When the Temple Helps: Beyond My Ignorant Self

Walking into and participating in the Temple for the first time can be for anyone a disorienting experience. I was no exception, although there have been a few rare individuals who went in with prior understanding. Most of the LDS prophets are not among them. During a 1956 Mesa, Arizona Temple expansion dedicatory address, Pres. David O. Mckay said with candor:

Do you remember when you first went through the House of the Lord? I do. And I went out disappointed. Just a young man, out of college, anticipating great things when I went to the Temple. I was disappointed and grieved, and I have met hundreds of young men and young women since who had that experience . . . I saw only the mechanics when I first went through the Temple. I did not see the spiritual. I did not see the symbolism of spirituality. Speaking plainly, I saw men, physical state, which offended me . . . We thought we were big enough and with intelligence sufficient to criticize the mechanics of it and we were blind to the symbolism, the message of the spirit. And then that great ordinance, the endowment. The whole thing is simple in the mechanical part of it, but sublime and eternal in its significance.

Those are some powerful words coming from someone who is considered a towering spiritual figure. He obviously got over it and so did I after my first time. It was not without struggle.

Difficulties with Dissonance

First off I had to get over my own expectations of not only what I was used to going to regular Sunday services, but my own self definition. Like many I went to the Temple in preparation for going on a Mission. My parents accompanied me on the trip. Each detail was absorbed and analyzed in the hopes of forming some kind of spiritual impression. The reality was that my intellectual curiosity overshadowed any religious enlightenment. In other words, all I ended up noticing was the mechanics. At the end of the endowment stood me and my parents in strange clothes having no everyday parallel. Thoughts about the accusation of “cult” ran through my confused brain. Even my Baptism for the dead excursions in recent teenage years didn’t compare. The people and place seemed completely out of the ordinary for both my secular and religious life.

That isn’t to say things were completely foreign. Unlike some critics, the Covenants were not unusual or unexpected. Years of Sunday worship and study infused within me the idea of keeping Commandments, with the LDS Church the ultimate religious authority. The things we were asked to “pledge” had analogies in Scripture and doctrinal teachings. I wasn’t making any new promises so much as investing old ones with far more serious commitment. Baptism allowed me to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the Temple held a promise to enter the Kingdom of God and Church of the Firstborn. Still, this was a heavy burden when a completely different context presented what seemed to clash with less formal services I had been accustomed to observing.

Never did it cross my mind to not return, but I did want to wait until I had studied it all out more. Perhaps going on my mission and attending weekly church meetings was all that was necessary for a sustained period of time. For the moment I still “spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child,” and not yet “put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). One concept I had learned years ago was that not understanding something is no reason to make value conclusions. Only after a period of study can a person truly decide acceptance or rejection. My learning curve was about to start.

How I stopped worrying and started to love the Temple

Books are my salvation, and none more than the Scriptures both modern and ancient. No guides to them helped me out more than the combined religious teachers of Hugh Nibley and Elder Bruce R. McConkie in my research. They didn’t have all the answers, but certainly they were a great starting point. Like any good teacher and student relationship the information is to be used as stepping stones to independent learning. The subject of Temples was not the central focus while reading them, but over time I noticed how concepts related to it snuck in unexpectedly. Among other things I learned how prevalent the Temple teachings are in the Scriptures. My favorite go to Scriptures are the Book of Moses and Abraham, Genesis, Isaiah, Matthew, Hebrews, and Revelation. There is of course a lot of information in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, but not as much direct personal references. When those I trusted showed high regard for the Temple, my own trust in the Temple increased.

Another concept I formed with some logical conclusions. There is a chain of belief that seems to connect like strong chains to those who have gained a Spiritual Witness of the Gospel work. My curiosity about Joseph Smith pointed me toward reading the Book of Mormon where I gained a testimony of him as a prophet. From this came my belief that he received the Priesthood of God and that the Church continued by Brigham Young to today was Christ’s Church. Since the Book of Mormon was true, Joseph Smith was a true prophet, the Church continued with the true Priesthood, then the Temple that was founded by them also had to be a true part of that chain of faith.

There was curiously some secular help involved. My college English literary criticism studies might not have had much practical value, but they did teach me how to pay attention to details. My favorite approach is deconstruction, considered the most complicated of the critical analysis. Among its definitions is the idea that words can hold multiple meanings and layers since they are signs of things and not the object themselves. Used badly this can be interpreted as relativism and used as a weapon to dismiss with rhetoric. However, its main function is to go deeper into a work and try to find the hidden or “absent referent” that the surface structure covers. More importantly is how flexible this can be with the other analytical approaches, such as myth and archetype that is so important to the Temple. This helped me get past the mechanics of the Temple and see the spiritual layers missed because of my dogged determination to only understand it one way or on the surface.

Finally understanding the Temple (to a useful degree) helped me to understand myself and place in Existence. We are all Adam and Eve falling from the Garden to the lowest point in the process of rising to the highest Mountain to commune with God. Most of all that we are not here to become a more perfect representation of ourselves. The greatest promise is that we will reflect Christ in our lives and even countenances. We are more free when giving up our lives for a far more divine purpose than mortal self actualization:

19 What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

20 For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20.

Our natural and selfish selves must be rejected so that we can become like Christ by becoming a part of the body of Christ. We must deconstruct ourselves to construct something of greater worth. That means accepting humility and throwing away fear and pride. We might believe that we know better how to be happy, but that way is religious madness and death; “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:35). Recognizing that I was ultimately a nobody here in mortality prepared me to receive and understanding the blessings of the Temple more fully (although not completely). This made life less worrisome and more open to personal revelation, true self worth, and Hope in more than this life’s accomplishments. The Temple taught me that whatever is not achieved in mortality is either without worth or important enough to be brought to fruition in the Eternities. Its all in the Lord’s hands.

Now if I could only learn how to appreciate boring (getting better) Sacrament talks and banal Sunday School lessons.

14 thoughts on “When the Temple Helps: Beyond My Ignorant Self

  1. On my first time in a temple I was there to be married. It was in the LA temple and there was a very large group of people there that morning. We had not known to make an appointment and in those days women patrons wore nurse dresses which almost always exposed the full length garments that were worn in temples in those days. I couldn’t locate my fiancé in the crowd so during the entire initial part of the endowment I thought he hadn’t joined the session. I was worried and had little attention left over for the endowment ceremony. In more than 50 years of attending the temple I have learned that what you receive and learn is largely dependent on what you bring to the temple. However I have attended the temple many times with little more in mind than giving someone the opportunity to accept the endowments that I have performed in proxy. I have no particular expectations but I am often granted insights that I have not sought.

  2. When I have attended the Temple with open mind and anticipation, each experience adds something new to my understanding. The new film presentations of the Temple Endowment have added significant additional insights. Sometimes there have been negative impressions too, but on further reflection I realized that these feelings came from me, not from Temple experiences.

  3. Thank you, jettboy for this post. I took out my endowment in the 1970’s, and I, too, recall terror and thoughts of all the anti-Mormon literature I had read with claims of cults and even sexual abuse as I began with the initiatory part of the endowment. I was blessed that both my grandmothers were temple workers, so one of them did the initiatory ceremony, and the other was able to accompany me to the veil. That helped a great deal, and I still have some of the ceremonial clothing from the grandmother who went to the veil with me, and wear it every week when I attend. It is a great reminder of her love, and of how much I’ve learned since then.
    In mental health, there is a model known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which uses an approach similar to how you’ve described deconstruction. Words, language, are looked at for their underlying layers of meaning, and this is used as part of the therapy process. I had never thought of using that idea as I ponder and participate in the temple ceremonies, from initiatory to sealings, but I will now! Thank you again, and it’s kind of nice to realize I wasn’t the only one who was totally freaked out by my first temple experience.

  4. My brother went on his mission before me, but sufficiently close that we were in the MTC together. I remember my mother and brother chatting about things I knew nothing about, but mostly her joking to him that people often slept through the endowment ceremony, but not usually during their own receipt of the endowment.

    Another time I was present when a young woman of my acquaintance received her endowment. There was one part of the ceremony that particularly distressed her, because she thought of it as belittling of women. I hope I was able to share with her the perspective my mother had, that this portion of the ceremony gave her, as a woman, a chance for more private reflection and communion.

    Now decades since receiving my own endowment, I have come to have a greater appreciation for the reason that the endowment was originally shrouded in silence. Joseph Smith surely used the endowment in his attempt to sift adulterers from righteous men. Indeed, some of the elements Joseph used to emphasize the penalties for revealing the ceremony have since been stripped from the modern temple experience (though I miss that which was once part of the experience, as I found deep meaning in even that part of the endowment as I originally received it).

    I don’t recall being disoriented and disappointed so much as I recall being wholly tasked to absorb the magnitude of the symbolism and difference between the endowment and what I had previously experienced in Church.

    I was greatly helped by having a fabulous temple preparation teacher who actually prepared us for the temple experience, rather than merely ensuring we had met the prerequisites for entering the temple. I could wish such preparation for all who anticipate entering into the covenant represented by the initiatory and endowment.

    Marriage in the temple is also amazing, but not as wholly other in form from the world’s ceremonies regarding marriage.

    If you haven’t done so, take a day when you go throu initiatory, endowment, and the sealing ceremony and imagine yourself a young bride or groom able to comprehend all that is being done and said. The entire temple experience is focused on our eternal destiny as glorious husbands and wives in Gods kingdom, with acknowledgement of the severe tests that come, that threaten to rip us from God and one another.

  5. I took out my endowment the day before I entered the MTC in the fall of 1980. I had only been a member 13 months, and didn’t carry with me any preconceived notions of what the temple experience should or might be. I had no temple preparation to speak of, save my escort, who gave me a 30 minute explanation of the logistical stuff that goes with initiatory and the endowment. I accepted the symbolism at face value, likening it to much of the ceremonial things mentioned in the OT. Somehow the endowment, along with the plan of salvation, just made sense to me. My wife (life long member) didn’t have problems with the temple nor have my 4 oldest children who’ve been through. I understand some concerns here and there, but I think the symbolism is broad enough to offer a range of possible interpretations.

  6. My first experience of the temple was on balance quite positive. I think this was in part because my parents were unusually candid in describing what would take place, without revealing anything deeply sacred.

  7. Thank you for this as well.

    My 1828 Webster, 3rd definition reads, “That which is given or bestowed on the person or mind by the creator”

    Endow is actually rooted in “dower”, see the references on the bridegroom and we as the bride. So we are en dowered, as much as endowed.

    I have shed my Mormonism “to take out my endowments” because I have never succeeded in taking them out of the temple. It seems I must go often to “receive” them, and there they stay. When I miss them in my life I go receive them again.

    Thanks again.

  8. The David O. McKay quote, from “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” by Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright, is apparently taken from the McKay Scrapbook. Phrases such as: “Speaking plainly, I saw men, physical state, which offended me . . . ” seem to indicate that the reporter’s notes were less than complete. Other accounts of occasions when Pres. McKay shared his initial disappointment in his first endowment experience have a better feel to them.
    I like the chapter titled “Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord?” by Andrew F. Ehat in Donald Parry’s “Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism.” He speaks of Moses’ first temple experience: “Moses 1 begins as each endowment begins, with heaven and earth joining. This time, Moses ascended, not by foot but by the transporting power of the Spirit. He was caught up into a mountain the name of which is not now known to us (see verse 42). There he spoke with God face to face. Once this outpouring of the abundance of the Spirit subsided, Moses found himself on his back for many hours. When he came to his strength again, he exclaimed, “Now . . . I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (verse 10). Think of him, reflect on the fact that for the first forty years of his life, he had been primped, pampered, and prepared as a prince, even to become a king in Egypt. For all he had known, he was a member of the royal family, even a god. He had access to the greatest knowledge and library in the world. And now, at age eighty, forty years after his experience at the burning bush, having received the fulness of the endowment for the first time, he realized that he had not been fully prepared for this endowment.”
    Ehat also quotes Pres. Kimball who spoke at a fireside shortly after becoming the president of the Church: “If you understood the ordinances of the House of the Lord, you would crawl on your hands and feet for thousands of miles in order to receive them!”

  9. I think I’ve mentioned it before but I really recommend some of Mircea Eliade’s books on myth. They’re short and written at a level non-academics can appreciate. They’re not perfect. They are somewhat dated at this point and don’t take into consideration critiques from post-structuralism. They also aren’t written for a Mormon audience obviously. But they do a great job of getting at the ancient way of thinking which perfuses the temple but which is quite alien to our contemporary mindset.

  10. The Initiatory portion of the endowment has become a much more popular and well received ceremony because of changes that preserve the essentials but remove some of the concerns for privacy. That changes have happened over many years is demonstrated by photographs of bathtubs in the Salt Lake Temple initiatory area in the early 20th century. It is not uncommon to see patrons waiting for more than half an hour before they can process five names. The words and symbolism in this portion of the endowment are precious and worthwhile remembering. I am so grateful for the understanding we have that mortal proxies can serve to extend these blessings to those who are worthy of them but never had a chance to qualify for them while they lived. Because of this, even those who did not have a great experience with their own first time at the temple can return again and again to review their own covenants and to provide for those who need them.
    ‘Taking out’ persists even though ‘receiving’ endowments is considered a more appropriate usage

  11. One of the things I enjoy about working in the Temple is the time available, here and there when things are slow, to read the scriptures. After a time it adds up and I finished the Old Testament in the Temple last year. The scriptures seem to come alive in that abode and the Old Testament book which seems to have the most to inform about the Temple is the Book of Psalms. Page after page it speaks out about Temple themes. Note: most of these are not footnoted/indexed and can be revealed only through reading through the text and perhaps keeping notes here and there (by the third reference to being “saved by the right hand of God” one begins to take notice: how many more times is the text going to mention this?) But, virtually all scripture informs of the Temple and it helps to know the rituals well enough to have them in mind as you read.

    Another amazing avenue of growth comes through understanding the ancient Temple and its symbolism: there is so much correspondence to current temple practice. We don’t currently burn incense before the veil, but nonetheless prayer before the veil is yet important and that is what the incense represents…it goes on and on. I spent decades trying to understand the Endowment by brushing the symbolism aside so as to get at the truth…a practice from my profession I mistakenly brought into Temple worship: exactly the wrong way to do things. It is through the symbols that understanding, testimony, and revelation may come.

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