A few years ago, I taught a primary lesson about the Temple. I showed my class of 10 year old children a picture of the cross section model of the Salt Lake Temple that was in the Temple Square Visitors Center at that time. I asked them to look at it and tell me what they thought.
One said she thought it looked like a stage. I told her she was right. It was designed to create a space where everyone is a part of story theater, and the story is about our journey in life.
Then I pointed out the room where we start the journey, and move from room to room as the journey continues. Another child said it looks like everyone is climbing higher and higher. Yes, I said, the journey we go through over and over is to help us learn how we can ascend, or climb to a higher level of wisdom, and of being like and with God.
I told them the names of the different rooms, and how the story follows the pattern of the Garden of Eden story. I reminded them of when we had talked about that story before, and how there are times when they might have wondered about either following a rule no matter what, or doing something that might break a rule, but it would also help keep a more important rule, such as helping someone who was hurting. They were quick to see that this kind of choice would probably happen over and over.
When I had them look again at the different rooms, depicting different parts of the story, I asked them if the Garden Room was really the Garden of Eden, or the World Room was really the whole world, or if the person who spoke as God or Satan was really God or Satan? Even though they were young, they seemed to think it was silly to think any of this was literal. We talked about how things like these rooms are symbols, and how we can learn from symbols that might mean something different to each person there.
We talked about how practicing something helps us be prepared. Being in or watching a play was one way to practice a part in a story, to practice what you might feel or think when you play that part. I talked about how being in plays, and now watching live theater continues to have a big effect on me in learning from stories that are different, or sometimes similar to my own.
We talked about what it means to learn vicariously, by paying attention to what we think and feel when we are hearing someone else’s story, or watching or being in a play. We talked about how most people who go to the temple are going there carrying the name of someone who has died, and that is vicarious work. I asked what they would think about if they were doing something in the name of someone else. They said they would think about what they liked, or what they did when they were alive. One imagined talking with them, asking them questions. I said I liked to think about them sitting with me, telling me about their life, and asking about mine. I asked if it would make it seem like they were alive again, in a new way, because their names were spoken, and they had a new friend? How would each of them feel knowing they had another friend now, even someone who had lived hundreds of years ago on the other side of the world?
Something that we talked about in every class is that we can listen for God to show us that They know us each by name, and love us each, no matter what, always. Does that help us feel hope when things are hard? What if we could learn to do that for each other? Does saying someone’s name, and caring about them help you practice being like God?
This is what makes temple work valuable to me. And when I share this perspective with others, even children, they get it. Not all have or will find a similar experience in temple work. Many find other ways to practice their human journey in symbolic ritual. Many will look for ways to vicariously experience from the broad spectrum of the human story, and seek to connect to others in ways that overcome time, distance and even the separation of death.
I have come to embrace and appreciate the messy and complex history of my Mormon heritage, which includes the mystical ritual practiced in the temple. It has gone through so many changes since Joseph Smith first tried to create a ritual that was patterned after rituals as old as civilization, yet could be specific to the eternal journey he felt God was inspiring us to follow. I think some changes were destructive and regressive, while others were more effective in creating a transformative ritual experience. Recently, I had hoped there was a recognition at official levels of the importance of emphasizing the individual, symbolic journey, and a shift in honoring physical spaces where that can happen in community.
For a while, modern temples were designed as movie theaters. Patrons are ushered into a room. The ritual story is depicted on a screen, with an emotional soundtrack, and impressive cinematography, in overwhelming realistic settings, with a cast of people who are, for the most part, presenting somewhere in the range of white, to very white. There is not much physical movement, other than adding layers of ceremonial clothing, until the final moments when we are reunited in the presence of God.
Attending the live sessions in the Salt Lake or Manti Temples enabled me to find greater value in the ritual, by physically moving through the space, and being in symbolic surroundings, rather than overwhelmed with increasingly literal presentations. I would recall that experience when I attending filmed versions, and would practice seeing it all as symbolic, looking for what individual message was there for me at that moment.
More recent temples were designed to involve movement through several rooms, which included murals that symbolized stages of the journey. I appreciated the way the movement involved physical ascent through the building, patterned after the ascension journey God invites us to follow.
When it was announced that the four pioneer temples in Utah would have extensive structural work, I was concerned. The gutting of the Logan Temple is a painful mistake in LDS history. The people who were assigned to this preferred the modern style of the Provo Temple, and wanted to impose that inside the Logan Temple. It was only when President N. Eldon Tanner stopped by to check on progress, and was appalled to see a bulldozer moving around in the gutted building, that high level church leaders became aware of the irreversible loss of the murals and original design. The modernization of the inside of that temple was allowed to continue, but President Kimball regretted the loss of the original temple for the rest of his life. On the outside, Logan Temple still looked like the building designed to be a setting for symbolic ritual of the ascension journey, progressing from room to room, wrestling with shifting views and complex experiences, moving higher to approach Godhood. But the inside was no longer that kind of space.
It had become a temple shaped object. The inside did not match the outside.
Once leaders were aware of this, plans to do the same to Manti Temple were halted. And others were brought in to do restoration work that would honor the historic nature of the building, including keeping the live session.
I wondered, would the people in charge of the current remodel be aware of the value of live sessions? Would they have any understanding of how symbolic ritual works? Would they know about how temples are designed to be a space for people, as individuals and as community, to practice the ascension journey?
I was relieved to hear that the historic buildings would be preserved, and the live sessions would be honored. I hoped that the Logan Temple would be restored to its original design, and purpose of hosting live sessions.
With the recent announcement that the live sessions will not return, in any of the temples, and that patrons will remain in a single room for the filmed version of the ritual, I am mourning the loss of one of the most powerful aspects of my religion.
And I am mourning the temples that are now temple shaped objects.
That this would happen to the Salt Lake Temple, the one where people would come specifically for the live session, the one where we clearly have a place “set apart” from the convenience, the regular setting of life, where we can step into a spiritual theater – this is unimaginable loss.
This building was never meant to be a convenient ritual factory, focused on numbers.
I have long wanted to see actions taken by church leaders that would increase attendance in the temple. But these involved transforming the rhetoric around worthiness, preparation, and individual meaning found in symbolic ritual.
If we, as a church, taught people about how symbolic ritual can help us seek and find inspiration and direction for our own paths, and that the temple ritual is meant to be figurative, much like past generations did – it will help people return to the temple because they find value there. If people are only attending because they are afraid there is some literal meaning there, and it is directly connected to literal salvation, people will be denied the deeper, richer and more fulfilling experience they could find in the symbolism, and they will not feel inspired to return. When the only option of participating is to see it through a correlated, this-is-what-Adam-Eve-God-Satan-actually-look-and-sound-like, overwhelming soundtrack and location, biased view, then the lessons of the ritual are easily lost.
When people find value in the experience, they will come, and return often.
I still hope for a shift in the worthiness rhetoric around attendance. It took 120 years for an official recognition that skin color has nothing to do with worthiness, and we haven’t really begun to systemically address the harm from the rhetoric of the priesthood ban.
Similar ignorance and bias about worthiness continues to exclude many from the temple.
The current temple recommend interview does little to convey concern for readiness, or where one’s heart is concerning temple work.
After years of temple work, I think there is only one question that needs to be asked. “Do you have an understanding of, and are you willing to honor the temple as a place for sacred, symbolic ritual?”
All questions about belief and behavior are subject to such varying interpretation, impossible to standardize in any transformative way. Too many become more focused on a to-do list of behaviors that do nothing to prepare them for a uniquely inspiring and instructive relationship with the temple experience.
If education about figurative learning, and symbolic ritual was incorporated into church curriculum, or temple preparation, and if all members were invited to come and benefit from the temple experience, regardless of marital status, or calling, or check list of behaviors and beliefs, then I think there really would be a need to increase the number of sessions available.
So much is said about the temple being essential to salvation. But it is not the temple itself, or the ritual alone that provides the salvation. It is the possible transformation that can be experienced through mystical ritual that impacts our being, our existing as individuals and in community, and we learn to journey toward salvation together.
When we emphasize a correlated, efficient, numbers focused space and system in place of a valuable, transformative ritual that is available to all who will honor it, then we are failing to align our hearts with who we say we are.
And we risk becoming temple attending shaped objects, going into temple shaped objects. We might look the part. But our hearts and minds are missing out on the deeper, transformative experience.
I don’t know. Maybe this will force an awareness of the need for a radically inclusive temple space.
For now, I think that kind of work will only effectively continue through unofficial, personal inspiration and efforts. I think we are all meant to seek transformative practice, and we will create that wherever we can. That might include a gutted, historic, temple shaped building.
I hope those individual efforts will overwhelm the loss of the living, breathing temple ritual. Perhaps leading to one with more diversity and life.