(Preface to this post: This is a really Mormony post. The audience in my head for this one is a Mormon person who already knows the Mormon culture and belief system; I have to write with that audience in mind, because if I stopped to explain all of those details this post would be a novel. And it’s already long enough.)
The last time I went to the temple, it was for my nephew’s wedding. In the ceremony, the sealer said something that was deeply healing to some of the wounds that had been festering in me. I had gone to the wedding with a little bit of trepidation, as I hadn’t been going to the temple regularly for many years, but just hearing those words made me be able to settle into my seat and relax just a little. As if I needed to be there to hear just those words; I needed them, and I heard them deep down into the aching tunnels of my spirit, and they ached a little less.
As I relaxed, I looked around me. There was my sister-in-law with her adult children next to her. There were my brother-in-law and his wife and their daughter and her husband. I looked across at the bride’s family: couples sitting together, daughters and sons, adult grandchildren. All together. Then I looked back into my lap, where my hands rested, held by no one. My peace dissolved; tears fell.
Before I went inside a temple for the first time, I would sometimes go to the temple grounds. I would wander them, and feel a sense of peace and comfort and of being loved by holiness, even when I was rebellious and angry and hated everyone. So for me, the outside of the temple is equally (or perhaps, I am learning, more) important than the inside.
On that day of my nephew’s wedding, after the ceremony, I wandered around the temple grounds. This was a temple I hadn’t been to before, so seeing the architecture and the landscaping was my excuse if anyone asked. But really I wanted to find a quiet place to sit for a minute, to think about what I had experienced inside: an uncomfortable aversion at first, as if I really shouldn’t be there; that trickle of healing words; the way the peace dried up and was replaced with—I had to struggle to find a word, but then it came to me: loneliness.
I am not a lonely person.
I am comfortable in solitude. In fact, the peace and quiet of solitude are inherent to my happiness. Loneliness—how lonely it is here, and how well it suits you (Kafka)—loneliness isn’t something I feel very often, and never when I am by myself. I feel it most in a crowd of people, honestly, when I realize how I don’t fit in.
There, that day on the bench outside of the temple, as I named my feeling loneliness, I had that same experience I’ve had so many times, sitting on the grounds outside of a temple, a flash of understanding from God, the Universe, or Whatever it is that exists. This time, it was a heavy pressure on my shoulder, words in my head like a voice: You will always be alone here. You can continue to come, but be prepared: you will be alone.
Of course, “alone” is anathema to the temple. It is supposed to be the place you are not alone. You go there to make connections between people. Husbands and wives. Families. Ancestors. Even strangers.
My children aren’t interested in the church. My husband waffles. I could go with my mom, I suppose, or friends from church. But, looking back, I have almost always experienced the temple on my own. And this is mostly OK, except for the fact that the point of the temple is uniting families.
Sitting there that day, in the hot summer sun, I understood that my family will not be united in that way. That I can continue forward, trying to live this faith, but that I will never really be a whole part of it.
I will always be the person who doesn’t really fit.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever fit. I became active in the Mormon faith when I was 19, although I was born into a family that was, on paper, Mormon. When I decided to try out the religion I had (sort-of) been raised in, I thought I was doing it because it was what I was supposed to do. Now, looking back with the knowledge I have accumulated in almost thirty years of trying to be a “good” Mormon, I am not so sure it was about what I was supposed to do. Instead, I think it was about me trying to prove something, to my parents and to myself and to God: that I was Good. That my years of being bad (as a teenager) were just a blip, that I wasn’t deep-down faulty, destined for hell. I drew the church around my nakedness like a cloak, like a gown that glittered with Goodness. Look how good I am, living the way I’m supposed to live! Do you love me now? What if I try harder? Do I fit in yet?
But it was never my body. It was always a covering.
Now, on the other side of so many life experiences, I am starting to want to embrace my body. By which I mean, my naked self, uncloaked by religion. Ungowned.
I don’t want to hustle anymore. I don’t want to work for love. To prove myself to my mother, to my neighbors and friends and family members. Even to God. I want to stand naked and be loved for who I am. Deeply faulty, cracked all over, stubborn and rebellious and questioning. Angry and determined to wander where my feet take me. Unable to follow the rules and regulations. I want to be loved as God has made me, both through birth and through the experiences of my life. Not despite my failings, but along with them.
The first time I went to the temple, when I was at the beginning of my quest to Be a Good Person, going to the temple was itself part of the quest. Good Mormon girls get married in the temple to a returned missionary, so that was what I did. But even then, even my first time going, when I listened to the words of the temple endowment, it was jarring. It was a place of fear for me, because one wrong step or action or breath would prove I wasn’t Good. And besides: the words themselves didn’t make any sense. My thoughts were: hmmmmm, I think what they just said means this, but of course God doesn’t mean that, so I must not understand.
I stayed because I was also going to the temple for my future family, to make sure they could all Be Good People too, and hopefully without the same struggle I had to Be Good.
Still, future family aside, I didn’t go back for years after my wedding. When I did return, I went alone. It felt like it required courage; I needed to be brave, to go over and over until it wasn’t a place of fear.
I went enough that the fear faded away. Mostly faded. But what never went away was that thought: this isn’t really what God means. I grappled over and over with how male-centric the experience was, and how it didn’t make sense. Despite getting over my fear of the temple, despite the fact that I had many beautiful spiritual experiences there, it was never fully right to me. If the Mormon theology was a garment I had put on, the temple was a badly-sewn seam, at first only bothersome, but as time passed, irritating and then chafing and then bloody and then finally too painful to bear.
I haven’t gone to the temple regularly in years.
Not even to sit outside of it, anymore. I couldn’t get rid of the abrasive seam without deconstructing the whole garment. So I ignored it, as best I could, and continued to bleed.
This week, the church made some changes to the wording in the temple. In theory, these changes repair the seam.
But by making these changes without acknowledging the pain the earlier version caused, the church does more damage. The changes are important for the people who are going for the first time, but for me they are too late. The wound is still here. I am still bleeding. I still have the memories all of those times of trying to grapple with words and ideas that felt like they were not from God, and the way I grappled with them was by turning inward to myself and trying to figure out what was wrong with me. When I tried to grapple with them by talking to other people about them, I was met with raised eyebrows: if I were faithful enough, wise enough, good enough, the things that seemed problematic would no longer be problems.
I am grateful for these changes. I am grateful that in the future, no other 19-year-old who is trying to prove she is Good will enter a place that is supposed to feel holy and leave feeling less.
But it doesn’t heal anything for me. That wound is still a cut the church refuses to see. Wants me to continue to pretend doesn’t exist.
And maybe I could do it—if I weren’t standing alone. If I could have the togetherness of what the temple promises. But that day at my nephew’s wedding changed me. God’s voice in my head, their pressure on my shoulder. My family is my family and I love them all, and I have no doubt at all that even without the temple, they are all good people. My family is perhaps not the typical Mormon family. But I wouldn’t change any of them for anything else. I wouldn’t, I am realizing, want any of them to carry the chafe, the bloody messy wound. I want them each to know they are good, and that goodness isn’t really about the temple or missions or church.
I am finished (or, at least: I am trying to be finished) with placing all of my self worth in Being a Good Person.
Because that prompting I had the last time I went to the temple is perhaps one of the truest things I know: I am alone. All of us are. Some people are able to go to the temple and not be scarred at all, to only find joy there. More people in the future will be able to do that, I believe, because of the recent changes. But that isn’t because they are a part of the group I will never fit into. It is because that is who they are, the way God made them and their life’s experiences have shaped them. Just as I am and mine have.
A friend asked me if the changes would make it easier for me to go to the temple. My husband asked me something similar, as did my sister. I am struggling to put my response into words. Part of me overflows with rejoicing. Part of me is exactly the same, scraped raw, bleeding, and pretending that my white, glittering gown isn’t seeping red at my side.
The changes are a start, of course. But they cannot be the end, if the church honestly wants to heal me and the other women who it has damaged. Until the pain is acknowledged, until it is visible, the wound cannot heal.
So I think my answer is this: I don’t think I can go inside yet. Maybe not ever. But maybe I want to go back to the grounds. To wander through flowers and touch the marble stonework. To maybe find again that God I used to find, before I tried to cover up who I am with the dressing of a Good Person, the God who loved me anyway.
I’m just not sure yet what I’m going to do with this bloody dress.