Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Mormon Questions: Temples

A couple weeks ago, my brother was married in the temple in Bountiful, Utah. Temples are an important part of my beliefs as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, so I thought I'd take some time to explain what they're about and answer some common questions.

First, though, a brief note. To understand our temples, you must understand that our religion is not just a codified series of moral guidelines. We believe that God is a real, physical being who communicates with us and blesses us as we follow his teachings. We also believe that each of us has a spirit which continues to live on after our death. The temple binds us to God eternally, far beyond our brief time here on Earth. If you try to understand the temple while ignoring these things, the things we do in the temple will make very little sense.

Bountiful, Utah temple. Click to see more photos.

Outside the temple

If you know anything about Mormon temples, you probably know that they've got beautiful architecture. Temples usually have stained glass windows, intricate stonework, and a design that draws the eye heavenward. Each temple is built to be a house of the Lord, a place where God is welcome. Quite literally, the phrase "The House of the Lord" is inscribed on the exterior of every temple. We make every effort to make each temple a beautiful place, representative of the respect and love we have for God.

"Holiness to the Lord. The House of the Lord."
Temple in Madrid, Spain

The grounds of each temple are generally open to the public and show the same dedication to serenity and peacefulness. They usually feature gardens and fountains, shade trees and benches, and it's common to see people taking pictures on the grounds or sitting on a bench study scriptures. Many temples also have visitor's centers, where guests can get more information and ask questions.

Fountain at the Oakland, California temple

Inside the temple

Temples are sacred buildings where we participate in ordinances (religious rituals or ceremonies) and make covenants with God. They are set apart from the outside world, dedicated to a specific purpose and free from external distractions. Upon entering, attendees change into white clothing and leave behind cell phones and other distractions. The temple is a quiet, peaceful, and reverent place. We are asked to speak in a whisper if we speak at all. Some rooms are set aside simply for contemplation and prayer, while others are meant to accommodate a specific ordinance.

If you've visited the churches or cathedrals of other religions, you might expect the interior of the temple to be a vast open space. In fact, the interior of each temple is simply a series of rooms, each with its own purpose. There are ceremonial rooms, administrative offices, hallways, chapels, and small meeting rooms, but no massive space for congregating. The same care that goes into the exterior of the temple goes into the interior as well; there are crystal chandeliers, intricate carvings and designs, beautiful stairways, etc. You can find some pictures of the interior of the temple on lds.org. (I was unable to find good photos of the temple interior that were licensed for use on other websites, so I'm afraid you'll just have to follow the link on this one.)

Temples are distinct from our meetinghouses, where regular Sunday worship takes place. In meetinghouses, we gather each week to learn about Christ through scripture study, talks, hymns, etc. We also take the sacrament (often known as "communion" in other Christian religions.) None of this happens in temples; in fact, our temples are not even open on Sundays. Temples are specifically focused on sacred ceremonies, not worship services. (If you're interested in attending one of our Sunday meetings, you can find a nearby meetinghouse on mormon.org.)

Temple ordinances (ceremonies)

That's my brother and sister-in-law. They're awesome.
The most celebrated ordinance held in the temple is eternal marriage. Mormons believe that a marriage under proper authority in the temple is effective not only "until death do you part," but throughout eternity. Mormons are known for a strong emphasis on the family, and this is part of the reason why—we believe that family life is not just a transient phase while we're here on earth, but rather an essential part of our eternal future. In the temple, couples are "sealed together" for time and all eternity, creating a new family unit that will last forever.

Another ceremony held in the temple is known as the endowment. It includes instruction about the pre-mortal existence of man, the creation of the world, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and their path back to God's presence. As with many scriptural accounts, the lessons to be learned from the endowment are not necessarily the literal ones in the text. Just as Christ wasn't teaching us that we should all literally build our houses upon rocks, the endowment isn't really instruction about how to live in the Garden of Eden. It's symbolic, a metaphor for our own lives. During the endowment, we make covenants (promises) to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and to participate in his Church.

After we have received ordinances for ourselves, we can also go to the temple to receive ordinances for the dead. This may seem unfamiliar, but it's a beautiful concept. Religious ordinances (baptism, endowment, marriage, etc.) enable us to live with God again and to receive tremendous opportunities and blessings. Without these ordinances, we cannot ever receive all that God wants to give us. However, there are many, many people who have died without ever having the opportunity to participate in these ordinances. It might seem that millions upon millions of God's children are condemned by no fault of their own.

Baptistry in the Salt Lake City temple

But God cares about all of his children. We believe that those who never had an adequate chance to learn about Jesus Christ and his teachings in this life will have that opportunity in the next life, being taught by those who have previously learned it. But learning is not enough; ordinances such as baptism are required for our eternal progression, and it's rather difficult to baptize a spirit. So, after we (the living) have received these ordinances for ourselves, we can go to temples as a proxy for those who have died, and participate in various ordinances on their behalf. We are especially urged to do this work for our own ancestors, offering them the same opportunities that we have received. Baptisms for the dead, endowments for the dead, and even marriages for the dead are all performed in the temple in order to extend the blessings of each ordinance to those who have gone before.

It would be incorrect, though, to say "Well, we've done a baptism for Gertrude Hazelswatch (born in 1628), so now she's a Mormon too." When we participate in temple ceremonies on behalf of the dead, we are only offering up the physical part of the ordinance. Each deceased person continues to live on as a spirit, and the baptism we perform on their behalf means nothing unless that person accepts the associated commitments. If they do not accept the commitments associated with baptism, they are not bound by them and the baptism means nothing. However, we cannot know who will accept or reject these commitments, so we offer them to as many as we can and hope that they will accept it.

Visiting the temple

In order to preserve the reverent atmosphere that exists in temples, dedicated temples are only open to church members in good standing. However, after construction on a temple is completed, a temple "open house" event is held over several weeks. During this time, the public is invited to tour the temple. These open houses are usually very well attended, as it is the only chance for the general public to enter the temple. There are only a few temples built each year worldwide, so these open houses are fairly rare. If you happen to be in Utah this month, it might be worth your time to visit the Ogden, Utah temple open house, roughly 45 minutes north of Salt Lake City. The temple has been undergoing major renovations, and will be dedicated in September 2014. Reservations to attend are available free online.

There's also a temple nearing dedication in Phoenix, Arizona. Open House dates have not yet been announced, but it will probably be late 2014.

If you're not going to be able to catch an open house, you might be interested in stopping by a visitor's center. There are 143 temples in operation around the world, including many throughout North America, and most temples have visitor's centers that are open 7 days a week. You can find a list of temples here.

And that's it! If you've got a question I didn't answer or if you just want to tell me what you think, feel free to ask me on Twitter (@bjhomer) or send me an email (bjhomer@gmail.com).