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Los Mormones, Polygamia y Queso

Rusty - September 28, 2007

High up in the Spanish Pyrenese mountains near the French border is a tiny medieval town built on a mountainside that overlooks a picturesque valley. High above the town on an exposed hilltop sits the remains of a church built in the middle of the 10th century. My wife and I just returned from Spain where we hiked to this ancient house of worship.

The view of the patchwork valley below and the mountains beyond was invigorating, especially at the thought that fellow worshippers of Christ have enjoyed that same vista for a thousand years. The chapel was a simple, decayed stone building with a recently-restored roof. Inside, my wife and I sat on the lone bench and enjoyed the quiet peace that accompanies such simplicity and solitude.

After taking a few pics we lit a candle at the makeshift altar and went outside to get a final glimpse of this corner of God’s creative handiwork. As we were sitting on the front steps packing up our belongings an elderly woman (who had hiked the whole way with her hiking cane in hand) entered the church and began to sing in what I presumed was the Catalan language. After only one beautiful song she exited the building where we engaged in conversation.

Between my wife and I, only one of us speaks Spanish (me) and neither of us speak Catalan, the native tongue of this woman and most people in this region of Spain. (To me Catalan sounds like a mix between Spanish and French so I was able to understand about 65% of what she was saying) It was awkward to communicate at first, though I’m not sure if that was a result of the language barrier or because most small-talk with strangers is awkward. We spoke of us being visitors and her being a lifelong resident of a nearby town. We spoke of her 2-3 days-a-week hike to this church. We spoke of the ubiquity of the Catalan language in the region. And then she asked me if we were religious.

Me: Of course! We’re Mormons!
Her: Oh?
Me: Have you heard of Mormons?
Her: Yes…do you have more wives than this one (pointing to my understanding-more-of-the-conversation-than-I-thought, smiling wife).
Me: HA! No. Mormons don’t have multiple wives. Over a hundred years ago a few Mormons did, kind of like Abraham, but now we have only one.

The idea that Abraham had more than one wife seemed to confuse her enough that she didn’t want to push that conversation (and neither did I) so she steered the conversation to the Book of Mormon. After she didn’t get the response she was hoping for she then began to talk about how the singular purpose of all American churches (i.e. the Mormon Church) is for financial gain. I agreed with her sentiment that those kinds of churches are problematic and that’s why I was happy that all those who serve in the Mormon Church do so for free. Then, after explaining why it’s necessary for all churches to have some money, I assured her that her church had more money than almost any other non-governmental institution in the world.

She recoiled.

Her: Oh no it doesn’t. Perhaps it used to, but not anymore.
Me: Sure it does. Just the real estate alone is worth…
Her: The village owns this church, not the Church! We maintain it, we upkeep it, it’s ours, not the Church’s.

Now, she may be right. But I’m not a full-time missionary nor do I have any hope or desire of convincing this 70+ Catalanyan woman that I’m right and she’s wrong about an issue that I care very little about, so I changed the subject to something we both love almost as much as our respective churches: cheese.

By the time we parted ways she was once again smiling and I was feeling relieved. We made our way down the slope, wandered to the other side of the village where we relaxed in the sulfuric baths that the Romans built 2000 years ago and discussed the day’s proceedings. It was then that I remembered the inspired verse from the Book of Mormon, “Behold, the (healing) power of cheese.”






  1. Spanish hicks. So naive…

    Comment by cj douglass — September 28, 2007 @ 12:30 pm

  2. HA! CJ, you’re right, I guess this post sounds kind of like I was showing an old lady what’s up. Crap. Well, that wasn’t my intention at all, nor did I feel that way when conversing with her. More than anything I wrote this firstly because I was surprised that a little old lady high up in the Pyrenese had the same misconceptions about my church that my co-worker does, and secondly because it was a nice moment on my trip in which I was able to find a connection with someone. In the post I didn’t communicate this very well but I thought she was very sweet and that I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation.

    Comment by Rusty — September 28, 2007 @ 1:27 pm

  3. Well done — my impression while reading was just what you’ve described as your intent. Kudos for not simply speaking English louder and louder to your new friend. Your story reminds me of the times people report hearing about Joseph Smith in the most unexpected places.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 28, 2007 @ 3:10 pm

  4. Sorry to mislead you Rusty. I think you made your point well. I was actually being dead serious.

    Comment by cj douglass — September 28, 2007 @ 3:13 pm

  5. Mmmmm: cheese. It’s too bad that Utah doesn’t produce any distinctive, interesting, well-known cheeses; it could be a great missionary tool in Europe. I suppose the US in general is pretty lame cheese-wise (it’s those danged regulations against unpasteurized milk products!), so at least it’s not the exception. Still, it would be nice.

    Comment by jw — September 28, 2007 @ 3:31 pm

  6. What an awesome place. Thanks for the pictures.

    Comment by Susan M — September 28, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

  7. Anyone know a good source(s) on the finances of the Catholic Church? My roommate and I were discussing that very thing a few weeks ago and now I’m very curious. Does the Vatican own all/most of the real estate? Etc etc.

    So what’s my trip gift, Russ?

    Comment by Bret — September 28, 2007 @ 4:26 pm

  8. Bret, don’t you know God owns everything?

    Rusty, thanks for sharing, I probably would have said “hi” and been on my way….even if I could speak the language.

    Comment by Don — September 28, 2007 @ 9:20 pm

  9. I definitely think there is a certain point at which it’s better to simply avoid upsetting people unduly.

    Comment by Seth R. — September 28, 2007 @ 9:37 pm

  10. I studied Catalan as part of my work for my master’s degree. It really is a beautiful and intriguing language.

    Did she switch to Spanish once you got into the conversation? It is interesting that she didn’t know of the wealth of the Catholic Church.

    Comment by john f. — September 29, 2007 @ 8:50 am

  11. Actually, her ignorance doesn’t surprise me at all. How much do the members of the Catholic Church (or any other church) really understand about what’s going on? I know members of the LDS church are confidant that no matter where we go in the world, the church is the same. But how many of us have gone “ward shopping”? How many Catholic Parishes differ from one another, based on who’s the local clergy? If I was an old woman, living in Spain, in a tiny village, and had taken care of “my” church for decades, I’d probably think it was mine, too. Or at least I’d try to convince the tourists it was… ;)

    Comment by Cheryl — September 29, 2007 @ 3:08 pm

  12. My understanding is that Catholic dioceses are financially pretty much autonomous. When I lived in Cologne, people claimed that their diocese was wealthier than the Vatican.

    I have to warn you though. All of that was just gossip that may or may not be accurate.

    Anyways, I can imagine that the Catholic Church is rich in some parts of the world and poor in others.

    Comment by Hellmut — September 30, 2007 @ 7:43 pm

  13. What if she’d turned the tables on you and asked how much money your church had? Could you have given her an answer? Is it not reasonable to think, then, that she could go back to her fellow Catholics with a story of naieve Mormons who didn’t know how much money their institution had?

    Comment by Troy T — October 1, 2007 @ 6:17 pm

  14. Troy,
    First of all, like I mentioned above, this post really isn’t about how naive this woman was or about how much money the Catholic Church has. But in response I probably would have said that it actually has quite a bit of money considering it’s size (I had already justified churches having money when she seemed to be condemning it).

    But again, if that’s what you saw as the message of this post then I failed in my writing of it. Hopefully I’ll do better next time.

    Comment by Rusty — October 1, 2007 @ 6:42 pm

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