40–41: Ritual within Mormonism

In this two-part discussion, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Julia Hunter, Chelsea Strayer, and Chelsea Fife explore insights from myth and ritual studies and the ways these ideas help illuminate aspects of Mormon devotional and cultural experience. Can having a better understanding of ritual structure, how ritual functions in social life, and ritual’s intent to lead us out of everyday rhythms and ways of relating to each other and into new head and heart spaces in which we learn and feel things of significance in different ways help us gain deeper appreciation for Mormonism’s many rituals?

In Episode 40, the panelists discuss these broader features of ritual and begin to explore their own experiences with LDS ritual. Then in Episode 41, they turn their attention primarily to the Mormonism’s most significant rituals—those performed within its temples. What is each panelist’s experience? How do these experiences differ from some their friends, especially women? This second episode also explores ideas for making ritual an even more powerful part of one’s personal and communal devotional life.

In exploring ritual within Mormonism, and especially whenever attention was turned to temple rituals, each participant in these podcasts maintained a strong respect for the significance of and sacred role the temple plays within the Mormon tradition and in the lives of its members. As you listen to these recordings and then perhaps choose to participate in the blog conversation, we encourage you to also maintain a high level of circumspection.

Note: Here is a link to Chelsea Strayer’s Exponent II blog post, “Rituals of Adulthood and Equality,” that was mentioned a few times during the discussion.

Comments

comments

38 comments for “40–41: Ritual within Mormonism

  1. St. L
    July 6, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Longtime lurker here…not LDS, but have had a lot of contact with individuals in the church and have done some investigating. I have attended sacrament meetings but of course have not been to the temple. I really appreciated this podcast. I am a cradle Episcopalian, and we Episcopalians (at least most ‘traditional’ types) think of ourselves as embracing ritual each week at our worship services. When I attended some LDS sacrament meetings in the past, I was struck by the ‘casual’ feel compared to my home church and wouldn’t have associated the church with ritual. However, hearing these wonderful thoughts about the LDS experience, I was struck by the number of rituals that do exist in the LDS community.

    I feel like one difference in my church and the LDS church is that the Episcopal community embraces more formal ritual _during_ worship, especially during Bible readings and during communion, but mostly forgoes rituals outside of weekly worship services. Purely on a stylistic/emotional level, I prefer the Episcopal version. Our ritual of the sacrament of Communion, and the way our services are structured, seem rigid to some. However, I love the way it connects me to Episcopal and Anglican churches around the world. Some of my LDS friends have complained about feeling ‘over-programmed’ at church–and I certainly understand–but part of me also longs for that feeling of community and structure _outside_ of the weekly worship service. In the Episcopal church, activities outside of weekly worship are generally left to each parish (church community) to decide. Of course, some are more imaginative than others!

    Thanks for the enlightening thoughts.

    • denise
      July 7, 2011 at 8:06 pm

      I BELIEVE THAT ONLY THE BIBLE IS TRUE.  THE BOOK OF MORMON IS A LIE.  THE BIBLE SAYS THERE IS NO OTHER BOOKS.  JOSEPH SMITH IS A LIER.  THE CHURCH IS DISGUSTING.

    • Robsmom55
      July 12, 2011 at 5:12 pm

      This is why cookie cutter church services do not work. You love the formality and order in your services and others find it boring. I love the hand clapping, arm waving, amen shouting services.  When you try to put a square peg in a round hole you get a lot of frustrated people.

      robsmom

  2. Axavior
    July 6, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I really enjoyed listening to the ideas mentioned here. I now have alot to think about. It was very mind opening.

  3. RachelM
    July 7, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Wow, this podcast has so many ideas, I am not sure I can comment intelligently.  I am really grateful for it and some of the themes of it and am pondering over them.  

       One idea that keeps swirling in my mind is this idea of ritual taking you through the threshold, and the comments on women who only went through the endowment to get married.   I only went through the endowment to go on a mission.  I would never have gone through at that time if it hadn’t been required by the checklist..  I had no idea what the endowment really was.  I was extremely ill-prepared and the entire experience from initiatory to celestial room was not positive.   Actually, I would say the experience of it started even earlier, during the interview process, where I was lovingly patronized by my bishop and stake president, patted on the head and told it would be “sweet to me” with no explanation of the what I was actually promising.  I can’t say that I have ever had a truly positive experience in the temple, but some of that might be due to the problems I faced from that first time.  All that said,  I think the idea of the ritual “escorting you to your new position in the community” is interesting, and a wedding certainly does that.  My entire experience felt like I was involved in some ancient wedding ritual, undressed and re-garbed in an almost sacrificial process, and yet, because of my single status, I was never allowed to cross that threshold to being treated as an adult.  (or at least it was delayed til I was in my 30s)  It ended up feeling like a limbo with my youth and attractiveness taken but without the benefits of sex or adulthood that comes with marriage.   I was proverbially stuck at the alter waiting for the person that would help me cross the threshold into my new role, so to speak.    I know it sounds almost juvenile, but if ritual does change you for good, then the fact that there was no role for me to step into left me in a limbo that I still reside in, and may always reside in. 

    • July 7, 2011 at 10:44 pm

      So much of what you said resonates with me, Rachel.  And like you, I’m not sure I can articulate even a small portion of what this podcast did for me.  But here goes…

      The biggest barrier to my attendance right now is that I feel like a child at Church because I’m unmarried.  Not only am I 34, but I’ve been through several rites of passage–boot camp, MTC, TFA institute, and 1L year all come quickly to mind.  Yet I am still a child in so many people’s eyes.  This isn’t limited to the Church, but it is more prevalent there.  

      On the other hand, probably due to my Mormonism, I REALLY believe that my maturity IS stunted to a certain degree because I remain unmarried and childless.  I certainly lack the level of long-suffering and endurance required by godhood, but well short of that, these are among my least developed qualities, largely because I’m still single.  I have long aspired to marriage and fatherhood for other reasons, but I feel more than ever that my progression requires it.  And yet, none of my childishness–choices that implicate my safety that a parent probably shouldn’t make, for instance–nor my lack of development, has to do with ritual.

      As an interjection, what about vicarious ritual?  I’ve been sealed vicariously for others, but I’ve never done the other things associated with the Mormon marriage ritual (proposal, wedding invitations, honeymoon, etc).

    • don't
      July 7, 2011 at 10:55 pm

      Since I was endowed just shortly before my wedding, yours is a perspective I would not have thought of (typical myopia on my part). I too have more negative than positive feelings about my temple attendance and I appreciate the opportunity to consider your temple experience, as a single sister, in the context of this discussion. Thanks for sharing your insightful comment.

      • RachelM
        July 8, 2011 at 4:27 pm

        Thanks!  

    • Chelsea Shields Strayer
      July 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm

      What an insightful comment. I completely agree. One of the purposes for my post on “Rituals of Adulthood and Equality” at Exponent II was to explain that exact phenomenon, i.e. if we use rituals to continually progress, what of the “truncated progression” of the people who can’t go through all of the rituals (singles, women, interfaith couples, LGBT, etc)? I think you explain this so perfectly and how going through the temple but not being married but you in a liminal state for so long and the damage that can do. I really appreciate your comment.

  4. July 7, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    Perhaps my biggest take away came from Chelsea Fife’s discussion about her insights that came after she stopped trying so hard, or after she “got out of her head” as Dan might say.  Like perhaps most of us, I was more in my head than any other time in my worship.  Now I see how silly that was.  The most ritualistic worship in the three-hour block happens in sacrament meeting, and the least ritualistic is gospel doctrine.  Yet we don’t go to sacrament meeting to learn.  So perhaps we should try to de-emphasize learning in the Temple, and re-emphasize less “in our head” forms of worship.

    I cannot help but share this next thought, though much of the audience won’t know what I’m talking about; but,  I cannot get an album, The Age of Adz, by Sufjan Stevens, out of my mind when thinking of this topic.  I even had to stop the podcast about 3/4 of the way through to listen the last song of the album (25 minutes long).  If anyone knows Sufjan’s music, it is usually filled with poignant lyrics (“our grandfather died in a hospital gown” and “what the water wants is hurricanes, and sailboats to ride on its back”), but this album isn’t intellectual at all.  The lyrics make much less sense than previous albums, and like many rituals, there is a lot more repetition.  In fact, he probably has made it through at least one album without repeating a single line, whereas in The Age of Adz, it is nothing but repetition.  He said he wanted to write something more limbic, instinctual, carnal (I forget his exact words).  Anyway, the point is that getting out of one’s head during ritual seems valuable to me in that it lets something deeply rooted in our evolution/carnal/emotional take over.  That seems well suited for ritual.  

    Which takes us back to Chelsea Fife’s insights.  When she stopped trying to intellectualize the experience, she learned that the body must submit to the spirit.  How ironic.  And, of course, cool.

    • RachelM
      July 8, 2011 at 4:02 pm

      I really liked  the insight in that we are both Adam and Eve as well,  but even within the ritual women only participate as Eve.   We don’t stand with “Adam” as she enters the room.  We don’t make the same covenants.  We don’t even participate in prayer the same way.  If we experienced both parts of the ritual, I could see relating more.  And after “the fall” Eve is a mute without a name incorporated into Adam.  If this is represented as the body submitting to the spirit, then it seems logistically backward, but considering it all, that may not matter. 

      I also loved the insight by both Chelsea and Dan that ritual gets you out of your head.  I know this will sound silly by comparison, but I participate in a lot of theater.   While analysis and study are necessary to performing well, the last and crucial step is to “get out of your head” so you can vicariously experience what your character does.  This is when theater is most alive.  Ritual is part of theater and theatricality is part of ritual, so that concept rings clear to me.   But I also see Chelsea Strayer’s points about having to do so many mental gymnastics.   In theater it only works to be instinctual once you have worked to internalize all the information.   When you have to do so many leaps with the information, it becomes harder to just live the moment of it.  I wonder if this isn’t a little true of the temple as well. 

      • Chelseafife
        July 8, 2011 at 8:52 pm

        Rachel–this is a great comment. I think it illustrates the fact that ritual can become so many different things for so many different people and at different times in their lives. For many years I only considered the literal elements of the Adam and Eve story. Over time my perpective of Eve changed and I anticipate my perspective will continue to change as I get older and as I spend more time in the temple. My perspective might be insightful to some and completely off-base for others. The beauty though, lies in the ability for Eve, and Adam for that matter, to represent a myriad of different ideas and lessons for different people. 

        I love your analogy of being on stage and being able to get out of your head. I hear that same thing from so many artists when they try to explain where their creativity comes from. They always talk about it coming from a place inside where there is no judgement, no critique, no worry, no  chatter, just inspiration and creativity—out of their head. For me, that place you talk about is what I was trying to express when I talked about the duality I feel inside. That “out of my head”  place is my awareness or my spirit. 

        • RachelM
          July 11, 2011 at 4:33 pm

          Chelsea-  I totally understand about that sense of awareness.  It is almost out-of-body, although not quite cause you become really aware of your body at the same time.   That is a little of what it is like for me anyway, so when you spoke about it, I kind of got it.   

          Are you the one that is studying about how ritual affects the physiological?  Maybe I am not stating that correctly, but you seemed to mention that the body functioning a certain way changed the brain.  Anyway,  do you have an opinion about how the continued changes diluting the physical experience of the initiatory could change it?  I might be weird (well actually, I am definitely weird) but the physical part of the initiatory was actually quite comforting, but the words really bothered me.   Now when I participate, they have changed it so it is less involving and all that is left is the words, which is a bummer for me, but like I said, I might be different.  

             

      • Chelseafife
        July 8, 2011 at 8:52 pm

        Rachel–this is a great comment. I think it illustrates the fact that ritual can become so many different things for so many different people and at different times in their lives. For many years I only considered the literal elements of the Adam and Eve story. Over time my perpective of Eve changed and I anticipate my perspective will continue to change as I get older and as I spend more time in the temple. My perspective might be insightful to some and completely off-base for others. The beauty though, lies in the ability for Eve, and Adam for that matter, to represent a myriad of different ideas and lessons for different people. 

        I love your analogy of being on stage and being able to get out of your head. I hear that same thing from so many artists when they try to explain where their creativity comes from. They always talk about it coming from a place inside where there is no judgement, no critique, no worry, no  chatter, just inspiration and creativity—out of their head. For me, that place you talk about is what I was trying to express when I talked about the duality I feel inside. That “out of my head”  place is my awareness or my spirit. 

    • July 8, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      I really love Sufjan Stevens and find it very spiritual for that reason.  For me, I find Vito’s Ordination Song particularly beautiful and relevant to temple worship.  I’m glad you’ve found new ways to approach ritual listening to our conversation.  🙂

  5. July 7, 2011 at 11:36 pm

     It seems like one reason people tend to have a bad experience attending the temple for the first time is not only because the rituals performed are somewhat bizarre for our time and place, but also because Mormon culture tends to denigrate that style of ritual and worship. Lds people often place  great value on the spontaneous, spirit guided nature of their worship services while  criticizing religions whose worship appears rote or mechanical. So for someone like myself who was born and raised and Utah, I felt like the Temple Ceremony flew in the face of what I had been raised to value.  Not to mention all the talk in the Book of Mormon against secret combinations.  Of course I knew what went on in the Temple was secret but didn’t expect it to involve secret oaths and tokens which is what my young mind imagined whenever I heard of the  evil ‘secret combinations’. (I guess I still don’t know exactly what that term means)
    So people show up at the temple for the first time expecting to experience the most profound and spiritual ritual possible,  something like the rituals already experienced only bigger and better, but instead get something both strange and seemingly in conflict with what the style of worship they’ve been taught was best.

    • July 8, 2011 at 8:12 pm

      I know just what you mean, Christopher!  I remember bragging about that aspect of Mormon worship when I was younger.  😛  I guess I’m glad there’s some of both, though I wish they weren’t such strangers to one another… Learning more about the Hermetic roots of these particular types of rituals (similar to those performed in Masonic Temples) really helped me to put it in context, also with the idea of “Secret Combinations,” which John L. Brooke discusses at length in his book “The Refiner’s Fire.”  I’m really glad you enjoyed the podcast.  I love the topic, and am really glad I had the opportunity to participate 🙂

      • July 8, 2011 at 8:58 pm

        Thanks for the heads up, I will check that book out. And to be clear, I’ve come to  really love and appreciate more ordered, structured ritual, just not when I was 19 and preparing to go through the temple, because I thought it was something only inferior religions did. And you did a great job on the podcast Julia, I hope they have you back for future episodes.

  6. jed
    July 7, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    Dan, this is absolutley my favorite podcast you have done! Great job!

  7. July 7, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    And even though this podcast started out kind of slow, it turned out to be one of my favorite episodes so far. I guess it probably takes new people a little bit to warm up, which is understandable. But all the guests did an excellent job and I hope they are on future panels.

  8. July 7, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    As for appreciating ritual despite being analytical and intellectual. It seems like ritual experience is very similar to an aesthetic experience. So in the same way one doesn’t necessarily use their analytical mind to appreciate art (although that can be  part of it), one doesn’t necessarily use their analytical mind to appreciate ritual. There is no conflict because they are different, often complimentary, means of experiencing the world and gaining knowledge.

    • Nathan
      July 10, 2011 at 4:37 am

         In my experience, ritual participation occurs unwittingly. Ritual communicates the unknowable, so I can’t “know” it. I can feel it, I can experience it but the whole phenomenon seems to be situated just outside of my mortal capacities of communication. Inevitably, the act of deconstructing or recreating such an experience becomes a clumsy venture. But the experience is compelling! Lehi, my favorite (in the category of crazy visionary) BoM prophet, seems to rarely speak of anything other than liminal experience: pillars of fire, beaming white fruit that tastes like salvation, etc.. His language is powerful but it alone doesn’t necessarily provide me with an experience of similar magnitude. So I try not to make the mistake of thinking the power is in the language or the sign (although I can appreciate the way good art and prose can nearly approximate or atleast encourage sublime experience.) But I believe ritual to be a tool (an aid) in experiencing something reserved for the divine realm. It is, however, no defacto, guaranteed link. In theological terms, the right brew also consists of the Holy Ghost, a little grace and perhaps a few other elements that we have yet to give a name.
         The most amazing, secular discussion of this phenomenon that I have ever come across is Freud’s Das Unheimliche. The guy walks right to the brink with earnest analysis but never quite crosses the threshold. The entire text is pregnant with the implication that analysis and intellect can reveal the border but to enter one must sacrifice all “regular” facility.

  9. Anonymous
    July 8, 2011 at 3:49 am

    This might have been the best podcast yet! All the panel members were insightful. It’s so interesting how everyone can have such an interesting and yet different take on the temple experience. I for one am glad that we are talking about the temple instead of pretending the topic is strictly off limits. I personally have never believed that discussion of the temple was disallowed, but rather had always felt in my soul and had always been counseled that we can discuss the temple but that we should do so in reverence and only with those to whom I would not be casting pearls before swine, to borrow a phrase. Having said that, I was particularly struck by Chelsea Fife and her comments that the temple is a gateway to deeper meaning that should be uniquely personal and not subject to anyone else’s interpretation, and that the process of communing with the divine is not and should not be black and white but rather can mean and should mean different things to different people. For example, the fact that we should view ourselves as both Adam and Eve and that the journey as symbolized in the temple could be symbolic of the spirit overcoming and ultimately becoming one with the body was particularly insightful. I am friending each of these girls on Facebook today! Dan too!

  10. Jacob Brown
    July 9, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    It was argued that men after marriage have a progression in the church whereas women do not. I agree with this in some ways, but I think it is a stretch. Modern Mormonism specifically and overtly rejects the idea that there
    is a progression through the priesthood leadership hierarchy. You will
    find stake presidents who are now teaching nursery or bishops who are
    teaching Sunday school. Men are shamed for desiring to progress up the
    ranks or aspiring leadership. I realize this ideology doesn’t often win
    out, but I think it points to the fact that the source of this ritual
    of progression through hierarchy is not Mormonism. It is just basic
    human (male?) nature.

    • css
      July 9, 2011 at 11:59 pm

      What about progression based on the priesthood. After marriage there are still many ordinances and callings (not viewed necessarily in the view of hierarchy but rather as greater responsibilities and privileges–i.e. decision making power and access to increased stewardship and revelation) that women are denied.

      • Jacob Brown
        July 10, 2011 at 2:08 am

        I think the LDS Church does a great job of giving the
        young people direction and purpose. There is a lot of structure and
        attention given to them. But when you get older, you spend the next 50
        years or so without any real clear direction or progression unless you
        are a leader. There are many men who don’t have the chance to grow in responsibility because they are looked over by those in power or there are just not enough leadership positions.

        I thought long and hard about the “many ordinances and callings” you mentioned. At first I couldn’t think of much, but now I think I understand the specific things you are talking about now. Thanks for making me ponder that.

  11. Cliff Bentley
    July 12, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    I enjoyed the discussion very much.  Dan, I wish my preparation to the temple had been more like yours.  I remember being alarmed at committing myself to an unknown covenant, and then realizing that all the people I really trusted in life had already done so, and were now encouraging me to do the same.  This gave me the faith to continue.  In retrospect, I think this aspect of the ritual had a powerful and effective impact, just moments into the experience. 

    My son’s in-law are non-members — one a lapsed Catholic and the other an active evangelical (yeah…watch out for the Mormons!).  We had a get-to-know-each-other lunch with them and our kids.  I told them I’d be happy to answer any questions, which led to a very interesting conversation.  At the heart of it was the temple.  I explained the process, including the 5 covenants (I separate the first two, where Dan combines them), to them and I noticed my son looking like he was going to have a heart attack.  I thought then and still think now that it was a good thing to do. 

    I think it’s awesome that we have a Western Mystery School(the temples) joined at the hip with our Church.  It is just amazing.  And I completely agree that absorbing the rituals and instruction from the right-brain viewpoint is critical.  I also think it is necessary to employ both sides fully, as an integrated whole.  Our society today is not used to giving the right-brain it’s just due. 

    In regards to emphasizing the movement in  ritual above the wording of the endowment, I sort of hesitate.  When I understood the point of the scenario concerning the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture, it was really impactful.  Very much so. 

    Thanks for the work — great podcast!

    Cliff

  12. lil' c
    July 14, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    Really well done.  Loved it.  So much to think about.  I’ll just leave it as…this podcast alone will make me a donor – thanks!

  13. July 18, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    This is probably my favorite MM so far. Loved it! So many great insights from the panel. I can’t wait to go to the temple this Friday with Chelsea Fife!

    • Chelsea Fife
      July 20, 2011 at 11:37 pm

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it!! I am really looking forward to Friday!

  14. Ashleymerback
    July 19, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    Great Podcast!  Great insights!  Where were you girls a few months ago when I gave up my temple recommend  finally by getting rid of my garments…now what!!  I’ve never found joy in the temple (only anxiety attacks…literally) but this podcast makes me wonder if *maybe* I could try again…  Thanks so much!

    • Heather Olson Beal
      July 19, 2011 at 9:14 pm

      I’m with Ashley–never enjoyed going to the temple at all. 

      And I also was intrigued enough to consider entertaining the possibility of giving it another shot.  However, we’re 2.75 hours away from the nearest temple, so going regularly is out of the question.

    • Chelsea Fife
      July 20, 2011 at 11:33 pm

      Oh Ashley–I wish you still had your recommend too! What you expressed was exactly what I had hoped to offer as a panelist—a different perspective, an empowering interpretation. Go get your recommend back–make it happen! If that is too difficult, dig into some of our other rituals–maybe your new desire for perspective will make other rituals seem more personal!

  15. Heather Olson Beal
    July 19, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    One question:  one of you said at the beginning and then again later that your dad was a ______.  I couldn’t understand the word.  ?? 

    • Chelsea Fife
      July 20, 2011 at 11:36 pm

      Rosicrucian.

  16. Herecomescrazy
    July 23, 2011 at 2:19 am

    I enjoyed Chelsea’s insights, and it’s given me hope that I might actually  be able to enjoy the Temple.  However, I believe the correct phrase used is “you must consider yourselves respectively  Adam and Eve.”  To me the use of the word  “respectively” denotes separation.  Any thoughts?

    • Anonymous
      July 23, 2011 at 10:44 pm

      Good question. I had this similar thought initially, but upon reviewing several definitions and contexts in which the word “respectively” is used, I discovered that respectively means both separately and individually, and with the phrasing in the temple that “each of you,” i.e. everyone, must consider themselves as if they are respectively Adam and Eve, I felt the message was that every individual had to consider themselves as if they were both. Had the phrase instructed “the brethren and the sisters” to consider themselves as if they were Adam and Eve respectively, then I believe it would mean separately. But the use of “each of you” opened my mind to this broader meaning.

  17. July 25, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    I am a first-time listener to this podcast and I really enjoyed the intelligent and positive thrust of the whole thing.  It validated my tendency to think broadly about the religion I love and interpret it so that it fits my life and spirit.  There was a lot of talk about young women getting endowed merely as a step toward their temple sealing.  When I got married (at 20) I didn’t want my endowment to become part of the sealing so when I was endowed two weeks before I got married, I asked my fiance not to come so that I could do it by myself.  He was extremely supportive of my request and although I have had some negative responses to that decision, I have never regretted what I did.  It was one way for me to maintain the individual nature of that sacred ordinance and not have it become part of marriage.

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