus was to hold everyone at arm’s length and scrutinize each sister.  “Are you the nice face of Janus, or the mean one?”  In western culture, the Roman god Janus initially represented portals of opportunity.  January contains this two-faced god’s name because the month faces two directions.  But Shakespeare and other authors have stretched the image of Janus to convey duplicity.  Can I trust others with my feelings and vulnerabilities?  Will my fellow saints use proximity to wound me?  Will Sister Janus stand in my doorway, embracing me while also harboring ill thoughts about me?  To protect myself, will I only show her my Eleanor Rigby face, the one I keep in a jar by the door?  

On another Sunday, I’m in the seminary room before sacrament, and a teen is upset at me for challenging her behavior at a party at my house the night before.  Another week, I’m in the Relief Society room during Gospel Doctrine, and a woman is crying because I suggested that her children practice better reverence.  And another week, I’m walking out of Primary room because I cannot multitask as a new counselor when it’s my turn to conduct.  I take refuge in the driver’s seat of my minivan. My eye catches my reflection in the rearview mirror. I can see that I once again, I have brought Sister Janus to church with me.

Apparently, I challenge the other sisters each week as they, too, wonder: “Which Karen are we getting today? “  If I want them to show patience with me as I work out my salvation before the Lord with fear and trembling, I need to afford them the same measure of compassion I desire.   Before me is a challenging task. How am I going to fix myself while at the same time learning to withstand—or even accept–the inconstancy of others? 

I love the invitation in Alma 5:14 to receive Christ’s image in my countenance.  At times I see a divine image flicker in the mirror and in the faces of the sisters at church.  It’s difficult to maintain this degree of spiritual character as a human being living in a fallen state. Paul warns us in 1 Cor. 13:12 that “for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.”  On my better days, I enter the gate.  I hold onto hope while I walk into the church building—not with my nose in the air or my eyes at my feet—but with a steady smile as I greet my sisters face-to-face at the doorways.

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

10 thoughts on “Going to Church with Janus”

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. You share the struggle all of us experience as we learn to love other imperfect people. I hope the sisters in your ward learn more how to be sisters in Zion. I feel so fortunate for my ward, but have still experienced the occasional run in that has to be met face to face and it takes courage and a lot of prayer.

    Beautifully written.

  2. Karen, this a thoughtful and deep little essay, both at times revealing and at times opaque–but in a good way. I read you here as inviting us to all struggle with and puzzle over our numerous "faces," how we interact differently (and sometimes, perhaps, even duplicitously) with different individuals at different times. I know I do this all the time: sharing confidences here, secreting other details away. Part of this is just plain common decency, I suppose–we can't, and probably shouldn't, always be always the same person, no matter what the situation: we probably need to be able to interact with children, teenagers, new mothers, widowers, doubters, priesthood leaders, superiors and subordinates, all somewhat differently. But so often we do this self-interestedly, seeking to advantage ourselves in any given situation. Or at least, I know I often do it for those reasons. Given my responsibilities at church, I need to reign back on this tendency, and keep myself aware of what I'm doing. So thank you for this essay this morning; I needed it.

  3. Who writes someone a letter calling them a hypocrite? Yuck. I love not knowing who comforted you though, having to look at everyone as though they were the one.

  4. I loved this. I feel I'm living it…it's so hard to be both the one who comforts and the one who hurts. I feel the conflict as a parent, as a wife, as a friend, as a sister. It takes faith to keep trying, doesn't it?

  5. I love this. People in wards do sometimes do hurtful things or do sometimes annoy us by saying thoughtless things, but I love the acknowledgment that we are sometimes the ones making the stupid mistakes– being too impatient, not being discreet enough, being too critical. I don't think it's duplicity so much as humanity. Still, I love the imagery of the two faces we have on– the one that desires to follow Christ and our natural man face that sort of keeps going back to the old ways.

  6. Sage: Thanks for reading. I admire you for mustering the courage you mention.

    Russell: You are always so generous with praise for my blog posts. Thank you for taking the time to amplify your response. It enriches the topic in ways I didn't articulate fully.

    Eliana: Yes, it's like a "secret sister" project. I should have mentioned also that we were the recipients of a 12 days of Christmas series of gifts. We never figured it out, so we just were super nice to everyone for weeks. We should try to generate that "benefit of the doubt" during the non-Christmas months, too.

    Kerri: I like your wording about the challenge to comfort while being hurt. Oh, that's tricky. I want to feel strong before I can lift others. Parenting especially challenges me to fake being strong or to seek divine help managing it.

    Keegan: Yes, humanity is probably the culprit. We're a little lower than the angels and a little higher than the animals? Some days it seems we slide really close to merging with one or the other.

    Cindy: It's potentially upsetting, but I have all to often offended people, but not anonymously. I'm often loud, strong willed, and dramatic. It gets me into trouble from time to time. So I have to give the poison-pen author a break.

    Andrea: I often think I am the only one who thinks wacky thoughts about faith and community, but I try to be brave when I write and just share my perspective. Thank you for letting me know that I have company in this brand of weirdness. It makes me feel hope for getting through the trial-and-error of finding the right face to present to others.

  7. Thanks for writing this honest and thought provoking post. I can't manipulate my face. If I try to smile without it coming from within, people think I am sick or something. You are fortunate if you can smile on command. I hope you always find those who will place a warm hand of comfort on your shoulder and who will always have your back.

  8. I have a huge amount of difficulty letting people see my 'real' face. It's a confidence/trust issue.

    I'm amazed that someone wrote you a nasty (the hypocrite) note. I can understand not signing the thank you note (I've done that before) but the other one? Wow.

    Sometimes it takes courage to show our real faces, and I'm trying to do that. But it's also very comforting to be safe behind a pretend face at times too.


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