Eli McCann: ‘The Holy Ghost goes to bed at midnight’ and other tales from the LDS script

The legacy of Latter-day Saint lingo lives on in my agnostic husband.

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

In 1993, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints produced a film called “Legacy.” It was about the Mormon pioneers making their way across the Plains to ultimately settle in Salt Lake City and open a surprising number of competing cookie and soda shops throughout the Mountain West.

This film played in a theater in downtown Salt Lake City’s Joseph Smith Memorial Building for the better part of the ‘90s and was viewed so frequently that my friends and I could quote most of it by heart, and we did so (not with the best of intentions).

There’s a scene in which the protagonist is bidding farewell to her fiancé, who is about to march off to war with the Mormon Battalion. They are silhouetted in a forest, bonneted, wind-blown and sun-kissed. “It may be in Zion when we meet again,” the weepy fiancé predicts, referring to their plan to reconvene in Salt Lake City and plant a water-guzzling lawn in the desert at the conclusion of his military sojourn.

The protagonist shouts in response, “if we ever meet again, it will be Zion to me.”

My husband moved in 2016 to Salt Lake City, where he suddenly began learning about Mormon culture through a firehose. As a part of his education, someone, as a prank on me, began teaching him common phrases that had plagued my youth.

“If we ever meet again, it will be Zion to me,” he shouted several years ago as he was leaving the house. This has since become his favorite way of saying goodbye to anyone and everyone he sees.

Mission flashback

A couple of years ago, he added a recurring event to our shared iPhone calendar, each Sunday at 7 p.m. “Companionship Inventory,” it said. A shudder ran down my spine as I read words I had blocked from my mind decades before after spending two years as a Latter-day Saint missionary regularly engaging in an activity by the same name in which I was required to sit in awkward adolescent tension with my assigned mission companion and have a frank discussion about all the things we didn’t like about each other.

“What is this?” I asked my husband about the calendar event.

“We should start setting aside a time each week to talk through our schedule and discuss ways in which we can support each other more,” he said, straight-faced.

“But,” I asked, “why did you call it that?”

He shrugged and changed the subject, refusing, as he always has, to reveal his sources.

Midnight ‘hauntings’?

“What does it mean when someone says ‘the sacred ghost goes to bed at 10 o’clock?’” he asked me once.

“First of all,” I began to argue with him, “it’s called the ‘Holy’ Ghost, and it doesn’t go to bed until midnight, so whoever told you that one lied to you.”

I then learned how odd the title of “Holy Ghost” sounds to someone who didn’t grow up hearing these words on a regular basis.

“OK, then why does this ghost go to bed at midnight?” he asked.

“Well,” I explained, “the first thing you need to understand is there’s this ghost that’s holy, and it hangs out, like, in good places.”

“Huh,” he said. “And it haunts people?”

“No,” I clarified. “It follows them around, or I guess it dwells inside of them, and it whispers instructions.”

He shook his head. “That sounds like a haunting. And maybe even a possession.”

“No,” I said. “That’s not a haunting or a possession. This isn’t, like, a spooky ghost. It’s just a spirit that hangs around and tries to warn people about danger.”

“You just gave the dictionary definition of a ‘haunting,’” he responded.

I didn’t feel like arguing anymore. “Well, a haunting or not, the point is our parents used to tell us it goes to bed at midnight, and that means we didn’t need to be out later than that because we would be more prone to getting into trouble.”

He stared at me, blinking.

I then realized that this logic, which I had always taken for granted, may not come naturally to people who are hearing it for the first time as fully formed adults.

“So, basically,” he tried to summarize, “Mormon kids need to have a midnight curfew because the sacred ghost gets tired and needs to rest?”

I sighed. “No. I don’t know. It’s just something our parents said in the ‘90s because they were tired.”

He again shrugged and walked away. An irrational rush of guilt I hadn’t experienced in a decade hit me along with an implicit feeling that I had just failed as a missionary.

A General Conference threat

A few years ago, my sister asked us to stay with her kids for two days while she and her husband went out of town. My sister’s family members are active Latter-day Saints, and this happened to be General Conference weekend. When I realized this, I wondered whether it somehow fell upon the irreverent family gays to make our teenage nieces and nephews watch it. We ultimately announced it was up to them and, in a surprise to no one, they opted not to spend the day tuned in to church TV.

That afternoon the kids were misbehaving in some way, prompting my agnostic husband to point at the television and shout, “if you don’t straighten up, we are going to turn on the sermons!” Then he looked at me, so adorably earnest, and said, “right?”

I paused, encouraged by the children’s reaction that suggested this was an effective threat but also conflicted about using religion as a punishment.

My sister returned home late that evening and asked us for a report.

“We got the kids in bed before the Holy Ghost last night,” my husband told her. “And they behaved today so we didn’t have to watch that church show.”

“Don’t ask,” I responded to her puzzled look.

As we walked to the door, my husband gave her a hug goodbye.

“We had a great time,” he assured her. “Thanks for letting us come and stay with them.”

“I should be thanking you,” she said. “I wish we had more time to chat. We’ll have to get together for dinner soon.”

His face lit up and then he said it before I could stop him.

“If we meet again, it will be Zion to me.”

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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