Sacred ceremonies: Latter-day Saints say temple worship must be experienced to be understood

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Thousands of Utahns have toured the new Draper LDS temple before its dedication this weekend. Millions may have watched the snippet of an LDS temple ceremony shown in a recent episode of HBO's "Big Love."

Still, Mormons feel that few outsiders have a full sense of what temple worship means to the faithful, or why they hold it so sacred. That's because the ceremony is richer and more powerful, they believe, than the architecture, the special clothing or even the ritual re-enactments.

It has to be experienced to be understood.

"The temple ritual is always participatory," Julie Smith of Austin, Texas, writes on "There is no observers' section."

J. Nelson-Seawright, a professor in Chicago, says it's a place out of time.

"When I enter, I lose track of clocks, hours, minutes and obligations," Nelson-Seawright writes. "We leave behind the cycle of appointments, bills and paychecks, of crimes and misdemeanors. The temple doors ... bring us into a radically streamlined sacred timelessness. The creation of the world and all its subsequent ages pass before our eyes. The immense, even colossal, realities of the physical world become a striking backdrop for the eternal drama of us."

Some templegoers find answers to personal problems while meditating in one of the sacred rooms. Others describe it as going to heaven and back. Most find a taste of godliness in the experience.

"I can go to the temple and feel close to God," LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland says in an LDS-produced video, "Why Mormons Build Temples," posted last week on the church's Web site.

Ann Madsen, an ancient-religions expert in Provo, calls the temple "the great metaphor on Earth for what heaven will be like."

The late Krister Stendahl, an internationally respected theologian at Harvard, once called Mormon temple worship "a beautiful thing."

"I could think of myself taking part in that act as a way of extending the blessings that have come to me in and through Jesus Christ," Stendahl says in the church's video. "It is a beautiful way of letting the eternal mix into the temporal, which in a way is what Christianity it about. ... It's making porous the wall between time and eternity."

A unique history

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been building temples since its earliest days in the 1830s. Mormons believe angelic visitors attended the dedication of the church's first temple in Kirtland, Ohio, on Sunday, March 27, 1836.

Several types of rituals are performed in these sacred structures.

First, Mormon volunteers are baptized by proxy in the name of ancestors who died without having a chance to be baptized into what they believe is the true church of Jesus Christ.

Second, they participate in a ritual re-enactment of the Creation, Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, mortal experience of the world, and the return to God's presence. At each stage of this progression, participants make covenants in the name of Jesus Christ.

Third, officials perform weddings, where couples are "sealed" for time and eternity.

These rituals were essential, LDS founder Joseph Smith said, to empower humankind "to overcome all things."

Critics claim that some of the temple rites were adapted from Freemasonry, after Smith participated in that fraternal order in Nauvoo, Ill. They point to the common use of symbols such as the all-seeing eye, the fraternal handshake, the compass and square as evidence of borrowing.

But Mormon apologists dismiss those claims as overestimating the influence of Masonry.

"Resemblances between the two rituals are limited to a small proportion of actions and words," Kenneth Godfrey writes in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism . "Latter-day Saints see their temple ordinances as fundamentally different from Masonic and other rituals and think of similarities as remnants from an ancient original."

What it does

After studying LDS temple rites and talking with believers, Mark Leone, a professor of anthropology at University of Maryland, concluded that the experience helped Mormons navigate their conflicts with modernity.

"The temple takes the reality a Mormon lives with, calls it true, necessary and painful; shows the bliss that comes from being valiant in the face of it; takes the fears out of it by immersing him in it inside the temple; and then sends the individual back out to start again," Leone wrote in a groundbreaking essay, "The Mormon Temple Experience: A Non-Mormon look at a Latter-day Saint's Most Sacred Ritual."

The whole experience is about order, Leone wrote. "They create a continuous line of relatives stretching back through the otherwise personally meaningless epochs of history."

It gives participants a "foretaste of eternal bliss," he wrote.

Kathleen Flake agrees.

The temple ritual is an embodied experience, not a logical argument, says Flake, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "It is not a sermon. It is not didactic. It makes use of other ways of knowing."

In the end, says Flake, a Mormon, the temple is an "instrument of sanctification. It leads us towards this thing called holiness."