In LDS thought, the veil as a symbol of the human condition is used in at least two distinct ways: (1) “a symbol for a separation between God and man,” and (2) “a God-given forgetfulness that blocks people’s memories of the premortal existence.” [“Veil,” Guide to the Scriptures at LDS.org.] The second veil, forgetfulness of the premortal life, appears to be impenetrable: I have never heard an officially endorsed account claiming this divinely imposed forgetfulness was lifted. But there’s a general sense that the first veil seems to rise and fall almost on demand. Prayers flow upward, inspiration flows downward, the Spirit pervades our meetings.
Strangely, the veil as “a symbol of separation between God and man” appears rhetorically in LDS discourse primarily in claims of close communion between God and man. Here’s President Uchtdorf from the October 2009 General Conference: “As we draw near to Heavenly Father, we become more holy. … This greater light leads to the unspeakable ministerings of the Holy Spirit, and the veil between heaven and earth can become thin.” Or Ezra Taft Benson, quoted in the April 1993 Ensign: “The spirit world is not far away. From the Lord’s point of view, it is all one great program on both sides of the veil. Sometimes the veil between this life and the life beyond becomes very thin.” It has become almost a stock phrase. A 1995 Ensign article quotes a member of the Church on genealogy work: “The veil is thin when you do family history.” Most Mormons hear it from time to time across the local pulpit. As veils go, this one is highly permeable. It is thin whenever someone wants it to be.
Or is it? Consider a couple of historical examples. The status of the LDS priesthood ban was controversial for decades. In David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, Gregory Prince traces David O. McKay’s concerns back to 1921, when he requested of President Grant an exception to the ban on behalf of a black Mormon in Hawaii. In 1954, President McKay visited South Africa, expressing sympathy regarding the effects of the “policy” (his term) yet declining to rescind the policy “until a new revelation comes.” Prince summarized:
In the years since 1978, many in the church have supposed that [LDS Church President Spencer W.] Kimball received the revelation because he asked the Lord, whereas his predecessors, including McKay, did not. … Yet in the decades following [McKay’s] death, it has gradually become apparent that he wrestled with the subject for years and years, making it a matter of intense prayer on numerous occasions.
There were few issues of greater import for the Church in the mid-20th century, yet it appears that it took decades of prayerful attempts before a clear divine communication pierced the veil.
A strikingly similar pattern characterized the decades preceding the 1890 Proclamation ending (more or less) the official LDS practice of plural marriage. That announcement came when the political and economic pressure on the Church had become extreme. No doubt that context made President Woodruff’s prayerful requests more intense and more humble, but still it would appear that it took decades of inquiry by the highest leaders of the Church to obtain a divine concurrence. [Alternatively, one may argue there was no divine communication, that Woodruff simply acted to save the Church with the hope that God would sustain his action. One might also argue that no prior LDS President, or Woodruff before the crisis he faced in 1890, ever inquired of the Lord on the subject. Neither alternative seems plausible. It took decades for an answer to come, or for an LDS leader to feel that an answer had come.]
That it takes decades for a message to get through to senior LDS leaders regarding these terribly pressing issues seems to show that the veil is truly thick, not thin. While folk doctrine holds that the veil somehow gets thin at special places (temples) or at special times (nearing death) or for special people (LDS leaders), there is very little official doctrine to support such convenient assumptions, and the historical episodes reviewed above suggest the symbolic veil that separates God from us is anything but thin. It’s a barrier, not a conduit. My suspicion is that, most of the time, we are on our own.