Holy Objects

Embarrassing confession time: sometimes, it makes me uncomfortable to leave my scriptures sitting on the floor, to put garments in with the dirty clothes, or to throw out issues of the Ensign.  Why do I feel this way?

Mormons aren’t much for icons and representational items: no saints or crucifixes adorn our chapels.  That said, I think it a mistake to suggest that LDS culture has no room for revering holy objects in a mystical way.  And yet, I can think of little doctrinal reason for this behavior.  Let me cite a few cultural examples:

  • We’re instructed never to remove the temple garment — formerly, members took this literally, never completely removing their garments at any time.  The garments were washed separately, never left on the ground, and their eventual destruction was a matter of elaborate ceremony.  Many of these cultural elements remain in practice.  The ceremonial clothing of the temple is handled even more carefully, and eventually is to be our burial attire.
  • Bibles and other scriptures are sacred books, placed prominently on the shelf and treated with respect – no doodling or ripping of pages!
  • Sacrament trays are treated gingerly, passed — with the right hand — in a careful manner.  Sacrament bread and water, once blessed, must be used in the sacrament or disposed of.  Similarly, consecrated oil, once blessed, must be used for purposes of anointing only.
  • Many holy objects, imbued with spiritual power, are found in Church history: seerstones, golden plates, swords, etc.

In other words, even though we have no crucifixes or rosaries, holy objects are as commonplace in the LDS faith as any other.  Is it fair for me to draw comparisons on this level?  Doubtlessly one would argue that for mormons, there is nothing intrinsic to the objects that makes them holy; rather, we treat the objects with respect because of the message or covenant they represent.  However, I don’t find this to be a meaningful distinction between mormonism or catholicism or other mystical approaches to holy objects.  It is very rare that an object is consider magical or powerful in and of itself.  The Kaaba comes close, I guess, but the Black Stone of Mecca isn’t that different in my mind from a Urim and Thummim.

It doesn’t take much of a semiotician to analyze holy objects and say that they are objects that receive signification through their use and their users, but to the believer, holy objects are more than signifiers: they somehow possess importance that is more immediate and broader than the concepts they represent.  As much as we love the words of the New Testament, when we hold the Bible gently in our hands and turn its leaves gently, it begins to mean more than just the words it contains — it represents many different concepts, including inexpressible reverence.

I’m clearly out of my depth here, but this is my point: we should embrace the concept of Holy Objects, rather than reject all physicality of our faith.  However mystical or Old World it may seem, we can come closer to Christ by letting these objects work upon us.  A single stumbling block remains for me: we have little doctrine, outside of the Sacrament, to help us in this approach.  Likewise, we run the risk of placing the objects ahead of their representations, leading to idolatry.

Comments

  1. It seems to me that Mormons have an incredible amount of “holy objects” (temple clothing and ten or so pairs of garments per person is a lot of material), but tend to ignore or de-emphasize the traditional Christian holy objects (holy water, eucharist, incense burners).

    In the meetings I have attended outside the United States, it seems to be fairly common practice to let the kids devour the sacramental bread after the meeting. It made me a little uncomfortable, but I think it’s a helpful reminder that the bread itself doesn’t become holy.

    It sounds like you would disagree with me, but I think it is useful to remember that nothing is sacred in and of itself, but only to be reverenced as a symbol of actual holy things.

  2. I suffer from the same complex. Sometimes I think it silly and maybe idolatrous (a little)to be so worried about. I mean, there are lots of things on my floor right now…stuff that is there because I have used it recently and have been so gosh darn busy, it is not put away. So having my scriptures and such on the floor could be construed as evidencce of the involvment of scripture in my life.

    A counsoler in my bishopric recently spoke of an upcoming fireside in which the stone box which held the plates, the watch hit by a bullet in carthage jail, and other such artifacts would be on display. Interesting yes, but he proceeded to advise us to ask his wife about her experience when she was able to touch this box that held the scriptures. All in innocence I asure you, but brinking on catholism in nature.

    On the other hand, somtimes I am shocked by how cavelier we can be in dropping verbage from temple ceremony in sunday school. I think there is a fine line between keeping sacred things sacred and being overzealous to the point of idolatry.

  3. NF: “nothing is sacred in and of itself, but only to be reverenced as a symbol of actual holy things”

    It’s true Ned that God is the only Divine thing, and that nothing here is truly sacred without him. But how far would you take that? Would you say that the tablets of the Ten Commandments weren’t holy? Or the stones used by the Jaredites? What makes objects such as that any more holy than, say, leftover sacrament bread? Is it the notion of our human intervention that makes them less holy? Would you eat leftover bread if Pres. Hinckley blessed the bread?

    In other words, I would guess that your differentiation here is based upon your valuation of sacredness. You still believe in holy things, just you set the bar a little higher based on the presence of certain elements. I think it’s important to identify those elements.

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    I fail to see the distinction between “doodling” in the scriptures, and all the silly rainbow-colored highlighting I see in every other quad in gospel doctrine class.

    Aaron B

  5. Steve, I think you’re just trying to stir up controversy by knocking a few holy chips off conservative LDS shoulders. I, of course, would never do such a thing.

    But I wonder whether a distinction can be drawn between the reverence and respect that religious people, including LDS, show for religious objects or symbols (generally acknowledged to be a good thing) and simple magical thinking channeled through objects (generally seen as a bad thing). Religious icons seem to partake of both characterizations.

  6. Dave, I think that’s a distinction largely without a difference in today’s world (nowhere are we forced to spit on books of mormon to show we reject our faith).

    But I would argue also that we have more of the magical thinking than most would normally suspect — it’s a part of a miraculous religion! I think we also need to reject the notion that powerful acts and objects are necessarily evil. Is baptism merely symbolic? Are our anointings and ordainings just motions we go through? Why can’t we acknowledge that ordinances and objects related thereto have power and meaning that go beyond whatever doctrine they relate?

  7. a random John says:

    I remember being very upset in institute during a lesson in which the teacher mentioned that little old ladies would send President Joseph F. Smith a handkerchief and ask him to bless it for them and then mail it back to them. My contention was that if these people needed a priesthood blessing they should get it from someone locally and it would have the same force as a blessing from the President of the Church. Oddly the institute teacher found the practice to be a touching display of faith in the power of the prophet. I said it sounded very similar to the idea of a Catholic relic.

    I have always set my scriptures (in a scripture bag) on the floor under my chair. Nobody has ever told me that it was not appropriate and I was unaware of the idea that it might be until reading this post. I guess my fate is sealed.

    In one ward on my mission after sacrament meeting the primary children would be given the uneaten bread from the sacrament trays and would wad it up into balls and eat it. I was horrified. I asked the children not to do it. The next week the bishop took me aside and told me that some of these kids probably didn’t get enough to eat and that it would be a sin to waste perfectly good bread when there were hungry people about. I got over my horror pretty quickly once I considered the greater horror of a child seeing edible food being thrown away and then going to bed hungry.

  8. Steve, perhaps you should also consider the contrast between intellectual religion and “popular religion.” Icons and supernatural beliefs flourish in popular religion. Big box religions find ways to offer both intellectual and popular religion to their members, who self-select to the type of religious style they are comfortable with, but niche denominations specialize. Unitarians try real hard to be only intellectual religion, with no icons or supernatural events, just clever sermons. Result: it’s hard to tell whether Unitarianism is a religion. My description of Unitarianism (“UU” these days) is that it is for people who don’t believe anything anymore but still want to go to church on Sunday.

    So my guess is you have to have some icons/supernatural objects in order to have something more than a Sunday sermon club as opposed to a religion that actually claims to worship something.

  9. NFlanders – “let the kids devour the sacramental bread after the meeting” – this sounds like some kind of horror movie zombie behavior.

    “Sacrament bread and water, once blessed, must be used in the sacrament or disposed of.” – which is a shame because there is such great demand for stale bread crumbs. Maybe the bread should be ceremonially disposed of (I would say placed in a furnace except church buildings aren’t allowed to have open flames) instead of irreverently tossing it in the trash?

  10. Steve Evans – incidentally Moses’ serpent eventually had to be destroyed because there was too much of a tendency to reverence it (idolatry) versus what it signified (power of God).

  11. anon — how do you know that Moses’ serpent had to be destroyed?

  12. Steve:
    2 Kings 18:1-6

  13. Ahh. Well, goes to show you — I revere my scriptures so much, I never read them. Especially the OT.

    That’s an interesting story, because it shows a strange conflict in judaism regarding idolatry: clearly, some objects were revered — the Ark, the tablets, the Tabernacle, etc. — even when others get destroyed for being too important. Interesting.

  14. Could eating the sacramental bread be disposing of it? As opposed to say, keeping it around as an item of reverence?

  15. My argument would be that things are holy when they are working towards the Lord’s purposes but almost never have “magic powers”.

    Once the Jaredite rocks had served their purpose and, presumably, stopped glowing, I’d say they were no longer holy. If you steal a couch from the celestial room, it will just be a couch when you put it in your den.

    The ark of the covenant was holy when used by the Israelites but it eventually fell into the hands of the enemy (Babylonians, I’m guessing?). I think the face-melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark responded to a human desire for religious things to have intrinsic power that they just don’t possess.
    Foreseeing an objection, I think the incident of Uzzah was more a message to the Jews to take their worship seriously rather than stemming from any inherent physical property of the ark.

  16. NFlanders: If you steal a couch from the celestial room, it will just be a couch when you put it in your den.

    I like this example. For some reason, it brings to mind the movie “Small Time Crooks.”

  17. NF, I don’t think that’s defensible — it’s much easier just to say that the OT version of God is more mystic and magical than the NT.

    You’d really think that of the Jaredite rocks? You think Mahonri just chucked ‘em once they stopped glowing? NF, if that’s true, I admire your consistency, but I doubt that’s the way any of us would behave in a real-life situation.

  18. ..and I, too, like the thought of stealing Celestial Room furniture. Those couches are perfectly plump and pretty, and go a long way to discouraging loud conversation.

  19. I recently read a book a friend loaned me called By the Hand of Mormon. A portion of the book dealt with how in the early days of the church, and to a large degree today, the Book of Mormon is treated more as a sacred sign, a prophecy fulfilled, or support for Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority than as an actual text to be read and examined. Maybe this is an additional reason we don’t like to leave it laying on the floor: it’s not just a book, it’s a symbol of our faith and a sign from God.

  20. Givens’ book is a great one, Allison — a must-have, IMHO. And I agree as to why we don’t like scriptures on the floor, I just wonder if there’s not more to it than that.

    Nice blog, btw. I’ve added you to the sideblog.

  21. Maybe I am using a definition of the word holy that is too narrow.
    My concern is that all physical objects, including holy things, necessarily decay and fall apart over time. Sometimes, they are possessed by people who do not regard them to be holy.
    If a pebble-sized piece of one of Mahonri’s rocks came off, would that still be holy? Would it depend on what part of the rock the Lord had touched? What about dust from the rocks? At this point, I think the word holy becomes meaningless. We are back to pieces of the true cross.

    This is just speculation, but I think it significant that there aren’t any holy relics lying around (for Mormons). God could have easily left us the plates or the Urim (not even the Thummim) but he didn’t. Why?

  22. NF, forgive my ignorance, but didn’t God leave the U&T?

  23. NFlanders –
    Speaking of holy relics, there’s always the apocryphal point that the coat Jacob gave to Joseph was the original clothing God gave to Adam in the garden. Then there’s Captain Moroni referring to the parts of Joseph’s coat that were preserved.

    That seems to lend support to the notion that things that have been “touched” by God remain holy in and of themselves.

  24. Anon(comment 23),
    I’ve never heard any of that about Joseph’s coat. Interesting, but does it support the idea that the objects are in themselves capital-H Holy, or just that they were held sacred by Joseph’s (or Adam’s) descendents, or kept for sentimental reasons, or as material reminders of where they all came from? (sidenote: I’ve always been told it’s perfectly kosher, and even encouraged, to recycle old temple garments as household dust cloths, etc. Anyone else been told this? Or was it just an overthrifty bishop a bit out of control?)

    Steve, thanks for the link & for stopping by.

  25. Bro. Strange claimed to have received the U&T from an Angel only to have to give it back.

  26. Allison, it is perfectly fine to use old garments like you say, but only after the markings have been destroyed. This to me is an interesting practice, very totemic. I don’t know that the use of old garments is encouraged (do you use old underwear for anything?), but it’s permissible.

  27. Ahh… Bro. Strange. Any relation to Dr. Strange?

  28. I realize that everyone receives differing instructions. Nevertheless, when my wife went through the temple, the temple matron gave her instructions to the effect that once the markings are removed and they’re cut up so that no longer resemble garmants, you can use old garments as rags if you want to.

  29. You’ve found one of my many weak spots, Steve: Mormon history. I just assumed the Urim & Thummim were taken up with the plates since they don’t seem to be around anywhere (but I haven’t checked Ebay in a while).

  30. I’ve seen old garments used as flags for flag football, that wasn’t mentioned to me in the temple class.

  31. My old, desanctified garments make great rags for working on my bike.

  32. Okay, question here: Why do I feel wierd when I see crosses? I grew up in a typical mormon family and when I see crosses, I feel like they are dark and scary. I understand we worship the Savior as a resurrected being, but shouldnt we revere the cross as well because of what happened there? Or – do we focus on the Garden of Gethsemane as the main sacrifice?

  33. Ahh…crosses. I don’t mind them too much as long as there isnt a gorry depiction of Christ adorning them. Although we do not use them as much of the christian world does, I see nothing wrong with letting them be a reminder of the atonement when I come across one. I do recall working with a member on the mission to get her back to the temple, and while we taught, we had her children draw pictures of temples to keep them occupied. They apparently had attended some bible school retreat during the summer and each one adorned the steeple of their temples with a cross. Mom was livid and nearly screamed at them….”when have you seen a cross in this house? Do I walk around wearing a gun around my neck to remember you uncle who was shot dead in the street?!”. Only in spanish which is much more entertaining.

  34. Okay, I also think it is acceptable to have the cross be a simple reminder. I traveled to Italy last year and saw some beautful crosses. I also saw the “gorry depiction of Christ” in several churches. I remember my mom telling me as well the reason crosses are not used is not to remind us of Christ’s death. But, I for one, do not think we (Mormons) should speak of the cross with such disdain; as per your example.

  35. I did not intend for my choice of words to convey a feeling of disdain. I have however seen crosses with such images of Christ that have invoked more forboding feelings of fear than of devotion, respect, and well, the spirit… which I would readily invite. It may have something to do with my quirky phobia of statues, manaquins and the like. Crazy, seeing how I love art and am scared of it at the same time. Anyways, have been this way since infancy and so I supposed predisposed to the avoidance of idolatry since birth. :)

  36. Here’s what I could never understand: Our garments are sacred and shouldn’t touch the floor, yet their inadvertently soiled every day with all kinds of bodily fluids, vapors, sweat stains, etc. And speaking of sweat–if they can be removed during sweaty sports and activities, are people who live near the Equator exempt from wearing them?

  37. Daniel the Burnt Sienna says:

    Steve, I’m sure you’re a great guy, but what a lame topic.

    Have all the fun issues been beaten to death?

  38. Steve Evans says:

    Daniel, I can think of something else I’d like to beat to death.

    Why post such a stupid and unproductive comment? Do you think that you will encourage more brilliant thoughts? That perhaps we’ll be come to like you somehow? Please. I don’t find the topic lame (though it’s doubtful you understand it). Perhaps you could set up your own blog where your incredibly fun issues can be posted for all to read.

  39. Daniel the Burnt Sienna: Steve, I’m sure you’re a great guy, but what a lame topic.

    Funny you should mention it, Daniel. I was justing thinking the exact same thing about you and your comments

  40. MeMyselfI says:

    Tap, tap, tap. Is this thing on? Testing. Testing.

    (Where did all the great conversation go? Nothing for 25 hours on BCC?

  41. I am happy to say that an anonymous poster on my site has just posted the following:

    Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

    “We have been taught since the days of the Prophet that the Urim and Thummim were returned with the plates to the angel. We have no record of the Prophet having the Urim and Thummim after the organization of the Church. Statements of translations by the Urim and Thummim after that date are evidently errors. The statement has been made that the Urim and Thummim was on the altar in the Manti Temple when that building was dedicated. The Urim and Thummim so spoken of, however, was the seer stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days. This seer stone is now in the possession of the Church” (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 3, p. 225).

    Of course, this still leaves the question of the remaining seer stone.
    On a related note, since Steve did not find my previous Uzzah explanation persuasive, let me pose the following question: When Uzzah touched the ark, did God kill him, or did the power of the Ark kill him?
    If you say God, then I think we probably agree and are just not using the right words to communicate. If you say the ark killed him, I would be interested to hear more about your point of view.

  42. SeptimusH says:

    Could be something totally unrelated to this topic, but can I tell you people, I used to love to eat the sacrament bread. You know, the bread left over after it was passed. When I was a teacher I would just wolf that stuff down when we cleaned up after sacrament meeting. Was that wrong? It sure was a tasty snack, especially that white Wonder bread. Mmmmm…I think I prefered that, maybe psychologically I thought its whiteness made it more pure. As a young teacher I remember thinking the unblessed bread really didn’t quite taste the same. Was that my imagination?

  43. Septimus: yes, it was your imagination. Creepy!

  44. Not so fast, Steve. There may be an environmental explanation for Septimush’s blessed bread fetish. For my part, I’ve noticed that bread actually can taste better after it’s been sitting out for about an hour.

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