“Snuck in” is too vulgar a phrase to describe it.
Yet, on paper at least, “snuck in” is exactly what I did. I acquired an operational recommend, entered the Provo temple under false pretenses, and participated in an endowment session.
Before you come at me with your pitchforks, let me explain. This was no cheap stunt. It wasn’t an effort to see what I could get away with, nor an opportunity to jeer at things I once held sacred. It wasn’t an attempt to record the ordinances and “expose” them to the outside world, as others have recently done. There was no malice, only a longing for a beloved bit of my former faith. A bit I likely will never experience again. Judge me, dear reader, but my motives were pure.
As a believing Mormon, I loved the temple. I’ve tried before—and failed—to articulate a coherent explanation of this love, and I’m unlikely to be any more successful here. But indulge me for a few paragraphs while I try.
The temple is strange—strange in the way God’s ideas ought to feel to the puny, telestial minds of His children. I reveled in the esoteric and seemingly ancient quality of the rite: the conferral of sacred grips, the dressing in ceremonial robes, the locking of hands and arms in antiphonal prayer, the climax of holy recitation at the veil. Here was a spectacle astonishing in presentation and cosmic in significance. Here the expansive, exuberant weirdness of Joseph Smith’s Mormonism was displayed unabashedly. For a few hours at a time, the temple elevated my prosaic, dull worship to something extraordinary and celestial. I felt, as Joseph said to Mary Fielding Smith upon her endowment, carried “out of darkness into marvelous light.”
It is also fascinating—fascinating in a way my intellect could dig into. The temple rites present odd little puzzles, questions whose answers are laced with clues to spiritual mechanics. What does the fierce physicality of the endowment—and, even more so, the initiatory—say about the spiritual capacity of our fleshly bodies? Which parts of the temple drama are intended to be accurate depictions of events, and which are allegorical? To what do the allegories refer? When are Satan’s lines truthful—when can we infer metaphysical insights from his words—and when is he simply lying? I spent my temple-going years puzzling out coherent, theologically satisfying answers to these questions and more. In so doing I wrestled with the peculiarly Mormon doctrines, the ones that tend not to come up in your run-of-the-mill Sunday services.
But as much as I loved the temple rites, the (sometimes) sad reality is that I no longer believe in their divinity. A constellation of evidentiary and circumstantial factors left me without faith in Mormonism, and several years ago I left the church and surrendered my temple recommend. I rarely regret it; I was probably never cut out for faith, and on the whole I’m happier now than I ever was as a believer. Yet, even on the other side of belief, I miss the enlightenment and edification—and, who are we kidding, the downright kookiness—that came with temple worship. It is one of the few aspects of Mormonism that I truly mourn.
Several weeks ago, as my wife and I were driving the streets of Salt Lake, we passed temple square and were overcome with nostalgia. I had not been to the temple in years, and in particular I hadn’t attended with my still-active wife. An audacious, and certainly unorthodox, thought occurred to us: could we do one last session together?
Turns out we could.
We scoured the list of our Mormon friends and found someone both active enough to have a valid recommend and heterodox enough to let me borrow it. We drove to the Provo temple, working out the details of the story we’d spin in case any of the workers asked too many questions. Putting down butterflies in my stomach I took my wife’s hand, and we walked into the temple where I had spent countless Saturday mornings as a patron. Where I spent a year’s worth of Thursday evenings as an ordinance worker. Where my faith found depth and breadth. And where I would bid farewell to the only part of Mormon worship that had ever animated me.
I approached the recommend desk, mentally reviewing our cover story as I handed my borrowed recommend to the worker. He scanned it, looked down at it, and paused to examine the recommend for a few too many moments. Fear swelled up in my chest—would he find an anomaly I couldn’t explain?—and I covered my unease with amicable chit-chat. Finally he looked at me, smiled in the paternal way of elderly temple workers, and explained that the recommend’s plastic cover had worn out, in his words, “in the service of the Lord.” I let out a silent sigh of relief as he replaced it and, in a moment of uncharacteristic tact, chose not to inform him that neither I nor the recommend’s true owner was particularly concerned with service to the Lord.
A thousand memories came flooding back as I entered the lobby. I caught the scent of chlorine wafting up from the baptistry, mixed with the almost-sterile smell of regularly-vacuumed carpets. It reminded me, of all things, of the tapioca pudding I ate in the cafeteria during my year as a Provo Temple ordinance worker. Of the time I spent dressed in a white suit, miming the words of Peter and Elohim or anointing initiates to become kings and priests unto the Most High God. I immediately felt at home, as though I was gathered with my family on Christmas morning in an unusually pristine living room.
After changing into rented clothes, I met my wife in the chapel to await our session. Our disbelief in the divinity of the process apparently did not mar our visages; after a few minutes’ solitude the endowment coordinator approached us, inquired as to our marital status, and invited us to participate as the witness couple. We were delighted. Our intent had been to attend the temple together, a goal hindered by the segregation of men and women during most of the endowment. As the witness couple, on the other hand, we would make five or six trips to the altar where we would kneel side by side, giving us a chance to interact that otherwise would have been impossible.
In many ways the session itself was banal in its familiarity, indistinguishable from any of the scores of sessions I attended as a member. The rented temple clothes were shabby and fit poorly. I dozed momentarily as the Gods’ protracted creation of the earth extirpated any vestige of the Young Earther-ism with which I was raised. I groaned internally as each woman was ritually subjugated to her perhaps-hypothetical husband. I chuckled at Michael Ballam’s apparently-serious attempt at Satanic malevolence. The presentation of the endowment—as with so much of Mormonism—is almost amateurish in its earnestness, and I felt the hint of embarrassment that had attended every previous trip to the temple.
In other ways, I saw the ordinances through new, disbelieving eyes. As I knelt at the altar, the officiator clasping my hand in the tokens of the holy priesthood, it wasn’t possible to feel gifted with divine knowledge. Yet the experience was no less powerful for it. As the ordinance workers disseminated the tokens throughout our party, I saw little of godly secrets and everything of physical interactions turning strangers into something more. The temple rites weren’t—or, at least, didn’t need to be—divine esoterica; they were a corporeal induction into a society of fellow travelers.
But mostly I felt all the same enlightenment I had felt as a believer. Disbelief didn’t prevent the familiar language from resonating in my bones. It didn’t harden my heart so much that I wasn’t touched by the elderly couple receiving their endowments in preparation for their sealing. It didn’t interfere with the pagan energy of standing in a circle, wearing ceremonial robes, and participating in communal prayer. Neither did it impede the visceral, intellectual pleasure that came as I embraced the Lord through the veil and delivered a word-perfect recitation of the exchange. And it didn’t intrude on the reverence—I know of no other word to use—I felt as I passed through the veil and entered the Celestial Room.
I sat down next to my wife on the white sofa and we, clad in our priesthood robes, shared an ecstatic look: we did it! Despite our recklessness, we had pulled it off. We basked in the joy of the experience for a few minutes, and I turned and whispered—this was the Celestial Room, after all—a question to her: “Do you feel guilty?” By all accounts we, or at least I, should have. I should have felt dark and loathsome for having made a mockery of God’s holiest ordinances. My presence ought to have caused the spirit to flee, ruining that elderly couple’s first time through the temple.
Nevertheless, I felt nothing of the sort. I didn’t feel dark; I felt enlightened. I didn’t ruin that couple’s experience; in fact, they thanked us at the prayer circle for the spirit we brought. Even my detached intellect found little to complain about. I didn’t regret taking advantage of the facilities. Years of tithing and volunteer work—much of it in the very temple I had trespassed—left my account well in the black. I don’t regret having dissembled my way in. Duplicity is a reality even for the honest in heart, and to be completely forthright I’m not sure I owe the church much in the way of straightforwardness.
The only concern that gave me pause was that perhaps I had violated the sacred space of a religion to which I no longer subscribed. Certainly I wouldn’t connive my way into a Muslim or Buddhist shrine; shouldn’t I feel guilty for doing intruding on a Mormon one? But I wasn’t trampling an outside religion when I encroached this Mormon soil. I was returning, albeit without authorization, to what had been my sacred space. I may not exactly belong, but I have paid my dues.
While I didn’t feel any guilt, I did feel an intense longing. A longing for a Mormonism secure enough not to be threatened by my disbelief. A longing for a church that uses its most powerful ordinances to bring people together rather than to exclude by the meticulous regulation of doxis and praxis. I had just learned that the temple ordinances were powerful and meaningful to me irrespective of belief, and I wished for a way to participate in them as a disbeliever.
I imagined attending a session while visiting family, each of us interpreting the rites in different ways while feeling united in shared heritage. Wishing even further, I dreamt of a Mormonism willing to broaden temple worship. The ordinances were in wild flux throughout the 19th century, adapting to the needs and whims of members and leaders; why stop there? I pictured a Christmas Eve temple service, a Mormon answer to Midnight Mass: the lights dim, perhaps candles lit, a ward or stake gathered around the altar in sacred garb. They pray, drawing on each other for light and warmth through the dark and cold of winter. There needn’t be a detailed script or rigid barriers to entry; a close-knit community would be enough.
Even then I knew my dream of open, inclusive temple worship was idealistic, unlikely to be realized. For now, however, everything was right. Somehow the experience had turned out perfectly. After a few more minutes of quiet reflection we stood up, and as we walked out of the Celestial Room, I looked back, just for a moment, and caught a final glimpse of the Mormonism from which I had walked away.
I turned, faced forward. And I kept walking.