New Harmony: Pressing on and keeping our promises

Published: Thursday, Dec. 22 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Over the centuries, Dec. 21 has taken on a full load of baggage.

It's the Winter Solstice, of course — the beginning of winter.

It's also when Hanukkah — the Jewish Festival of Lights — goes into full swing.

For Catholics, it is the Feast Day of St. Peter Canisius.

For kids, it's the night before, the night before, the night before, the night before Christmas.

But for me, an old poetry aficionado, Dec. 21 will always be the day of Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" — a poem that not only teaches a mighty lesson, but should hold a special place in the hearts of all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I wish I could reprint the poem here without having to sell my car to pay the royalties, but since I can't, I'll describe it as best I can.

In the poem, a man in a one-horse sleigh pulls up to his neighbor's woods to gaze into the deep darkness. The little horse is restless, Frost writes, on this, "the darkest evening of the year." The pony wants to move on.

But the man in the sleigh stays gazing into the woods.

He's frozen there. Then, he says, he must go.

He has "promises to keep" and has "miles to go" before he sleeps.

Critics have pulled the poem apart a hundred different ways over the years.

When someone suggested it was a poem about Santa Claus, Robert Frost simply smiled.

But when someone suggested it was a poem about Frost himself, contemplating suicide, the old, gray poet grew very angry.

And the reason, I think, is the poem is about just the opposite.

It's not a poem about giving up.

It's a poem about soldiering on — on through the "darkest evening of the year."

That's a notion, I think, that surfaces over and over in LDS history and lore.

"Hold on, hold on," sings Michael McLean, "The light will come."

Joseph Smith was overcome by darkness in the Sacred Grove, then later in Liberty Jail. But he pressed forward.

Hold on.

It's a thought that surely filled the minds of hundreds of Mormon pioneers as they closed their eyes at night in the snowy darkness of the Mormon Trail.

Hang in there.

There are promises to keep — covenants to be kept.

And that early legacy of pushing through the dark woods toward the light has come down to us today.

Every member of the church, sooner or later, must look into those deep woods on the darkest evening of the year. Feelings of hopelessness are universal.

But so is the faith that light will arrive, that pressing ahead is the only option.

In the end, some people read Frost's poem and see Santa.

Some read it and see an old poet thinking self-destructive thoughts.

I read it and see millions of Latter-day Saints — from 1830 on — at times feeling frozen before the darknesss, but pressing on because there are promises to keep.

I see a people moving — like that fellow in his sleigh. They don't freeze up. They act. They step ahead, to greet the morning light.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in Mormon Times. Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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