Do you remember that old song that says, “Mares eat oats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy; a kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?” For years, as a child, I sang that song as a string of nonsense syllables, seeing absolutely no meaning in the words I muttered. I would sing, “Mairsy dotes and dozy dotes, and liddil amb zee divvy; a kiddle e dyvie two, wouldn’t you?” That’s what I thought everyone else was singing because that’s what I heard. It just never occurred to me that I was misunderstanding what I had memorized, until one day when it all fell into place.
More to the point, until then no one knew that I didn’t know what I was singing because what I sang sounded quite correct to them. They thought I knew what I was saying, so no one attempted to correct me.
Latter-day temples, stunningly beautiful though they may be, are unlike any other structures in Christendom. In fact to even the casual observer, there seems to be very little Christian about them, inside or out.
Outside, the symbols and markings, where present, are not those seen in other religious architecture. There are no gargoyles, no angels, no crosses and no statues of saints. Instead, all icons are either conspicuous by their absence, or there are copious illustrations of stars, planets and suns.
Inside as well, there is a striking absence of ritual and liturgy typically associated with Christianity, baptism and marriage being the two exceptions. References to Christ are infrequent, oblique and incidental, rather than being central. It’s as though the focus of the temple was almost entirely on something else.
The dissimilarities are pronounced and striking. They are especially so to those who enter a temple for the first time. The reaction of novice attendees to what they hear and see there ranges from mild surprise to outright shock. The temple ceremonies are so foreign to them, newcomers must be assisted throughout as to what to do and say in each rite. Nothing in their experience up to this point, in church teachings and practices outside the temple, prepares them for the oddity, strangeness and peculiarity of the temple odyssey.
Most accept the experience with equanimity, quietly accepting the apparent abnormality of the experience on faith alone. Some few are incredulous, openly rejecting the rites and ceremonies as foreign to their personal creed. In the end, conformity and compliance win the day as most initiates hide their surprise or dismay with either silence or expressions of the beauty and enormity of it all.
Those few who can bring themselves to articulate their surprise, confusion and incredulity by asking for an explanation are greeted with a trite statement from church and temple authorities, who usually explain to the quizzical party that with regular temple attendance and prayerful inquiry, it will all be made clear in good time.
Therefore, what is said and done in LDS temple rituals is mostly a mystery to Mormons.
In order to reconcile the obscurity and unfamiliarity of what they have been taught, temple worthy Mormons assume that the sole source of these temple rites and rituals is nothing less than pure revelation from God, that those things are consummately sacred, so above and beyond our poor intellects that we can scarce comprehend them, much less begin to understand them. Therefore, they assuage their confusion and ignorance by assuming that what is said and done within modern temples is uniquely spiritual and celestial, exceeding the grasp of our blinkered intellects. Thus they reason that any attempt to decipher them is doomed to failure in our benighted, telestial state.
On a personal note, my temple experience more or less paralleled that of my fellow Mormons — until my research unfolded an entirely unexpected yet welcome benefit. I learned that the temple is a monument to the ancient heavens, the primeval heavens. It is a memorial in stone and ritual of the astral drama that unfolded in Earth’s ancient heavens, a sacred, cultural treasure trove of information. What happens inside is all … I say ALL … about the same thing as we see on the outside, where icons are present: stars, planets and manifestations that emerged in our ancient skies and the traditions that evolved from them.
It was at that juncture that it became abundantly evident that what was rehearsed in our temples was the same, traditional story told in the sacred space of religions the world over. That this ancient story is also repeated in modern temple ritual, erected by prophets of God, is a powerful witness to the validity of the Restored Gospel. Joseph Smith had no access to this type of information in that bygone era, except it came through revelation, as he professed.
What a stunning development. I had followed the logic and rationale of avant-garde or maverick scholars regarding obscure, mythological and traditional beliefs, tested their conclusions against statements of modern prophets — especially those of Joseph Smith — only to find that this information made plain the meaning of temple iconography and ritual.
It has become apparent to me that Joseph Smith and his successors had a clear vision of what had happened in the past, a vision that is distinctly different than that held by sectarian and secular scholars alike in our day and age. And like their predecessors, the Old Testament prophets, our Savior and his Apostles in the New Testament as well as the holy men in every other ancient culture, these modern prophets had restored and preserved that cosmological tradition in modern temples.
Along with that conviction came the realization that my fellow Mormons knew nothing of this. Even temple officiators who enacted those sacred temple dramas and rituals, including temple presidents, knew nothing of the meaning in what they were doing. None had been able to explain them to me. So I was left to assume that they did not understand the origins and meaning of what they were doing and saying.
This state of affairs left me incredulous. How could the meaning behind all this sacred ritual and architecture be lost while the vehicle designed to retain it has been so well preserved? Certainly, those who instigated it, beginning with Joseph Smith, knew the meaning of these rites. Such was no fortuitous accident. Church authorities have faithfully preserved our temple traditions for a dozen generations since Joseph Smith first established them in the 1840s; yet no one today can or will say what they mean or what they represent.
It’s quite odd, actually, when I think about it — preservation without comprehension. Yet, that’s what’s happened.
This is why at the outset of this monograph I cited the instance from my own experience. Like my “Mares eat oats …” story, that’s what the temple ritual is to today’s initiate and worker alike — mummery and mimickery with no comprehension of its truly profound meaning. It’s quite tragic and wonderful, both at the same time. The entire meaning is preserved, thankfully, but with absolutely no comprehension of its implication. What a stunning state of affairs.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2009