I’ve heard many a tale of negative first experiences in the temple. They range from surprise or confusion to outright horror. I can very much sympathize with these stories, and want to emphasize that I believe attributing them to any fault of the individual is wrong. And I think it is important for us to continue to revisit the issue of first temple experiences from time to time and think about how we can ease the transition for newcomers. So I offer up my story as a data point in the discussion.
The story takes place in 2000; I was 21 years old. Evidently there had been some concern about negative experiences at the temple, and efforts were already underway, at least by individual leaders and teachers, to correct this for my generation. Which leads me to the first thing that really struck me upon my first visit to the temple:
#1 – If you’ve been paying attention over the years, you’ll notice that adults can’t help but give away everything in Sunday School classes. I was always very curious about the temple. I fancied myself a clever detective, like many of the heroes of my reading–The Great Brain, Encyclopedia Brown and Miss Marple. All this fed into an obsession to unlock the temple’s secrets. As a teen, I spent hours poring over passages of scripture that a teacher had off-handedly mentioned were related to the temple. I studied Old Testament passages about temple architecture and ritual like a textbook. I picked apart Bergman’s Magic Flute, which I’d heard contained parallels (by the way, fantastic movie in general—even my preschool age kids love it, though undoubtedly they’ve inherited some of their mother’s quirkiness). All these things did help, but most successful was just listening to Sunday School know-it-alls’ phraseology. Whenever I heard adults use an odd phrasing they all seemed to recognize, but that I hadn’t seen in any scripture, I made a mental note. Sometimes the words were accompanied by a flagrant tell like an eyebrow raise (or the give-away tag line, “those who have ears to hear” + eyebrow raise, but at that point it’s really taken all the fun out of the chase). Turns out by the time I went to the temple I had identified half of what is said, including some very key phases that, in retrospect, I’m mildly surprised were shared publicly.
Silly teenage detective hijinks aside, I do largely credit my broad self-education about the temple with the fact that I such a positive experience. Each step in the process was anticipated, and knowing how so much of it had precedent in the scripture gave it a reassuring continuity with the rest of our religious experience.
Perhaps because I was familiar with the doctrines and other aspects of the temple experience, some of the most memorable lessons I took away from my first day had more to do with the banal. For example, the second and third things that most struck me about the experience:
#2 – You are never left alone to fend for yourself. Escorts for first-timers are a good idea. But even beyond that, every turn and corner seems to house a helpful temple worker. It’s impossible to get lost.
#3 – Hyper-organization is not necessarily off-putting. I tend to strongly resist authority, and cleanliness and order have never been qualities anyone would associate with me. So sometimes the sterile corporateness of the church organization can be irritating to me. But in the temple (and maybe this was just a kindly ministration of the Spirit smoothing things over for me) the hyper-organization had a reassuring, relaxing, dare I say heavenly, quality about it. The pace imposed by the deliberate attending-to of each detail and each individual leaves space for reflection. Keeping everything orderly greatly reduces the cognitive load of the participants, and far from emptying the mind entirely, it empties the mind so that other, deeper, thoughts can enter.
The last thing that most struck me on my first visit to the temple is also rather banal, but is still the thought I most cherish on every visit:
#4 – Nobody will be prevented from entering the Celestial Kingdom on a technicality. “But wait!” you say, “like Sacrament prayers, everything in the temple is done very precisely.” Yes, but here’s the thing–I’ve managed to fumble, forget and spectacularly fail in my duties as a temple patron in dozens of ways. But I always made it all the way through in the end. On my first visit, about 3/4 of the way through the endowment, I had a moment of panic–am I going to remember all this?! I felt the truth of it all burn deep into me, but that didn’t exactly preclude the possibility of getting a couple details backwards. The nagging doubt crescendoed until I witnessed the least expected, but most sublimely familiar scene of the day–something that any Primary graduate will have seen thousands of times–a kindly helper to whisper in your ear.