Monday, August 19, 2013

My Temple Experience: Can I talk about it now?

I was nineteen years old, plus a few months. I had sort of allowed my immediate world to push me toward serving a mission. Before I could be set apart as a missionary, I'd need to go through the temple and "take out my endowment." This would include going through the initiatory rites, putting on new Mormon temple garments, participating in an endowment session, making some covenants for my exaltation, and ending up in the Celestial Room of the temple for about...4 minutes of reflection. And then of course, there's no talking about it--"not because it's secret, but because it's sacred." The temple has always seemed like a foreign, unfathomable experience to me. Of course, I'm not going to spill all the beans about what goes on inside Mormon temples. (And all of the details are a quick google search away anyhow.) But I would like to talk about my experiences with the temple; the things that I felt spiritually; the things I experienced cerebrally and viscerally.

At risk of giving away my age, my first experience of the temple was in doing baptisms for the dead with the young men and young women of the church. That all happened...more than two decades ago. I was young, impressionable, and pretty much a committed Mormon. Once inside the Provo temple, I could tell it was a special place. It was quiet. A lot of people were dressed in all white clothing. Mostly white dresses for the ladies and white pants, shirts, and ties for the fellas. But quiet. No one talked. Or if they did, it was only in quiet whispers. There was no doubt you were supposed to be reverent there; this was as close as you could be to Heaven while in mortality, they said.

I was baptized a member of the Mormon Church when I was only 8 years old. That wasn't too weird. It was just...what you did. And you could talk about it plenty. You looked forward to it. Because I had experienced my own baptism, baptisms for the dead was no big deal. I don't mean to say it isn't an important and special temple rite. I just mean, it wasn't weird. It was just being dunked in a pretty beautiful baptismal font, a whole bunch of times, for people who had died without having the chance to accept Mormonism, or perhaps, the gospel of Christ.
The next stage of the temple came when I was preparing to leave on my 2-year mission to Los Angeles, CA. This would be much more than baptisms for the deceased. This would be going to the temple for myself, in order to ensure myself a place in the Celestial Kingdom, in the next life. So I knew it was kind of a big deal. I just didn't know it was going to be so...strange. No one described to me, in any detail, what I was going to experience. Not that it's a secret. "It's not secret; it's sacred." And, it probably wouldn't have changed anything for me. I still would have gone, feeling like I needed to--and I had to, in order to be a missionary. So, I went.
(Side note: Keep in mind that some parts of the temple rituals change every so often, so the way I will describe it for you might be different than what one would experience today.) I changed from my churchish clothing into nothing but a white poncho-like piece, provided by the temple. That's it; that is all I had on; a white poncho. So from the gate, I felt a little vulnerable. But I tried to trust that this was all necessary. And I thought, "My parents and so many people I know have done this before; I don't need to be scared." During the initiatory, I was symbolically washed and anointed. Now, I don't think for a second that the old guy who was touching various regions of my body, under the poncho, was some pervert. He was doing the initiatory exactly as he was supposed to do it. But I did feel a little uncomfortable. And mostly...I just thought it was weird.
As part of the initiatory rite, you put on new temple garments, which begins what is meant to be a life of wearing the temple garment as your underwear. I didn't think this was all that bizarre. I knew the garments were coming. I had seen my parents always wearing theirs. I had folded theirs while doing laundry since I was a kid. No big deal. Just underwear. (Kind of).

Next, I was ready to go into a special room to do an endowment session, receiving my own endowment. No more poncho. Now, I'm in my new garments, and wearing white shirt, white pants, white tie, white socks. BUT, I'm also holding a packet of things that I'll put on at specific times during the ritual. I'm also given a piece of paper with my new name written on it. This was where I just got totally lost. It was awkward. I fumbled with the whole thing. And I felt silly and embarrassed. During the endowment, you watch a movie; a reenactment of the creation (Adam and Eve's story, and the creating of the earth and all that's on the earth.) The men sit on one side of the room. The women on the other. The movie was fine. I mean, nearly everyone has heard the Adam and Eve story, or read from Genesis in the Old Testament. But during all of this, you covenant a bunch of different things with God, while simultaneously putting on an apron, a sash, a really bizarre cap. And there were things to tie on this side, then on that side. It was confusing. I couldn't begin to comprehend what it was all for. I didn't understand the significance at all. I didn't understand why God would need me to have a different name, especially if He knows me as well as I believe He does. I never got past feeling...weird. I won't go into the other parts of the endowment ceremony here, out of respect for the temple, and those who consider this all to be extremely sacred. But allow me to say, simply, these things made me uncomfortable, confused, nervous, overwhelmed...even somewhat scared.

Once the endowment session is complete, you move on, through a veil and out into the Celestial Room, where you sort of meet up with everyone else. It's a beautiful room. Big. Spacious. Airy. And white. (Apparently, white is God's favorite color. Well, that and white is often a symbol of purity.) So there I am in the Celestial Room. I was relieved to be there. Relieved to be out of the endowment session. Relieved to be back in the comfort of my family and friends who attended the temple with me that day. (That was a source of comfort and some confidence; my parents, grandparents, a cousin, aunt and uncle, best friend with his parents, etc...were all there that day.) Now, the Celestial Room is supposed to be a place of meditation, prayer, contemplation. But it's not a place for talking, really. "Whisper if you must speak at all," they said. So, there I am; an inexperienced and naive 19 year old; a little freaked out, but finished with the process that day. It would be OK now, right? I could figure out all of that stuff I didn't understand. Someone would explain it all to me, yes? NO. One big catch: you all take an oath not to talk about that stuff outside the walls of the temple. So now I'm just 19, and confused. And I feel like I can't ask anyone about it, because the things I want to talk about are never to be talked about. But, again, I sort of brushed myself off and figured it would all be fine, remembering that my parents, grandparents, and so many people I loved and trusted had all been through it. Not only that, many of them attend the temple often and perform these same rituals for the deceased. That gave me some confidence that I would eventually come to love the temple. Anyway...

After my mission, I met a girl and decided to marry her, in the temple, because that's what you do if you love someone enough; that's what you MUST do, in order to be sealed together, "for time and all eternity." (If you've been following this blog, you know this one ends in divorce. If you haven't been following me, well, now you know.) The sealing ceremony is quite simple. There isn't a lot of flowery language. There isn't an exchanging of traditional, hand-written vows. There are, as with other temple rites, covenants made, between the spouses, to each other and to God. This is done in a sealing room, over a beautiful alter. I actually liked the sealing ceremony. Or at least I don't remember not liking it, nor any part of it. (I did find it a little surprising that I got to know my wife's secret name, but she couldn't know mine. And then, when we got divorced, and had our sealing canceled, I'm supposed to forget her secret name. It's been...since 1999, and it takes my brain about 0.5 seconds to remember it though.)

Well, I stopped attending the temple at that point. I never went back. First, it was because I just didn't make it a priority. Now, it's because I don't like the temple. Still stuck on weird.

What does this all mean? Have I made the ground-breaking discovery that no one should go through the Mormon temple? Does my experience dictate that the covenants made in the temple are useless? Does the fact that I don't like the temple rituals mean I'm off the hook; the temple is just a big, gaudy building? No. Not necessarily, at least.

For a while I felt like I must just be averse and uncomfortable with any ritualism. But I've since found that to be 100% untrue. I have found real beauty in a few non-Mormon rituals and realize it's not the ritualism I have issues with.  In fact, doing work for the dead, or trying to connect with the other side is actually really appealing to me. Totally resonates with my spirit and what I choose to believe. Perhaps, I'm simply too spiritually immature to handle the Mormon temple experience. (Still trying to figure that out.) Maybe I just wasn't ready at age 19. I certainly feel that I wasn't prepared. Maybe you guys can help me out and give me some insight. I'm counting on that, actually.

What you need to know:
*I never got past the temple feeling just weird.
*I am very uncomfortable with the secretiveness. (I do know the difference between secret and sacred.)
*I don't understand the significance of most of the temple rites.
*I don't currently have the desire to try for a temple recommend, as I'm uninterested at this point in my understanding, and my faith journey.
*I have understood and enjoyed a Hindu fire ritual, and I'm very drawn to some Native American rituals.
*I'm open to learning, and being made to feel more comfortable and more confident in the Mormon temple experience.
*I have respect and admiration for those who love the temple and take it very seriously, and hold it as sacred.

How do you feel about Mormon-standard confession?

An excellent blog on the subject:

Penny for your thoughts?