“He expected the temple to be more beautiful on the inside than it was…”
Just a few days prior to me and my wife taking our five daughters to the new Gilbert, Arizona temple, I sat for lunch with an LDS Stake President who had taken one of his friends to the temple who was also Roman Catholic. At the end of the visit, this Stake President was taken aback when his friend explained that he expected the temple to be more beautiful on the inside than it was. Statements like this can be a bit disorienting for Mormons since they have been taught from childhood that the temple is the most beautiful place on earth. Here’s my attempt to make sense of this perplexity.
You can learn a lot about a religion by how they create their most sacred of spaces. Sacred space provides meaning within a world of chaos, and sacred space is where the essence of the religion comes into sharpest focus. The Hajj pilgrimage for example teaches participating Muslims that their own individual story (regardless of race, gender, wealth, social status, etc) is directly intertwined with the prophets and messengers of old, and as such, this sacred space allows Muslims to attach their narratives to those of the larger Islamic community. Experiencing the sacred doesn’t just enable spiritual transformation, but it tells you what that transformation is to look like. We could observe this with any religion we wanted to look at: Krishna devotees and the Braj pilgrimage, Sufis and their shrines, Buddhists and pagodas, and Catholics and their Cathedrals. For Catholics, Cathedrals are places of deep reverence for the sacred, but also a place for congregants to participate in and experience this sacred power. Sacred relics with their own powers can be stored at these sites and the altars themselves are sometimes built atop the bones of ancient martyrs, becoming an appropriate setting for the miracle of Eucharist, where the sacred and the divine collide. The architecture of the buildings represent humanity’s best attempt to articulate the sacred and provide it visibility. Cathedrals are to be the most beautiful places on earth, and since the context was Europe, this beauty has been associated with kingdom and Jesus as King. It is awe-inspiring and beautiful.
Mormons hold their temples as the center place of what they deem sacred, yet there is no sense of kingdom or king when you walk in the doors, but rather that of corporation and family. The entrance room felt like I had entered a very well-to-do law office or the headquarters of a major and powerful corporation. As one would expect in such a setting, there are chairs for temple workers who check to see if you have the credentials to enter. During this open period however, all are welcome. Later on, you will need a “recommend” to enter, meaning you have proven your dedication and commitment to the institution itself, in which two ecclesiastical leaders will approve and sign after private interviews.
Once I entered the building, we were guided to various rooms, the lowest being the baptism font, where Mormons perform vicarious work for those who died without becoming Mormon. After climbing many stairs, we enter the top part of the sacred edifice and entered perhaps its pinnacle of sacred space – the “sealing room” where couples are married and families are bound “for time and eternity.” While in this room, those guiding us through had me and my children stand in front of a larger mirror and look in. Because there was another mirror just behind us, our family symbolically embraced infinity. This is the essence of Mormonism. The rest of this Mormon sacred space made more sense with this in mind. Another important room, the Mormon “Holy of Holies,” or “Celestial Room” represents a place where Mormons directly commune with God. By the time Mormons enter this room, they have been prepared and symbolically transformed into the divine. They make up part of its “living room.” This is consistent with most the rest of the temple interior which looks like the home of a person of extreme wealth – one that welcomes you as part of it. Lining the walls are religious paintings that add to the aesthetic of a comfortable place to dwell, and nothing there serves to make distinctions between what is worshipped and those who worship. It is not the pictures in the halls or the huge chandelier in this special celestial room, but rather the presence of the people who visit the “house of the Lord.” Their presence is what makes it sacred. They are transformed into the sacred, but in a uniquely Mormon way.
This “Celestial room” is of particular notice in our attempt to grasp the essence of Mormonism by way of looking at its architectural articulation of the sacred. On its surface, the room looks similar to what one might expect to see in the home of the most rich and famous of the world. Here, wealth glorifies God. This is not to say Mormons embrace the prosperity gospel that equates righteousness with worldly wealth, but it certainly makes the connection that heaven resembles that wealth. This is not the wealth to be gained by earthly economic fortune, but rather the belonging to the right heavenly community here on earth. Like Muslims on the Hajj, those who enter the temple once it’s dedicated put on new and simple clothes that make it hard to distinguish high class from low, rich from poor, powerful from weak. As you look at this Celestial room, you notice that there are no pictures of Christ and no images of the Cross. There are no relics. There is nothing that would give it away as obviously religious or sacred. Instead, it is adorned by plants, expensive carpet, sofas, tables and chairs. It looks like a place to hang out if you were so fortunate. Mormons call their temples “God’s house.” Indeed, it is a home where the sacred is understood to dwell, and where some Mormons speculate upon the possibility of “bumping” into Jesus himself, opening windows of Mormon temple folklore. This is Mormon cosmology and theodicy. It is the definition of what Mormons are to be transformed into. There may be messiness, poverty and chaos in the world, but once you enter into God’s house, those concerns are to disappear, and the eternal lends new perspective. This is to Mormons the ideal and beauty of their religion.
This family-centric ideal however is not easy for all Mormons, and I stumbled onto this in my visit as well. As I thought about the sacred within Mormonism and how family-centric it was, I recalled what was said by an older long-time-single lady that stood behind us in line. She had come already to this open house of the temple and was excited for it to be built so she could go more often without the long lines. She stated while in line that she struggled remaining part of the LDS church because she felt like a failure due to being single in a religion that prizes marriage and family above all else. She wondered how Mormonism applied to her. She still seemed bothered by it and had her struggles, but the temple and its sacred space seemed to provide comfort for the very anxiety it helped create. Scholars of religion have found that the sacred often dwells within contradictions and perplexities, and here Mormonism offered no exception. As I stood in between the mirrors with my family gazing into the Mormon sense of the sacred, it was hard not to think about how this woman felt as she stood by herself in the same spot.