Sunday, March 30, 2008

baptisms for the dead, part 2

Continued from baptisms for the dead, part 1...

The interview went well enough. I dressed up in my Sunday clothes, a dress I hated. But then, I hated all dresses. Just was not my thing. An interview with a member of the bishopric, though, required dressing up. It's how it was done, especially in my family.

Over at the church, I sat on the old orange couch in the foyer, my hands planted under my legs as I stared at the red-orange industrial carpet. Brother Hicks, the executive secretary, called my name and escorted me into the bishop's office. I was especially shy as a kid, so "don't speak until you are spoken to" was easy enough for me. Actually, adults had a hard time getting me to answer at all. But these were questions I had to answer, and answer correctly, without guilt on my face, if I wanted the temple recommend to go do baptisms.

I answered simple "yes"es and "no"s to all the right questions, the ones about faith and belief, the ones about behavior and abstinence and attendance. Easy stuff, for me. I'd read the Book of Mormon and believed it was "true." I thought Joseph Smith was a prophet and had restored the True Church and the Priesthood. I'd never even been offered alcohol or cigarettes, let alone try them. Sex was beyond my realm of imagination; I hadn't so much as held a boy's hand. Had he asked me about masturbation (had he thought girls did that), I wouldn't have known what the heck he was talking about.

The bishop signed the card, but kept it for my Beehive leader, so she would just have all of them in one place on the big day.

The next week, I zipped up my coat over my dress, and met the rest of the youth at the church parking lot for the carpool. Several of us piled into Sister Brown's car, excited and acting like any 12 year olds would: giggly and silly and downright untemple-like. Sister Brown quickly scolded us and began a serious lecture about how to act when about to visit the most sacred House of the Lord. Not only should we keep all conversation to a whisper, but we shouldn't talk about worldly things--which boy was the cutest and what outfit we'd be wearing to school tomorrow. Lots of jewelry was inappropriate, as was too much make-up, perfume, and bright nail polish. None of this bothered me, since I didn't wear any of that girly stuff anyway, but some of the other girls got a little uncomfortable recognizing how they were dressed and done up.

A reverent calm came over us after the lecture, and we sat a little more quietly for the ride to the Provo temple, 10 minutes away. Still, we were a group of girls, and the chit-chat started again. As we approached, I thought about how, well, ugly, the Provo temple was. I was pretty sure I shouldn't think of a temple as ugly, though, so I tried to think instead about how my parents got married there.

Once inside--the first time inside a temple!--I attempted a glance around, but we were hurriedly ushered to the left of the main foyer, and down a flight of stairs. I knew this is where the baptisms took place, in the basement. After Sister Brown showed an old man in white the list of our names and recommends, he waved us through a hall to a room.

This room had several wooden benches in it, all facing a large glass window. Through this window, I looked for the first time on the baptismal font, a hot tub-sized pool resting atop twelve golden oxen (representing the twelve tribes of Israel, I had been told). Men sat on either side of the font, above it, on a balcony, all of them in white jumpers. Two of these men worked at a computer console. It seemed oddly out of place. Two groups of youth in white clothes sat behind and to the side of them, girls on the left, boys on the right.

Off this main room were other rooms as well, but I couldn't tell their purpose. Sister Brown gathered us like a mother hen over to one of the rooms, full of white jumpers on hangers. An old lady helped us pick out jumpers in our sizes. Next, we were off to the girls' dressing room. Inside, we were pointed to yet another white-haired woman who stood in front of a large closet of white underclothes. While I was still processing what was happening, I heard another one of the girls list her pantie and bra size.

Oh, no! I was mortified. At twelve, I had already started wearing a bra, but only a training sports bra, and that only because my mom knew I'd be embarrassed in the PE locker room if I had no bra at all. And here was my fellow Beehive, a B since she was 10, and she never let me forget it, either. What size should I ask for? I didn't even know! What a nightmare. Too quickly, it was my turn, and when I couldn't get anything out of the mouth on my burning red face, the temple worker was kind enough to gently help me out with a negative triple A. Or whatever. I wasn't paying attention, just get me out of here already.

The next step was to change into our whites, and thankfully there were individual stalls with locking doors to give us privacy. I changed, put my clothes in a small locker within the stall, and locked it with the key. The key had a safety pin on it, and as I emerged from the stall, I saw the other girls were pinning the key just under the zipper on their jumpsuits. So the weight of the water doesn't pull the jumper open in the font--in front of the boys. I couldn't imagine much worse that having my clothes come open at the chest in front of the deacons in the ward. [Shudder.]

But then I heard the girls talking, and, yes, something could be worse. We were in white clothes and about to be dunked repeatedly in water. The boys will be able to see right through to our bra and panties! There wasn't much we could do about it, either, except get that towel around us as quickly as possible after coming out of the water. That, and imagine that only the boys virtuous enough to avert their eyes politely were the ones we wanted to date someday.

Once we were dressed, we nervously walked barefoot through the locker room, past the showers, and into the font area. There, we were directed to sit on a bench behind the font and wait our turns. The boys from our ward were on the opposite bench, to our left. They were goofing off. In the temple. How immature.

My turn came, and I gingerly stepped down the few stairs into the font, careful not to slip. Everyone was watching. The man in the font doing the baptisms, Mike, a guy from the ward about to go on his mission, helped me down. I got into position, standing in chest-deep water, facing a blue monitor, which sat just above the water to the side of the font. On the screen were the words for the baptism, so Mike could just read them off and not try to speak the words from memory. It was important to say the exact words, or the ordinance didn't count, and we'd have to do it all over again. Same if any part of my body or any strand of hair didn't get immersed completely--that's a do-over. My brother had been baptized twice when he was eight, because his toe had popped up. I secretly wished that had happened to me; I imagined there was something special about being baptized twice, like it washed away the sins even better.

Here in this baptismal font, I was about to be baptized for some dead women, enabling them to receive the necessary ordinance so they could progress from the spirit prison where they were, onto spirit paradise. I had heard stories about people performing baptisms for the dead, and seeing or feeling the presence of spirits, people they were being baptized for. The spirits came to witness their own vicarious baptisms, or to thank the person who got the ordinance done for them. Part of me hoped I would see some of the spirits, or at least feel them. But part of me was scared; seeing spirits might creep me out. I wasn't sure, and I wasn't sure if I had the faith to see them anyway. So I kept the idea to myself. And kept my eyes peeled.

Mike raised his right arm, elbow bent. Reading from the screen, he read, "Sister FTA, having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and on behalf of Mary Klein, who is dead, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen." After a bit of confusion, we got our arms interlocked into position, with my fingers plugging my nose, and he immersed me completely under the water, and pulled me up again. The water was heavy on top of me, but not too cool, and the jumper pulled me down. Just as I was about to panic, I was out of the water, trying to regain my footing. He immediately started to repeat the prayer, this time with a different woman's name, and I was in the water again. I tried to pay attention to the screen to note the women's names, birth years, and birth places; I felt a special bond with them, being the person who played so significant a role in their salvation. I went down and up twenty times before it was the next person's turn.

I started up the steps out of the water, feeling the soaked, now see-through jumper cling to my body in all the wrong places. Mercifully, Sister Brown had anticipated this and was waiting just at the top of the stairs with a towel, which she draped over my back. She escorted me back past the girls, and into the shower area of the dressing room. Only shower curtains blocked the shower from anyone coming in or going out, and I felt embarrassed and worked as quickly as I could to get out of my wet clothes. But my dry clothes were secured back in the stall, so I was given a "shield" to wear as I walked back to change. The shield was basically a large square of white cloth with a hole cut in the middle for my head to poke through. I pulled my head through the hole, and tried as well as I could to hold the open sides closed all the way back to my stall.

Once dressed, my hair brushed but still wet, I was given yet another set of white clothes, this time to take part in confirmations--the ordinance done just after baptism that confirms the neophyte a member of the church and gives them the gift of the Holy Ghost. I was led into another room off the main room, and into a small cubicle, where two men in white jumpers sat around a chair. Their chairs were built specifically for this; they were like bar stools, with a crossbar elbow rest, so they could easily keep their arms up to put on the youths' heads, for blessing after blessing. I sat in the chair, and folded my hands in my lap. Both men placed their hands on my head (they were heavy hands) and one spoke the prescribed prayer, again saying my name, then inserting the name of a different dead woman each time. Between each time, they lifted their hands off my head, then placed them back down, making a clear distinction between each confirmation.

Finally, my part was done, and I only had to wait in the wooden benches while everyone else finished up. The others with me watched the people in the font, and chatted amongst themselves about this and that. Hopes that the boys didn't see through their jumpers; news that Paul had a crush on Suzie; gossip about who thought who was cute.

Once we were all gathered together, we headed back up the steps. When I left through the temple doors and back outside, I was surprised to find it was dark, and the ground was covered in snow. I had completely lost track of outside; inside had been so warm, so peaceful and filled with the Spirit. (Also, it had been windowless.) It was a little bit of a let down to go back into The World.

For a while, though, I had been inside. I had tasted a little bit of heaven, and I was eager to go back.

It occurred to me only halfway through writing this post that I would have never written down these details as a faithful Mormon. All goings-on in the temple are kept quite private, from personal feelings and reactions to actual ordinances and protocol. Mormons say this is because the temple is sacred, and it was to me. Writing about the baptisms and confirmations so openly would only confirm my status as an apostate. Keeping them secret only makes outsiders all the more curious and suspicious, and the rumors wild. Writing out my experience, I want to show my mundane interactions (talking about boys; worry about bra sizes and wet whites) in the midst of what I understood as my "sacred, spiritual experience." It was both grounded and sublime, as is much of Mormonism.

Thanks to Meg for reminding me about the bra and panties anguish.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

fertility and new life

I was pleased to find this was an easy Easter for me. Easier, that is, than the other Easters I've gone through since losing my faith. Like Christmas, there have always been the questions of how to celebrate, the discomfort of having Jesus be so prominent, the strange feeling that this should somehow be a religious holiday--never mind that I am non-religious.

I attended Episcopal church the Easter I was still a Christian, and it was immensely satisfying for me to celebrate Jesus without any interference from Mormonism. That same month, at the Unitarian Universalist church, they talked about Easter, Passover, Earth Day, and spring all in the same sermon. It was wonderful.

There are enough secular aspects of Easter, so it's easy enough to keep those. How could I tell my son that we're not having a Easter egg hunt? It would crush him. So I've always gone right along with the egg-dying, the hunt, the chocolate. (And I do love me some Cadbury mini-eggs.)

Jesus was hardly a thought in my mind today, except when Little FTA said, "I know what Easter is about. It's about Jesus dying." He'd heard that from his cousin, which is fine. I would have explained that to him anyway (though I am glad I didn't have to deal with the resurrection). I added, though, that Easter was originally a pagan holiday, before Jesus and before the Christians, celebrating the spring and life. And that's why we have chicks and eggs and bunnies--they represent life and fertility.

But he was all, Whatever, can I just have some more chocolate?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

baptisms for the dead, part 1

Another story from Growing up Mormon:

I was twelve years old, finally in young women’s and finally old enough to go to the Provo temple to do baptisms for the dead. I was almost giddy about the prospect of actually going inside the temple. I’d been looking forward to this for years. That primary song told me to look forward to it, after all.

I love to see the temple
I’m going there someday
To cov’nant with my father
To listen and to pray

For the temple is the house of God
A place of love and beauty.
I’ll prepare myself while I am young
It is my sacred duty.

I had no idea what it was like inside. I’d only seen the outside, the off white, roundish building with the orange-gold spire. Frankly, I thought this temple was a bit funny looking. Ugly, even, if I could call a temple ugly. I suspected I shouldn’t. My parents had been married in this temple, and I always wondered why they chose that one. It was the closest, I guess. But still, this was the temple I grew up seeing on the hill, lit up at night. And really, it didn’t matter what was on the outside. I was curious about the inside.

My parents kept mum about the whole thing. I saw them go off early in the morning, and come back before my school day began, with their little tote bags. I knew there were “temple clothes” inside those bags, but I never, ever saw them. They were sacred, my mom told me once when I asked. I wasn’t to see them.

Despite their secrecy, I knew a little about what went on inside the temples. There were baptisms for the dead, of course, in the basement, and something called endowments, and marriage sealings. Mom had said something about a cafeteria once, and a chapel. It seemed incongruent to have something so worldly as a cafeteria in a house of God, but then, I guess people gotta eat.

Now I was old enough to be let into the basement to do baptisms for the dead, and that felt special. It wasn’t the whole shebang, but it was something.

When my dad told me I’d have to get a special temple recommend, a “one time use” one, my excitement was dampened by nervousness about the interview. What kind of questions would the bishop’s councilor ask? Was I worthy? What would Heavenly Father see in my heart? I started feeling guilty.

For what? What should I be feeling guilty for? I searched my conscious, my memory. I lied that time when I was three, but that was erased when I was baptized anyway. Right, so I only have to think about what happened since I turned eight. Third grade. Okay, think. A couple lies. Never stole anything from the grocery store. Wasn’t always perfect to my siblings. Never cheated on a test at school. Um...Okay, I think I’m okay. But I still felt mildly guilty, and scared.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

a matter of interpretation

I started reading Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling this weekend.


Because I want to torture myself?

Actually, it's more the fact that this is the book my devout relatives are reading about Smith, and I want to know what information and interpretations they are getting. You see, now I know I can make a comment about the peep stone in the hat as the translation process for the Book of Mormon, and not have them look at me like I've sprouted two heads, called Evil Apostate and Anti-Mormon Liar.

I've even found there are some gems in this book that I've never picked up before, like how Joseph borrowed Joseph Knight's wagon and horse the night he "found" the golden plates, but without Knight's knowledge or permission. Leaving Knight to believe his horse and wagon had been stolen by some rogue. Um, yep, they had.

Bushman has put quite a bit of information in there that would have been previously dismissed as Lies of the Devil and now needs to be accepted by believing Mormon readers as "Yep, as weird as it sounds, that's how it happened," which is a good thing. Like the peep stone in the hat, the treasure-seeking, and the multiple first vision accounts. Of course, Bushman suffuses the narrative with enough "But it's all okay; you can still believe" interpretations that Mormons won't have too much cognitive dissonance. His interpretations usually leave me annoyed, and his straw man Book of Mormon critics are dismissed much too easily. But then, his arguments make him look like he actually believes in a golden book that told an impossible history of the Americas. How quaint.

Monday, March 03, 2008

now that wasn't so bad

If you've been reading my blog for a few months, you'll know that last time I was in Utah was for Thanksgiving. On that trip, I had an allergic reaction to the very act of driving across the border into the Mormon state (manifest in the desire to get a tattoo or some body piercings--anything to look Not Molly Mormon). This time, though, I didn't get that suffocating feeling of needing to rebel, though I did lament the noticeably small numbers of coffee shops.

I'm not sure what was different this time; maybe it's the passage of time--I've been a non-believer for nearly three years now--or maybe it's that I had a week off and actually chose to spend it in Utah. Sometimes I think that must mean I am crazy. But really, it's about my family. I like them, whatever their beliefs. If they weren't there, I wouldn't have a reason to go to Utah (though the exmo meet-ups are nice).

The problem is we (my family and I) are virtually incapable of talking about my leaving the church. We pretend like it isn't there, that elephant in the room. Most of the time that's okay, really. There are other topics, of course. But sometimes I just want to blurt out, "I resigned my membership!"

There is one sibling, though, that surprised me with her openness and willingness to talk. Her husband recently resigned his membership, and--gasp--we actually talked about it! And other topics of belief, too. It was wonderful to have someone within the family to discuss things with. She's still a believer, but I feel like I can talk fairly openly with her (as long as I don't say something like Joseph Smith was a putz). The last time I had talked to this sister about religion, she had asked me to never talk to her about religion again, so this new openness is refreshing. The trip was worth that alone.