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.