As I stood in front of the new Mormon Temple in Liberty, Mo., it struck me as ironic that close to 175 years ago, Mormons were forced out of this same state.
Whereas the Missouri public once urged their governor to force Joseph Smith and his followers out of the area surrounding Kansas City, Mormons began to return to the region in the 1900s, eventually gathering in such large numbers that the Church organization decided the region needed a temple.
Which is why I came to visit.
Latter Day Saints restrict temple access to members of their denomination who have proven themselves to be faithful and dedicated adherents. Because Mormons believe temples are the most sacred places on earth, one needs to be prepared to enter them by being an active member of the Church. (In contrast, chapels, where Mormons hold Sunday worship, are open to everyone. Temples are used only for certain rituals and are not open on Sunday so that Mormons can be at their chapel services.)
When a new temple is built, anyone may enter prior to its dedication. So, always curious to learn about the faith of others, I didn't want to miss an opportunity to see a site normally closed off to an Episcopal priest like myself.
My visit seemed all the more timely because Mormons have been in the news a lot lately, and so have their temples. Elizabeth Smart recently married her husband in a temple in Hawaii during a ceremony called a sealing, in which the couple and close Mormon friends and family gather together to witness God joining the couple together for time and all eternity. In less complimentary news, Elie Wiesel took Mitt Romney to task for his faith's practice of baptisms of the dead, which also take places within temple walls.
These headlines, in addition to my own curiosity, motivated my visit to the new temple in Kansas City, and with my curiosity came some questions:
What does a Mormon temple look like, and what happens inside it?
Would I feel God's presence in this space, even though it's not a space that's sacred for me?
Before I go any further -- and because I know it's the question at the front of your mind, dear reader -- no one tried to convert me. In fact, everyone was very welcoming. Members volunteered en masse, clad in pressed suits and dresses. They offered guided tours, bent down to put protective boots onto my feet so my shoes wouldn't dirty the carpeting, and offered me a chewy snickerdoodle at the end of the tour. They showed me every space from changing rooms to sealing rooms where marriages take place and answered every question I asked, no matter how challenging or controversial.
And in the end, yes, I did have a God moment.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Mormons go to temples to be close to God. Much like the ancient Jewish people believed God lived at the heart of the temple in Jerusalem, Mormons believe that followers can meet God most intimately in the temple. The reasons they visit temples vary: In addition to having their marriages sealed in the temple, Mormons also have sealing ceremonies that unite parents and children for time and all eternity. Others come to participate in baptisms of the dead, which are intended to be used only for deceased family members of active Mormons, though the Church acknowledged in the wake of Elie Wiesel's comments that others -- such as Anne Frank -- have had baptisms performed on their behalf. These baptisms are not intended to convert the deceased but rather to give them a choice in the afterlife to embrace the revelation of Mormonism: Assuming an afterlife exists, the baptized deceased are free to say yes or no as they please. Finally, Mormons come to the temple to receive their endowment, a ritual ceremony where followers make promises to God and receive knowledge about God.
Unlike a cathedral, which is primarily composed of one large worship space, a Mormon temple has a variety of smaller rooms that serve different purposes. There are sealing rooms and rooms for men and women to change into white clothes (every male or female Mormon who enters a dedicated temple wears the same white clothing) and instruction rooms where individuals learn about God in preparation for receiving their endowments.
It was in these rooms, and the final Celestial Room, where I caught a glimpse of God.
You see, as part of our final stop on the tour, our guide took us to a room with a mural of the Missouri countryside painted by a local artist. The room had earthy colors, browns and greens and rows of cushioned seats. This was the first instruction room. From there, we took a step up -- as if ascending closer to heaven -- and entered a second room, similar to the first in shape and size but all white. This was the second instruction room. When we left that room, we took another step up and entered the Celestial Room, a space designed to give those who sit in it a foretaste of heaven.
It was a simple room yet ornate at the same time, all white with sparkling crystal chandeliers, large mirrors, and plump sofas and chairs reminiscent of those that must have existed in Joseph Smith's day. Our guide asked us to be silent and said we were welcome to sit wherever we liked and take a moment to pray. So I sat down on a sofa that seemed to envelop me, folded my hands on my lap and closed my eyes.
Like Dante, who saw God face to face but had no words to describe the encounter, I have few words to describe what I felt in that moment. But I can say this: While it did not convert me, nor did it make me want to be a Mormon, the silence and peace I felt reminded me of the many other times I've felt close to God, whether in an Episcopal cathedral, in a clear, warm ocean or in my ratty old car. And because of that, I came to understand why temples exist and why they are so important to Mormons across the world.
And along the lines of Mormons being across the world: As I wrote earlier, Mormons were ironically driven out of Liberty, Missouri and the surrounding region nearly 175 years ago. It cannot be lost on those who visit the new temple that almost two centuries later, Mormons are often still held in suspicion by society, but they are far from being as vulnerable as they were in their early years. They are building stronger foundations every day, and striving, as they do so, to catch a glimpse of heaven.