Raised in Bahrain and Dubai as the daughter of a falconer, Catharine had early exposure to the life cycles and rituals of animals, which deeply informed her understanding of the gospel. Today, she embraces the complexity and messiness of life, especially as a single woman in the Church, believing that answers to spiritual questions come from lifelong wrestles with God and interaction with other members of our church communities.
When I was very young, my father was hired to go to Bahrain because he could breed falcons in captivity. The Arabs are very invested in the sport of falconry, but with habitat loss and chemical problems, the falcon population there has been decimated. So breeding them in captivity was of great interest to them.
Falconry is when you hunt other birds and animals using the falcon. You work with a falcon, you become a partner with this creature of the sky who comes down onto your fist. It’s a great partnership, and I’ve been privileged since I was two or three to be able to be part of that kind of relationship.
Various cultures– Chinese, Indians, Arabs, French–train the birds of prey in different ways. In all of them, though, at the end the falcon just brings the prey to the ground. And then the hunter walks up and gives the bird a better offer. The falcon is sitting there with the rabbit or whatever that is all covered in fur or feathers and it’s going to have to work to get all that off, so you come up with a bare piece of meat. It’s actually far less meat than what the falcon has in front of it, but it’s familiar with you. You’re a good partner for it. So it jumps on your glove, takes the prepared meat, and then you take the prey away.
When I was 9, we left Bahrain for Dubai, and there my house was the Dubai Wildlife Research Center. The falcons and the other animals created a fantastic atmosphere to grow up in, first of all because they’re interesting, but also because I can’t imagine hooking into the natural world without them. The world works and fits together in such beautiful, fascinating, messy ways, and as someone who works with animals, you’re a part of that. The acts of breeding and courting and dying and eating each other were part of my childhood. It’s an introduction to the Plan of Salvation: what came before, what’s now and what’s after.
Did your parents point out those overt spiritual connections to you as you were growing up with the animals?
Absolutely. My parents come from four generations of Mormons. We crossed the plains. And they are, each in their own way, very interested in the big picture of the gospel. My father is an ecologist, very much a scientist, and is quite enthralled with the gospel and its ability to attach us to God and the natural world. So I think from him I inherited the sense that there’s no disjunction between good science and good religion. Both of them will make the world magical. My mom, on the other hand, has shown me that you wrestle with things—whether it’s an animal dying or some other hard thing—you take it to God, and you just work it out before Him. You presume that you will trouble the Lord and wrestle with the Lord until you and He come to an answer, an answer that it isn’t always the easy way. You have to show up with all of yourself. Your pets will still die, you will still have questions about doctrine, life will still be hard, but it’s in the wrestling that you come to answers about why.
What was the Church experience growing up in these Arab countries?
It was wonderful. It was great to be a Mormon in the Muslim culture, not only because of the whole effect of Muslim family values on the society, but particularly because of the women. Seven years in an Arab girls’ school freed me from many of the constraints that American girls face and also exposed me to the strong, educated, devoted, gracious women that that world can cultivate.
I am the oldest of four and, for some of the time, we were the only members of the Church in the area, or there were just a few other people. All the time I was growing up, we had church in our home, which was not large, and we crammed more and more people in there. We celebrated the Sabbath on Friday because that is the day people have off in the Arab world (as something like a day of worship). Us kids would get up on Sabbath mornings and rearrange all the furniture in the house into rows of seats. The bathroom didn’t have a class in it, but every single other nook and cranny—including outside with the animal incubators—had a church class going in it. I presume to this day that an office or classroom will have skulls and incubators in it! How can you have Seminary without the incubators going?
So it was our job to rearrange the house for church in the morning while my parents drove around the city to pick up various other people who would come meet with us. And from the time I was 14 or 15, I taught our Sunday School sometimes, so that there would be enough teachers for the other classes too. The idea that you walk into church and the pews are already sitting there . . . That’s great, but for me I still find myself wondering: Why aren’t the 7-year-olds here setting up? Where are the 14-year-olds getting ready to teach? Every week, I had to put muscle and brain into figuring out how thirty plus people were going to fit in my house to worship, and into feeding them all afterwards. I don’t know if I would have been able to wrestle my way into a testimony if I hadn’t been asked for such a personal investment in the worship.
My family was not only the church spiritually, but the church organizationally, so my parents were always innovating in how we carried out the church programs. The restrictions for meeting in our stake—which takes in Saudi Arabia and several other countries—are very strict, and there were often decisions that had to be made about the best way for us to meet. As a youth, I saw the brethren in church leadership in Salt Lake City make decisions about how we would worship that they had no personal experience that qualified them to make: an older white man in Utah deciding the best way to deal with the rulers of the Middle East? . . . and yet, they would make exactly the right decision, beyond any capacity they had in their personal wisdom. I have seen that so many times. Because I grew up oversees, we children had lots of exposure to the Church leadership who would visit and pass through my home, so I don’t think I feel the distance that many people feel from the interests, the humor, the goofiness of the people who get called, “The Brethren.” For instance, Elder Packer is passionate about birds and would spend hours talking with my father about them. Whenever we would travel to the States we would bring pictures and eggs and feathers to him. Having that kind of insight, and spending time hearing them tell stories, makes me appreciate them so much more deeply.
Maybe because I had those personal experiences with General Authorities as a child, I don’t feel that I have to live only by their pronouncements in a void. Rather, I embrace the act of trying to make a church that saves people through their best efforts and through the grace of Christ. I feel that clunkiness, that attempt to put together disparate but holy things. I think the more lives you are a part of, the less platitudinous the preaching feels because you feel that, even if a sermon doesn’t apply to you personally, you just wish that Arete or David could hear these inspired words. You’re really invested because of your personal connections to others, and by means of that investment, the words strike home to you. We have such responsibilities to be translators, to claim that role of the Holy Ghost as our own so that we can interpret what our leaders say into the language of our particular life—into our particular needs. That’s so much more effective than saying, “They don’t understand me. They’re not talking to me.” The Greek word for the Holy Ghost is parakletos, which means “that which calls to the side of” or “from the side of.” Either way, it’s saying, “God’s word is there for who you are, where you are.” It is our responsibility to call it to our sides. I think we can demand that the Holy Ghost fulfill its role in making church rhetoric speak to all of us in our varied needs and circumstances.
I haven’t had to face so much of the Mormon culture that women in the United States talk about. It is utterly foreign to me. I feel like I can own so much of the pioneer ancestry of my heritage as well as the spiritual ancestry I feel in my soul from other cultures. I can claim women who have stretched out their faith onto the last limbs and then kept going and taken flight. It is the people-yness of the Church that I love, the fact that I am needed, that I have a real place in the Church, far more than I could ever hope to fill. Every minute, right now, I am needed.
How have you maintained that feeling since moving to the States and no longer being needed as completely by the institution simply to make it function, like you did growing up?
I went to college mostly in the States, and I was in a little tiny branch outside of a tiny town in Minnesota. It was a small farming community. I don’t know if, in my small liberal arts school, I would have been able to make a smooth transition to traditional American Relief Society, but the branch leadership immediately put me in Primary, where I was in charge of Singing Time and Sharing Time and my own class ages 4 – 8. I was completely accepted by the people of that branch as busy and involved in their children’s lives and in the lives of the adults. People need someone to listen, someone they feel has time for them, and I’m passionate about my role as community aunt. I feel there’s really a need for children to have someone who is not a parent and yet is not a peer, someone to listen to them and say how wonderful they are. I was just spending time with an 8-year-old girl recently and teaching her how to use the footnotes in the scriptures. That’s not something her parents are inclined to do. I’m not a parent, but I do know where the footnotes are, and she and I could learn about locusts in Leviticus!
I feel that’s part of how I maintain a place at Church. There’s just so much to be done, and perhaps that comes from having to move the chairs and teach the classes as a child that I feel that way. I keep looking for those ways I am needed.
How do you find the parents receive your willingness to be “community aunt”?
I’ve yet to find a parent who is suspicious and standoffish. It would be so different if I were a man because I probably wouldn’t be able to babysit children, but you show up to church and after a while these very careful mothers and fathers will say to me, “Hey, sure you can babysit our kids!” The kids will push their parents out the door or beg for their Visiting Teacher to come over. (That’s me!) These kids must have a warped idea of what Visiting Teaching is because for them it’s when I come over and play Swamp Monster and we have wild shenanigans while Mom is out on her own. They will be sorely disappointed when they grow up to discover Visiting Teaching does not include Swamp Monster.
Their mothers need to remember that they married adults or go to the grocery store by themselves or pursue their own hobbies. If I can strengthen home and family, as the Young Women’s motto says, I can do that all the time, and I’m desperately needed. Even in very traditional families, let alone some of the wards I’ve been in where the children are being raised by a grandparent or cousin, the moms need someone else to come in and run circles with the kids in the park.
I am intrigued by the fact that you have such devotion to motherhood and parenthood and yet you are not a mother yourself. Can you tell me more about where that comes from?
When I was little, I didn’t like dolls. I liked animals, but some of the maternal expressions that are normal were not mine. I really struggled with wanting to be who my Heavenly Father had made me to be, but I didn’t like kids in that cutesy way. My father is really into children, and I think that helped me realize that you didn’t have to like kids as proto-adults but that you could appreciate them as their own beings in that space and time. When I grasped that wonder, that messy wildness of children, then I began to be excited about that.
When I was ten or eleven, I really started having questions about women and God’s gender and marriage and all these things, and I really tried to take it to the mat—reading the scriptures, fasting, praying—and the relationship with God that developed was one that really made me want to be a mother, whether or not I had children. Around that age, I started soliciting babysitting jobs just to let the parents have an hour or two of breathing time. So believing that I could be one who loved and led (my favorite definition of mothering), no matter what my child situation was, certainly began by ten or eleven. I had a good run of years when mothering wasn’t even an option, but when caring and teaching and leading were part of my regular activities, to prepare me for the time when motherhood was physically an option but still not a reality for me.
How do you approach being single in a church that speak so much about marriage?
I’ve always presumed that I can come to answers through a relationship with God, and that the answers won’t simply be handed to me. I feel Him saying, “You’ve got to work at this, you’ve got to find your own answers.” That’s the way I approach being single: it’s a wrestle with God. Things have never been delivered to me in nice little packages. The prepackaged life doesn’t fit. I’ve had to craft my own life, my own identity, even though at times it’s been lonely. Except it hasn’t been lonely in the sense that no one else has to go up against it. I have seen so many people—past and present—struggle with singlehood and other situations that deviate from some perceived norm that I have a much broader view of what the church encompasses and supports us in than I think some people hold.
I love the double negative in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews where he says, “We have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” It catches the moment when we cry out we say, “He does not understand! He cannot feel my differences!” and Paul is saying, “That god you think can’t understand you? That is exactly the kind of Christ you do not have. You have a Christ who can suffer and feel along with you.” Paul tells us that because He went through our pain and went through it without sin, we can come boldly to the throne of grace. Don’t come groveling or whining to it. Come with your problems, your differences, your “I-don’t-fits,” your temper tantrums, your wrestles, and come boldly to the throne of grace. Get comfort that way.
I don’t understand why I haven’t found someone, and why I may never make out with someone for the rest of my life, even when every fiber in my body sometimes cries out for that physical connection with someone. To live with those feelings, knowing that I want to eat my arm off some days because it’s so intense, and to think that there might not be a resolution or an expression of that in this life, requires that I come boldly to the throne of grace, whether that means praying or preaching sermons to myself, pulling together what Paul calls the “many splendored” gospel, and demanding that the gospel have that power to speak to me.
How does the church organization helps you in this struggle with God?
I feel so glad that—partly because of the Church organization—I’ve been given experiences where I see the multiple anguishes and awkwardness and strengths that surround me. What keeps me tethered is my belief that the gospel is not some rarified practice that one can do on a mountaintop. Certainly I’ve never found anything else that calls the everyday world to the same cosmic thrills that the gospel does. And that includes its people-yness . . . the multiple muscles called up in working out with free weights . . . the kludginess of trying to balance these things . . . that’s what makes us whole.
Christ asks the disciples at one point, when others have left because he hasn’t produced bread, “Will ye also go away?” The disciples respond, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the gift of eternal life.” I think that for a lot of life, the trials are not the car accident, the wayward child, the fact that we can’t be mothers. The trial is who we are during the time of who we are not. The question is, “Who did God know me to be before I came here? Who does he know I can become?”
I truly imagine that when I meet God he will pat the sofa beside him and say, “You, come here! Just as you are!” My heavenly parents won’t want me in some cloned, cleansed version. They’ll want me with my quirky sense of humor and my over-purple prose and the part of me that gets down and looks at potato bugs. They’ll want me that way. I love the people-yness of the Church: That child gumming the pew to death, the 80-year-old woman who’s next to me asleep because she has to take her meds at 4 in the morning but still gets herself to church. . . . I love that aspect the Church brings to the gospel.
My mother is chronically sick with many health problems, including polio at age 4, and all these things have been horrific for her, and yet she teaches me about the promise that we will be healed, that we will have health in our navel and marrow in our bones, because salvation is the real form of health from the God who brings healing in his wings. And so I see the church as a carrier for the gospel—as that which brings healing and health through the goofiness of being enlisted in rolling out the work of God—to make me a being that could more likely hang out with my heavenly parents.
How does this appreciation for the messiness and complexity of existence play out in other areas of your life? Is it something that colors your perspective beyond your church experience?
It is my love for how the world fits together that took me on an undergraduate and graduate path in English Literature and Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin). I’ve pursued the idea that disparate things are woven together to make the world magical. There’s the unbearable beauty in “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone” that still makes me cry. I’ve wanted to learn to see the chosen-ness of a line—in sound, in visual art, in poetry, in commandments—from all the ways it could have been otherwise. Seeing the strands that weave together to form the world makes it more charged, more magical.
Ancient Greek literature is often so highly wrought: you come into a world where even the ceiling decorations gleam massively, where what it means to be Home is just native enough and just strange enough that it can shift our world.
For me the most intense experience is an art form called tragedy, which is more than just stories of terrible things happening. It is a drama that creates a space that very precisely calls up what is normal in some area . . . and annihilates it. For example, one play calls up the idea that a good woman will be both a good wife and a good mother. So far so good. It then says that this particular woman, as a good mother, should kill the man who killed her young daughter. It also calls up the horror of a woman killing her own husband. Problem is, the same woman is killing the same man. Messy! You in the audience see chasms in what you thought was a whole package-deal of being a good wife and a good mother. You have a wrestle with supposed norms so great that you can’t imagine ever putting your world back together and carrying on.
You are left with a connected-ness before and beneath the norms of society. You are left with relationships made not from of-course-ables—because you have experienced their annihilation—but from choice. You come to a community—which may even be of multiple parts of yourself—where radical alternatives fuel engagement, where jagged doubts find shelter, where you push your hand-cart to the beat of that different drummer. You come boldly to a God who gives power not by taking away the senselessness, the pain, but by wading into the middle of it. You find that goodness has a lunge to it.
At A Glance
Catharine Platt McGraw
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Marital status: Divorced
Occupation: Teacher, administrator
Schools Attended: Carleton College, University of Birmingham (U.K.), University of Pennsylvania, University of California – Los Angeles
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “From Homes of Saints”
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.