The Temple: An Everlasting Farewell
Journal Entry - March 12, 2002
Honorable Mention, 2002 Affirmation Writing Contest
By Braulio Ventura
And whether we shall meet again I know not.
Today was a day of mixed feelings and conflicting emotions. That is when I went to an LDS temple for the last time, probably never to go back. A Tuesday marked by painful sadness and soul-stirring awakenings. A day to poignantly go down in my personal history.
Therefore our everlasting farewell take:
For ever, and for ever, farewell, Cassius!
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made.
Julius Caesar, Act V, Scene 1
I had not attended a temple session in over a year. However, as I do not live near a temple, it is not that I was making a deliberate, conscious effort to avoid it. The nearest temple is 14 hours away from where I live - therefore, attending the temple was never a weekly habit in my life anyway. But during the past year, I must confess that I did not make much of an effort to go, especially when I remember that during this period of time I traveled to places where temples were easily available. In a way, I dreaded this confrontation. But I did want to have a proper farewell at some point.
Today was the moment to face long-standing fears. I found myself in a situation when I had to go to the temple. I am on vacation in Britain, and some old LDS friends of mine who now live here arranged for all of us to attend a session together. I had not even brought my temple recommend from South America, as the temple was not included in my initial plans. But my friends made all the arrangements and even had the temple presidency call my bishop back home so that the temple could officially verify that I was a recommend-holding, "worthy" member of the Church. I simply had no way to escape!
These dear friends are very devout Mormons, and since I have not seen them in a long time (since before my mission), I have not had a chance to inform them of the latest developments in my life, including the self-acceptance of my homosexuality. As a matter of fact, I am still trying to think of a way to "come out" to them. They are like a second family to me, and they played a major role in my teenage years. Sister Blewster was my seminary teacher in my junior and senior years of high school (their family lived in Brazil for over four years), and I spent a lot of time with their family of nine children. We grew very close and I learned so much from them.
The Blewsters came to London yesterday - all the way from Northern Yorkshire - specially to see me. But I was all alone in London during the weekend. As part of my British experience, I attended church meetings on Sunday, an activity that I sandwiched between watching the change of guard in front of Buckingham Palace and attending an organ recital at the superb Westminster Abbey. I attended church at the Britannia Ward, in the historic Hyde Park chapel. It is England's only single adults ward. If nothing else, going to church was an interesting anthropological experience. I had a blast watching all the marriageable girls trying hard to get the guys' attention through dramatic interventions in Sunday School, thoughtful comments, teary testimonies and first-class musical numbers in sacrament meeting, not to mention the fashionable outfits, impeccable hairdos and exaggerated makeup. It was pretty similar to my previous experiences attending singles wards in Salt Lake; I always had a fun time seeing the great lengths that those single members went to in a desperate effort to attain the Church-imposed goal of "eternal marriage."
But going to church the day before yesterday was also interesting because I was invited to pass the sacrament, something that I had not done in a long time. After all, back home I have been ward chorister for a while, and I never get to pass or bless the sacrament. It reminded me of my carefree teenage days, when I administered the sacrament weekly for years on end. It was a strange feeling to pass the sacrament again and exercise the priesthood in a way that I had not done in a long time, and that soon I might not be allowed to do again. Another bittersweet moment of pungent introspection. As a faithful boy, my goal was to endure to the end and be worthy to act in the Lord's name for the rest of my days.
Today, however, was the day to bid my adieu to the temple. We got up early so we could attend the 8 a.m. session and still have the rest of the day to do a lot of sightseeing up in London. (After all, the so-called London Temple is not in London....It's down in rural Surrey, not even close to England's bustling, breathtaking capital.)
As I woke up in my room in the accommodation center and put on my irreproachable white shirt and dark suit in preparation to head for the temple, my mind revisited a number of temple moments that I had previously lived. In my life, the temple was inseparably associated with my mission, a very emotionally charged period. In our mission, we had a temple nearby, and we were allowed to attend a session on one preparation day per month. And when I first started traveling for fun after graduating from college three years ago, I would always make an effort to attend the local temples, wherever I was. I truly enjoyed the temple and felt peace there. I felt pretty much like David: "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that I will seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple" (Psalm 27:4). But in the last couple of years, as I started to do more serious questioning about life and to come to terms with my gay identity, the thought of going to the temple no longer seemed half as appealing and exciting. Actually, it scared me. But I did miss the temple sometimes, and somehow hoped to attend one last time. After all, sooner or later I would be denied access because of my homosexuality.
As I got ready to enter the temple today, I strongly felt that this was actually my swan song, so to speak. And it was not painless. It was the interruption of a process initiated decades earlier.
The mere mention of temples triggers all kinds of emotions in Latter-day Saints - it is such a pivotal thing. We grow up singing in Primary: "I love to see the temple, I'm going there some day" (Children's Songbook 95). From our earlier years, we see pictures of temples hanging in the walls of our homes, as a reminder that we must prepare to enter those sacred buildings someday. Even before we are old enough to start having romantic interests of any kind, we are encouraged to set goals to marry a worthy girl in no other place than the temple. We are told that the temple is the holiest place on earth, and that the only way to ever return to God's presence is to go through the ordinances performed therein. We sing that temples are "avenues to exaltation" (Hymns 289), where we "engage in work divine" (Hymns 288). Late President Hunter urged us to be a temple-attending and a temple-loving people, and taught that the temple is a symbol of our membership in the Church and of our faith in the Lord (Howard W. Hunter, "The Great Symbol of Our Membership," Ensign, Oct. 1994, p. 5). We are told to always hold a valid temple recommend, even if we do not have a temple nearby. A recommend is compared to a "passport" to heaven.
Therefore, being counted "unworthy" to enter the temple has countless and serious implications for Church members. It basically means that we are not eligible to enter the celestial kingdom and to live in the Lord's presence. It also has other more tangible effects, such as preventing us from attending something as prosaic as the wedding ceremony of a loved one, which has a devastating impact on many families. In my case, a few years ago the thought of not holding a recommend was simply inconceivable. In spite of my current state of "semi-unbeliever," I am still technically eligible to hold a recommend. But the day that I fall in love with a man and start a relationship, I will suddenly become "unworthy" and will no longer be entitled to partake of the Lord's goodness. At least that is what they say.
The dreaded moment was approaching. But nature did not confer a gloomy character to the day of my melancholic good-bye. Actually, the whirlwind in my soul was softened by nature's compassionate intervention. Although it is still winter, it was a beautiful morning, especially for British standards. Looking hard, I could even discern a few bluish hues in the sky, and the temple grounds were impeccably green and full of life. As we left the accommodation center and walked over to the imposing temple, beautiful flowers lined the way. These were heathers, I was told, an ever-present flower in bonny England. These seemingly insignificant details helped me cope with the feeling that I was a "sheep being taken to the slaughter."
We were greeted by smiling temple workers and were led to the locker-rooms so we could put on our temple attire and get ready for the session. Everything was so clean, tidy and quiet. A sign said: "But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him" (Habakkuk 2:20). This is a big temple, built in the 1950s, at a time when the concept of mini-temples was not the vogue. I was impressed with the generous dimensions and gorgeous chandeliers. Actually, we had quite a tour of the temple as we climbed several flights of stairs to get to our designated room. As we waited for the session to begin, I started to pray. I had postponed that conversation long enough - it was time to address the Lord in His very temple.
But soon the session started, and I had to wait almost two hours before I could pray again. I enjoyed seeing the temple film in English for the first time. I had attended the temple countless times in Portuguese, and once in English in a live session at the Salt Lake Temple. But today was the fist time that I actually got to see the movie in its original language (not the dubbed version). It was interesting. I had not heard that soothing background music in a long time, and I particularly liked that. It sure brought back good memories. Since my mission days, I have been trying to buy a CD with the temple session soundtrack, but my search so far has proved to be fruitless...
Attending the session and seeing the story of the Creation again got me thinking. Something that particularly struck me was hearing again the LDS conception of the Fall of Adam. Other branches of Christianity consider Adam's partaking of the forbidden fruit a mistake that could have been avoided, thus sparing us much pain and sorrow. However, we Mormons believe that the Fall was indeed necessary, and in many ways a blessing, instead of a curse. It is something that was meant to happen and that had been predicted all along. And as I saw Adam and Eve being cast out from the Garden of Eden to enter the lone and dreary world, I could not stop thinking that I would soon be "cast out" as well, to tread an unknown and scary path far from the fold. Soon, because of my choices, I would no longer be allowed to enter the Lord's house, just as Adam and Eve had been excluded from the Lord's presence due to their actions.
Then, epiphanically, a thought occurred to me. According to Church doctrine, Adam partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil willingly, because he knew that by doing so he would contribute to the Lord's purposes, raising up a posterity and fulfilling the plan of salvation. Had he remained in a state of innocence and immaturity in the Garden of Eden, enjoying the constant presence of the Lord, the plan would have been frustrated, and the commandment to "multiply and replenish the earth" would have been relegated to oblivion. As a result, Adam, in order to keep one of the Lord's commandments (procreate), was forced to break another one (avoid the fruit of the tree of the knowledge). Just like Adam, I had received two seemingly contradictory commandments. The so-called "law of chastity" forbade homosexuality (at least as current Church leaders interpret it), but in order to exercise my God-given nature and follow His advice that it is not good for man to be alone, I would need to pursue same-sex relationships. In a sense, remaining in a state of abject solitude and celibacy (the Church's prescription for homosexuals) would be like staying in a sheltered, limiting, infantilizing Garden of Eden. I would not be able to progress, mature, and grow in ways that only interactions with other human beings can provide.
Therefore, my expulsion into the "lone and dreary world" - which I can interpret as having my recommend removed and being excommunicated - is something that I actually might have to go through, just as Adam and Eve had to leave the safety and comfort of Eden. That does not mean that I am less worthy or that I am flagrantly rebelling against God.
And although Adam and Eve were removed from the Lord's presence, they were not left alone. They could still pray, make offerings, and receive messengers. Actually, according to LDS doctrine, they needed to be cast out in order to grow and progress spiritually. It was time for them to move on and start a new phase in their lives.
I, too, needed to start a new era in my personal journey and have new experiences that I would not be able to live if I chose to ignore the realities of my condition as a gay man. This analogy brought me a measure of peace and reassurance. Some people might claim that I am merely rationalizing, and twisting scriptures and concepts to my own convenience and advantage. But I am not trying to convince anyone, or trying to justify my "wickedness." It is simply how I feel, something that is helping me cope with a disturbing reality.
Actually, I do not even know if I believe wholeheartedly in the account of the Creation as it is outlined in Genesis or in the temple. It has its lessons and its beauty, with instructive metaphors, but I do not know if all those details should be taken literally. At any rate, my little "epiphany" this morning meant something to me.
After we went to the celestial room, I spent some time admiring it. It was fairly big, and its decoration was unpretentious and actually tasteful. (Some temples go a little overboard...) And then I finally took some time to pray. At this moment, my mind raced back to my last day in the mission field, five years ago, when I had another key conversation with God. I had gone to the temple and, in the celestial room, laid at the Lord's feet my sacrifice, my two-year mission. I had taken missionary work very seriously, and there I sat in fervent prayer, taking my offer to the Lord's altar and hoping that He would accept it. I remember feeling extremely blessed to have served a mission. I had met and baptized such incredible people and families. Actually, I did not even feel that I deserved so much. I had seen major changes in people's lives and in myself that I had not even expected. I also thought about investigators who ended up not joining the Church, and as I had truly come to love them, I prayed that eventually their hearts would be softened. As I took my holocaust to the Lord's mercy seat, I also made Him promises, out of the gratitude that I was feeling. I promised that I would keep serving throughout my life. I promised that I would never refuse Church callings, and that I would strive to endure to the end, just as I had endured to the end of my mission.
As I sat today in the celestial room, I could not help thinking about that day. And one more time, I poured out my soul to the Lord in His temple. But now I was not half as assertive. Reality was no longer so black-and-white, the future did not look so well-defined. I did not feel that I could make irrevocable commitments as I had five years earlier. Not that I had broken my old promises. Up to this day, I have never refused a Church calling, and I have served to the best of my ability. But I do not know how things will unfold from now on.
I had a very frank conversation with the Lord. I expressed to Him my love and my gratitude for His blessings. I thanked Him for my life and the invaluable experiences that I have had so far. And I told Him that even though I might not be allowed to enter an LDS temple again, I knew that He loved me as I was, and that the fact of being barred from a building did not exclude me from His tender mercies. I told Him that I knew that He understood me, even though many of His Church leaders did not. I could still carry His love in my heart and share it with others. After all, I am a temple, too. "The most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands" (Acts 7:48). "Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God?" (1 Corinthians 6:19).
I told God that even if family, friends, and ecclesiastical authorities censured my actions, even if the whole world conspired against me, He as my Father and Creator intimately knew my heart and my motives. And that it is what mattered. This was confirmed to me by Psalm 26, which incidentally is the theme of the year for me, as I turned 26 years old a few months ago: "Judge me, O Lord; for I have walked in mine integrity: I have trusted also in the Lord; therefore I shall not slide. Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart. For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked in thy truth.... I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, o Lord: Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth....I will walk in mine integrity: redeem me, and be merciful unto me" (Psalm 26: 1-11). Integrity, trust, mercy, truth, lovingkindness. These are key words and key concepts. And I do not believe that any of them is incompatible with my being gay or with the Lord's unconditional love and acceptance of me as His child.
My experience today was not profoundly dramatic. The "veil of the temple was [not] rent in twain from the top to the bottom" (Matthew 27:51) nor did "the Lord whom [we] seek...suddenly come to his temple" (Malachi 3:1). But the Spirit did whisper peace to my soul, and helped me validate some of my aspirations and calm a few of my lurking fears.
Putting away the ceremonial clothes was hard to do. Although I felt that I could never be excluded from the Lord's love, I would miss the rituals and the ordinances that for so long I had believed to be the gateway to heaven. I would most likely never repeat them. But that was the price that I would have to pay in order to be faithful to myself, to reach a new level and enter a new realm in my earthly odyssey. And deep down, I knew that I was not really choosing between the Lord and a wrong "lifestyle." I was not turning my back on God, as some might assume. I was simply leaving an artificially paradisiacal state in order to live experiences that would allow me to fulfill the measure of my creation.
As we drove off, I had the last glimpse of the temple that graces the domains of fair Albion. It stood out prominently in an idyllic, secluded country area, like Salem's tower "above the hills, [drawing] wond'ring eyes" (Hymns 54). As it disappeared into the horizon, I tried to engrave that last image in my mind and heart. Not only was I leaving behind the impressive London Temple, but my entire temple era was coming to an end. Like Nephi finishing his ministry, I thought with a heart full of sadness: "Behold, I bid you an everlasting farewell" (2 Nephi 33:14).