This interview originally appeared on PBS.
Alex Caldiero is a poet, writer and visual and performing artist known for his avant garde poetry readings. Following his conversion to Mormonism, Caldiero moved to Utah in 1980.
Mormonism has enlarged me. I’ve become more than I was. I was born in Sicily, in a little town where the idea of the magical world and the everyday world constantly impinged on each other; where ritual was reflected in life, and life reflected in ritual, and there was this kind of seamless web between the two. And my encounter with Mormonism in the New World was simply one more encounter.
…[And] so these young guys — very naïve actually — come in and we sit down, start talking, and [my wife and I] hear the Joseph Smith story and things like that. We continued to take what they begin to call lessons.
And I listened to what they had to say and after four months, my wife was wanting to be baptized. I said, “No, I’m not ready. I don’t feel satisfied with many of the answers that I’ve received about things. I have a religion already — Catholic. Are you going to go from one thing to another?” I’ve never been a joiner, anyway, by nature.
[The missionaries] came for another visit. … We sat down, and we had a little prayer, and they began to go through a little chit-chat. And it was in the middle of that chit-chat that all of a sudden I felt very far away.
The quality of the light in the room altered slightly. And I felt very, very distant from everybody — from my wife, the missionaries. And I felt like I was kind of removed. And after a while, their talking — the volume went down to the point where I was enveloped in a silence. And the light kept getting brighter and brighter, to the degree that at a certain point, I kind of looked at them because they weren’t showing any reactions. And I was wondering, how could they not be seeing this? And yet they continued as normal. And then at that point, right around here, the fire begins burning right here — the solar plexus, the mouth of the soul; that’s the Sicilian name for this area — and it started right there, and it starts to open up. And it’s coming all over my body, and the light is getting brighter. Hot, heat, burning all over, coming up, and the light keeps getting brighter.
And I cannot describe it any further, other than it was accompanied by a certain feeling of a certainty and point of peace. I was certain, for instance, that God lives. I was certain that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. And I was certain that what I’d been told about the Book of Mormon and all of that coming about, that that occurred, as a fact. Not in any symbolic way, not in any metaphorical way, not in any poetic way, that that occurred as a fact, as illogical and irrational as it might be.
And as soon as I sort of acknowledged that within myself, the light started to recede. And the burning started to come back to that point out of my body until it was centered here again, and then it went in, and it went back to the normal light in the room. And as soon as that happened, and everything was back to quote normal, I sort of slumped a little bit. I was exhausted. I felt like I had been running or had exerted myself physically. And again, I looked at them, and they showed no reaction to anything that happened to me, except that I interrupted their discussion and I said, “I want to be baptized.” And they were puzzled by this coming out of nowhere. My wife and I were baptized in the Manhattan Ward shortly thereafter.
Conversion is a real interesting process. It cannot be owned; it cannot be planned upon; it cannot be measured; it cannot be given; it cannot be taken away. That inner transformation from one total form of consciousness to another form of consciousness, that’s what we’re talking about. Conversion enlarges you. It doesn’t take anything away from you. It adds to you. It makes you bigger. It makes you wonder more. That’s what the conversion has been for me. I didn’t give up the Catholicism; I grew even more.
And it’s that growing and transformative inner experience that continues to be alive in me … whenever I even think about it. It bears witness of itself, by that change in the physical light in the room wherever I am, whenever I even begin to think, to utter or talk about it. …
The whole story of Joseph Smith is incredible. And if you were to approach it from a rational point of view, it is incredible; meaning, you would say, “No, that could not have happened.” But is that the only approach to the wondrous in life? When I saw my children being born, it was incredible. I can never explain exactly what I felt and what I witnessed when I saw my children being born. I can give you a medical explanation, but even that doesn’t cover everything. I can give you a rational, medical explanation of how birth happens, but that taking of the first breath, witnessing that is totally and completely wondrous and incredible. And the same thing with these visions, with these stories, with these occurrences. As we say in Sicily, the world is big, but we believe so little. …
It’s okay for angels to appear in the Middle Ages; it’s okay for this to happen to crazy people; it’s okay for this to happen at another time, to other people, to [the] demented, et cetera. But it’s not okay when it happens very matter-of-factly to even you; that it could happen to any of us. See, that begins to be a shock to our present, 21st-century sensibilities, because we’ve grown to be so cynical. All of a sudden that becomes a shocking impossibility, that this thing can still happen to any one of us. Because with Joseph Smith, the interesting, peculiar thing is that it could happen to anyone; anyone of us can be privy to this connection. Not just St. Margaret, St. Augustine; as traditionally thought of, these are exceptional human beings. But every one of us can be a conduit for that occurrence. And that is still something that we just won’t buy.