“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty!” Psalm 84:1
It’s silly to make the argument—there were countless other factors—but historians who know everything about the Sioux Indian wars often point at a Mormon cow as the cause for a half-century of horror on the Great Plains and the decimation of a once proud people. It was August, 1854, when that cow, belonging to a Mormon party moving west, wandered into a Brule Sioux camp where it was slaughtered--and eaten.
The owner demanded restitution. Lt. John L. Grattan, who had little or no experience with Native tribes, insisted on arresting the killers and led a group of 30 infantry to the Brule village. When the culprit refused to turn himself in, Grattan turned his howitzers on the people. Chief Conquering Bear was killed with the first volley, but the what had seemed the impossible happened—the Brules wiped out the entire detachment and the Sioux Indian wars began.
Nonetheless, when I read this all-time favorite psalm, strangely enough, it’s the Mormons who come to mind because when I think about their grand narrative—the long overland trek from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the basin of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a pilgrimage that began in 1846, eight years before that wandering cow—I think I feel at least something of the exuberance that marks the first verse of this very precious psalm.
The story of the Mormon exodus is a purely American story, just as Mormonism may well be the first truly American religion. From 1846 to 1869, 70,000 Mormons traveled west to a place where they believed—and they were right—they could live in peace and freedom, protected from persecution they’d suffered wherever they’d lived before. Hundreds, even thousands, pulled handcarts, walking the entire 1300 miles.
But they had a goal, a destiny. They wanted a place to worship, a place to live their own pious vision. That shared goal, I’d guess, gave them the strength and dedication, the sheer will to endure every last horror the plains and mountain passes could throw. Along the way, they even improved the trail, knowing others would follow.
Daily life was strictly regimented; chaos and in-fighting would be the death of them and the enterprise. Each day they read scripture, prayed, and sang together. It was a massive, dangerous, difficult pilgrimage, and it was unbelievably successful. Once safe in Salt Lake City, their incredible journey became a story they could tell—and do--for generations.
The incredible joy that rises from Psalm 84 does so, I think, from similar long and difficult pilgrimages, exacting journeys of faithful believers to beloved places that are both “of this world” and of the next, a wagon train of worshipers on their way to a city that is, in a way, celestial.
“How lovely is your dwelling place,” the psalmist writes, almost as if he were, in effect, wordless. Sometimes I wish I could feel that kind of ecstasy about the weekly worship I attend, but I don’t believe we’re talking about similar rituals. What evokes the delight that makes this hymn ring through the ages is pilgrimage, in the oldest sense of that word’s usage, a vivid and exacting spiritual journey.
A dead cow is part of the story of that pilgrimage, an altogether too human story of religious aspiration and, finally, arrival. "How lovely is your dwelling place," they must have said when their colony was established finally. That’s why I think, somewhat enviously, of the Mormons.
If it’s difficult to find yourself in the triumphant joy of the singer in Psalm 84, consider the Mormons finding their place. Imagine their joy.
Better yet, try this. Consider this vale of tears—consider the depth of human sadness, honestly, all around--and then imagine a lovely dwelling place in a warm eternal sun. That vision too can make us sing.