Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Some Keys to Understanding the Temple

I damaged my car trying to get to the Temple on time to watch a near-and-dear kindred receive her endowment. I barely made it. When I saw her afterward, the look of perplexity on her face was obvious. "Here come the questions," her sister whispered.

Not that it is right to discuss the Temple so openly, but we, as a group, began sharing insights to help a newcomer. In the course of the discussion, others in the party shared their insights about the Temple, and I was amazed at how backwards and misinformed some notions were. If that small sampling of what people think the Temple is about is in any way indicative of the broader membership of the Church, then confusion and ignorance, and a false confidence in our grasp of the subject, dominate the majority of the saints.

Perhaps what my uncle said on a related subject is true—those who understand it don't talk about it, while those who talk about it don't understand it.

I heard that President McKay, then in his nineties, looked at the ceiling thoughtfully in a meeting with the Twelve, and said something like, "You know, I think I'm finally starting to understand the Temple." This gives me hope and trepidation; hope because it is not a crime to feel lost regarding the meaning of the Temple, and trepidation because I was raised in a home furnished with a microwave, and have come to expect immediate and convenient solutions to problems and answers to questions. This sense of entitlement to convenience must be left at the door of the Temple; there are no privileged patrons. David O. McKay also said that the Temple, seen for what it is, shows us our step-by-step ascent back into the presence of God (said this at a fireside; it was written down and quoted by Truman G. Madsen).

Below is a list of things I have found helpful in gaining insight about the Temple. When I am doing the things I have listed below, understanding flows more readily. I present them as personal advice, rather than as commandments, excepting the scriptures I quote.

1. Keep covenants made in the Temple. This idea was taught to me by the President of the Temple where I served my mission.

2. Attend the Temple often. Obvious, yet easy to neglect. (Elder Scott suggests once a week, and makes up for those weeks he misses.)

3. Excel at the basics (Faith in Christ, Repentance, Baptism and other ordinances, the Gift of the Holy Ghost and actively receiving His influence and following His promptings, and enduring to the end in humility). In Alma 26:22, we read Ammon's great discovery about gaining access to deep mysteries: "Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls to repentance, even as it has been given unto us to bring these our brethren to repentance." Temple ordinances were given by revelation. As such, they are meant to be understood through revelation. Be worthy to receive it.

4. Keep our revelations, inspiration, manifestations, spiritual experiences, insights, etc., to ourselves (unless prompted to share them with others; see Alma 12:9, D&C 63:64). Joseph Smith said, "The reason we do not have the secrets of the Lord revealed unto us is because we do not keep them, but reveal them; we do not keep our own secrets, but reveal them to the world, even to our enemies, then how would we keep the secrets of the Lord? I can keep a secret till Doomsday" (TPJS, p. 195). Brigham Young later recapitulated this idea. It is tempting to think that we could drag someone who is a novice to our current level of understanding, but the Lord will determine who is ready to hear what, and grant us the information we need (D&C 121:33) when we need it (Isaiah 28:10). Respect others' right to enjoy discovery; don't expect to open the eyes of the blind, either (especially the willful blind).

5. Joseph Smith also taught that God had often sealed up the heavens because of covetousness in the church (TPJS, p. 9). Eliminate covetousness to foster an environment conducive to revelation.

6. Compare the scriptures with the Temple. The corresponding similarities and patterns between them are not accidental. Margaret Barker has called the Temple the "main character of the Bible." If anyone can read the Bible and come away convinced that the Temple is obsolete or irrelevant, they must be reading a different version than mine. Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus Christ, His Apostles, Paul, and many other outstanding figures of scripture share a fervent, ardent enthusiasm for the House of God. "The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up," says the scripture of Jesus as he cleansed the Temple with a braided whip (John 2:17). He called it "My house," and "My Father's house." The Lord avoids re-revealing what He has already said before, or what is already available. The Lord, Moroni, and other messengers who came to Joseph Smith from the other side of the veil, often quoted scripture to him. Revelations of things that had been lost, or had never been seen before at all, were recorded as revelations, and became new scripture. Look in the scriptures first to see if the answer is there before you storm into the Temple and demand an audience with the Temple President.

7. Compare the modern Temple with the ancient one. We cannot appropriately discuss the modern Temple publicly, but we can discuss the Tabernacle of Moses, the Temple of Solomon, and the Temple of Herod openly. We can learn a lot about the meaning of modern Temples by examining the original. Information about them is published in the Bible and other historical records that have surfaced over the centuries. Hugh Nibley has demonstrated that bits and pieces, and even large segments of the Temple are present throughout the ancient world, scattered across space and time. The phrase, "faith of our fathers" does apply to the Temple, not just for Israel, but all nations.

8. Ask the Lord what He wants us to learn, rather than coming up with our own questions. Often, our concerns and curiosity are far removed from His concerns for us. The Lord has His own agenda, and our goal should be to align our lives with His will, not the other way around. If our understanding is unaided by revelation, it is possible for us to come up with nonsense questions that are riddled with false premises. Asking the right questions is as important as being worthy and ready to receive answers. Miracles, revelations, and the things of the Spirit cannot be commanded by us; when we are impudent enough to set a date by which we expect the Lord to explain something to us, it will probably be met with silence. He has His own calendar, and getting ourselves in tune with it should be a major goal. (To accelerate readiness to receive new insights, see point 4.)

9. Work in the Temple. Instead of just being a patron, ask your Bishop about being recommended to work in the Temple. Unlike other positions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is a calling we are encouraged to ask for. Spend hours marinating in the Spirit that permeates the Temple, and inspiration will flow.

10. Remember that there are multiple correct answers to questions about symbolism. The Temple is like an onion, with layers of meaning. I was amazed to learn that for certain math problems, there are multiple correct answers. Symbolism is the language of Temples, but one symbol can appropriately represent multiple things. For instance, the baptismal font represents the grave, both dying and burial in immersion, and resurrection in emerging from the water; it also represents a bath, or cleansing; it represents the womb, being completely surrounded by water and being born again as Jesus stipulates in John 3. And these are not a comprehensive list of possible interpretations of the symbolism of the baptismal font. If someone asks what the font represents, any of these answers would be correct, but none by itself would be complete. Fooling ourselves into thinking we have the "right" answer to any question about the Temple may be the single biggest barrier to understanding the Temple. Finding a new insight about the Temple is less like reaching a finish line in our education, and more like reaching a milestone along the way.

11. WAKE UP! Pay attention inside the Temple. Don't snooze through the session. Bring questions, be observant. Get plenty of sleep before you go. Leave your watch in you locker, as Elder Scott advised.

12. Care about it. Closely related to staying awake and observant inside and outside the Temple is simply caring about it. The apathy of dutiful quota fillers and clock watchers is rewarded in the cafeteria or a malt shop after the obligatory work is done; dessert for the one who loves the Temple IS the Temple itself. If we are interested in the things of this world, the Temple loses its luster, and vice versa. "Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson..." (D&C 121:35). If our hearts are far from the things God cares about (i.e., the Temple) how can we expect to find joy in it, let alone expect revelations and insights from God about it? On the other hand, how could a parent resist teaching a child who exhibits interest in his work and concerns? How could the Lord resist teaching us about something so dear to His heart when we cherish it too? A good way to gauge our distance from the Lord is to examine the intensity (or tepidness) of feelings about the Temple. His concern for it is white-hot; how warm is ours?

13. Get a broad education. Biology, astronomy, architecture, philosophy, literature, drama, history, math, art, and many other fields, have each played a role in expanding my understanding of the Temple. None of them have played a central role, but answers to questions reside there nonetheless. I am grateful to have lived in a society where I could learn about each field, if only enough to get a sampling of what was there. There are also excellent books written on the Temple itself by LDS authors and others which shed enormous light on the House of the Lord. Being educated about the world in which we live will make the world of the Temple open up that much more. Do not neglect your education, secular or spiritual.

14. Search for patterns in the Temple. God made nature and the Temple; nature is fraught with patterns. We see patterns in flowers, leaves, rocks, waves, and everything else in nature. Why should there not be patterns embedded in the instruction we receive in the Temple? Symmetry, repetition, and other patterns can be seen by one who is attuned to them.

The Temple is like a deep forest filled with trails. Ironically, the map that gives us a complete overview is only to be found at the end of the trail, after we have successfully navigated the forest and completed the journey. The Holy Ghost is our guide, not only in day-to-day living, but in understanding the Temple as well. He is the figurative compass, the iron rod that we can hold fast to in order to arrive safely at our destination. I personally believe that complete understanding of the Temple is impossible for mortals; it is too complex for the mind to grasp in its entirety. Insights about its meaning are available to us. The more I learn about it, the more improbable the idea that Joseph Smith concocted the endowment becomes. It is a constant witness to me that he is a true prophet. The Temple is as close to heaven on earth as I have ever come. It welds individuals into a community fit to receive the Savior, and so it is at once private and sacred, as well as indispensable to fostering unity among the Latter-day Saints. I love it, and hope to learn all there is to know about the Temple one day.
21 February 2012

Post script:
Here is a quote from Brigham Young that should inform our quest to get our bearings in the search for understanding of the Temple. He explains what we are going into the "forest" to obtain:

"Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell."

There are no extraneous parts to the Temple, but this quote certainly gives us a sense of focus, what our target is, what we are there to collect. I think of it as a kind of thesis for the Temple endowment.
3 May 2012

Post-post script:
I have related an idea to several people over the last few years, pertinent to the topic at hand. The Temple is protected by what I call "a Forcefield of Yawns." The endowment, and virtually everything else that happens in the Temple, has been publicized by anti-Mormons many times. The "what" has been broadcast, but as for the "why," every such source leaves you high and dry. What is the meaning of it all? They are clueless, helpless to give any salient response.

Even those who have a passing curiosity, who deliberately turn their brains on to grasp the symbolic significance of it all, hit a road block in their search for meaning. Those who are not meant to understand it, who are not yet ready, will listen to explanations for about five minutes before becoming distracted, emitting an involuntary yawn, and giving up. Isaiah's writings have a similar protection around them. Only those who are ready to understand it will get it, and the rest of us will suffer through his poetic prophecies in confusion and befuddlement. Jesus recommended studying the words of Isaiah to the Nephites, and this is the only instance of a specific prophet's writing receiving the Lord's endorsement. Everything else is a charge to search the scriptures diligently.

The Temple is similar; it is a personal journey of revelation, and we can be led to understand it by the Lord when we are in tune. Anti-Mormons and a few well-meaning members have tried to give personal interpretations of the Temple in public, and the are usually miles off the mark (in my humble opinion). Those who understand it don't talk about it; those who talk about it don't understand it. Those who put their brains to the work of comprehension without the aid of the Spirit are doomed to give up in confusion.

It is our responsibility to not rob each other of the thrill of discovery, not to taint what the Lord might teach another with our own speculations or even genuine personal revelations. Strangely, most of them are hidden in plain sight, camouflaged rather than completely obscured. When the Spirit touches our minds, THEN they snap into focus, and we spend the rest of our lives wondering how we did not notice them before.
3 June 2012

Yet ANOTHER idea. This is as much a suggestion for enjoying the Temple as for understanding it:

Don't be in a hurry. If you are rushed, frantic, or anxious, your higher brain functions will be impeded, and you will be out of tune with the Spirit. God dwells in eternity, and He is not in a hurry; when we are "hectically engaged," as Elder Maxwell said, we will be out of tune. To enter the Temple is to leave the telestial world behind. Elder Scott admonished us to remove our watches when we go through the Temple. Again, God lives in eternity, not in a miniscule blip of time like us. The Temple gives us a bird's eye view of eternity; it is set on a hill for good reason, to point our eyes upward to God. Mountains filled the place of man-made structures anciently, and it requires a great deal of time and effort to arrive atop a mountain. You do not get on top of a mountain by accident. Nor do you sprint to the top. Patience is easier to speak and write about than to exhibit, but my witness is that calm entrance into the House of the Lord is rewarded with a richer spiritual outpouring than frantic worrying about schedules (or robotic performance of ordinances, for that matter).
7 September 2013

Limber up your imagination; bring it to the Temple. I do not mean we should trivialize that which is sacred; just be prepared to see unexpected connections and meanings. (This approach is especially effective when you follow point 13. An educated imagination is the seedbed of innovation.)