OPINION — To use the proper vernacular of our state from the get-go, I am not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, I have friends and in-laws who are members, so when I accepted the media invitation to preview the new Cedar City temple, I decided to approach this rare opportunity to get a glimpse inside from the vantage point of a nonmember.
What sorts of things would non-Mormons get to see? Would the veil be pulled back? Would they walk away with a better understanding of the ceremonies that took place behind doors that would normally be closed?
Even though I’m not Mormon, I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a certain mystique about the temple rules, rites and rituals that intrigues me. And it’s even more fascinating to me that many of the specifics of these same rules, rites and rituals are also a mystery to members of their own faith.
My wife, who was baptized in the church, wasn’t able to watch her own sister’s wedding – or “sealing” – ceremony. I let go of my non-Mormon animosity in my late-20s, largely after moving out of state and realizing it was possible for people of different walks of life to disagree on some pretty fundamental issues and still get along, but that fact about my wife always seemed like a bummer to me, and I have to imagine I’m not alone, even with practicing members of the church.
But at least there is a possibility of them eventually getting a temple recommend and being allowed to enter a temple after it has been dedicated. This was going to be my only chance.
The view from the outside, both literally and figuratively
The new temple is definitely stately and can be seen from many vantage points, including almost the length of southbound Interstate 15 where it runs through Cedar City.
Some have been vocally critical of spending so much money on such a grandiose building – and when you get inside, this descriptor remains – when there are so many needy people in the world, but this feels to me like one of those “I’m not Mormon and have to find something to be critical about” things.
Just look at almost every major religion, and you will find monuments, from a Catholic cathedral to a Buddhist temple. The LDS temples are no different in my mind. A previous article from St. George News talks about why the Mormons build temples. It was elucidating to me, and I would recommend it if you really need to know why.
“If you understand why we build temples, you must understand first that we believe in revelation and in the restoration of the gospel,” Boyd K. Packer says in the video, “and to restore means to bring back something that was lost, not a new invention but a restoration of that which was known anciently.”
I get that, even if just in a literal sense. You can see it in the architecture of the temples – some more so than others. The Cedar City temple is kind of in the middle of what I would’ve chosen, aesthetically speaking, given all the designs I’ve seen. However, I learned there was a specific reason for that design choice.
Elder Larry Wilson, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Temple Department for the LDS church (and our tour guide), explained that the Cedar City temple was designed, both inside and out, to be reflective of the area.
“When you see the exterior of the temple, it looks like the temples that were built during the early pioneer era here in Utah,” Wilson said. “So it is very much reminiscent of the St. George and Manti temples, Logan, the other early temples of the church.”
So there’s something specific behind the design, which I can respect, as I said, I don’t have a problem with what others may deem as an excessive demonstration.
Now how about that location? Well, that’s kind of a different thing for me. If I were a Mormon, that’s exactly where I would put that thing. It’s beautiful all lit up at night on top of Leigh Hill, and you can see it for miles.
On the LDS church’s website, there is a manual titled “Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple,” which is also informative for nonmembers. From the manual:
So look toward the temple. Point your children toward the temple. From the days of their infancy, direct their attention to it, and begin their preparation for the day when they may enter the holy temple.
Looking toward the temple will not be a problem in our area. You can see it from almost anywhere in town.
But on the other hand…you can see it from almost anywhere in town. For a non-Mormon, as I’m driving around town or along that stretch of I-15, it’s a constant reminder of being on the outside. But at least it’s a pretty reminder.
This would’ve been more of an issue back in my 20s, and even to this day, I’m aware of being on the outside, but I have grown to recognize where I live. There are approximately 21,500 members of the LDS church in Cedar City alone, Wilson said in his opening comments. That’s roughly 2/3 of the population, and the temple is estimated to serve approximately 45,000 members in the surrounding area.
It would be foolish of me to say they shouldn’t have their monument. Or more specific to the LDS church, Wilson said, “the most sacred place on Earth.”
“For us, it is the house of the Lord and a place of unsurpassed holiness.”
Crossing the threshold
Back when I was trying to support my choice of a bachelor’s degree in English, I worked construction for several years, including building two stake centers in Colorado. If you’ve ever sat in one of those chapels and wondered what holds that ceiling up, I can tell you it’s a pretty cool feat of engineering.
The design of a temple definitely takes it up a notch, but what was surprising to me was that it’s the smaller details that are worthy of note. There was no large chapel, which I was expecting just based on the few times I had been to an LDS church, and most of the rooms we toured weren’t much bigger than the upstairs of my modest home (except for the ceilings, but I’ll get to that shortly).
Wilson explained that the meeting houses and chapels are more about community, but the temple is more focused on individual contemplation of your place in the universe and with God.
A little closer to home and similar to the exterior, much of the interior design was set to also remind visitors of their place in Southern Utah. From the many landscape paintings lining the walls depicting familiar red cliffs and spires – some of which were commissioned just for this temple – to the smallest details of juniper leaves and berries carved into the corners of thick wood molding around the doors, there are both obvious and more subtle reminders of our part of the state’s place in the universe as well.
If you take the public tour, which I understand will be considerably shorter than our media tour on Monday, be sure to look for these small details. Someone put a lot of time and sweat and love into them – like the person/s who handpainted the flora on some of the ceilings. Whew.
Fortunately, many of these details can be seen just by going through the front doors (read: as far as someone like me would make it once the temple has been dedicated in December).
Another unique aspect of the Cedar City temple visitors can see upon walking into the main entry area is one of two beautiful stained-glass windows of Jesus Christ.
“Most temples do not have stained-glass depicting the Savior the way this one does,” Wilson said. “They both came out of a Presbyterian church in Queens, New York, that was razed in 2008. A member of the (LDS) church acquired them and donated them to the church.”
There were four panels, Wilson said, two of which ended up in Cedar City – the other panel can be seen at the rear entrance of the temple.
The tour we took went through the room with the baptismal font on the first floor, through various functional rooms (like dressing rooms or “locker” rooms, for lack of a better word), then continued up through a small chapel, more stairs, the information and endowment rooms (think “Why am I here and what do I do now?”… at least I believe that’s right), the celestial room and ending in the sealing room.
What’s most interesting as an outsider is how the very décor changes as the tour progresses, especially going up. What jumped out immediately at me was the change from dark brown stained wood on the prominent molding and trim on the lower levels to all-white.
Wilson told me this is meant to represent a very literal rising above the Earth closer to heaven, and I will admit that as I continued, whether resulting from pure elevation, décor change or whispers of divinity in the building itself, the effect was hard to deny.
And where color was removed in some places, it was added in others, with additional, even subtler details, such as on the columbine flowers evident in the art glass windows. Even the ceilings were higher in the rooms that served more important functions.
The celestial room was the most impressive and was also representative of this idea. I was turned around a few times in the duration of the tour and lost my sense of direction, but given the height of the ceilings in this room, I have to wonder if we were under the spire itself.
But I couldn’t ask any questions in the celestial room. It is a room of contemplation, meditation, consideration of the broad context and eternal perspective, Wilson said.
When he described the room before we went in, I thought, “This is where I would probably spend a lot of time if I were a member” – a place of peace and quiet to ponder some of the bigger questions or problems in our life. It reminded me of the brief stint I did attending a branch of the Quaker church in Montana that just spent an hour in silence, with people speaking only as they felt moved. In our busy world, this is a rare moment.
However, while I thought the celestial room was certainly beautiful, there was something missing, which brings me to my final observation.
Where is God?
The celestial room did indeed feel like our tour group was that much closer to heaven, but on this particular day, it felt more like God’s waiting room.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist at least one joke, and all kidding aside, it does give an overall sense of my tour experience. If the temple is one of God’s only houses, it didn’t feel like he had arrived yet.
When I was working construction, I could make everything look wonderful and finished and polished and clean, but it didn’t go from being a “house” to a “home” until people moved in.
The manual for preparing to enter the temple talks about this in a sense:
If you go to a meeting early and sit in the chapel quietly and watch the people arrive, you see that they bring something with them. The spiritual temperature warms up and the room is changed. …
This first struck me in the baptism room, where, by the way, Wilson was careful to not only say that baptism for the dead was mentioned in Corinthians but also that it doesn’t force deceased ancestors into the church but rather give them the choice. This was something that I previously misunderstood about a ritual that had gained some questionable media coverage.
It was a beautiful room, but I could only imagine how it would feel to be in there for a ceremony. I could almost imagine how there would be a different “spiritual temperature.”
And as he spoke of the celestial room – and again, maybe also as a result of that effect of touring onward and upward – it was hard not think of my own place in the universe. How am I living? Am I keeping my own covenants with my soul?
We would all do better to ask ourselves these questions now and then, whether in the celestial room or by yourself next to a mountain stream.
Making this connection was part of the reason for the tour, and Wilson said they are excited for all members of the community to see the temple, even those like myself.
“For those not of our faith, it’s a special opportunity to see the interior,” he said, “to understand what is done in various rooms in the temple and to get a very good sense for why members of the church regard it as the holiest place of all, as the house of the Lord.”
For a morning, I got a sense of that, of how this is a holy place for them, and I can respect that, even more so now that I have a better understanding what happens there. This is still not my temple. This is their temple, but I’m glad for them to have it.
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