The Mormon Temple: The Vain Search For Knowledge

I kept a journal as a young man, at the behest of church leaders. Far too much of my adolescent and teenaged drivel involved thoughts on whichever girl held my fancy in that moment. Some of it captured the journey of a young man searching for a faith like that which he had seen in his heroes and mentors and of which he’d read about in holy scriptures. I was impressed with the significance of a journal for my own posterity and, perhaps, some future biographer. Thus, I was careful to keep from revealing any shadows of doubt that might infest the fragile minds of those that might read. I certainly would not admit to any grievous sin. Even if I had a concern, and by some slim chance wrote it down, it was accompanied by a faithful inoculation of sorts. Some tired rhetorical phrase like, “But I know God has a plan for me.” Or the less sanguine but dutiful, “This is just a trial I need to get through.”

Most Mormons raised and active in the church and near enough to a temple will go for the first time at the age of twelve. This was changed recently in a brilliant and godly revelation to their prophet so that an eleven-year-old may “receive a recommend” and go in the year they will turn twelve. Probably some strange association with Joseph Smith saying “in my fifteenth year” rather than “when I was fourteen” in the official account of The First Vision. Such random associations like this seem to be where some revelations make their suggestion to the mind of a prophet in the latter days. 

As it was, from the ages of twelve to eighteen, our congregation would take two trips per year to Idaho Falls–the nearest temple to us geographically–to perform baptisms for the dead. This hideous rite is beyond simple–its excessively bland! Well-meaning adults with a spiritual eye spice it up by references and allusions to unseeable spirits attending your proxy ordinance on their behalf and accepting their salvation with whatever kinds of tears a disembodied spirit may be capable of producing. “If you could only see the joy they experience as you are baptized for them!” I heard that and similar propaganda at every visit. 

All-in-all, the experience was positive. I didn’t realize how strange it was and is until I was on the outside looking in. If you accept that Jesus could atone, by proxy, for each man and woman who had lived, was living, or would ever live on Earth, why not believe this seemingly charitable absurdity? The fact that a barbaric human sacrifice was necessary at all for an omnipotent deity is subject for another essay. As for me, I looked forward to these semi-annual trips. I found some pride in having a recommend that stated I was worthy to enter the house of the Lord. (Worthiness, another hot-button that would require it’s own essay.) 

Baptisms and confirmations for the dead are simply a normalization process for kids. Give them peaceful and pleasant experiences to inoculate them against the truly bizarre they will later experience if they “stay on the covenant path.” For it is anticipated that prior to a mission, each young man and woman will go to the temple for a secret, er, sacred series of ceremonies known as Intiatories which consist of nearly redundant, interdependent rites called Washing and Anointing, followed by the Endowment. For those who do not go on missions, these rites are completed prior to marriage in the temple with its own ceremony known as Sealing. In some cases, older members who join the church later in life or for whom, the covenant path was not followed as a young adult, they may receive their endowment at the recommendation of their bishop when he feels they are ready, but almost never before completing college.

I went to the temple in November 1998 during Thanksgiving holiday weekend. My sister and her husband were also having their endowment and being sealed since they were married civilly several years earlier. During that break from BYU, we met in Logan, Utah on Friday night. Unable to sleep or really concentrate on something productive, I stayed up playing video games that night, being anxious and excited at the prospect of receiving one of the Holy Priesthood’s most profound covenants. (I didn’t find out until later that there are several other, super VIP rituals that actually happen and, somehow, despite their claims to being Christian, these rites are a guarantee of exaltation with God no matter what they may do after receiving them.) I was later told that my poor choice of activity the night before, playing video games, was the reason I did not have a spiritual experience that first time. The fact that the game involved a gun fight did make me blame myself for not being able to see the heavenly in my first cult ritual. In retrospect, I recall replaying the final level of the game and repeatedly stepping out a door to fight the final boss who, in each instance, swiftly riddled my avatar with bullets, pushing me from a platform high above the ground. If the bullets didn’t kill me, the fall surely would finish the job. That metaphor for the whole temple experience is far more apropos. I stepped blindly onto a high platform, unprepared for what I would experience since, prior to the internet age, the church largely succeeded in cloaking the sacred rites in their illusory veil of secrecy. There is a “Temple Preparation” course, but at that time it was taught by those sworn to secrecy under penalty of brutal, divine retribution for revealing details of the rite. We had no idea what we were really committing to. It might have been like one telling me that when I saw the emperor, I would see that he wore clothes that were fashioned in god’s way, not man’s. When I saw the emperor I would recognize that he was naked, but if I saw that, it meant I wasn’t spiritual enough.

Recently, I read a from Omar Khayyam’s, Rubaiyat. His metaphor struck me:

Nor idle I who speak it, nor profane,

This playful wisdom growing out of pain;

How many midnights whitened into morn

Before the seeker knew he sought in vain.

You want to know the Secret—so did I,

Low in the dust I sought it, and on high

Sought it in awful flight from star to star,

The Sultan’s watchman of the starry sky.

Up, up, where Parwín’s hoofs stamp heaven’s floor,

My soul went knocking at each starry door,

Till on the stilly top of heaven’s stair,

Clear-eyed I looked—and laughed—and climbed no more.

Of all my seeking this is all my gain:

No agony of any mortal brain

Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;

The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.

I won’t describe the ceremonies in detail. If you want to know, the information is out there in written form as well as pirated video of the actual ceremony. However, I will share the relevant portions that created my first, truly doubtful journal entry in my young, pedantic life.

First, I’m taken to a room to hear an old man tell me just how important these covenants are. He impresses on me the sacred nature of the magical, cotton-poly underwear I will not only be permitted to wear after the ceremony, but expected to wear at all times save swimming and bathing. Not only that, he believes that like respectfully folded burial clothing Peter and James found in the tomb on that first Easter morning, I should never casually toss the garment of the holy priesthood in a corner or a dirty laundry bin. They are that sacred.

Second, my father acting as my escort, leads me to a changing room. Let’s say, an immaculate locker room with no permeating body odor or the echoes of crass jokes through the metallic partitions. (In retrospect, I find I prefer the latter. The sterility of the temple makes me feel more doubtful of it. Perhaps it is experience with whited-sepulchers. Christopher Hitchens said in Letters to a Young Contrarian, a book I highly recommend to anyone, “the more fallible the mammal, the truer the example.” I find I believe that more and more each day.) 

Even in this celestial changing room, I find it odd that people who are deemed worthy after scrutinizing questions about their sexuality, honesty, and integrity, still need lock their belongings in the company of other saints. I’m given a large, white poncho metaphorically–or hyperbolically–termed a shield. Aside from the thin layer of coarse fabric that is completely open at the sides, I’m nude. I can hold the sides closed–which I do–the predominantly cataract-dimmed eyes all around me notwithstanding. 

This whole process is by far the most strange element of the temple but, for me, not the most disturbing. To begin, a series of three old men touch various benign and very-near-to-intimate parts of my body with a finger dipped something akin to holy water while pronouncing blessings to those areas. Round one complete, a second round ensues in a similar fashion with an exchange of holy water for sacred oil with similar blessings to go along with each touch. Of course, I need to be touched in those sensitive areas not on but near my unmentionables because “Gods ways are not my ways.” When the cringe-inducing experience is over, one of the old men dresses me in my garments, vulgarly referred to by Mormon’s with a sense of irony and gentiles alike as magic underwear. A more recent reference to them as Jesus Jammies is more amusing if more profane–a tried and true recipe I might add. The old man struggles to bend over to do it and, as strange as it was, I’m worried that the covenant I just made is so profound that I should never take the holy undergarments off at all!

I can’t say I felt violated, but I did feel unsettled. It was when the Endowment began that I began to feel as if I were part of a cult. After passing through a place where I am given a new name,–one I believe is sacred and personal only to find out years later that the same name is given to every male on that day for themselves or for a dead person for which patron may be performing the ritual by proxy–I end up in a small, quaint auditorium of sorts. The monotone theatrics of the video and audio production were a bore and they never got better with new editions of the film. Not that any serious believer goes to the temple seeking entertainment, but they do go to learn and to do the work for the dead by proxy. There is nothing of value to be learned. It was near the beginning where a voice speaks to us over loudspeaker that we will be asked to make covenants with God! If we violate these covenants we will bring upon ourselves the judgments of a God who, like a human dictator, cannot tolerate being mocked. We are then informed that, if we do not feel comfortable taking upon us these covenants of our “own free-will and choice” we are invited to leave.

First: due to secrecy and the utter absence of “informed consent,” no one can have any idea what these covenants are!

Second: I’m sitting in the middle of nearly every person in the world who means anything to me! Those that are not there expect me to return to them having made these covenants. I was more than uneasy and seriously considered leaving, but I rested on the faith of my parents, siblings, and extended family members who were there. To this day, I’d love to hear of someone who stood up and left at this moment.

We proceed into the ritual which involves pirated Masonic secret handshakes, signs made with the hands and arms, and group chants. We are required to answer “yes” in unison with the group on several occasions, making the individual covenants that, together, compose the endowment ordinance. We progressively add layers to our clothing. Through it all we learn strange, ridiculous phrases that, upon our death, will help us pass by the angels who stand guard at the gates of heaven.    

All the warnings with which Mormonism and The Book of Mormon had warned me regarding “secret combinations” had left me fearful of organizations that performed strange rites in secret–and I hadn’t even learned the secret handshakes yet! I simply didn’t believe God worked this way. Heleman 6, in The Book of Mormon, outlines the dangerous “secret combination” known as the Gadianton robbers that had “their signs, yea, their secret signs, and their secret words” as well as “secret oaths and covenants.” I was a dedicated Mormon teen. I read The Book of Mormon at least three times prior to my first exposure to the temple.

After the rite, we are standing in an ornate room with a gigantic chandelier and soft cushioned couches. This room known as the Celestial Room is the end of the endowment. I’m on shaky legs and can barely swallow when my beaming family members come up and ask me in eager whispers, one-by-one, how it went. I pasted a smile on my face and generously said things like “it was interesting.” Or, “I guess I’ll have to come back.”

I didn’t write in my journal for a couple of weeks. I was in my final weeks of fall semester at BYU, and had relationship with a great girl in whom I was very interested. She reciprocated as much as one can in a chaste relationship. However, this journal entry captures my feelings well for, even after more than two weeks, it is all that is on my mind:

“I went through the Temple Nov. 28. It was a good experience but to be honest it was somewhat disturbing also. I have finals next week and then Christmas Vacation. Not king (I’m not sure if this is a misspelling, but that is what seem to have written) now before my mission. I am going to have to fight for my testimony now because for the first time in my life it’s waning. It started after the temple. Maybe I just don’t understand it well enough yet. I’m trying to be more faithful in things to help my testimony. I don’t know why the temple was such a shock to me but it was. I really feel somewhat lost at this point in my life.”

It must have been a very negative experience because I was not optimistic nor did I concern myself with the faith of those descendants who might read it one day. And within six weeks I would be pounding the pavement of Falls Church, Virginia in new Dr. Marten shoes. I would have other opportunities to go to the temple in those six weeks, each time to perform the work, by proxy, for the dead–usually an ancestor whom my mother had searched out.

Over the years I would return frequently, each time straining to find meaning, yearning to feel something as I learn to feel in the Mormon way. I would openly celebrate subtle and significant changes to the rites that made them less intrusive on personal space or that would raise women slightly from their subservient role to men to what, on the surface, would make them seem as equals in God’s eyes. Privately, I would wonder how a sacred, priesthood ordinance that I had been taught was unchanging, could be changed. 

The temple is called, by Mormons, The Mountain of the Lord. Some self-deluded and self-important reference to theophany–that Moses climbed a mountain for inspiration, so must we. That Abraham took his sacrifice to the top of a mountain, so must we. Mormon scripture even states that we “must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:4)

The reprehensible and disgusting idea celebrated by the pious is that we must be willing to sacrifice our children to prove our love of god. Of course, God is said to have offered an alternative that spared Isaac. Still, the fact that one would be willing to gut their child to prove their devotion to God is bad enough and we count intent in our legal system when passing judgment and sentencing. In a sense, I had climbed a figurative mountain to go through the temple. But no alternative was offered to me when the sacrifice of my intellect and my identity and my sense of goodness, decency, and free-will came into direct opposition to what I experienced there. I spent sixteen years returning often with my wife and our families. I strained to find the meaning it was supposed to contain. In the end, perhaps I failed the temple, but I have no reservation in declaring that those who “prepared” me and the temple itself failed me from the start.

In retrospect, it seems even more ridiculous now. The best experience I ever had with the temple was after I embraced my doubts and drove my wife three hours one-way so that she could attend. I declined to enter even though I carried that little recommend in my pocket. Never, in all the trips into the sacred rooms, did I ever feel the relief, satisfaction, or calm assurance that I was doing the right thing as I felt that day. Still, I live with fear of two things with regard to The House of the Lord. My oldest children already attend to do baptisms for the dead. One day, however, they may choose to experience the higher ordinances. These rites become more deluded with each decade. The shocking portions being lost down the memory hole. Becoming less offensive, will they the gradually watered-down, milquetoast rites see them for what they are? Second, I face the very real possibility of being forced, as an unworthy ex-mormon, to sit outside on the day they are sealed/married to their spouse. I get to miss one of the most important days of their lives. And, yes, there is a sense that if I loved them I would be worthy. An underlying idea that daddy isn’t a man of his word because, long ago, he made these covenants too only to break his promise to God. Another subject for another entry.

Now, like Omar Kayyam, I look back and think of the playful wisdom growing out of pain. How many years did I waste going to the temple in search of knowledge and wisdom from God, before [I] knew [I] sought in vain? I was told I would know THE SECRET of eternity! So I committed, remained faithful as I stayed on the covenant path that lead to The Mountain of the Lord. Kayyam more poetically said, “on high Sought it in awful fight from star to star…my soul went knocking at each starry door, Till on the stilly top of heaven’s stair, Clear-eyed I looked–and laughed”, or cried, “and climbed no more.”

Of all my seeking this is all my gain:

No agony of any mortal brain

Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;

The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.

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