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Central America: In the Glow of the Golden Plates

S. Michael Wilcox - March 30, 2010

“ . . . an allure incomparable with any place in the world.”

Though all countries and climes of the earth are wonderful to visit, there are some places around the globe I never tire of visiting. I have never stepped off the plane in Central America, took a breath of mountain or jungle air and failed to receive that initial swelling of excitement I first encountered twenty five years ago. I have wandered the paths, the rivers, and the back-country of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Mexico with renewed passion year after year.

The vibrant green backdrop of Palenque, the roof combs of Tikal's pyramids displayed above the canopy, the quiet sanctity of Copan's stone forest of kingly monuments, the secretive ruins of Yaxchilan reached only by river--the Mayan world--have an allure incomparable with any place in the world. The sweet smell of the jungle teeming with life and hidden temples promises an adventure I think few can resist. These all have felt my footfalls and I have stared into the still stone lidless eyes of ancient kings and pondered the decay of nations and their brief blink of power on the world's stage of vanished empires.

This is the world I had pictured and peopled in that rich creative world of human imagination as I read the Book of Mormon as a boy. It became a part of my inner world when I first heard my mother read, "I Nephi having been born or goodly parents."

Yet, somehow the stories once recorded in the glow of golden plates seem more real, more intense, more deeply true against the backdrop of root-gripped ruins with their fading stuccoed palaces, crumbling terraced pyramids of grey and black covered with the runic mystery of hieroglyphic memory. The angry scolding voices of macaws, the deep-throated roar of howler monkeys, the warning hum of insects, the sweet-flowered scents of jungle green, the rising majesty of volcanic peaks stir and awaken the oft-repeated, oft-told tales, as though they were memories of events mine own eyes and witnessed.

I half expect to see a kneeling Enos with every turn of the forest path or a solitary lonely Moroni fleeting secretively through the hidden mazes of a ruined city. I can hear the earnest fatherly voices of Alma, of Helaman, of Mormon in the private courtyards of family dwellings away from the former busy city centers and can see in wonder the sleeping Alma the Younger awaken from his born-again sleep and descend the steps to an astonished crowd. I feel the tremors of marching feet as stripling warriors move towards their meeting place with recorded time, the calm assurances of their mother-engendered faith beating in their hearts. On the steps of a temple I witness the torn cloaks of brave men valiantly thrown at the feet of Captain Moroni as they join in a covenant of courage beneath the waving title of liberty. And above all--the very land itself seems to proclaim the joy of a humid sunless night of brightest noon and the despairing darkness of the mist filled land which was pierced by a voice mild with understanding and filled with forgiveness.

We ascend to the "highlands" to visit the native people whose skills with the loom display patterns centuries old with colors seemingly pulled from the rainbow itself. Their humility and gentle warm ways remind me of why the ancient prophets so loved their people and why Mormon would mourn, "O ye fair ones," with such depth of emotion. They are still "fair ones." The children gather around showing their tiny weavings and beadwork; faces bright with expectation and always so full of promise. I think of Jesus in Bountiful surrounded by faces such as these, and moved to the soul He knelt and prayed for them with such beauty the words could not be recorded.

I always leave these Book of Mormon settings with an old familiar ache, a longing deeper than mere homesickness. I hear it calling my return before I direct my face homeward for this too is home, a dwelling place of the spirit baptized in the truths of scripture. I know it will draw me back with the desire to share its wonders with new friends, creating new memories. The voice from the dust has whispered its testimony into the winds and breezes of corn-covered highlands, of hazy heated lowlands and vine entangled long-forgotten cities.

I shall ever hear those welcome tones, those Book of Mormon voices, that will never be silenced, never be dimmed, nor forgotten, nor ignored, nor challenged as long as pyramids lift their roof combs above the jungle's green ocean or there remains a child who hears from his mother's lips the words, "I Nephi having been born of goodly parents," and her voice carries him into a world enlivened by the spirit of God.

--- S. Michael Wilcox recently retired as an instructor at the institute of religion adjacent to the University of Utah. A frequent speaker at Brigham Young University Education Week, Michael also conducts tours with Fun for Less Travel, tours of the Holy Land, Church history sites, Europe, China, and Central and South America. Find out more about these tours.

© Photo by Jacob Rus/wikipedia.org.