Two years ago I went through the temple with certain expectations about what to find in that space. The temple, I had learned, was a perfect space: there, I could expect an unadulterated, divine ritual far more perfect than anything else within our church. What we performed in the temple was the most important work we could do. What we learned there would give us “truth,” power, and knowledge. Being a generally skeptical person, I was not surprised when what I experienced there did not, in my mind, meet these standards or personally transform me. I was surprised with how disappointed – perhaps even betrayed – I felt when they did not. I did not realize how invested I was in the expectations that so many youth leaders had created for me about the space that I had no means of experiencing except through their lessons.
This Sunday, the Young Women’s president announced that her organization would focus on encouraging young women to attend the temple. (I forget her exact words.) While I appreciate this goal, and do believe in the importance of the temple, I want to suggest that it is vital that when we encourage our youth to look forward to the temple that we provide realistic frameworks in which they can understand how they might integrate what happens in the temple into their larger lives.
Too often, I believe, we focus exclusively on temple attendance as an end-goal and value what we do in the temple as being in and of itself our most important work. Similarly, we paint the temple ritual in idealized terms: we tend to see in it perfection and completeness, despite the fact that it is clearly transmited through often dated media forms and has been revised before and doubtlessly will be again. As a consequence of this approach to the temple, I firmly believe that we both leave members vastly unprepared for what they encounter in temple and with little support as they might question or struggle with what they encounter. Because we fetishize the temple as a perfect space, its failure to seem that can lead members to deeply question their testimony.
Rather than viewing the temple as an end, I now believe that we would better prepare people to enter and thrive within the temple if we viewed it as a launching pad from which to embark on the rest of our lives. Although I was initially disappointed in the temple, I now look upon the temple as a beginning and not an end. The experiences in the temple are neither directed towards perfect people or are in themselves complete and perfect rituals. Rather, they are signposts that help us progress. When I go to the temple, I no longer expect to find perfection. Instead, I ask myself how the messages in the temple might aid me in living the rest of my life here and now.
But coming to peace with my initial experience of the temple has been a long spiritual struggle – one that needlessly marred precious experiences like my wedding ceremony that I wish I could have back now that I feel more at peace about what happened. Perhaps not everyone struggles with the temple. But I think simple changes in the expectations we set for our youth about the temple could help many people see it as a blessing in their lives far sooner.