A few friends of mine — Tracy McKay, Tarik LaCour, Jana Riess, and myself — had an informal email roundtable discussion about the preparation we offer our members before they go to the temple. Jana is an author and editor, posting at the Religion News Service and tweeting the Bible. Tarik is a student of philosophy, history and religion, with a personal blog here. We talked about three questions. This is the first one: What would you say to your younger self as you were about to go through the temple for the first time?
Tracy: I was 34 when I went through for the first time. I had been through the church’s Temple Prep class probably 3 times, and people had been trying to get me to go through for several years- I joined when I was 29. I just wasn’t ready for such a massive unknown commitment- and that was a huge stumbling block to me. Having people give vague testimonies about how special it was or how spiritual really didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t want to look at or read any of the websites that detailed the temple, so I relied on my friends.
First, I would tell myself that the Temple Prep class and the booklet they encourage you to read are utterly useless to actually prepare you, so stop hoping for them to give any answers. Because we’ve veiled the temple in so much secrecy, people are afraid to talk about the things they CAN talk about. There are actually only a few very specific things we can’t discuss outside the temple.
I would tell myself to find some trusted friends and have a sit down with them, and go over the actual nuts and bolts of what to expect. A lot of discomfort comes from the unknown- where am I going now? What happens next? Why are they doing that? You surrender a lot of control when you go in the temple, and while they do give you a place to leave, there is tremendous pressure on a person to conform. I would hope someone would tell me the nature, if not the specifics, of what I would be asked to promise. To this day, I am uncomfortable and find it unfair that we place people in a situation where they are asked to make promises that have eternal consequences without giving them any advance notice of what that entails. It’s a serious thing, and I experienced it as a breach of trust that I wasn’t told. I cannot fathom anywhere else that would be acceptable.
I would tell myself not to panic. I would counsel myself not to get too hung up on what things mean to other people, and to try and rely more on my own relationship with God to suss out what and how those things apply to me. I would encourage patience, and I would also tell myself that it really is OK if I don’t like everything about it, that I don’t have to. It’s not a reflection of my value or my faith if I don’t experience the Temple the same way many other people do.
Steve: I followed the program from the start, and went through the temple when I was about to serve my mission at age 19. Here’s what I would have told myself. Whether my young self would believe me is an entirely different matter! I have never been good at taking advice.
1. Don’t get so wound up. Don’t pretend to be so confident, like you know everything. You don’t have to memorize everything. It’s good to pay attention, but don’t let intense focus ruin your opportunity to step back and get a little peace and tranquility. You’re reading the scriptures now, which is good, but more important is for you to get centered with Jesus Christ and to figure out what you are about. Rules, processes and ceremonies won’t help you with that. The temple is a big thing, but it is not The Big Thing. That’s the atonement, which you haven’t really figured out yet. The temple won’t figure it out for you. Repentance and a lot of suffering will do it. Start now.
2. Don’t expect this to answer all your big cosmic questions about God. No, you won’t find the hidden interpretations to the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham. You’ll feel the Spirit, but you will not see God and you will not finally resolve every Gospel question you ever had. Expect instead to see an odd 19th century roadshow about the creation, which we’ve filmed now, that brings in some elements of Masonic rites. Expect to be asked (commanded!) to live each major principle of the gospel, including total consecration. Expect this whole thing to be a big metaphor, but not necessarily as mystically complex as everyone makes it out to be. Expect to wear ceremonial robes and clothing that doesn’t fit well, and to be sitting in a large congregation of people who are also wearing ill-fitting robes and clothing. Expect it all to feel a little weird, because we don’t have this sort of thing elsewhere in our religion.
3. Think about the mercy of God, how He has provided a savior for you. Think about how being gathered in the temple with your family shows that they want to be with you forever. Think about how awkward it is to put on those weird robes and clothing and wear them in front of others, and then think about how awkward it is to change yourself, to wear your religion on your sleeve (literally!) in front of others. Don’t be afraid of those awkward things; realize they are part of what the temple is trying to teach you.
4. The first part of the temple, the initiatory, will seem especially strange: you will be washed and anointed (symbolically, don’t worry). But that strange ceremony will become, with time, one of your favorite things. At the same time,some of the parts you like right away will fade over time. That’s the nature of things.
5. Be sure to spend as much time in the Celestial Room as you want, and don’t let any busybody worker push you out early.
Tracy, you nailed it when you talk about the weirdness in which covenants are presented in the temple. The narrator does not ask us if we promise. We are told that we each promise, then we bow our heads and say yes. That is a very difficult, very forceful approach that does not mesh at all with how we do things anywhere else. At various points in my life I’ve tried to come up with explanations and reasons why it is so different in the temple, but all I have are theories, really. The fact of it is that it is brusque and feels really intrusive. I remember being really surprised by that part.
Jana: I was in my early 30s when I went through the temple for the first time, and had been a member for about ten years. One of the things I did right was to have three of my closest LDS friends go with me through the endowment. One served as my escort, and the other two came along for moral support. It was like being flanked by love. I was so glad I wasn’t going that first time with people from my ward because I might have been tempted to put on a brave face in front of them. It would have felt like some kind of performance if I hadn’t been with people I absolutely trusted to see me vulnerable.
My temple preparation class did not prepare me for the temple. I knew at the time that just reading a few scriptures about temples in ancient Israel was not going to be adequate preparation, so I read the entire LDS temple ceremony online beforehand. This was helpful, but not as helpful as I thought it would be only because the actual temple experience is so much more than text. Knowing the script and what would be covered was a start, but the temple is a full-body experience of the kind that we just don’t have elsewhere in Mormonism. What you wear, how you move your body, what the lighting in the room will be, etc., are as important when you are in the temple as the actual text. And for a people who have none of that in our regular worship experiences (we even sing our hymns sitting down!), the sensory nature of the temple can be surprising.
For me the anointing experience was absolutely beautiful. To be anointed by a woman who looked me in the eye and pronounced powerful and unapologetic words of blessing was, to me, one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had of glimpsing a future in the Church when men and women serve God equally. The endowment, however, was very difficult for me. I wish someone in my temple preparation class had thought to tell me, for example, that I would have someone there at the end of the endowment to prompt me and give me all the words and symbols I would have to reproduce at the veil. No one ever told me this, so I spent the endowment in a state of high anxiety that I would never be able to remember all of it. It was like that recurring nightmare where you find yourself having to take a final exam in a class you were never registered for. (Surely I’m not the only one who still has that dream . . .?) Anyway, if someone had simply reassured me beforehand that I would not be responsible for memorizing all of this in one shot I would have been able to relax more and simply take it in.
I worry that Mormons’ concern with keeping covenants sacred and not discussing the temple outside the temple itself has left us ill-prepared to truly understand it. Most of the endowment ceremony is intended to be symbolic, but we inhabit a religion that is proud of its “plain” and straightforward teachings, so we are apt to literalize something that is intended to point, as the best symbols do, toward something else. One of my friends who went through the temple with me that first time told me how this hit home to her after she attended a temple session with live actors many years after going to the temple for the first time. Seeing “Adam” and “Eve” played by an actual couple who could have been her grandparents reinforced for her the ways that we are all stand-ins for Adam and Eve, and caused her to reflect on what that means for her choices. Having the temple film saves time and is a logistical improvement over the old way of having live actors, but on the other hand it makes us one step removed from the passion play, as it were, and does not challenge us to interpret the temple in more valuable, symbolic ways.
Steve: Jana, I agree with you about the live acting. I’m of the opinion that the Endowment is ill-suited to being a film, despite it being a drama. It is meant to be intimate, personal and small. We are meant to be actors, not viewers. That is partly why, I think, that the gap between the presentation and our participation feels so jarring — we get lulled into thinking that we’re watching a movie, then all of a sudden we’re asked to stand up and act for ourselves. This is also why having the text beforehand is actually not a very helpful thing — the temple is an experiential thing, not a script.
Tracy: Jana, like you, I went with friends and didn’t tell my ward. I couldn’t bear the idea of all these people watching me and gauging my reaction- not that they would have been unkind- I had a terrific ward. I wish now I had done what you did and read what to expect- even though it wouldn’t have changed anything in the grand scheme, it would have given me time to consider the promises before I acquiesced.
Interesting thoughts from both of you on the live endowment v. the film. This summer, the night before Jon and I were sealed, we did a live endowment in SLC. It was my first time, and I was really freaked out. I suspect it was a combination of stress, the loss of David only a few days prior, getting sealed the next day, being in a different time zone, new family, etc… but I really had a hard time feeling anything good. Maybe it’s the nature of a giant temple, but I really didn’t like the preparatory time in SLC- Jon and I were immediately separated on entrance, and didn’t see each other again until the Sealing Room. It didn’t feel at all like something we did together. I did love the murals and the moving from one room to another, and there was symbolism in the live endowment you don’t get in the film. I hope I can to it again and not feel so disjointed.
I agree whole-heartedly about the Initiatory. It was and remains my very favorite part of the temple. I tend to avoid Endowment sessions, but I will always go for an Initiatory. The world and ritual are a true balm (and feel so at odds with the Endowment).
It’s actually easier for me think of what to say to my kids, if they decide to go, than it is to imagine myself.
I would tell them to focus on symbolism. I would probably have them read some classic books on mythos and archetypes. I’d would talk to them about *everything* and tell them what to expect at every juncture. Before our sealing in July, I got our robes out and let them look at them at home- we didn’t put them on, but we let the kids all see them, and we talked about the symbolism (not the specifics of the markings, but in general). I want them to have as much information as they want before making such a monumental move. I feel like we really shortchange people by keeping it so secret. I wonder if maybe it’s easier if your whole family is Mormon and it’s just something you do? I don’t really know.
Tarik: When I went through the temple, I was 19 years old and had just received a mission call to the Alabama Birmingham Mission. I had read several books about the temple, and prepared for it in academic way, which I do for most things.
What I would have told my 19 year old self is twofold. First, the temple is a spiritual education, not an academic one. I needed to focus on being intune with my spiritual side rather than just my analytic side. I would have prayed more fervently and intently, something I still struggle with.
Also, I would have worked to been more worthy, as I suffered from bad habits then (and still do) that crippled my spirituality. I also would would have insisted on seeing it live first, I don’t loke the videos. I am currently a Salt Lake Temple worker, and can’t imagine the temple as anything else.
Steve: Tarik, why don’t you like the videos?
Tarik: The videos make God and Jesus appear like the Gods of Greek polytheism; untouchable white men with beards who are nothing like humans. The live session reminds us that God is like us because he was once one of us.
Tracy: What is the role for analytic/academic preparation for the temple? Seems like this would vary, person to person. Some folks don’t need/want to analyze things and take simpler approaches. That’s great if it works for you, and in some places, it does for me, too. But the temple is not one of those places. As Jana said- the temple *needs* to understood from a symbolic perspective, and must be contemplated and studied. But we can’t do that–or at least, we’re not supposed to, outside of the temple. Makes it kind of hard to talk about with other people, and I do think we’ve been somewhat crippled by our inability to have smart and thoughtful interactions with others about the symbols and meanings. We each have to reinvent the wheel.
Frankly, one of the pinnacle spiritual moments in my life was being in the CR in Nauvoo with so many of my friends. I imagine this is what it feels like to be in a big Mormon family? Being able to talk with Cynthia and Kris in Nauvoo is impossible to top. I wish there was a way to tread respectfully and talk about some of the ceremony outside of the walls.