This article originally appeared in Tricycle Magazine.
The first thing that I noticed on my visit to Thomas McConkie’s apartment near the University of Utah was a small wooden tan—the raised platform where monks sit during meditation in the traditional Zen Buddhist temples.
“One of our members made it for me,” McConkie said, taking a seat on a black cushion. His impeccable posture and loose, comfortable clothing suggested that the tan wasn’t for show.
A large white candle was decorated with a hymnal page titled “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.”
“It’s a 19th-century hymn that’s become very popular in the Mormon church,” said McConkie, a Salt Lake City native whose spiritual odyssey has brought him back to the religion of his family, which has deep roots in Utah’s Mormon history.
“If we’re all storm-tossed and looking for safe harbor, the upper lights—the sun, the moon and the stars—can only guide us so far,” McConkie explained, picking up the candle to illustrate his point. “When we really need to bring the ship in and dodge the sharp rocks, it’s the lower lights, the lighthouses and other lights that we humans create for one another, that actually allow us to make the journey.”
But McConkie is not making his journey alone. The next evening, in a spectacular, century-old building that originally housed the Ladies’ Literary Club of Salt Lake City, he led 200 people—most of them from Mormon families—through a guided meditation at a monthly gathering of the Lower Lights Sangha.
Nick Street is a senior writer with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.