When I was twenty-one, the day before I entered the MTC, I drove out to Manti, Utah with my parents. I had wanted to attend the temple again with them before I left, and we all decided that the Manti temple would make for a memorable trip, not the least because it was the place where my parents had been sealed twenty-five years earlier. And while there are many reasons that trip to Manti remains at the forefront of my memories even today, another twenty-one years now passed, what I remember most is a small, very human moment that occurred in the hallway.
As my mother and I turned to head toward the changing rooms following the endowment ceremony, I caught a glimpse of my father going the other way, skipping. The sight of a grown man skipping down a temple hallway is not, I believe, typical. He bobbed side to side, clearly motivated by an excess of emotion—joy—and unable to contain himself.
“Brother—” a kind, low voice interrupted, “We do not skip in the House of the Lord.”
My mother flushed red as we reached the doorway. Personally, I was feeling a bit more like my father at that moment: utterly thrilled to be in the temple with my parents—just us—and filled with warmth following the beauty of the endowment and the loveliness of the Manti temple itself, with its rich murals and ornate interiors. Knowing my dad, I could see why he couldn’t help but skip a bit after all that beauty.
In a lot of ways, I feel very lucky when it comes to my relationship with the temple. It started with beauty for me. I just happened to be the kind of nerdy reader who found religious ritual fascinating, and who preferred libraries to parties. As such, by the time I received my own endowment I wasn’t thrown off by the intensity of the high ritual with its sacred clothing and formulaic speech—they all appeared to me as familiar aesthetic tropes utilized in various ways by multiple human societies throughout history. The fact that I had stumbled into a set of narratives and contexts that allowed me to at least partially understand and appreciate what I found in the temple has always seemed a bit unfair to me. Unfair in the sense that it was just a combination of personal preference for narrative texts combined with an inclination toward comparative religious history that happened to prove effective in preparing me for the highly ritualized language, gestures, and narrative structures found in the temple. Why should I have the luck to appreciate the story and structure of contemporary temple worship? While I know plenty of people for whom the temple is a space of refuge, I know plenty of others for whom the temple is a source of pain, confusion, and even despair.
The thing is, as much as I love the temple, I can see why for others different aspects are damaging, and I’m trying to think about how something so sacred and central to my religious tradition can be both things: both beauty and pain. I’m not interested in debating the validity of others’ experiences with the temple—we’re all individuals, and we’re all going to interact with and react to religious elements individually, on our own terms. And that’s ok—that’s the plan, really. So if you’re reading this, and you’re thinking The temple is wonderful and anyone who doesn’t like it doesn’t understand it or The temple is harmful and anyone who loves it is naïve, just bear with me a bit, because what I’m thinking is the Temple is like any good story: beauty and pain together.
I love a good book. I’m not that picky about genres—I’ll read fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, scripture, mysteries, science fiction, literary fiction, biographies, memoirs, graphic novels, young adult, romance, popular science, history, philosophy, cultural studies, poetry, cookbooks, blogs, classics, plays—etc. etc. There’s something connective about the way having something written down in front of you to read tells you that you’re not alone, that other people exist and are living and thinking and sharing their vision and perspective. Having these kinds of connections is, for me, one of the ways I can understand my existence as something structured by networks that exceed my personal narrative and knit me into the human family.
In August of 1842, Joseph Smith was experiencing the isolation that comes from hiding. He’d been accused of being an accessory to a crime—the attempted murder of the former governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs—and spent several months avoiding arrest. As part of this experience, he apparently took the time to think about others in isolation, and as a result, wrote two letters—D&C 127 and D&C 128—dealing with the topic of baptisms for the dead.
I’ve always been struck by the way that Joseph approaches the topic of baptism for the dead here not in terms of outlining the ordinance itself, but rather in terms of writing things down. “Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning your dead: When any of you are baptized for your dead, let there be a recorder, and let him be eye-witness of your baptisms; let him hear with his ears, that he may testify of a truth, saith the Lord; That in all your recordings it may be recorded in heaven…And again, let all the records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation saith the Lord of Hosts” (D&C 127:6–7, 9). Apart from the body of the Saints, Joseph can’t stop thinking about bringing people together—the subject “press[es] itself upon [his] feelings” (D&C 128:1) with a weight and urgency that demands he work out with precision how to witness, keep records, make copies, and establish an authenticated, textual order that aligns heaven and earth.
It seems to me that Joseph also understood the written word in terms of its power to witness the connective tissue binding generations together along strands of time and on through eternity.
A point, from all this, is that words matter. Records matter. Books matter. Narratives matter. There’s something fundamental about writing things down that pierces veils and breaks down walls; if the written word can align heaven and earth, then it can certainly bring us together with others as well, dead or alive.
So, back to the temple. I really mean it when I say the temple is like any good story: beauty and pain together. To me, the best stories practice a kind of narrative alchemy, bringing the forgotten, the misunderstood, the hopeless, and even the monstrous into the golden light of understanding and remembrance. And the temple does just that—it gives us a story that lets us re-read our own lives acknowledging both our pain and our beauty. In the ritual light of the temple, we can see ourselves as simultaneously created and beloved as well as cast out and wandering. We’re like Joseph, apart and alone, yet pressed to see in his isolation truths about the work of the human family as a participant body in a familial redemption.
What I’m trying to say is that in some ways, the point of the temple is to help us to see ourselves as participants in an ongoing narrative. The point here isn’t whether that narrative is truth or fiction, but rather that it is at its heart, a set of words purposefully placed and carefully constructed—in this sense, it is textual. A textual temple teaches us that the factuality or literalness of the narrative is not necessarily as important as we might first think. Did things play out in real life exactly as they are depicted in the temple narrative? Maybe, maybe not—the past is always beyond our lived understanding, and we are continually reconstructing it piece by piece. Words help in that process, but they only ever grant a partial view. In order for the past to become real, someone somewhere has to put forth their own interpretation. The temple ceremonies teach us to look at the narrative they present and recognize the importance of its form as narrative, and therefore as something that is open to interpretation, nuance, flexibility, and re-reading.
In a textual temple, we approach God interpretively, and rigid form is opened through individual ritual experience. What is important is not the fact; rather it is the story we tell in response to our narrative encounter. In this sense, the temple, with its emphasis on ordered record-keeping, aligns with scripture. Scripture, too, is a text that points toward truth literarily in order to leave open the interpretive possibilities necessary for individual salvation.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the temple can’t teach truth. But what I am saying is that the form of the temple ceremonies, and especially the endowment, is important precisely because it is deliberately presented as a narrative, and therefore as an invitation for individual interpretation. Truth can be found in the narrative, but locking it there is dangerous, because the content has changed and can continue to change over time. So it’s important to remember the invitation found in form of the story itself. This invitation for interpretation is fundamental to the whole project of the Restoration, because what it is at heart is an open acknowledgment that revelation is real.
Temples, with their texts, their rituals, their witnessing, their ordinances—with all these things and more, temples are a sacred space in which we practice believing that heaven and earth can align and that such alignment can occur on an individual level. God can speak, and I can hear, and that is revelatory to us both.
That’s all part of the joy, the joy that allows room for both beauty and pain. My memory of my father skipping down the hall of the Manti temple, ceremonial robes floating gently out around his joyous physical motion, bathed in the warm pink light—this is a memory of beauty, and of pain. Beauty at his joy, and the pain of perspective, as he has since passed away.
Joseph reaches for this joy, overwhelmed at his own words on the redemption of the dead in section 128. “Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy. […] Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing togethers, and let all the sons of God shout for joy!” (19, 23).
Joseph’s joy here is ebullient and overflowing. It is a joy that exceeds the boundaries of human experience and instead spills over into the surrounding earth itself. It is also a joy that culminates in the promise of ongoing revelation as creation witnesses God and God speaks back to creation: “And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!” (D&C 128:23).
I think that Joseph understood the patterns that undergird revelation, and the way these patterns exist in the tension between seemingly opposing forces. Heaven and earth. Beauty and pain. Texts and temples. That is why, at the end of section 128, he turns from effusive joy to solemn sacrifice: “Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand; and who can abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap; and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…. Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation” (v. 24). The apparent inability of the earth to withstand the coming day of the heavenly Lord, the linking of the beauty of silver to pain of the refining process, and the texts of the temple offered in sacrifice—these all witness the ways in which our own relationship with the temple will necessarily be individual, complex, nuanced, and sacred, no matter where we are in that relationship right now.
Personally, I find that reassurance a beautiful thing.