Going through the temple as a non-believer

Something I read recently on Reddit reminded me of the last time I went through the temple, back in May 2014. The temple was an integral part of my faith journey. Temple worship started my journey deeper into orthodoxy and then in the complete opposite direction, eventually leading to my exit. I share this here, with the names redacted. Re-reading what I wrote back in 2014 helps me remember where I’ve been and how I got to where I am today.

      I went through an endowment session today as a non-believer. I have frequently asked for understanding and for others to be open to different/non-faithful conclusions. If I am asking others to be open, I must be open myself. I must be open to the possibility I am wrong, that I have come the wrong conclusions. While I no longer believe in a personal, interventionist God, I must always be open to the possibility. I have to be constantly willing to challenge my beliefs or lack thereof.

      It’s been over a year since I attended the temple. Temple attendance, at one time, was an integral part of my identity as a Mormon. The temple was a place for me to feel closer to God. It was a place with deep, layered symbolism. I felt that as I unlocked the symbolism and meaning in the endowment, it would provide me the answers to the deep doctrinal questions I was searching for, and allow me to witness God’s presence, while here on earth. This quest for knowledge is what eventually led to my non-belief.

      I told [my wife] in Jan 2013 that I no longer believed, and I agreed to keep wearing the temple garments. Several months back, after a heated disagreement, she packed up my garments in a bag and I didn’t wear them for 3-4 days. She requested that I put them back on, as it was very difficult for her seeing me without them. I agreed to put them back on with one stipulation- that I would only wear them until my temple recommend expired (which I thought was the end of May) or it was taken from me. We didn’t discuss the matter much further until a few days ago. I bought some white T-shirts at Costco. When [my wife] asked me what they were for, I told her they were to wear at night or perhaps under a dress shirt. She asked me when I would start wearing them. I responded that it would be just a few more days. She reminded me that our recommends expired at the end of June and I confirmed that indeed that was the case.

      The father of my good friend, [ ], just passed away and his funeral was today. I planned on attending the funeral along with a couple of other non-believing friends to show our support. I had thought previously about attending an endowment session before my recommend expired at the end of May (or so I thought) but just didn’t have an opportunity. As I donned a white shirt and tie for the funeral, I thought to myself, this is the best opportunity I would have. After the funeral, I had lunch with my other friends and headed off to the temple.

      I didn’t go with any preconceived notions on how I would feel or not feel. The only moment of nervousness I had was stepping out of the car after parking. What if my Stake President had deactivated my recommend? I walked slowly to the doors of the temple, and approached the desk. I handed my recommend over to the good brother manning his station. He scanned it, looked down, looked back up at me, and said: “Br. Taylor, welcome to the temple. Just remember, your recommend expires in a month.”

      This was all so familiar to me. I didn’t take a temple bag because I didn’t want anyone knowing I was going to the temple. I walked over to the clothing section and asked for everything but a white shirt. The two lovely sisters behind the desk were very cordial and helpful. I paid my $3.00 and headed toward the dressing room. I had a fleeting thought about someone stopping me and inquiring about my “unrighteousness.” I quickly dismissed that thought as I got smile after smile and nod after nod. There are no special powers of discernment in the temple to keep people like me out (I didn’t think this as a believer, either). As I got greeting after greeting I thought about how embarrassing it would be for a worker to “perceive” someone was unrighteous and to be wrong. The temple recommend is the only bonafides required for entry and participation. I had warm feelings for the workers as I passed them and was greeted by them. Suddenly, I had another fleeting fear. What if someone who knows I don’t believe, sees me? Will it be awkward? Will they think I have “repented” and now I am going back to full church participation? Will they tell anyone else they saw me?

      I entered the dressing room and the worker signaled the row and locker I should use. I quickly changed, grabbed my packet and headed for my blue paper. They no longer distribute them at the desk, but give them to you where the new name is issued. I made my way behind the curtain. A kind brother asked me my last name, showed me the blue paper and had me pronounce his name. I only remember his first name. It was Irwin. This brother then provided me the new name and sent me on my way. I headed up the stairs to the chapel. Surprisingly, I felt no trepidation. This was all so familiar to me.

      As I entered the chapel, it appears I must have just missed a session because it was nearly empty. I sat in the front row along with 7-8 other people. I looked around to see if I recognized anyone, and I did not. As more and more patrons entered the chapel I would look behind me and didn’t recognize a single one of them. I felt very much at ease and very peaceful as I listened to the elderly sister play hymn after hymn. As her foot moved back and forth over the wooden pedals, I wondered if she had any arthritis that made that kind of movement painful.

      I don’t really pray anymore but I offered a silent prayer at this time. I asked that if there was a Heavenly Father and my conclusions were incorrect, to please let me know. I don’t know what I expected. I really don’t know how that prayer would be answered. Would it take an angelic appearance to persuade me? Perhaps. Was I unworthy of an angelic appearance? I am no less worthy than Alma the Younger, or Paul was. And unlike Alma, I was OPEN to being corrected. Mary Rollins Lightner, when propositioned by Joseph Smith refused until she could get her own witness. Joseph encouraged her to seek such a witness/sign. She claims an angel visited her, and while the angel did not give her any instruction (Joseph said she scared the angel away because she covered her eyes), she accepted this as her witness and married Joseph in a polyandrous marriage.

      After about 20-30 minutes of reflection and attentiveness I still felt no special witness and had no special manifestation. I felt comfortable and at ease, just as I had upon entering the chapel, but no special or different feelings after my supplication.

      As we entered the endowment room and I sat down, I looked all around to see if there was a familiar face. I found none. I had forgotten about the new temple movie. This new movie came out after I stopped attending the temple. I was anxious to see it. I have to be honest, though, I was somewhat disappointed. The dialogue was extremely slow and it appeared as if they were enunciating every syllable, but very slowly, and the volume of their voices was very low, and they appeared to practically whisper at times. I had heard this was done purposely to facilitate translation to other languages. Nevertheless, it made me long for prior versions of the movie, which I was very familiar with. There was more emotion expressed in this movie, especially from Eve, and Adam. It appeared a bit forced to me though, and I did not like it. I liked the other Adams and the other Eves who came across more innocent, to me. I presume among believing members there will probably be a mix of those who really like it and those who prefer the prior versions.

      As I looked around the endowment room, surprisingly I had no critical feelings about the opulence of the temple. I don’t know why, because I certainly think the temples are more extravagant than they need to be. As the movie played, it appeared that all of the dialogue was the same but the cinematography was different. I didn’t care much for Elohim on a golden throne with a golden platform and steps. It just reminded me about how woefully inadequate any description of how “heaven” looks, really is. I had some passing thoughts about evolution as I saw the creation of the earth and how pictures of Adam and Eve appeared onscreen after the narrator described them being formed in the image of God. I had some pictures of Homo Habilis, Erectus, and Neanderthalensis flash through my mind as I envisioned them overlaying the faces of Adam and Eve and wondered again how those facts line up with the traditional narrative. I didn’t have many more critical thoughts.

      I wondered briefly if I would remember the proper way to don the clothing and other accouterments. When it came time to dress, it all came back to me, and I was the first one dressed just like I normally was on my many trips to the temple. It was all so familiar to me.

      As the endowment progressed I looked at the many patrons around me, all dressed in their temple clothing. I felt a deep sense of love and camaraderie. I’m not sure why. I watched a very elderly man in front of me. He was not able to raise his arms above the shoulder, and was therefore unable to make some of the signs. He had severe tremors in both hands. It was difficult for him to dress. I felt a lot of love and compassion for this man. I began to tear up and a couple of tears rolled down my cheeks. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is because this man finds meaning in what he is doing, much like the meaning I used find here in the temple. Who am I to judge these fine people who don peculiar clothing, recite unconventional oaths, and mimic unorthodox gestures? Whether or not they understand the origins or history behind these rites, it does not matter. They are finding a meaning and a purpose, something that was all so familiar to me.

      As the endowment neared a close, I had some distant memories of my first time through the temple. I remember being uncomfortable with the temple clothing, especially the hats. I remember reciting the penalties and making the uncomfortable gestures (pre- 1990 of course), of taking my own life should I not be faithful. I remember thinking “Is THIS my church?” I remember looking at my dad, thinking he may give me some kind of sign. He just looked straight forward and I had the thought, “Well, if it’s ok with him, I guess it’s ok with me.” I reflected on the origin of those penalties and gestures.

      They asked for prayer circle volunteers. They were 2 men short and I remained seated and hoped someone else would fill that gap. I used to volunteer for the prayer circle quite frequently when I attended. But today was an observation day for me. The brother at the altar gave a pretty standard prayer and the patrons repeated it. I sat silently observing. This was all so familiar.

      As I approached the veil, I had no fear or trepidation. I had recited the name of the 2nd token in my head and was comfortable I had remembered it all. As I extended my hand and repeated the names and signs, I did so quickly and without missing a word, just like I had done a hundred times previously. The brother on the other side of the veil sounded young. When he pulled me through the veil, he looked like he was in his 20’s. This was all so familiar to me.

      I moved into the celestial room. I was surprised again, that I had no critical feelings about the opulence of that decor. I said one more silent prayer. I don’t remember the words. I began to think about the elderly man in front of me, again. I got weepy, again. I’m not sure why. I never used to cry in the celestial room. I thought about my own father, who is in his 70’s. He has always been a paragon of strength and health. It was only recently, when he came down with a serious illness, that I saw for the first time in my life, a glimpse of his mortality and a glimpse of what his frailty may be like some day. I thought of my 87 year old father-in-law, who is beginning to show some of those signs of frailty. I thought about my friend’s father who just passed away. The church is everything to these fine men. It is how they derive purpose and meaning in their lives. I hope one day they may be able to understand me better, but I am grateful for this day, which helped me understand them better.

      I had no special witnesses or manifestations today. It’s interesting, because I have been told I am one of the very elect whom Satan is deceiving in these last days. If I am one of those elect, surely God can manifest to me, just like he did to Alma the Younger. For now, my conclusions are largely unchanged, but I am grateful for this final opportunity I had to re-visit the place that had been such an integral part of my life. My temple visit today was akin to visiting the house that I grew up in during my formative teenage years. Visiting that house brought back a flood of memories and much nostalgia. It brought feelings of gratitude for what I experienced there and how those experiences shaped me. I feel nostalgic that I can never go back and re-visit those days and I can no longer be that carefree teenager that had it all figured out. I feel much the same way about my membership in the church and my experiences in the temple. I am so grateful for the experiences I had that shaped me and made me who I am but it is time to move on. I had similar feelings as I attended the funeral today. It was all so familiar to me. The gathering in the chapel, ecclesiastical leaders presiding, hymns being sung, musical numbers performed. While church attendance and participation can never be the same, I enjoy re-visiting these memories from time to time. As I reflect back on today, my heart is full of gratitude. I am especially grateful for the man I once was, and even more grateful for the man I am now.

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