A good friend of mine recently returned to Church activity. His story is a complicated one. Tyler (I’m going to call him Tyler) is a returned missionary and prior to his period of inactivity had served as an EQP, Executive Secretary, and temple ordinance worker in his ward. About a year ago, Tyler came out of the closet. First to himself, then to immediate family members and a few close friends. He did not tell his bishop or any of his fellow ward members. Instead, he moved out of his ward and eventually stopped attending Church altogether. He also began to date in an effort to get into a serious relationship with another man. So while he had spent most of his life as a model Mormon, coming out and embracing his sexual identity led him into a period of general non-engagement with the Church. He occasionally drank (though did not abuse) alcohol, and generally his lifestyle reflected a shifting (and distinctively less LDS) perspective on morality and right and wrong. He also began attending the Episcopal Church, which he enjoyed in part because it was new and different but still Christ-centric, but also very much because he fell in love with the richness of the liturgy. He spent a total of 6 months basically totally inactive in the LDS Church, and not conforming to certain key LDS behavioral standards.
Then he received an email from a close friend (actually a mutual friend of both of ours, I’ll call him Jake). Jake is a very liberal Mormon, and well outside of the Mormon mainstream on LGBT issues (including his unequivocal support of gay marriage). In his email to Tyler he strongly encouraged him to return to church activity, reach out to his new ward, quit drinking, and hold himself to behavioral standards in his dating life consistent with the Law of Chastity (no sexual relations outside of marriage). It was a gutsy email for Jake to write, and he knew that it had the potential to harm his friendship with Tyler. But it was also surprisingly effective, Tyler tells me, in part because of Jake’s own unconventionally progressive brand of Mormonism. He would have simply dismissed it out of hand coming from most of the Mormons he knows. This courageous and unsolicited bit of encouragement from Jake influenced Tyler’s decision to return to the Church.
Attending the Episcopal Church, particularly during the holiday season, rekindled within Tyler a sense of how deeply religious his own personal nature was. But it also reminded him that he had lost something valuable in his absence from Mormonism. He resolved to try and return to his Mormon roots, not just by going back to his ward but by returning to the temple. He still had an active temple recommend, and had already made the lifestyle changes back into conformity with temple worthiness standards. During his first three weeks of renewed Church activity, he attended the temple three times. He had hoped that he would rediscover something like the deep connection to our high liturgy that he had experienced at the Episcopal Church, but found that he was disappointed on that front. By comparison to the spiritual invigoration of the Episcopal liturgy, the endowment ceremony was rote, formulaic, even uninspiring. And while he did feel the spirit in the temple, he did not feel it as strongly as he had during the Episcopal worship services. This was especially true his first two times at the temple after returning.
His third time was notably different. Unlike the first two, this time Tyler felt a measure of guilt. He really questioned whether or not he was worthy to be there at all. This feeling of unworthiness, of not belonging, persisted throughout the ceremony. Until he reached the celestial room. The contrast could not have been starker. There he felt God’s presence and God’s unconditional love. He felt accepted, embraced, wholly worthy to be there. And whereas for most of his time there he had wanted to leave as quickly as possible when the ceremony was over, he now desired to stay.
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I remember vividly my first time at the temple. The strangeness and unexpectedness of it. How almost shocking it was to see so many members of my extended family participating in this weird, esoteric ritual seemingly without a second thought, as though it were the most natural thing in the world for us to be doing. But the memory that stands out most is the initiatory, the moment I received the garment. The initiatory rites have changed over the years, so many of you will not identify directly with my experience. Back then, you passed through the different stages of ritual blessing, washing, and anointing wearing only a tunic-like shield, nothing underneath. It covered you, but only barely. I felt exposed, and that raw, vulnerable exposedness was compounded by the intimacy of the rites. By the time I reached the final stage, I longed to be covered. When the ordinance worker ritually clothed me in the garment (they actually did this in a very dignified and comfortable way), the sense of relief was palpable. Where I had felt exposed and vulnerable and uncomfortable, the garment now made me feel covered and protected.
I recognize that there are valid reasons for changing the initiatory rites. Now initiates begin the ceremony already wearing the garment, beneath a significantly more protective tunic. At the rite’s culmination, the garment is simply ritually acknowledged and formally authorized rather than placed upon the patron. There is less discomfort with the ritual now, especially for first-time initiates. I’m not sure how representative my own experience receiving my temple garment is of the experience of others, but my only regret about the changes to the initiatory (and, again, I acknowledge that there are benefits to the changes) is that no-one will experience the profound and palpable sense of relief, of enclosure, of protection, of wholeness that I did that first time the garment was placed upon my otherwise exposed and vulnerable body. The promises made to me as I received it rang as deeply and as true as anything I’ve experienced in my Mormon life.
* * *
Tyler’s description of his third post-reactivation visit to the temple reminded me of when I first received the temple garment. Of the unnerving and progressive discomfort transformed into an emotional and spiritual sense of peace and comfort at the ceremony’s culminating moment. I have thought about it a lot, and come to the conclusion that there is a deeper truth in his story about the temple, about seeking and finding God’s presence in our grossly imperfect world with our grossly imperfect lives. We are required to be worthy to be in the temple, to receive and renew our endowment covenants. Yet in a very real sense, the endowment makes us even less worthy. It’s not just that God has unreasonable standards of absolute commitment and even perfection, but that we freely and willfully promise to live up to those standards. We turn, by covenant, high standards into minimum requirements. And we go back over and over again and are reminded of what standards we have committed ourselves to and, if we’re being really honest with ourselves, just how much and how often we fail to live up to them. And the ceremony itself frames just how impossibly high the stakes are. We place ourselves in a double bind by acknowledging the necessity of our worthiness and ensuring our unworthiness at the very same time and through the very same means.
I think that more Mormons should experience the endowment the way Tyler did. The bulk of the ceremony should serve as a progressively unnerving reminder of how inadequate we are, how miserably we fail to live up to our sacred commitments, what a fallen world this is and what fallen and vulnerable and exposed creatures we are. And then we should experience the spiritual relief wash over us as God, on the basis of only tokens of our effort and of our having even accepted the impossible commitments in the first place, accepts us, embraces us, lets us into His presence, gives us a place of rest, considers us worthy. The failures of our lives, ritually reenacted in the temple by our acceptance of obligations we know we cannot and will not and do not live up to, inevitably propel us toward an encounter with God in which our unworthiness to stand in His presence is manifest and inescapable, a state of unimaginable vulnerability. And yet we are taken in, and once in His presence, despite our unworthiness, we desire to stay.
**Note: this post is not about Tyler’s personal story per se, and should not be construed as an invitation to discuss the particulars of Tyler’s experience inside and outside of Church activity.