Roundtable: Temple Prep, Part I

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.


  1. .

    Did you see Lynnette’s post on this today?

  2. Yes — I think it’s required reading in this context. Thanks for linking to it.

  3. This is great. Thank you!

  4. Theric, thanks so much for the link. I think that the silence/secrecy of the temple hits women the hardest, as some things in the temple don’t seem to match what we’ve been taught at church about our relationship to God, etc.

  5. I’m resonating with Tracy’s comment about not seeing her husband through the whole endowment session. I hate, HATE it when I get pressured to consider going to the temple “a date”. We spend the whole evening separated until we get to the celestial room at the very end, and it’s a horribly poor substitute for spending quality time together, you know, communicating and being in close physical proximity and whatnot. Despite the rhetoric that promotes going to the temple in groups, for me it’s a pretty isolating experience. I’m not inclined to visit and gab anyway, but it’s still weird to be surrounded by people and sharing an experience with them but not being able to do much to acknowledge each other during the whole thing, another way the endowment is a stark contrast to other, more social, temple ordinances

  6. I agree with Tracy that one of the best ways to prepare is to talk to someone close to you (family, friend) who’s been through the temple and is trying to respect and understand its sacredness. They will realize what they can tell you (which is, like she pointed out, more than we commonly do talk about) and do all they can to help you understand what you’re going to be doing and how you can prepare to have a good experience in the temple. The temple prep manual is easily available to everyone in the world so it’s probably deliberate that it doesn’t have details. People who are just idly curious don’t need the same level of detail that someone sincerely preparing to go to the temple does.

  7. Left Field says:

    I like what has been said about the live session. I think it’s difficult to understand what’s happening unless you understand that every bit of the ceremony, including what’s in the film, is a continuous drama in which you are an actor. You’re not just watching a film. You’re an actor in the film, in the garden with Adam and Eve and others. You’re an actor in the endowment room with Adam and Eve and others. If we don’t think of it as all one stage, I think we’re missing the fundamental message. That’s something I would emphasize in temple prep. Some temple-goers seem to think the film is some sort of literal documentary of historical events. It’s a ritual in which the entire posterity of Eve and Adam fall and are redeemed in parallel with our first parents.

    If I were directing the temple film, I would have Peter in the film approach the alter while Peter in the endowment room approaches his alter as the film fades out. Then do the same thing in reverse as the ceremony moves back to the film. I think that would make for a more seamless ritual. But for some reason, nobody consulted me.

  8. I’ve taught temple prep for years in various wards. I find that discussing the idea of rituals that we are familiar with (i.e. baptism & sacrament) and then expanding on it has been very helpful. I found the most recent manual is a bit more helpful. The old manual was nothing but a glorified Gospel Essentials manual and had little to do with the temple at all. My emphasis, in part, is based on my young experience which was more traditional, right before my mission. In those days (late 1970s) the endowment was different, especially the initiatory. My study of the Old Testament, particularly covenants (and covenant-making), has made me understand all the elements of the ritual a lot better. The class I felt closest to was some young soldiers we took through before a deployment to the Kuwait War.

  9. trevorprice924 says:

    I feel conflicted about whether people should know ask the details beforehand. One the one side, I agree it’s borderline unconscionable to present the covenant making process in such a high pressure, no-advance-warning situation. Also, I think telling people some basics is very helpful (it’s a 19th century roadshow mixed with masonic elements that gets modified from time to time, and all participants are at all times full actors in the roles of Adam/Eve, etc.). And DEFINITELY make it clear that first timers shouldn’t worry about memorizing things.

    At the same time, going in having read the entirety of the script, seen the robes, etc. seems like it could remove certain transcendent elements somehow.

  10. I would warn myself to pee before the endowment ceremony.

  11. KF — man, yeah.

  12. I really, really have a problem with the fact that people aren’t told what covenants they are going to make beforehand. Obviously the parts that are sworn not to reveal should not be revealed ahead of time, but apart from that people should know exactly what they are going to be expected to promise. It isn’t fair to have the one moment where you can back out be well before you have any idea what you’re covenanting. Once you pass that point, you really don’t have a choice but to go through with it and accede mere seconds after you’re told what you are covenanting to do. I was assured by my mother beforehand that none of the covenants would surprise me. That was a lie. If I’d known what the covenants were ahead of time, I’d never have gone through with it.

  13. I would warn myself that it would be sensory overload in some ways. With all the competing smells of women’s perfume in close quarters, mixed with tight ties under my chin as well as the veiling, I get exceedingly claustrophobic at various moments and am prone to intense coughing fits. I’ve learned to always have mints in my pockets to help center my breathing and to hold the veil out away when possible to give myself personal space. My focus during those stuffy parts is to just breathe.

  14. The only bit of decent advice I got came from the temple president, after initiatory but before the endowment ceremony: “There’s a short test at the end of the endowment. Don’t worry, this is the temple, no one fails the test here.”

    Otherwise, I was woefully unprepared for the mechanics of the endowment. No one told me about robes, the prayer circle, etc. The entire time I kept asking myself if this was really the same church I had joined 2 years earlier, and I wondered why people always talked about what a great/peaceful experience it was. I was glad when it was over.

    When close friends of mine are about to go to the temple, I sit them down for a very detailed discussion. I don’t discuss the very specific things we covenant not to discuss, but other than that I put it all on the table. I tell them it’s okay if it seems weird, or if they don’t like it at first, that with time much of it begins to make more sense.

  15. I have always been very grateful to my Stake President who went through the endowment with me in his office. He went over the covenants and asked me to listen for certain things. He assured me that I couldn’t do anything wrong because the workers were there to help every step of the way. So amazingly helpful.

    My sister and her husband were receiving their endowment the same day and had a very different experience as all they had was the sad temple prep class circa 1980’s and their Bishop and SP only did the standard form interview questions.

    However they were both leap years better prepared their our parents who received no class of any kind. Were simply asked the standard recommend questions and sent on their way. They showed up at the temple with me in tow, dropped me off in the nursery and then found out that they needed special clothing – some they could rent but they needed their own garments. They had no idea what garments were. They were sent off to the distribution center to shop and return for a later session. Amazingly stressful day for them – and a very long day in the nursery for me :-)

    Seems we could do so much better in preparing those who are truly intending to attend the temple. Once you’re to the point of having your recommend interview and a Bishop and SP should have more to teach and say to prepare those attending for the very first time.

  16. Ebenezer Robinson says:

    This is such a useful and necessary conversation. It ought to be part of any temple prep discussion. I’m older than the rest of you, and my experience goes farther back, to when the initiatory ordinances were a routine part of the endowment and all endowments were presented by live actors. While I recognize the time benefits of separating initiatories out, it has the effect of truncating the endowment, by separating the blessings we are given from the commitments we are required to make. At the time of my first temple experience, it was a seamless whole, and still is, I guess, when one goes through the first time, but it disappears on repeat visits.

    I agree with some of you about the benefits of the live actors. I always made it a point, when taking my kids to the MTC, to make time for a session at the SLC temple. I think it’s useful to see real human beings presenting the story; body language and unscripted interactions, especially between Adam and Eve, enrich the experience. I also agree with Terry that the current temple prep manual is a decided improvement over the previous ones.

  17. A friend I looked up to fit his endowment shortly before me. He simply said “it was weird” which was more helpful than any class. Looking at the old testament manual with Moses ordaining Aaron and all the levites in the back ground helped since a teacher pointedly said “remember those robes”.
    I only regret his high my expectations were. I thought after making those promises everything would change. Now I know life doesn’t work that way. I was still me. Instead I felt like a miserable failure for not suddenly being an amazing priesthood holder who could call fire down from heaven and chatted with angels every afternoon at 3.
    I think in a way out was good training for the resurrection.

    Since then I have had other issues arise, but I think that would have been sufficient at the time.

  18. the other Marie says:

    I was relatively well prepared for the ritual stuff because while there was no open discussion about the specifics, I had seen my parents’ robes in the laundry and on deceased family members in their caskets and my mom’s interest in Old Testament rituals and Mormonism/Masonry had made me perhaps better educated than most first-time temple patrons. I also had listened to a taped Truman Madsen lecture on the temple that my mom had given me a few weeks beforehand, which included a story told by David O. McKay to a meeting of stake presidents. He told them that his niece had been initiated into a sorority and had received her endowments in the same week. She bluntly confessed that she’d thought the sorority initiation was more meaningful. After Pres. McKay’s audience of church leaders gasped disapprovingly, he said to them, “Brothers and sisters, she was disappointed in the temple. Brothers and sisters, I was disappointed in the temple. And so were you.”

    I think the idea that I was allowed to be disappointed (a sort of antidote for all the gushing about the temple I’d heard in church over the years) brought my expectations to a healthier level, and I only found myself disappointed about a couple of things–overall it was a very positive experience. But if I hadn’t felt it was okay to feel some disappointment, I might have started questioning whether I was as good as everyone else who claimed to love everything about the temple. And as I had learned beforehand that temple rituals have changed a lot over time and so likely would change again, I felt comforted that things that bothered me quite possibly were just wrinkles that had not yet been ironed out or philosophies of men that had not yet been purged.

  19. Clark Goble says:

    While it’s depend upon the background of the people involved, I’ve long thought some of Eliadi’s short popular works are fantastic for situating people to the very, very different cultural views of the temple. While there’s clearly a lot of 19th century aspects to the temple there really is much more of an ancient mindset that’s pretty alien to our early 21st century conceptions and presuppositions. I like The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return. He’s being more general than LDS but it’s helpful to get a change in perception. Images and Symbols is good too. Now I wouldn’t push these too far. I have trouble with a lot of Eliade’s structuralism. Plus they’re somewhat dated academically. But for just getting people to consider a different way of thinking they’re fantastic and written at a level any freshman college student could handle.

    I’d also give people a good overview of ancient temples. Yes our temples are pretty different and much more tied to masonry than ancient Aaronic rites. But there is a lot of overlap still. Plus compared to what the Jews were doing prior to the destruction of the temple by the Romans our temple ceremonies seem pretty mundane.

    I’d have a discussion of expectations. Not everyone has a great experience. It can be overwhelming for some. I think ones initial participation should be more about feeling than thinking. Also really emphasize the “out of time” part. This is largely from an alien culture with very different expectations and behaviors than our own. Tell people before they go through it not to read too much into the symbols as governing every aspect of our society. Society changes and while the temple has changed along with it, it tends to lag somewhat. Think of it in someways as participating in the sacred rites of a different culture. Rather than try to see how their culture is bad, try and see how this can be so profoundly meaningful for them. (I think Eliade is somewhat good in this regard, but again getting people to move out of their own cultural expectations is important)

    Along with preparing for negative experiences I think preparing for positive ones is important too. Probably we already do a better job of that. But I think the feeling of deja vu is important to prepare people for. While not everyone will agree I think there’s a certain lowering of the veil if we prepare. We may have flashes of our prior life even if only at the level of “this feels familiar.”

  20. Dear 19 year old me: Take a deep breath and relax. People’s experiences are certainly a mixed bag but the consensus is that most like the initiatory. Keep in mind people have been doing the initiatory for thousands of years.

    A great place to start learning about the symbolism IN the temple is to understand some of the symbolism ON the temple. Those upside down five pointed stars have a surprisingly relevant explanation

    Turns out they have something to do with women, with the woman being The Church of God. Those pentagrams are quite old, their usage going all the way back to the Pythagoreans (neoplatonism and geometry are going to be recurring themes). Definitely read about the Orphic worshippers and how the Pythagoreans had priestesses, one of whom probably taught Pythagoras himself.

    Turns out lots of people engaged in ritual as it pertained to esoteric knowledge (which today might sound exclusionary as per Lynette). Mystery schools have a long history, and make sure not to miss the Eleusinian Mysteries.

    Sounds convoluted? Well, let’s work backwards. Future Steve Evans mentions Masonic rites. You’ll do no better than to stop by the Salt Lake Masonic Lodge on South Temple in early May when for one day a year they host an open house. Walk thru their temple, look at all of the themed rooms including those with altars or Egyptian motifs and ask the tour guide any question you like. They’re happy to answer, and a fun question is always “Why weren’t Mormons allowed to be Masons for so long?” While you’re on a walking tour of Salt Lake, stop by Takashi for sushi on Market Street. Right next to it is a building which used to house another fraternal organization, with lots of shared rituals and symbolism.

    Keep walking towards the 4th south entrance to I-15 and look for the big red brick building with the Eagle on it. Yep, more fraternal organizations with their own symbolism. Bonus, future blog posts complaining about mother’s day talks can be blamed on these people.

    You can’t talk about Masonic rites without talking about the Rosicrucians.

    Track someone down who can tell you about the Rosicrucians’ view of The Latter Days

    Oh, one more thing… Utopia literature especially the Adam and Eve part.

  21. Other Marie, that is a really solid perspective.

  22. My experience was much like those who go on missions at 19. I felt processed, but also surprised, remembering a primary teacher saying to me as a child that there were no symbols in the LDS church.

    When time came around as a father to take my two sons through, I told them everything except for signs and tokens. I remember to this day, my younger son, when queried by the Temple president if my son had any questions, saying, “No, my dad has covered everything.” Sorry for this prideful moment.

    I now work at the temple and though we are directed not to expound at length about the temple “process” to patrons, I certainly see saints coming through at various stages of preparation. I am concerned about this as local church leaders and parents could and should do a lot more in explaining not only the blessing but especially the covenants to be made.

    One last thing, I have never experienced a live endowment session and am planning to do so, but I think the new films are finally heading in the right direction. I think they need to go further and make the films in every ethnicity possible thus reinforcing what has been said in this thread earlier, that the symbolism of the creation story is for the whole human family.

  23. One more piece of outside symbolism to help with inside symbolism and trying to understand the supposed need for secrecy. The all seeing eye.

    Definitely listen to Steven Peck and Doug Fabrizio and pay special attention to the Vietnam story starting at the 46 minute mark. The infection gets diagnosed by an ophthalmologist and an older one at that.

    Ophthalmologists can trace their heritage to the Occulists who out of necessity had to practice their beginning forays into science with extraordinary secrecy. Try and be thankful (most) scientists don’t have to practice this way today.

  24. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff while I can appreciate a lot of that context, I’m not sure the typical member could put it to much use. They wouldn’t know how to pick and choose what’s relevant. I think those sorts of parallels are of interest to historians and enthusiasts typically well after their endowment.

    While it doesn’t go into depth on these issues I think Brown’s Symbols in Stone is perhaps a bit better as an introduction to a lot of this symbolism while avoiding being overwhelming. It doesn’t get into the nitty gritty and typically avoids the Renaissance and esoteric genealogy of how these were seen in the 19th and 20th century. However that’s a plus IMO when preparing people for the temple.

  25. Clark Goble says:

    To add, I might anticipate some saying, well isn’t Eliade worse? But I don’t recommend him for a way to interpret specific symbolism but rather to just show a way the ancients across the middle east thought differently about the world. It’s more a way to think about things differently. If you just throw symbols and people they typically get overwhelmed but more importantly they think of symbols the way contemporary Americans tend to do. That’s just alien to the context of the Temple thinking. The idea is to help people step outside their cultural context a little. Not because the ancient or even 19th century contexts are better. I don’t think they are. But because it’s easy to misunderstand these somewhat alien cultures without getting into a different fashion of thinking.

  26. Clark, I can’t get past the introduction to Symbols in Stone. Taking Bruce R. McConkie at this word (difficult for me since he was blatantly wrong about so many things) , he states “The purpose of the Lord in using symbolism is both to reveal and *conceal* the doctrines of his kingdom”. In my opinion, that’s terrible pedagogy if such an important ritual is meant to deliberately confuse. Tracy made the recommendation : “I would tell them to focus on symbolism. I would probably have them read some classic books on mythos and archetypes”. And that’s why I linked the following:

    …. which states very clearly at the bottom: “The ancient mystery schools were a subject of fascination for 19th and early-20th century German and French classical scholars. This literature had an enormous influence on European culture in the late 19th century. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung borrowed metaphors from this literature to reframe his theories and the charismatic movement based on them.”

    If you’re going to study symbolism, mythos, and archetypes, you’re inevitably going to run into Jung, who is borrowing metaphors from this tradition.

    I’m a fan of symbols, but so many symbols have been recycled, reused, reinterpreted, and misunderstood that it’s nearly impossible to know what is what. That so many elements of the temple ceremony come from so many different places makes it extraordinarily difficult to sort out.

    Most people are baffled by the need for secrecy not realizing that these rituals were being practiced during times when their adherents were in very real danger from the powers that be (Catholics, governments, competing ideologies, and in our time the federal government as it pertained to polygamy). We live in a very different world and that type of secrecy is no longer needed. So much pain and confusion could be alleviated in that no longer necessary aspect were removed and people could openly talk about the even more confusing aspect:

    High pressure techniques used to make covenants almost immediately with no idea of what they might be before hand.

  27. Our temple prep teacher essentially rewrote the manual and came up with her own outline, which she discussed at length with the bishop until they were both happy with it. We covered a lot in class, and I do mean a lot, although nothing that couldn’t be said. I’ve since come to the conclusion there’s not a lot we can’t say, there are just a lot of people we can’t say it to. Anyway, there were no surprises in the process, although as other people have said, I still didn’t know what the experience was going to actually be like. I definitely appreciated the extras she gave us and wish other people could have that thorough prepping.

  28. I would have emphasized to myself that the endowment is an ordinance. Like other ordinances of the gospel, such as baptism, it’s ritualistic and thus will seem a little out of place since that is such a small part of our worship.

    I would have explained the significance of the punishment for the fall (Genesis 3). Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden and then God places Cherubim to guard the way back. If they were incapable of traveling back, however, it would not have been necessary to place guards. Therefore you can infer that it was possible for Adam and Eve travel to the Tree of Life – back into the presence of God. Likewise, the righteous are not merely whisked away to the celestial kingdom. We have to travel (in some manner) there and must pass these guards “keeping the way”. Thus the purpose of the endowment is to receive the signs, tokens, and keywords that will “enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels”.

  29. I assume CR in Nauvoo means the Celestial Room in the Nauvoo Temple? Never seen that abbreviation for the Celestial Room before. Is that a common abbreviation? Should I know who Cynthia and Kris are that Tracy referred to? Sounds like I should get to know them because talking to them sounds like a good time! :)

  30. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff, it’s not a perfect book but the reveal/conceal idea is right in Jesus’ explanation in Matt 13. I think the temple is an example of that. Some meanings can be gleaned from history (ancient world, masonry, kabbalism, hermetic speculation) but which to discard and which are significant still requires revelation. And some just can’t be found historically.

    While McConkie had problems in some areas, I think he had a deep and keen eye for the meaning of the temple. His Doctrinal New Testament Commentary isn’t great as a NT commentary. But there are brilliant sections about the temple where he, like Nibley often did, talks about the meaning without people necessarily realizing that’s what he’s doing.

  31. Thank you for this post and the ensuing comments. I first went to the temple the night before my wedding 46 years ago without any preparation whatsoever. My parents were jack Mormons, my bishop and stake president told me nothing about what to expect, and I’d never heard of a temple prep class. The experience for me was nerve wracking, overwhelming, weird in the extreme, and entirely incomprehensible. Had I not had a testimony of God, the Savior, and the Plan of Salvation, I might never have gone back.

  32. Completely agree the temple should be live. There is an added component of the film detracting from the experience in that we are all “sophisticated” movie watchers. Special effects, the score, polished actors, etc. all act to hide the true meaning in the endowment. I think this is less true for the older generation who see the temple video more pragmatically. But it’s absolutist terrible metaphorically.

  33. I was in the temple yesterday wondering about all the symbolism and strange language in the Endowment, the unlikely and confusing juxtapositions of characters, story line, and dialogue. Then I went into the Celestial room and gawked at the neo-corinthian pillars, the neo-gothic stained glass windows, the sculpted carpet, the crystal chandelier, the pseudo-victorian furniture, and said to myself “I’m in a strange fun-house of unreality. Nothing makes sense. I am through the looking glass with Alice.”

    Even the films, a normally literalistic medium, portray unreality in a realistic way—(or reality in an an unrealistic way?) Does God really sit on a throne set atop steps of gold? Did Lucifer really wear an apron? Did ministers really preach religion to Adam and Eve? Of course not—to all three. And yet there they are. What kind of strange fantasy movie are we watching?

    Then I realized that the unreality was exactly the point. The temple is a place apart from the world, not only the material, physical world, but the intellectual world as well. Like a Zen koan, everything in the temple is meant to shock us out of our rational mindset. We are no longer in linear time, but mythic time— surrounded by symbolism where we can’t be sure what is real. The representative art that sometimes hangs along the hallway walls and in the non-ritual areas of the temple tries to create a certain literalist mindset, I suppose, but once in the ritual rooms, the paintings of Christ and the prophets are gone and only symbol remains. To the extent that a participant can give up the obsession of trying to make sense of everything, or looking for the deeper meaning in every phrase and gesture, the effect can be quite wonderful.

  34. I don’t think the unreality is deliberate.

  35. Steve Evans,
    I’m sure you’re right. I am ignoring for the moment the actual origin and evolution of the ceremony. This is just the way I am making sense of it now. Or rather, the way I’m trying not to.

  36. Left Field says:

    I think the “unreality” is most certainly deliberate. Our 19th century forebears would be stunned that we see any of the endowment as history or reality. It is by intention 100% ritual. If we’re confused about what Peter, James, and John are doing in the garden, why 21st century Mormons are in the garden with them, or how a Protestant minister might have ended up there, then we’re forgetting that the whole drama from beginning to end is ritual.

  37. Left Field says:

    To continue the thought: Some years ago, I somehow ended up on an exMormon website. One of the commenters said that the road to leaving the church began in the temple when he realized that Adam and Eve were portrayed as hearing of the “Melchizedek Priesthood” long before Melchizedek would have lived.

    Of course Adam and Eve had no idea who Melchizedek was, and wouldn’t have used that name. The endowment isn’t “What Really Happened in the Garden.” It’s a ritual for 19th to 21st century Mormons who most certainly know who Melchizedek was and what the Melchizedek Priesthood is.

  38. I love the idea of seeing the temple ceremony as ritual rather than reality and viewing that ritual as abstract art. I’m left though with the question that pops up regularly whenever this topic comes up: What about the covenants? Are those also just ritual or just a piece of art? I can’t get past that question and I’m not sure what to do with the covenants on their own.

  39. With all due apologies to Steve Evans, I will bow out of this conversation after this last comment. I suspect this was meant to be a multi part series with dialogue between the authors and commenters.

    I am quite sympathetic to the plight of those trying to construct a cosmology with only an 1840’s understanding. Joseph Smith was reported to say ” “Brother Brigham, this is not arranged perfectly; however we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed. I wish you to take this matter in hand: organize and systematize all these ceremonies”.

    Regardless of the original intent, it’s quite clear that many aspects of the creation story are taken literally today which in turn have profound theological and practical implications. A symbolic Garden of Eden and symbolic Adam and Eve? Not according to President Nelson and certainly not according to Bruce R. McConkie. In his radio west interview, Stephen Peck hopes that students are not placed in a situation of feeling that they must exclusively choose between their religion or science. A quick read of Mormon Doctrine’s “Science and Religion” entry shows how deeply this false dichotomy has become ingrained, which is why I will politely but vehemently disagree with Clark. McConkie is simply awful. Nibley is in many respects worse. It may be of some historical value to appreciate how the Egyptians thought of astronomy for some sense of perspective, it is quite another to think that anything derived from their observations has implications for our own spirituality.

    I also suspect that the scriptural description and temple depiction of the plurality of gods is not supposed to be symbolic. This is certainly Steve Fleming’s story to tell, but if these ideas were being floated by Benjamin Franklin, who is referencing Isaac Newton then by extension their histories become important for our theology.

    We live in a spectacular age of discovery, one where many deep mysteries have been unravelled. That knowledge is meant for everyone with the simplest explanation possible in the most accessible terms. When these discoveries are misappropriated, misinterpreted, and then used to define a subservient and inferior role of women, it becomes our responsibility to recognize that Joseph’s exhortation to Brigham was never fully carried out. The ceremonies, incomplete as they are, still need to be fixed.

  40. Left Field, many early church leaders took the Endowment narrative as actual history. I’m fairly certain some do today. Your assertion that they would be stunned is not correct.

  41. Left Field says:

    Steve, I wasn’t aware that early church leaders understood the endowment as literal history, but if there is evidence of it, I’m willing to be enlightened. I am certainly curious how they imagined modern preachers to have been literally present in the garden, to say nothing of the whole of humanity individually as the posterity of Eve and Adam. Or that we all fell with Adam and Eve, were instructed in the knowledge and covenants needed to return, and that we passed through the veil back into the presence of God, all before any of us were born in mortality. If we all already literally fell and were historically redeemed, then what are we doing here now back in the telestial world?

    RT, I would have to take exception to the idea of “just” ritual. The covenants are covenants and we make them during the course of a ritual, just as we make baptismal or marriage covenants during the course of a ritual. I would say that the endowment is ritual in all its glory, and not “just” history.

    It seems to me that viewing the endowment as a literal depiction of history diminishes it relative to a ritual endowment. If it’s ritual, then we are actually making those covenants in the here and now in a temple. If it’s mere history, then we’re only reenacting covenants that we are alleged to have made ages ago in the garden, or after we were expelled into the lone and dreary world.

    A further problem with seeing the endowment as history is the changing text. Which dialogue historically took place in the garden? Is it the dialogue used in the current endowment, or the one depicted when I was endowed? Or was it the dialogue in the 19th century ceremony? What covenants did Adam and Eve make historically? The ones depicted now, or some others from past versions of the endowment? When Adam and Eve passed through the veil, did they use the current veil ceremony, or the pre-1990s version?

  42. Clark Goble says:

    Steve, out of curiosity which leaders are you referring to? Brigham Young gave several sermons that much of it was figurative? I know some took the claimed origins of masonry literally but that seems a different issue.

    BTW – I agree that I wish more people were able to attend live sessions. Fortunately I took my endowments in Alberta when the temple there was still live. (It’s now film although unlike other renovated temples you still move between rooms) If you haven’t attended a live session make a trip to SLC. It’s well worth it.

    Jeff, the endowment can be symbolic while the origins of figures within it (like three certain individuals) can be historical figures. (Yet their place in the endowment narrative makes zero sense historically given our theology of spirit bodies, resurrected bodies and touch)

  43. Clark Goble says:

    To add an interesting context for the endowment are the Everyman plays and Adam plays from the middle ages. These are extremely allegorical but have certain echoes of our own drama. There are a wide variety of which the Everyman Play is the most famous. While I’ve not read the original text one that stands out to me is the Irish “Saltair na Rann.” In this Adam play he is washed in a bath then taken to a third heaven. A lot of these are influenced by various pseudepigraphal texts from late antiquity or early medieval eras. (Many appear based on the Vita Adae et Evae) There are tons of variants often with Adam going to limbo or hell.

    While by the modern era these weren’t nearly as popular, much as with masonry (which developed only a century after Everyman) they remained within culture. And the plays were still at times performed. (I’ve no idea their treatment in early America)

  44. When we say that leaders teach that much of it is figurative, that implies some of it isn’t.

  45. I’m certain the unreality is not deliberate.

  46. My apologies if my ‘just’ came off as flippant. That wasn’t my intention, rather drawing a line between literal and other forms of understanding the endowment. I can’t find that line. The covenants are literal, but nothing (somethings, all things) are not. Then WHY are the covenants literal and how do we know that?

  47. Left Field says:

    I guess for me, the anachronisms in the endowment story are so over the top that it’s hard for me to imagine that it’s seriously intended to represent historical reality. We have Deities from before the Creation, Adam and Eve from Whatever B.C , Peter, James, and John from 30 A.D., somebody I’m proxy for from 1702, my great-great-grandfather from 1870, me receiving my own endowment in 1978, and whoever was endowed this morning. People from across thousands of years of history, all interacting, touching, and conversing on the same stage, altogether in the garden, in the lone and dreary world, and altogether being brought through the veil back into the presence of God. All these people are physically touching, so they all have physical bodies; none of us are premortal beings. If this story is intended as history, then God has already taken us through the veil into his presence. What are we doing back in the lone and dreary world?

    For those who see this as intended history, how do they explain the obvious anachronisms?

  48. Left Field says:

    RT, for me, everything that actually happens in the temple is literal. We literally enact a story about our own fall and redemption. In the course of that drama, we take literal covenants. But the dramatic story we tell is not a historical documentary. It’s a ritual that teaches us about our redemption, and gives us an opportunity make the covenants and learn the process that will be needed to bring about our actual redemption.

  49. Bringing the focus back to the current state of temple “preparation” as contrasted to the meaning or reality of the ceremony/ritual’s content…

    I grew up in the church but my dad wasn’t active until I was in my early teens. At age 17 (mid-1960s) we traveled to the closest temple (about 900 miles), Salt Lake City, for my mother and father and all us siblings to be sealed. I don’t recall any preparation AT ALL. Since neither of my parents had been inside one they couldn’t provide it–but given the strong conformity to secrecy at that time, they likely wouldn’t have told us anyway. Though I participated only in a sealing ceremony, I saw the patrons dressed in strange outfits and green aprons (?), but mostly I remember being shocked by the gaudiness of the inside of the temple. Gold leaf everywhere, and intricate, overwrought carved wood everywhere. It struck me as highly similar to pictures I had seen of Catholic cathedrals and movies about Arabian palaces. Without any preparation it was VERY unsettling and unexpected.

    Then at 19, again with absolutely no advice, warnings, or preparation, while in the Mission Home in SLC, all us fresh new missionaries walked to the temple and went through the “endowment.” Again, I experienced shock and dismay at the ancient-feeling, magical mumbo-jumbo nature of the process. Back then one got fully naked and put on a “shield” for the initiatory rite–not being told beforehand, and, worse, during, whether or not you were expected to drop the shield at some point in “public.”

    I sat down with all four of my children prior to their endowment ceremonies (1995 through 2006) to attempt to give them some protection from such shock and dismay. I certainly didn’t trust “the church” to do so, secrets and mystery requirements notwithstanding.

    I am still dismayed by the lack of any practical value the formal “temple prep” classes offer. I have spoken to several friends that have taught them…no practical value.

    This is but another example of “the church” paying little (and for 20+ years, decreasing) attention to practical, real-world, common sense, skills, or knowledge. Rather the drum beat is “read the scriptures,” find delight in the Sabbath day, and how to make our meetings and lessons more “spiritual.” Again, no practical value.
    1. of or relating to practice or action: practical mathematics.
    2. consisting of, involving, or resulting from practice or action: a practical application of a rule.
    3. of, relating to, or concerned with ordinary activities, business, or work: a habitual dreamer, who can’t be bothered with practical affairs.
    4. adapted or designed for actual use; useful: practical instructions.
    5. engaged or experienced in actual practice or work: a practical politician credited with much legislation.
    6. inclined toward or fitted for actual work or useful activities: looking for a practical person to fill this position.
    7. mindful of the results, usefulness, advantages or disadvantages, etc., of action or procedure.

  50. Clark Goble says:

    Steve, something can be non-figurative but not historical narrative. i.e. like the covenants which aren’t figurative.

  51. Bro. Jones says:

    Tarik’s comment from the OP resonates with me deeply. It is already a challenge as a temple patron to to see oneself as “present” in the drama of the endowment; it is an even greater challenge for people of color. It also sets up a difficult situation in terms of evaluating the “literal” presentation: if we take the endowment as any kind of literal presentation, then people of color are literally nowhere to be found in the story (and this lends credence to those who insist that the Godhead, Adam and Eve, and other major figures were white); if the ethnicity (and age, for that matter) of the film actors is of no meaning, then it simply underscores how badly our church misunderstands the importance of inclusion.

    If I had been consulted (neither Left Field nor myself were), I would have found some way to include a view of “the host of heaven” or Adam and Eve’s posterity, showing the people of all nations walking in their figurative footsteps to return to the presence of God.

  52. Adding to Bro. Jones’ comment about the importance of including different nationalities as actors in the temple videos, I sure wish the church would throw a few more women in there. It is so difficult to see myself as part of the narrative presented in the temple when there is only one woman, and she’s on screen for maybe half the time and has the fewest lines of anyone (excepting James and John, I suppose). I spend much of the creation scenes making up scenarios of where the women could be and what they could be doing.

    All of it hurts.

  53. Amen.

  54. Left Field says:

    I like the idea of showing Adam and Eve’s posterity in the film. Perhaps at the mention of the posterity, show a small group of people with Adam and Eve, suggestive of the small group of temple patrons, with a larger group more distant suggesting others not present in this session.

    In terms of temple prep, I’m all in favor of anything that gets us past the idea that the film is some sort of separate entity from the rest of the ritual.

  55. Ebenezer Robinson says:

    Eve may have the fewest lines, but she’s the only one of the couple to say anything sensible.

  56. Perhaps, but her last words are acceptance of a submissive role, and she never speaks again. In the new movies, she exchanges a lot of meaningful looks with Adam, but that’s it. As a woman who is supposed to see Eve as a representation of myself, how exactly am I supposed to take this?

  57. Elle, my response would be that the temple presentation does not tell you who you are or who Eve was. It has real limits and I would let the Spirit inform you as to who you really are.

  58. Thanks, Steve. That is helpful.

    Back to the original point of the post, I feel like I was as prepared for the temple as I could possibly be. I’d read Elder Packer’s “The Holy Temple” (well, 3/4 of it–I found it completely unenlightening and useless). I read and studied the entire Pearl of Great Price through twice. I fasted. I prayed. I took the normal, unhelpful version of temple prep in my singles’ ward, and I took a personalized version one on one with a kind older man in my family ward. He talked me through most of the ceremony and assured me that, though there was a “test” at the end, help is available at all stages of the temple. I’d seen temple robes and bought garments. I’d talked about it with my parents.

    But I felt absolutely sick about going. I remember crying hysterically about it. I dreaded it. But I already had my mission call, and I really wanted to go on a mission, so I went.

    The initiatory was the most comforting thing about it. I felt loved and welcomed by the elderly ladies who assisted me. I felt numb for the endowment itself. The sexist bits didn’t bother me too much, probably because I wasn’t getting married, so the “hearken to your husband” part didn’t actually mean anything to me.

    The next morning, when I woke up in my garments and felt like I was wearing a hundred layers of uncomfortable clothing, I cried and cried. For over half the day. I couldn’t understand why a God I thought I knew, a God I thought knew and loved me, would require a cold and impersonal series of tests and passwords to reach his presence. It felt so arbitrary and opposite of what I understood of the abundant love of Christ.

    Here is what I would tell my younger self if I could:

    There are no naked people in the temple video (for some reason I was irrationally afraid of this, and I was scared to ask).

    Don’t take yourself or the temple too seriously.

    You are not created for garments; garments are created for you. If there are times you don’t want to wear them or it’s not practical to wear them, don’t worry about it. Trust yourself.

    It’s okay to feel grief and anger in and because of the temple. Your experience and your emotions are valid.

    The Lord speaks to each of us in different ways. He speaks to some in the language of the temple, some in the language of the scriptures, some in the language of prayer. The temple is not your language, and that’s okay.