Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Magic Mirrors and the Perfect Law of Liberty

About an hour east of Frankfurt, Germany, is the small city of Lohr. Like hundreds of other European cities, the highlight of Lohr is the spectacular castle that was once the center of a bustling fiefdom. Inside, visitors find thousands of evidences of the wealth and luxury of its former occupants, but none more striking than the iconic Lohr Mirror.

The Lohr Mirror Manufacture of the eighteenth century was truly ahead of its time. After thousands of years of using pools of water or polished copper to produce faint and distorted reflections, the Lohr Manufacture had developed an elaborate production process that resulted in more reflected light and much clearer images.

By the 1720s, Lohr mirrors had gained a reputation for "always speaking the truth" and became a favorite gift of the European crown and aristocratic courts. Like Narcissus of Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection and would rather die than part with it, it was during the heyday of the Lohr Mirror Manufacture that people began to be accused of spending excessive amounts of time "looking into the glass," almost always in self-admiration.

It was also during this period that Phillipp Christoph von Erthal gave an elegant full-length Lohr mirror to his second wife, the Countess Claudia Elisabeth von Venningen, to display in the Lohr Castle where they lived. When Phillipp died in the 1740s, local legend says the "talking mirror" became the center of Claudia's life. Increasingly obsessed with her own image, Claudia soon began to be insanely jealous of her step-daughter, the Baroness Maria Sophia von Erthal, whom the people of Lohr adored as an "angel of mercy and kindness" and the ideal princess.

Before long, Maria, who is better known today as the Grimm Brothers’ "Snow White", was forced to flee 22 miles through the mountains to escape her stepmother's murderous plots. She found sanctuary for a time in the mining community of Bieber, which was primarily staffed by children at the time, until her stepmother found and poisoned her there.

The fairy tale gets a little strange at this point, but in the story of the Countess von Venningen, we find a troubling obsession with self-image that, like Narcissus, leads to physical and spiritual death. We can expect a similar consequence if we hold our own self-interest like a mirror between us and the rest of the world, for it will severely inhibit our ability to make connections, build relationships and see and enjoy all that is good about life. In selfish and narrow-minded seeking for whatever life we've conjured up for ourselves, the Lord has promised that we will lose our lives (Luke 17:33).

The tragedies of Narcissus, the Countess and others like them are made worse by the realization that the images that have so captivated their subjects are nothing more than distorted reflections of physical light, void of substance and incapable of showing the viewer a complete picture of the reality within or around them. The Lord told Samuel that he, "seeth not as a man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Though our physical appearance may deceive ourselves and others for a time, the Lord knows the reality of who we are and our inner thoughts, desires and emotions.

We can now and someday all will have a perfect knowledge of who we really are. Paul wrote that "for now we see through a glass, darkly," but that one day, "when that which is perfect is come," we will see these realities "face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12). This includes the glorious truths of our divine heritage. The Family: A Proclamation to the World declares that "all human beings--male and female--are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny."

James, the brother of Jesus, taught us how we can see ourselves as we really are. "For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer," he said, "he [or she] is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what matter of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed" (James 1:23-25). 

The particular language here provides us the insights we need. Both Paul and James speak of perfection in contrast to our present vision, and more particularly, in contrast to what we see in the mirror. Paul tells us that we will see clearly “when that which is perfect is come”. James suggests that looking into the perfect law of liberty is in direct competition with looking forgetfully at our reflection. But how do we look into a law? And how does that really contrast with the man who looked into the mirror-- like Narcissus and the Countess-- yet forgot who he really was?

In a 1981 General Conference address, President Marion G. Romney reminded us that many of those with the greatest political and economic freedom never experience true freedom of the soul. "Free agency," he cautioned, "precious as it is, is not of itself the perfect liberty we seek, nor does it necessarily lead thereto. As a matter of fact, through the exercise of their agency more people have come to political, economic, and personal bondage than to liberty."

Yet, "notwithstanding the fact that through its misuse, political, economic and personal liberty are lost, free agency will always endure because it is an eternal principle. However, the free agency possessed by any one person is increased or diminished by the use to which he puts it" ("The Perfect Law of Liberty", October 1981, emphasis added).

In other words, we "are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil" (2 Nephi 2:27). This is not done all at once, but each choice we make either adds to our freedom or to our bondage. The Countess von Venningen had nearly unlimited political and economic freedom. She could have won the affection of her people by throwing wonderful parties or planting elaborate gardens or easing their burdens. Instead, she allowed each glance at the mirror to narrow her vision and replace potential for joy with enraged jealousy until she became a slave to her obsession and sealed her own fate to an eternal bondage.

Contrast the Countess' experience with the Apostle Paul, who was often persecuted and penniless. He wrote to the Corinthians:

Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness" (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).

Despite all of this, Paul wrote to Timothy shortly before his death: "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Paul, who forfeited economic and political freedom to become a disciple of Christ, and who was writing from a prison cell in Rome, expresses here the perfect freedom of the soul he enjoyed despite earthly tribulations.

Christ taught that "whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth forever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:34-36). And again, "they who are not sanctified through the law which I have given unto you, even the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom, even that of a terrestrial kingdom, or that of a telestial kingdom. For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory" (D&C 86:21-22). And again, "Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven" (D&C121:45).

This, then, is the perfect law of liberty: that as we choose obedience to the laws of Christ, we will find liberty of the soul in direct proportion to our obedience until our obedience and our liberty become perfect. If we look into the perfect law of liberty, that is, if we lay aside our filthiness and become doers of the word as James directs, the light that is reflected back at us will not be imperfect physical rays but the perfect light of Christ, of the gospel, and of things as they really are (D&C 93:28Jacob 4:13). 

"That which is of God is light," the Lord taught the Prophet Joseph Smith, "and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day" (D&C 50:24). When we follow President Monson's counsel to defy the consensus and choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, we are choosing liberty and eternal life rather than captivity and death and we will receive more spiritual light as a result-- but there are really two processes going on at once.

First, through our faithful action upon the words of God we receive more light and truth from the Lord. We will be capable of even greater faith and obedience. But second, and of equal or greater importance, is that as we continually repent and improve in our obedience we are refined, not unlike a Lohr Mirror, until we become mirrors of spiritual light that "always speak the truth". That is, we undergo a process of learning and refining until we perfectly reflect his image in our countenances (Alma 5:14).

"Ye are the light of the world," the Lord taught, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16). Our goal in striving to obey the words of scripture, of modern prophets, and of the Holy Ghost, is not to become our own dim light in the world but rather that through our good works our brothers and sisters will see the Light of the World, our Savior and theirs, and come into his fold.

To be able to reflect that light, James again directs: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). "And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world," the Lord has taught us in modern times, "thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day" (D&C 59:9).

As we strive to live the gospel, we are both receivers and reflectors of the light that gives liberty to us all. If we choose, our light and liberty can grow until the Lord's image is reflected in our countenance and, thus endowed with light and truth, we will stand confidently in the presence of God as one of his fold, not as rulers of a small fiefdom but as heirs to the supreme celestial light and glory of the King of Kings and the Creator of the Universe (John 10:14, Matthew 7:31D&C 93:36John 3:21).

Then, perhaps, you'll also have a chance to meet the real Snow White. If you do, perhaps you can also ask her what that business with the prince was really all about.

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