I went to the Temple for the first time when I was nineteen, in preparation for my mission. I had taken a temple prep class but the culture of secrecy didn’t serve me well. For instance, until I was seventeen, I thought that I would have to go through the Temple in the buff! When I finally did go, I fully expected to see angels there. I thought that was what all the secrecy was about. I was quite disappointed. There were many other strange things there that I wasn’t prepared for. I could see that I would have to return often if I was going to figure out what it was all about. Since that first visit in 1987, I have attended a lot. Some out of a feeling of obligation, but mostly out of a sincere desire to learn. The ceremony has changed over the years, and I’m happy to say that I have too. During those first obligatory visits, I was being obedient. I thought that I was fulfilling a cosmic requirement and helping dead people do it too. I have no way to know absolutely if either of those old presumptions is valid (though I have my suspicions) but I have found value in participating for other reasons.
Making sense of our existence is among the oldest of human pursuits. Much energy has been used testing theories and grasping at straws. Belief in Magic and other supernatural phenomena are a way for us to stay sane when we encounter things that we don’t understand. It gives a temporary, tentative explanation as we continue to search for answers. Revelation, science and logic have given insights that debunk some old superstitions, but all of these pursuits are subject to the personal experience of individuals. When we are presented with something that doesn’t fit with our experience in the world, we tend to create a theories. In science it’s called a hypothesis and it provides the basis for further exploration. In religion, its called faith and it has the same purpose.
When events can’t be explained or justified through logic or observation, Humans tend to ascribe them supernatural forces. Psychologists generally consider this type of thinking to be irrational because the resulting explanations can’t be proven with a traditional scientific approach. They do not consider the highly subjective human emotional responses to be valid proof of supernatural occurrence. Still we persist. The conflict in our minds remains until we are able to change our thoughts either through new information, or a shift in perspective. One method of changing thought, employed widely by religion, is through ritual. Chanting, meditation, prayer, spells and incantations are used in great variety in almost every faith tradition. Ritual offers a way for us to exercise control in situations where we feel a loss of it. In extreme cases it can become a psychological defense mechanism that results in obsessive compulsive behavior, but if the ritual is deliberate, it offers new understanding. As we conscientiously participate in symbolic physical actions and consistent thoughtful phrases, ethereal principles are transferred to our brains in substantial ways and we present ourselves to receive revelation.
The process is highly subjective and dependent on the experience of each participant. A significant characteristic of religious ritual is that the symbolic physical practice doesn’t result in specific physical accomplishment or benefit. The effectiveness of the practice is in the change in thinking so our intent in engaging is crucial. Do we participate willingly, expecting to learn? to change our thinking? Maybe we just go through the motions, expecting that the effect will happen far away in time or in another dimension.
Part of the potential for change through ritual is the understanding of symbolism. Some rituals are cryptic, inviting us to find personal meaning on our own. This can provide for a highly personal experience but it can also lead to speculation and assumption. The most effective experiences will guide our thinking with specific universal symbols while allowing for personal application of principles. The Christian ritual of Eucharist or Sacrament provides the symbols of the body and blood of Christ, while allowing us the opportunity to consider the application of the atonement in our own lives.
Some rituals, including prayers and chanting, require participants to repeat rote words or phrases. If we assume a mystical benefit achieved by mindless repetition we miss the opportunity for greater understanding, spiritual guidance and the change in thinking which accompanies personal growth. It is this change in thinking that rituals are designed to accomplish. This is not to say that repetition of pre-determined phrases is meaningless, but that we can only benefit by conscientious engagement. Familiarity can lead to complacency.
There IS a mystical element. The positive, pleasing emotional response that comes unbidden as we explore spiritual matters, is not explainable by traditional scientific methods. We refer to it as the Holy Ghost and it is what we look for as confirmation of the validity of our pursuit. It is what we question and doubt with the passing of time. It requires energy and effort to maintain, and it is the fuel for the vehicle of our journey. Learning to recognize and trust this influence is one of the most difficult yet important things we can do, and participation in ritual can be an effective way to do it.
It may seem that the prayers, spells and incantations used in religion are an appeal to an unseen power for intervention. I cannot discount that possibility but, even with such supernatural assistance, the most effective result occurs when power is awoken within us. The realization of this power comes with consequence. Negative thinking and even curses will change thinking as well, when employed in similar ways. The conscientious application of the practice of ritual in our lives will result in the expression of the predominant principles we value.
The ordinances of the Priesthood are deeply symbolic. From the death/ resurrection/ rebirth symbolism of Baptism to the cleansing/ preparation of the Initiatory and the symbolic passage through mortality and on through eternity represented in the Endowment, these ordinances provide an opportunity to ponder the most poignant spiritual themes of existence. In the Temple we are invited to consider the purposes of creation and mortality as well as our eternal potential. We leave the Temple with these ideas and return to our lives. We can test the principles we’ve learned by adjusting our behavior. By acting on the insights from the Temple, we learn about ourselves, God and mortality. We take this new understanding back to the Temple where our new perspective gives us further insight. This cycle creates an upward spiral of personal growth that offers peace understanding and expansion. There are aspects of the temple rituals that are strange to us or that might be based on out-moded cultural constructs but as our understanding grows and perspective widens the benefits of participation can outweigh misunderstanding.
There are formal covenants that accompany every Priesthood ordinance. Each covenant is a promise with the power to change us. When we commit to a course of action, it changes how we think. The commitment guides our responses and shapes our behavior. In an obvious example, The commitment I made to my wife when we were married has guided my actions. Because I am committed to her, I will not pursue romantic relationships with other women. There are other behavioral changes that come from the promises made at marriage, but that is at the heart of it. Of course, the decision to make a covenant is just the beginning, but a promise, thoughtfully made, fully informed and with honorable intent, has great power to change and that is the real purpose and potential of the practice. Thinking and speaking with vision and intent can change our thought patterns, which will change our behavior, which will, of course, change our lives.
Uniformity and continuity are important aspects of ritual and ordinances. Besides providing a stable foundation and sense of security, the uniformity allows us to safely change our perspective as we revisit familiar concepts presented in a predictable way. It also leaves the possibility of participating in a thoughtless way. Again, Familiarity can lead to complacency. The ordinances of the Temple can be the pinnacle of transformative practice if we will allow it, and with the greatest potential for positive eternal consequences. In order for these rituals and ordinances to change us in the way they can, we need to be engaged, we need to find ways to relate the principles to our own experience and allow this new understanding to move us closer to God(hood).
“And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.”
D&C 84: 19, 20