Last weekend, I had the opportunity to cleanse the temple. And while I didn't get to throw tables, and they did not let me use a whip, it was nonetheless a very rewarding experience.
I arrived very early in the morning, wearing regular clothes and sneakers. Other than the temple presidency and one other man, the temple was basically empty. I put on white coveralls and white coverings for my shoes and then was given a Ghostbuster-like vacuum cleaner that was strapped to my back. I then had the assignment of vacuuming all the white carpets in the whole temple and was left alone to do my work. After I vacuumed, I washed all the windows and mirrors while the other worker cleaned the bathrooms. We finished the whole temple in about two and a half hours.
When I got home, Mrs. T asked if the temple was even dirty. I assured her that it was. Hair and these little bugs were everywhere. The carpet around the ventilation system was beginning to darken from soot and dirt being blown in from outside. There were plenty of stains that my vacuum could not remove. But I did my best, and definitely feel that I left the temple better than I found it.
I love what the temple represents. The concept of a sacred spaces where we seek peace and the divine away from the problems of the world is so needed in our bustling, stressful world. And temples are beautiful rather than utilitarian structures, in stark contrast to our meetinghouses or places of work. But our rhetoric around temples suffers from perhaps one major flaw: this representation of perfection, of a beautiful ideal, is sometimes conflated with actual perfection. When we pretend that the temple is a perfect building and that those who enter it embody the ideal in religious achievement, a good temple cleansing is in order.
I learned that even though mortal eyes and hands may never see or feel a defect, the Lord knows the level of our efforts and whether we have done our very best. The same is true of our own personal efforts to live a life worthy of the blessings of the temple.... Like the contractor, when we become aware of elements in our own lives that are inconsistent with the teachings of the Lord, when our efforts have been less than our very best, we should move quickly to correct anything that is amiss, recognizing that we cannot hide our sins from the Lord....I also learned that the high standards of temple building employed by this Church are a type and even a symbol of how we should be living our own lives.... We are each made of the finest materials, and we are the miraculous result of divine craftsmanship. However, as we move past the age of accountability and step onto the battlefield of sin and temptation, our own temple can become in need of renovation and repair work. Perhaps there are walls within us that are gritty and need buffing or windows of our souls that need replacement in order that we can stand in holy places.
But here is the really striking thing about this overall message: there is no mention of the atonement, no reference to our inherent imperfections that can never be buffed out, no discussion about how we go about cleaning our temple. Jesus Christ's name is mentioned a total of three times in this talk: once in the sentence just quoted, once to close the talk, and finally in this quote:
By requiring exacting standards of construction down to the smallest of details, we not only show our love and respect for the Lord Jesus Christ, but we also hold out to all observers that we honor and worship Him whose house it is.
It is not my intention to berate this talk or suggest the church does not believe in the Atonement. I have heard beautiful talks about repentance and forgiveness and the Atonement and Jesus Christ. (See here and here for some good talks on the Atonement and being a Christian during the same October 2012 conference for example.) But, there is something about temples that seems to direct us into a pre-New Testament mindset of obedience and performance and cleanliness and physical perfection. Our rhetoric regarding the temple often emphasizes the building's purity and perfection. We emphasize the standards required of those who enter the building. We even standardize the clothing we are required to wear when we go to the temple. It is the Lord's house after all, and he expects nothing less than perfection we say. But have we fundamentally misunderstood what perfection is in the first place?
Temples are a unique LDS innovation within modern Christianity. They reflect Joseph Smith's conception of Zion, a physical space where the Saints may gather together to commune with God, have all things in common, and achieve communal peace. Temples mediate between heaven and earth, they connect us to the divine in real concrete ways. Temples create holy yearning, an earnest desire to return to God and his peace.
With this holy yearning then, we have two options: we can try to return to God on our own through our own perfection or we can immediately acknowledge the impossibility of that course and turn to Jesus Christ. And surely, the message of the temple can and should and must be that we turn to Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not about performance or achievement and the temple cannot and should not be either. This should be the holy space where we have a chance to visualize our eternal potential despite our performance.
Every temple, every life, every church, no matter how beautiful or seemingly perfect, needs to be cleaned. That is the reality of mortality. When I was asked to clean the temple, I was called to find the dirt. Instead of dwelling on eternal matters, I had to resolve the very mortal problem of trying to keep white carpets white. And you know what? It was in its own way a sublime experience to be left alone in my regular clothes in the temple and work. Seeing the building in its raw form actually makes me appreciate all the more what we are trying to do with the temple experience. And in a very concrete way, I felt as though I was helping my fellow brothers and sisters get closer to God, removing distractions so they could focus on eternal matters.
Everything has a season, however. This weekend, I attended a sealing of a close family member in another temple. The experience was beautiful, but in the time before and after the ceremony I admit my mind reverted back to my experience cleaning. It was the same small temple design, and as I walked through the temple I paid particular attention to the white carpets, especially in the sealing room. I will admit--I looked for the stains and dirt that I knew would be there. And you know what? I found the imperfections. So easily in fact, I was surprised I hadn't noticed similar flaws in other temples before. But focusing this time on the dirt and smudges was counterproductive. I was there to support loved ones in an important ceremony and found myself failing to appreciate the ultimate purpose of the temple: to bind communities together through the Atonement.
So this analogy goes both ways: if we insist on perfection and refuse to acknowledge every mortal institutions inherent fallibility, we fail to appreciate the real message of the Gospel--the good news of salvation and redemption--and engage in a form of hagiographic idolatry. And if we comb our church, our lives, and our temples for every imperfection all the time, we also miss the sublime power of charity to cover a multitude of sins.
So let's get to work cleaning our temples, but do so continually and not continuously. After all, Jesus used some opportunities to preach in the temple and others to whip it into shape.