But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it. And many nations shall come, and say, 'Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths:' for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
I know that God views men and women equally. I know that the scriptures support this. I have received witness from the Holy Spirit that I can do anything a man can do, and that one day through the power of the Atonement, all of the remaining pieces of patriarchy will be done away with and women will take their rightful place as full equals in all aspects of society. For this reason, I have struggled for many years with some portions of the endowment ceremony which seem to be incompatible with this truth.
We are taught that the temple is the apex of our religious experience and that great truths are taught therein. We are taught that it is a glimpse of what heaven is like. So, when certain aspects seem less than heavenly, it causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance. This is what happened to me. While there are multiple parts of the endowment ceremony that have caused concern for some feminists, the only part that concerned me was the hearken covenant.
At first, I dismissed it as irrelevant to my life because I'm not married. But then I realized that since I do plan on marrying someday, I need to deal with it. For the longest time, I dealt with it by not dealing with it. Sitting through an endowment ceremony became too spiritually painful, so I simply didn't go. I would participate in baptisms, confirmations, initiatories, and sealings, but I would avoid the endowment like the plague.
A few months ago, I started to think that maybe I should give it another chance, that maybe I would gain some new insight that would make it ok. Perhaps there was a reinterpretation that would redeem the ceremony for me. Just as I was setting out to become a mental gymnast, Spunky posted a fabulous post at The Exponent that gave me hope. It's entitled Hearken: The Symbolism of the Bride, the Bridegroom and the Marriage. She posited that the hearken covenant has nothing to do with the relationship between men and women, and everything to do with the relationship between Christ and the church. The Bible is filled with symbolic language where Christ is viewed as the husband and the church is viewed as the wife. So, since the temple is symbolic, what is really going on is that the Church must listen to Christ. Although I'm still not thrilled with the use of female imagery to denote subordination, I can live with it because it's infinitely better than the typical interpretation.
I decided, as part of my New Year's resolutions, to give the endowment ceremony another try. After discussing my concerns with a few like-minded friends, I decided to go to the temple after work yesterday. I poured out my heart to God about everything that was on my mind and told Him I wasn't leaving until I got some answers.
I had planned on attending the 6:00 PM session (sessions are on the hour). Traffic was kind to me, and I arrived at 5:05. I decided to take some pictures of the grounds, since the lighting was good. I got a particularly lovely picture of the temple itself. Unfortunately, because the sun was setting, I was unable to get a photo of my favorite part - the inscription on the front of every temple: "Holiness to the Lord. The House of the Lord."
Then, with some trepidation, I went inside. I had a long time to sit in the chapel and meditate. As I was trying to think, some ordinance workers just outside the chapel struck up a rather loud conversation about bronchitis. I tried to ignore them and continue my meditation, but to no avail. Then I stewed for a few minutes. Then, finally, I realized that if I wanted some peace and quiet, I would have to say something. I poked my head out of the chapel and politely asked them to lower their voices. Then I glanced up at the nametag of the offender and realized I had just shushed the shift coordinator. He looked a bit sheepish and apologized. Then I sat back down and reveled in the blissful silence.
A short while later, the shift coordinator tiptoed into the chapel and thanked me for letting him know he had been too loud and told me I did the right thing. The lesson I drew from this is that if there are things that are hurtful going on in the church (even in the temple), they are due to human mistakes, not some divine conspiracy to make things miserable. And, if something is causing problems, it's perfectly acceptable to politely raise the issue, even if the offender is someone in authority.
The session began. There were a total of 9 people (12 if you count the ordinance workers). At this point, it's almost as if I became an observer, not a participant. I heard the words, but they just washed over me. Two things stood out to me. The first is that there is a difference between the endowment and the presentation of the endowment. The second thing derives from the Brigham Young quote at the beginning of the ceremony describing what the endowment (i.e. the thing itself, not its presentation) is. Boiled down to its elements, the endowment is the knowledge that we can speak directly to God and enter into His presence. Nothing more, nothing less.
So, the entire ceremony is window dressing. It doesn't really speak to me, but the deeper truth does resonate. The pinnacle of the ceremony is when we speak to God and are invited into His presence. None of the rest of it is essential.
Nerd alert here - I'm going to draw an analogy to Star Trek. (I'll italicize my discussion of Star Trek so that it will be easy to identify when I'm talking about the temple again.) There's an absolutely wonderful episode of Star Trek: Voyager entitled "Sacred Ground". Ever since I first saw that episode, I felt that it was teaching a great spiritual truth, but I couldn't quite grasp what it was. In the episode, a crew member is critically injured while visiting an alien shrine. Captain Janeway pleads for medical information to save the crewmember's life and is told that the ancestral spirits are the only ones who can heal her. Janeway receives permission to embark on the most sacred rite of their faith in order to talk with the ancestral spirits.
She studied the anthropological database to get an idea of what other religious quests are like so she could have some idea what to expect. As the ritual begins, she is shown into a room where three people are sitting down. The people said "We're waiting." She asks them how long they've been waiting and they don't have an answer. She reasons that this is some sort of test of her sincerity and she pounds on the door proclaiming that she's ready for her quest. The next several scenes show her going through difficult physical tasks, feats of strength, etc. All the while, her guide keeps saying "Everything you're going through is meaningless." At the conclusion of the rite, she leaves, believing that she has what she needs. As it turns out, she didn't have what she needed, so she returned to try again. When she began again, she entered the first room, and the three individuals once again said, "We're waiting." Realization suddenly dawned on her that these were the ancestral spirits, and she begins talking to them. The spirits told her that the quest she went on was meaningless, but that she needed it in order to feel like she had accomplished something. Then Janeway asks the spirits for the knowledge necessary to save her crewmember, and she is given what she needs.
So, the temple is like this. We, as humans, need ritual in order to comprehend the divine. Otherwise we might walk right on by while God sits there waiting. The ritual itself isn't what is important, though. It's the communion with God that matters. So, while I haven't suddenly fallen in love with the endowment ceremony, I am now at peace with it because I understand that it's not about the ceremony at all.
I still prefer other temple ordinances, and I still prefer to commune with God in nature. And that's ok. That's what works for me, so that's what I'm going to do. But at least I've now gotten to the point where I can attend an endowment session when it's socially expected (like when family members or friends receive their endowment) without it doing harm to my soul. And that is a miracle.
Because the temple is a sacred topic to many, I'm turning on comment moderation for this post. Comments that quote lengthy excerpts from the temple ceremony or otherwise treat sacred things lightly will not be posted. Comments that violate the comment policy will not be posted. Please be patient in waiting for your comment to appear; moderation takes time.