Sunday, September 28, 2014

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar: My first time in a mosque

On Friday, I went to the evening worship service at Khadeeja Mosque in West Valley City (a suburb of Salt Lake City). This was the first time I'd ever been into a mosque. I've studied Islam for years and know quite a bit about it, yet somehow had never found my way to a mosque.

A little background on Islam:

Though most people know what Islam is, very few in America really know anything about it. A lot of Americans, fed by the media's paranoia with Islam, assume it to be a violent religion hellbent on world domination and the enemy of Western culture. Most know it was started by the Prophet Muhammad, and that it's a religion originating in the Middle East. But few know much about it.

Islam was started in the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula by the Prophet Muhammad, a member of the Quraysh Tribe in what is now Saudi Arabia. Muhammad, like his fellow countrymen of the time, was a pagan worshiping a multitude of gods, including the high god of the Arab pantheon, Allah. Allah simply means "the God" in Arabic. It was believed by many Arabs at the time that Allah was the same God worshiped by Christians and Jews. However, the religion of this area was not monotheistic and not related at all to the religions of Judaism and Christianity.

Muhammad claimed to receive a series of revelations from an angel named Jibril (Gabriel in Judaism and Christianity). These revelations claimed that Judaism and Christianity were once revealed religions of the Book, but had been led astray. Allah was now to restore the true faith through Muhammad. Muhammad called this faith "Islam," meaning "surrender," "peace," and "submission" in Arabic. Its followers became known as "Muslims," which means "one who surrenders."

Muhammad's revelations caused unrest in his home city of Mecca, and he and his followers were exiled to a city to the north of Mecca called Medina. There Muhammad claimed to continue receiving revelations. He ended up receiving a revelation which told him to return to Mecca and conquer those in power reclaiming the city and its holiest shrine (the Kaaba, more on that later) for Allah.

Muhammad and his followers went through with the revelation and conquered the city for Allah. Within a couple centuries, Islam spread to be the dominate religion in the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of Asia.

Today, Islam is the second largest religious tradition, Christianity being the first, with 1.6 billion followers around the world present in virtually every country on Earth.

Muhammad's revelations were memorized by his followers and later written down in a book called the Qur'an (often spelled Koran) which means "the recitation" in Arabic. This is the holy book of Islam and considered to be God's Word.

Some misconceptions about Islam:

In the West, there are a number of misconceptions about Islam. I wanted to address a few before I go into what Muslims believe.

1. Muslims are all terrorists and extremists. This is blatantly not true. Most Muslims do not belong to nor endorse any organization labeled as a terrorist group.

2. Islam is a religion that promotes violence. While Islam can be expressed violently, it is not more conducive to it than say Christianity or Judaism, both of which have violent pasts. Christianity in the Middle Ages, for example, tortured, murdered, and imprisoned many accused of witchcraft, heresy, or Jews. Many of these people were lit on fire or tortured for weeks at a time. The Holocaust was carried out primarily by Christians with antisemitic leanings. All of these things and many more atrocities have been done in the name of Jesus Christ. Islam's modern extremists do tend to be more violent than Jewish or Christian extremists. This is true, but the same sorts of agendas can and have been teased out of Judeo-Christian scriptures. Extremism in religion often has less to do with the religious tenants and more to do with current societal conditions.

3. Muslims hate Jews and Christians. This depends largely on which Muslims you ask. It's hard to paint a worldwide religion with 1.6 billion followers as only one thing. Some Muslims are very antisemitic and equally hostile to Christianity and Western culture. Still others are very accepting to Christians and Jews and see them as People of the Book (a term for those of older faiths responding to the previous revelations of Allah who may be afforded God's salvation. I.e., Jews and Christians.)

4. All Arabs are Muslims and/or all Muslims are Arabs. Again, blatantly not true. In fact, only about 15% of Muslims worldwide are Arabs. Many more exist in East Asia, Europe, other Asian countries, and Africa. Many Muslims don't speak Arabic other than the words of prayers and some of the Qur'an. Incidentally, there are significant portions of the world's Arab population that are of other faiths, like Arab Jews, Lebanon's sizable Catholic population (nearly 40% of the population), etc.

Teachings of Islam:

Islam is a diverse religion, but all Muslims agree on what are called the Five Pillars of Islam. These are the five tenants of the faith that all Muslims are obligated to abide by in order to achieve salvation. They are:

  1. The Shahadah: A person becomes a Muslim by saying this phrase with conviction, "La ilaha illa Allah wa Muhammadun rusulu 'llah." Which in English means, "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is Allah's messenger."
  2. Salat: Ritual worship of Allah done five times a day: once at dawn, once at noon, once in the afternoon, once at sunset, and once after dusk. This is ritualized worship and includes set prayers delivered in Arabic and involves bowing and a full prostration in which your head touches the ground. These prayers are done while facing Mecca no matter where you are in the world.
  3. Zakat: Donating a portion of your income to the poor.
  4. Sawm: Fasting from sunrise to sunset during the entire month of Ramadan.
  5. Hajj: A pilgrimage to the city of Mecca that must be performed at least once in a Muslim's life if they are physically and financially able to do so. They make a pilgrimage to the city and perform several ritual actions over the period of about a week. These rites end with the ritual circumambulation of the Kaaba, the holiest place in Islam. It is believed that this shrine was built by Abraham and is the first house of worship to Allah ever constructed.
Additionally, Muslims must believe in these six things:
  1. God (Allah) is one and the only God.
  2. Must believe the angels exist.
  3. Must believe in the Books of God: The Qur'an, but also the Torah, Gospels, Psalms, and Scrolls. Muslims, however, believe that of all of these, only the Qur'an remains true to the original revelation and all the others have been corrupted by mankind.
  4. Must believe in the Prophets of God. These include: Muhammad (considered to be the last of the Prophets), Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
  5. The Day of Judgment will come where all mankind will die and be resurrected. From there all will be judged by their works and sent to Paradise or Hell.
  6. All things are by the will of God. Therefore the good and bad in life should be seen as part of the divine plan. Humans have freedom of choice, but their choices fit into the Divine Plan as mankind doesn't know the will of God.
There are two major sects of Islam: Sunnis and Shias. These two sects split over disagreement about the leadership of Islam after Muhammad.

Sunnis make up the majority of Muslims, a little under 90% of Muslims worldwide. Sunnis believe that the consensus of the Muslim community (the Ummah) is the source of Muslim leadership and guidance. Sunni Muslims are guided by the Qur'an as well as other writings such as the Hadith (sayings or deeds said to be from Muhammad) and the Shariah (the Islamic religious law).

Shia Muslims are the minority of the major sects. The Shia believe that Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, was designated to be the leader of Islam after Muhammad. Ali is seen as the first of the spiritual leaders known as the Imams. Imams were not considered prophets, and didn't receive revelations. Instead they were seen as defenders of the faith and clarifiers of teaching. It is believed by many Shias that there were Twelve Imams, and that the final Imam was taken to Heaven and will return on the Last Day to deliver mankind. He is known as the Hidden Imam.

Within both of these sects, there are various factions and schools of thought. To say that either of these branches is just one thing would be quite ignorant. Islam is just as diverse of a religion as Christianity.

The mosque I went to seems to favor the Sunni expression of Islam and describes itself as an open and moderate version of Islam. So what was worshiping with them like?


First of all, a little rant about finding the place. Dear, Apple, I don't know why your mapping of the entire city of West Valley is as messed up as it is, but using your navigation system, we almost ended up in two different locations in two entirely different cities trying to find this place. Once we used Google maps, we ended up getting there within only a few minutes. It's not a hard location to find, but it was made nearly impossible to find with your GPS.

That being said, the exterior of the mosque is gorgeous. It's a red and pink brick building with onion domes topped with crescent moons. I didn't think to snap a pic of the outside when there was light out, so I didn't get any.

The interior of the mosque is lovely, very simple, but very elegant. The floor is covered in very thick carpeting done in the pattern of prayer rugs.

Above the main prayer area is a lovely dome with a chandelier and seafoam green paint job. Around the base of the dome are plates with Arabic writing from the Qur'an.

The walls were fairly plain except for the occasional gold accents over the windows.

What was impressive was the central feature of any mosque, the Qibla. The Qibla is a niche in the wall that faces Mecca. It allows the worshipers in the mosque to know exactly which direction to pray. As such, it's often the most ornate thing in the mosque. This one is no exception.

One thing I noticed is that only men were in the mosque. I asked them if women came to the mosque, knowing full well they do. He explained that the women had a section in the upper balcony. If I hadn't have asked, I wouldn't know as the women were not seen nor heard from the entire time. The women even have a separate entrance from the men.

I was told by one of the members that this is so that the women don't distract the men from worship and cause them to sin while praying. As a westerner with a strong feminist background, this upset me quite a bit. The idea that women are just so sexually provocative that they would distract a man from worshiping God because he just can't control himself is really objectifying of women and enforces negative gender stereotypes on men and women. I had this exact same issue when I visited the Orthodox synagogue which had the women separated by a curtain from the men for the same reason.

Like the Orthodox synagogue, all of the important stuff, the Qibla, the microphone to sing the call to prayer, etc. was on the men's side. Then they told me how they're egalitarian, that anyone can lead the prayers and that they're all equal in the house of the Lord. But I wouldn't see a woman leading the prayers nor even associating with the men. The message is clear in an environment like this to a woman, your role is secondary to the privileged role of a man.

I am not a Muslim, but by the mere happy accident of genetics that I have a Y chromosome, I am able to go into the main area of the mosque, worship with the men, approach and even touch the Qibla. But a Muslim woman cannot do any of these things because she may possibly distract a man from worship and inspire lust in his heart.

Other than my issues of the women being segregated from the men, I really liked the atmosphere of the mosque. It was like stepping into another world and a completely different culture from the one I grew up in.

The People:

The people were very kind to us. Nobody seemed really off put that we were there. In fact, from the parking lot, a man named Mohammed greeted us and gave us a tour of the mosque. He was very friendly and answered all of our questions. He was quite wise and had a way of explaining the concepts of Islam in a very direct and accessible manner.

Besides him, there were a number of other men. Me and my friend seemed like we would be the only white people for a bit, most of the others being Arab or of some African descent. But then there ended up being a white man who showed up as well. He was a taller white guy with a full beard and dressed in traditional Middle Eastern garb, which was quite the site to behold and I think says a lot about our assumptions of individuals. Most of the men and young boys wore traditional Middle Eastern garb with traditional hats, though a couple were just dressed in jeans and t-shirts.

After the worship service, we were talking to Mohammad, and one of the men brought over this jasmine perfume and asked if we wanted to wear some. We obliged and he rubbed it on our pulse points so I smelled of jasmine for the next little while. It's interesting to me that men in this culture wear floral perfume, something considered so feminine here. I actually really enjoyed seeing and experiencing that.

Overall, the people were very kind, very welcoming, and very accommodating, I never once felt like they were judging us or upset that we were there. In fact, they were happy we were. We were told we were welcome back anytime and that they weren't going to try to convert us, but were happy we were coming to learn about their faith.

The Service:

The service was only about ten minutes long. It consisted of a man going to a microphone in the Qibla and reciting the Adhan, or Call to Prayer. This is similar to church bells in Christianity, which summon the worshiper to prayer.

Me and my friend then sat in a couple chairs in the back while the men lined up in a row in front of us. They then said the prayers following a prayer leader in front of them. It involved several gestures, a few Arabic phrases, some bowing, and then a full prostration. This was followed by them sitting up on their knees and saying a few other things. This was repeated several times. Then they looked to their right and their left saying a few phrases in Arabic, then it was over. Most of the men stuck around for a few minutes of silent contemplation and Mohammad came and answered a few more of our questions.

Overall, I liked how short the service was, I liked that there were no hymns, no complex liturgy, and that it was so simple even the small children could follow along.

The Message:

There was no sermon. Mohammad said that the worship five times a day isn't a prayer like we think of in the west. It's worship. Prayer he said can be done at any time and is selfish in nature. We ask God for things, but that five times a day, we're to stop and acknowledge his glory and repent. 

He said that it is what's in our heart that matters. That we shouldn't judge others because we don't know what's in their hearts. Only God does. We don't know how sincere our neighbor is in their prayers or what they're going through. and it's not our concern. What is our concern is our hearts and our relationship with God.

Overall, the message I got was that everyone should turn to God and worship him, but that we aren't to judge others for not doing it or not doing it the way we think they should. I liked that message. I hope that message reaches much of the Muslim world because it's better than a lot of the intolerance we see in much of it.

Overall Experience:

This was very fascinating to see culturally. It was quite different from anything else I'd experienced. It was all at once exactly what I was expecting, yet very different. Different mostly because of the tone. The tone was very individualistic and very reverent, which isn't what I was expecting. I'm not sure what I was really expecting with tone.

I definitely enjoyed my time at the mosque and really enjoyed the people and culture.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Returning to the blog with the Hill Air Force Base Protestant Chapel

I took a week off of the blog for mental health reasons. But I'm back and ready to tackle these last 10 or so with gusto! A couple weeks ago, I attended the Hill Air Force Base Protestant Chapel, a non-denominational mixture of various denominations serving the men and women who serve our country. (Fun sentence.)

How was the experience?


The chapel is on Hill Air Force Base. I'm a civilian, so I had to have a friend of mine take me who is in the Air Force as his guest. It was quite a fun experience going back to the Base. My grandpa was retired Air Force, so I'd been a few times when I was younger, plus a few field trips as a kid and some additional times with other Air Force friends. But I haven't been in at least five or six years.

The Base is exactly what you'd expect from a military base, lots of uniform, unmarked, nondescript buildings with various functions of both common knowledge and classified knowledge, housing complexes formed from the same cookie cutter blueprints, and then out of nowhere, a Popeye's Chicken. I took no pictures of the Base because I don't know what the rules are with that and better to err on the side of caution.

The chapel itself is a pretty nondescript building to match many of the others. But inside, it's really pretty, done with a modernist style

There's a basic altar in the center for communion, a cross in front of a curtain. I'm assuming the baptismal font is behind this curtain. There's also a pulpit on either side of the sanctuary and an area for the band behind one of the pulpits. The true beauty of the chapel is the modern, abstract stained glass windows.

I asked permission to take a couple photos, this is what I got.

Overall, very simple atmosphere as I expected on an Air Force base. But it was still very elegant and lovely.

The People:

There were only a handful of people there. Many of them seemed to be military wives with the kids. There were a few who definitely had the feel of being in the service. One of the chaplains came over and started talking to us.

He was a very sweet man, very soft spoken and radiated kindness. His background is Baptist, but he serves as a non-denominational chaplain for the military.

There was also a an in his early 20's from the choir who spoke to me. He was very nice, too. Had a sort of wide eyed idealism about him that I enjoyed and miss about myself.

In general, the people seemed like very nice, typical people. Nothing of major note to say, other than most of them are military or from military families.

The Service:

Now, the primary reason I went is because I was told that it was essentially three different chaplains of three different Christian denominations trying to merge their different church practices and messages into one hybrid service. I was excited to see this for many reasons.

But, that's apparently the morning service. I went to the evening service. The evening service is run primarily by the Baptist chaplain who spoke with us, but also co-run by a chaplain from another denomination.

As such, the service followed a Baptist format pretty strictly. It had an opening prayer, a series of contemporary Christian songs, then a sermon. There were no frills to the service, and nothing I haven't seen in a number of other churches.

I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't what I was expecting. But it was still fun to see.

The Message:

The sermon was on the Lord's Prayer with the focus being on the line "our daily bread." The chaplain began by talking about a canned food drive and how that was something that they were really focusing on.

He then talked about how we are an affluent people and most of us have food in abundance. Most of us will never know what it's like not to have food and to wonder where our next meal is coming from. But that it is the poor who know just how vital praying for daily bread is.

He told a few stories about praying for food in desperate times and how God miraculously provided for these people. These stories to me are always charming and definitely fill you with a feel good optimism, but my realist nature popped in with what always comes to mind when I hear faith promoting stories like that, Why does God dote on these people who need food, but not on the millions of truly destitute people living in abject poverty, many of whom will die of starvation. Many of these people are Christians, many are of other faiths. The only thing most of them ever did wrong was simply being born in the wrong part of the world at the wrong time. Why does God care so much for these English orphans in this Victorian era story the chaplain told, but not about modern kids starving in the horn of Africa? Why does God care that missionaries in China get food when they're hungry and down on their luck, but not that millions in China live on less than a dollar a day?

He then moved onto another portion of the sermon I was completely behind, the focus is on OUR daily bread. That it isn't about just feeding our own selves. That we must feed and share with our brothers and sisters. That it is our duty to share our abundance with those who have nothing. I want to hear more like this from the pulpit and less about people being rotten sinners who deserve nothing but the eternal flames of Hell. I want to hear less about how wicked gays are or how those who watch porn are going to Hell, and more about what we can do here and now to alleviate unjust suffering in this world. Because I promise, that would be the primary focus of Jesus if he were alive today.

Overall, I liked the message. The chaplain seemed very hard to try to keep the topic as general as possible due to the fact that it was an interdenominational service.

Overall Experience:

This wasn't what I was expecting. It ended up being much more of a Baptist-like service. But, I did enjoy it, it was a different experience going to a military base. Just more different in tone that way. Hard to explain in writing. I am grateful my friend got me on base to see it.

Additional Notes:

We're in the home stretch. Only a handful let. Thanks to all of you who have kept up with me. I'm very lucky and very grateful to all of you!

This coming week, I will be (hopefully) attending the mosque in Salt Lake. I'm very much looking forward to that.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Solitary Path: my time with a Neo-Pagan practitioner

Yesterday, I interviewed and joined a friend of mine on a brief ritual as part of his faith tradition. My friend is what you would call an eclectic, solitary Neo-Pagan. What exactly is this? I'll explain.

Neo-Paganism is a term that describes a number of loosely connected modern religions. The religions are attempts to reconstruct ancient pagan practices (known as Reconstructionist Pagans) or pagans who use elements of ancient religions tied with modern practices and philosophies. Thus far, I've covered one Neo-Pagan religion, Wicca, however there are other Neo-Pagan religions.

My friend is a solitary practitioner of Neo-Paganism, meaning he practices his faith alone without any group influence. He may at times join others in worship, but he strongly prefers to practice alone. He is also eclectic, meaning he draws from a number of different sources and pantheons. He identifies himself as above all else, being a devotee of the Mother Goddess.

My friend's faith has similarities to Wicca, in fact, Wicca was how he started out on his path. However, he has since evolved into his own practice which is separate from Wicca.

His faith is a common story among people in the Neo-Pagan community. Many start out in Wicca and find it no longer suits their needs and outgrow it.

Some similarities between my friend's individual faith and Wicca:

  • Both worship a God and Goddess figure rooted in nature.
  • Both believe in magic.
  • Both honor nature.
  • Both use similar ritual tools.
  • Both use meditation.
  • Both borrow from ancient pantheons and mythology.
  • Both believe in channeling energy and working with it to alter their world.
Some differences between my friend's faith and Wicca:
  • My friend rejects the aspects of Wicca he describes as "occult based" By this he means the ceremonial magic elements taken from Renaissance magic, the OTO, Rosicrucians, etc. For instance, my friend doesn't call upon the Guardians of the Watchtowers, or use set ceremonial formulas. He also rejects the elements that come into the faith from Kaballah.
  • Wiccans use the classical four elements united by a fifth element, spirit. My friend doesn't believe in the four elements.
  • Wicca is traditionally structured with certain feast days, ceremonies, and in the most traditional versions of it, set words and ritual directions in ceremonies. My friend's faith is free form. While he sometimes celebrates the same holidays, he doesn't commemorate them with rituals, but rather goes out to party or just remembers the day.
  • My friend borrows from other faiths and beliefs, including Hinduism, Asatru, New Age religions, etc.
  • My friend's ceremonies are informal and don't usually involve casting circles, summoning various beings, etc.
  • Wicca divides the natural world into male and female entities. The Sun is symbolically masculine, the Moon feminine, etc. My friend sees male and female in all things,
  • My friend uses the same ritual tools as Wicca, though only when he feels that they would be appropriate. Also, within Wicca, the tools are associated with various elements. As my friend doesn't believe in the four elements, the tools have different meanings.
My friend's altar:

Here are the ritual items held on my friend's altar, as well as other items important to his faith.

There are three items on the back wall which represent the God principle of nature: the Horned God, which represents animals, death, the Otherworld, and our animal nature. The Green Man who represents the plant world and nature itself, Finally, the Sun, which represents the life giving power of the Sun and light.

Directly on the altar itself are three items which represent the Goddess, or feminine aspect of nature. They are: a bowl of sea shells which represent the waters of the earth that give life and abundance. There's candle in a green candle holder representing that she too gives life giving light through the Sun and other ways, and also represents nature with the green holder. 

Then there is the central tool my friend uses: a cauldron. The cauldron to him represents the whole cycle of life death and rebirth. This is due to the Celtic myths involving cauldrons where the cauldron of a goddess was able to resurrect the dead, and the cauldron of the All Father (a powerful god) was able to feed people without ever emptying. For him, this symbol represents male, female, Goddess, and God. It represents all of the universe and is his most prized tool.

Also on the altar are flowers and a gourd to remember the season, as well as an image of Dionysus (in his bull horned form), a figure which to him represents emancipation, being yourself, and enjoying your natural self.

He made this statue, as well as another one which represents the Horned God. I think he did well on both of them.

And here are my friend's classical tools which are used in Wicca as well:

His knife. To Wiccans, the knife represents fire usually and is associated with projecting your will. To my friend, the knife represents cutting away that which is harmful to you, such as attachments to unhealthy things.

His chalice. To Wiccans, this represents the element of water and also represents the womb of the Goddess. My friend still sees the womb imagery as he does in the cauldron, but doesn't see the same association with water. Often he uses it for offerings. I love his chalice because it's shaped like a goat head at the base.

His pentacle. For Wiccans, this is a symbol of the element of earth and symbolizes grounding. For my friend, it represents the Star of Venus and thus represents the Goddess in her celestial forms.

My friend's wand collection. My friend has multiple versions of each tool, But the most of any tool he has are his wands. To Wiccans, the wand represents air, and also is used to direct the will. My friend only sees it as a tool to direct his energy when working magic.

My friend also has a cabinet full of herbs which is quite extensive.

And a few more miscellaneous items he uses, including a crystal ball for divination (which he says is not about telling the future for him, but sorting out things in his own head and reading energy around him), a singing bowl, and three books which contain writings of his beliefs, practices, and meditations.

The symbol on the first two books is called a triskelion and is a very ancient symbol dating back to the neolithic (new stone age) period that has had many meanings throughout history. For him it symbolizes the flow of energy and is his primary spiritual symbol and the one that represents his faith to him. He even has it tattooed on his shoulder.

I asked him a series of questions. The main one was what divinity meant to him. He said that he feels like there is something like the Hindu concept of Brahman, the ultimate reality. This reality is neither male nor female, conscious nor unconscious, existent nor non-existent, Everything is part of this ultimate reality. He said he was a pantheist and believed that everything that exists is divine and adds to the divine reality like a rich tapestry. He expresses this pantheism through animism (believing everything has a spirit or energy) and polytheism with the Gods

He sees the Goddess as the Great Mother Goddess, and the feminine expression of everything that's out there. He primarily worships her, but all the other goddesses in history have represented different aspects of her.

He also worships, though not as extensively it seems, the All Father, an all encompassing god that represents the masculine expression of everything. He feels that all the gods in history have represented different aspects of him.

Neither is superior to the other, and to him both of them are in every single thing in this universe. He says that he doesn't believe the Gods created us, that all living things create the Gods and that we only enhance them. The Goddess and God are everything, therefore they are life and death all at the same time, kindness and cruelty, Summer and Winter, etc.

He also says that he believes everyone's path is different and that his is open to all paths because all of the gods are aspects of the ultimate divine reality. He said he even feels that atheism fits into his beliefs because he constantly doubts everything. He acknowledged it could all just be in his head and that none of this is real. But he said that all it does is help him to sort out his life, help him overcome his problems, and help him feel connected to the world around him. For him, it's about making his own reality.

The Ceremony:

The ceremony was pretty simple. We went on a hike, no ritual tools, no books, no special robes, no candles, just us. We went up a trail on the mountainside near our homes. We got to a small clearing with some stones set up in a circle around a little pool. There was a pipe running off water from the snow cap up on top of the mountain down into the pool which was trickling down into a little stream down the mountainside.

We stopped here and my friend sat and meditated on nature and his life. I took pictures while he did.

After meditating, he took water onto his hand streaming into the pool from the pipe. He used it to anoint various parts of his body and chakra points. He said this was to feel cleansed and empowered by nature.

He then talked about some personal issues his mediation help get some clarity on. Prior to that, I had been tossing pebbles into the pool, and I explained how the ripples acted like sound or light waves and how energy moves in waves. and that the surrounding objects create other ripples and patterns. He said that was a great symbol of his belief on spiritual energy, that it's all around us, and we can make it move and manipulate it, but it affects everything around us, and what you put out can bounce back to you in unexpected ways.

We then packed up and left the spot. That was the whole ritual. He said this was typical ritual for him. No tools or fancy words, just him meditating in nature on personal problems, the Goddess, nature itself, or something else. He only uses the other ritual stuff when the urge or need arises, but for the most part, this was how he practiced his religion.

Overall Experience:

Even though I don't believe in spiritual energy or anything supernatural, I have to say, that his beliefs and practices are pretty interesting and cool. Mostly it just feels like self help framed in a spiritual setting. Indeed, he told me he thinks people who do self help are doing magic and are not any different than him. He has his set beliefs, but he's open to change and new possibilities. He doesn't force his beliefs on anyone nor decry others for their beliefs. He just lives life his way, and that involves a magical worldview.

He's very realistic and says that magic won't solve your problems. That saying a spell won't make someone fall in love with you, make your body image problems go away, or get you the money you want. Instead, they'll give you focus and open you up to possible avenues to make those things happen for yourself. But ultimately you must do the work.

I have no problems with spiritual systems like this existing as long as they don't cause problems like people not seeking real medical attention in favor of spiritual healing, or people denying science in place of pseudoscience and woo woo. For my friend, this all seems to just be something that helps him feel connected with nature, the world around him, the universe, and help him deal with issues in his life that he might not otherwise find a good avenue to deal with. I think it's a beautiful and charming outlook he has. So I say, have fun.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A walk through a Mormon temple.

This past month, I went to the Ogden LDS Temple open house twice. The temple tours were identical minus the lines to get in (it was much more crowded the second time). The first time I attended with my friend, the second time with members of my immediate and extended family. Temples are normally not open to the public. In the weeks prior to them dedicating the temples, they allow the general public to tour them as they're not set aside for temple worship yet.

Because of the nature of this special blog, I will not follow the normal format. Instead, I will talk first about the general purposes and beliefs about the temples in the LDS Church; the video which begins the tour; the exterior of the building; and I will then describe the various rooms as I remember them, their purposes, and my impressions of them.

What Temples Mean to Mormons:

Temples are the most important places on earth to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For them, they are houses of the Lord. Many members of the LDS Church believe that God himself personally visits temples, and that the Holy Ghost's presence dwells within them.

Temples are unlike regular church buildings, which are called meeting houses in the Mormon tradition. Meeting houses are where regular Sunday worship occurs. All people are welcome to attend services at meeting houses. Regular services at meeting houses include: Sunday school for adults and children, various meetings for men and women, and a communion service called Sacrament meeting. I attended one of these services previously. Check out that blog here:

Temples on the other hand are open only to members of the LDS Church who meet strict requirements. These include:

  • A testimony that the teachings of the Church are true concerning God, Jesus, the atonement, that Joseph Smith restored the ancient Church that Christ started, and that the Church is the One True Church on earth with living prophets.
  • Complete sexual purity. This means the person has not had premarital sex, an extramarital affair, viewed pornographic or obscene material, engaged in any homosexual behavior whatsoever, or masturbated. If they have, they must have confessed the matter to a bishop of the church (similar to a pastor in most churches) and gone through a probation period (often a year) before they may enter the temple. In all honesty, I have known a shockingly high percentage of people in the Church who lie about this one during interviews. There is a large stigma surrounding sexual sin in the Church. It is called the sin next to murder and as such, many lie about it. This isn't unique to Mormons, but a common thread among conservative churches which demonize all sex outside of marriage.
  • Ensuring your relationship with your family is in accordance with Church teachings. Essentially that you're not abusing your family, that you are fulfilling your responsibilities, etc.
  • Ensuring that you do not support nor associate with any person or group who's beliefs and practices aren't in harmony with the teachings of the Church.
  • That you attend your regular church meetings and try to keep your covenants to the best of your ability.
  • Being honest in your dealings with people.
  • That you pay a full and honest tithe. This for members of the Church is 10% of all of your gross income. Though some interpret it to mean net income.
If members do not meet 100% of these requirements, they are not permitted to participate in temple ceremonies nor even enter the temple.

Temples ceremonies are quite different than ceremonies in meeting houses. They are composed of rituals for the living and the dead and follow strict formatting, special clothing, and secrets only temple worthy members are told. All things that happen within the temple are not to be discussed with outsiders. Members say that these ceremonies aren't secret, they're sacred and shouldn't be talked about. This statement has never made sense to me as they are secret ceremonies because they are sacred to them. Therefore they are sacred AND secret to members.

The Video Prior to the Tour:

Just before the tour, there is a short video about what temples mean to the Church. They don't really go into much detail as to what truly happens inside a temple nor their true significance. This is a common theme in the temple tour. There are no tour guides, they rush you through the temple, they don't encourage questions while on the tour (nor is it really easy to ask questions of the temple workers), and they tell you there is a tent outside which will give you more information about the various rooms, but it mostly tells you about the building structure and materials than anything else.

The video features several members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This group of twelve men, along with the President of the Church and his two counselors (known as the First Presidency) make up the most senior leadership of the Church. Some spoke about temples being important in ancient times, claims that the temples now have the same function as the ancient temples, and they really drove home their message that families can be together forever through the temple.

The Exterior:

Here are the only pictures you will get of the temple, as photographs were not permitted inside the building. You can view photographs of these rooms that I describe online through various sources, including Church publications.

The original Ogden Temple stood from the 1970's until 2011. The design of the original temple was very much a product of its time, and the beauty of it didn't stand the test of time. The newly designed and renovated temple bares no real resemblance to the original. The new building has a look that is inspired by timeless houses of worship, with stone walls, stained glass windows, and a traditional single spire.

Truth be told, I think the exterior is quite a good face lift to Ogden. It is much better to see than what was there before.

The Tour Itself:

The Baptistery

The tour begins with you entering from the back door on the west side. There are people there who put protective coverings (shower caps essentially) on your feet in order to keep the new carpets clean. You walk inside and they take you to the basement to the first room, the dressing rooms near the Baptismal Font. After snaking through several doorways, you enter the Baptistery. This contains a giant stone baptismal font on the top of twelve stone oxen. This is modeled after the basin in Solomon's Temple. The twelve oxen represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Behind the font is a portrait of Christ's baptism which extended from floor to ceiling. Off to the left and right sides of the room were paintings of a river, which I assume were the Jordan River in Israel.

This is the room where Mormons perform baptisms for the dead, a practice known widely outside the Church. Regular baptisms of members do not take place here, but are done in much smaller and very simple fonts in local meeting houses. It is said that the dead require the same ordinances as the living, therefore, those who died without baptism have the chance to accept a baptism done on their behalf by a living member of the Church.

This is a ceremony I participated in when I was a Mormon, and it is the only ceremony a minor can participate in under normal circumstances. Anyone over the age of twelve with a recommend (specifically good only for baptisms for the dead for minors) may participate in this ceremony. It is just like a regular baptism in Mormon circles, following the formula of baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, members dressed in white jumpers, being fully immersed, etc. The only difference is that the name of the deceased person is read instead of the name of the member doing the baptism. Typically, a person is baptized for a dozen or more people in one baptismal session.

The administrative offices

After the Baptistery, they take you through some halls in the basement that pass by a few rooms, the only real one of note was the cafeteria. They then take you to the first floor of the building. This floor contains the temple recommend desk, where members must present their paperwork stating they can enter the temple. It also contains a lobby to wait in. The rest of the floor is filled with the administrative offices of the temple. After that, there is a dressing room for the brides to get ready in on their wedding day. It's a pretty little room with several vanity mirrors for multiple brides to get ready at the same time.

The Sealing Rooms

The next floor is pretty much entirely dedicated to Mormon weddings. There is a lobby there for the families of the bride to wait in while she gets ready. This is like a nice hotel lobby in appearance. Most of the rest of the rooms on this floor are called Sealing Rooms. They are small chapels where weddings are performed. The rooms are laid out with a padded altar in the center where the bride and groom kneel facing each other. There are chairs along the sides of the room for the families of the bride and groom as well as those officiating to sit in. The most striking feature of these rooms are the mirrors. There are mirrors on the walls in front of and behind the altar. These mirrors reflect each other in an eternal image. This symbolizes the bride and groom's marriage lasting for eternity as Mormons believe that marriage and family are eternal when they are sealed together in these ceremonies.

There were a few of these rooms, some were huge and could accommodate a several dozen people, others were very small and could only fit a few people in them.

The Chapel and Ordinance Rooms

The last room on the second floor was a small chapel which is very reminiscent of standard Mormon chapels. I am told the dedication of the temple will happen in this room, and that this is where people who perform the Endowment Ceremony wait before participating in the ceremony. 

You then walk up a flight of stairs and see a painting of Jesus's second coming at the top of the stairs looking down at you. The top floor is filled with Ordinance Rooms. These rooms are the rooms where members conduct the most sacred and secret of ceremonies that most will participate in, the Endowment Ceremony. Essentially, the Ordinance rooms are small, well decorated theaters where members watch a video detailing their version of the creation story in Genesis. Members are given special signs and tokens they believe are necessary to enter into God's presence. They also swear oaths and make covenants with God, don certain ceremonial clothing, and participate in a prayer circle during this ceremony. The ceremony ends with them passing through a veil into the Celestial Room. More on that in a moment.

Mormons believe the Endowment Ceremony bestows upon them special blessings and will allow them to enter into the highest of the Three Kingdoms, the Celestial Kingdom. Mormons teach that there are three kingdoms mankind will be divided into on the Last Day:
  1. The Celestial Kingdom, said to be the glory of the Sun. This is the highest kingdom, where God the Father will live and reign. Those who go into this kingdom were worthy Mormons who went through Endowment Ceremony and lived by the teachings of the Church. Those who were married in the temple are at the top of this kingdom and may become gods of their own worlds. (Though the Church seems to be changing this doctrine as of late. More on that in another blog, perhaps.)
  2. The Terrestrial Kingdom, said to be the glory of the Moon. This is the second highest kingdom and is ruled by Jesus Christ. Those who will go to this kingdom lead righteous lives, but were deceived by the craftiness of man and thus didn't accept the fullness of the Gospel in this life or the next.
  3. The Telestial Kingdom, said to be the glory of the stars. This is the lowest of the kingdoms of glory. Those in this kingdom were sinful in life, and as such not deserving of the first two kingdoms. After this life, they will go to Spirit Prison (a similar concept to Purgatory) where they will atone for their sins. They may accept the Gospel and change their eternal fate while in Spirit Prison. If not, they will remain there until the end of Christ's Millennial reign, and be sent to the Telestial Kingdom on the Last Day. Though it is the lowest of the kingdoms, it is said that if you saw this kingdom right now, you would kill yourself to go there.
Outside of this, there is also Outer Darkness, the Mormon version of Hell. This is where Satan and his Angels will end up. It is nearly impossible for a human to end up here as they must have had full witness to God's existence and still denied him.

The Celestial Room

At the end of the tour, we came across the most sacred room in most temples, the Celestial Room. This is a room that members enter after passing through the veil in the Ordinance Rooms. This room represents the glory of the Celestial Kingdom and being in God's presence. It is always the most well decorated and beautiful of rooms in the temple. This one was no exception.

There were crystal chandeliers, white walls, extremely thick, padded carpets, golden lamps fixed into the ground in an Art Deco style, gorgeous couches, a white dome that looked like glass or alabaster over the center of the room, several end tables with fresh flower arrangements, etc. 

The room is not unlike a fancy hotel lobby in a luxury hotel. Members don't perform any ceremonies in this room. Instead, they simply sit in quiet prayer and meditation, thinking about the ceremonies they just performed and believe that in this room they are closer to God's presence than anywhere else on earth.

There is one temple with a room considered more sacred than this one. That is the Salt Lake Temple, which contains a small room called the Holy of Holies. This room looks much like a Sealing Room and is not used by the general population of the Church. Therefore most people will never see it, nor have need to. Only the top officials of the Church, and those personally invited by them for a special ceremony called the Second Anointing will ever enter that room. As such, there is currently only one and in all other temples, the Celestial Room is the most sacred room in the temple.

This was the last stop on the tour. After this, we were taken to a stairwell down to the main floor of the building and led out the front door, where crowds of people were taking pictures.

Overall Experience:

Overall, it was a very pretty building and a pleasant experience both times. It was nice to experience in a small way what my Mormon relatives experience with the temple. The artwork and craftsmanship of the building is phenomenal. The stained glass windows were simple, yet gorgeous; the dark, African wood was a great contrast to the white walls; everything was just really pretty.

That being said, it just doesn't feel like a house of worship to me. It feels very much like a luxury hotel without bedrooms. Since leaving the LDS Church, temples have been an issue for me. They claim to follow the models of the ancient temples of Israel, but they don't bear any real resemblance to them other than the baptismal font and that there is a veil and one temple with a Holy of Holies.

I understand this building and the ceremonies inside mean the world to much of my family and friends. I understand they fill a huge need and give many of them comfort and spiritual grounding. But my biggest issue with them is their exclusivity. I know many people who have issues when the time comes to get married and their family must wait outside the temple while they get married because their family aren't members or are members but don't hold temple recommends. This saddens me. They are a church heavily focused on family, but this policy often creates conflict within families.

This happened to me when my brother was married. I had to wait outside the temple with the rest of my family. I was a minor at the time, which is why I was unable to attend. Other family members were unable to enter as well for one reason or another. We waited outside as well for them to exit the building so we could all take pictures and congratulate them. This was the first time I ever really questioned this policy.

I was seventeen at the time and severely questioning my faith in the Church. I had all but left in my mind at the time, but was afraid to tell anybody. I knew in my head that I wouldn't see the ceremony, but I was quite another thing waiting endlessly outside the temple for them and feeling left out of a huge moment in his life simply because of my age. 

There is a small lobby inside the doors of the temple where you can sit if you're not attending. I sat in there with my grandma and she was talking about temple worthiness and things of that nature. I saw all these people walking in and out of the temple with their valises full of their temple clothes. I just remember thinking to myself, "Who could ever consider themselves worthy enough to enter God's house? Isn't that an arrogant statement to make?" In that moment, the whole temple thing felt like a country club for the righteous. It also felt contrary to the life and ministry of Jesus, a man who surrounded himself with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and other outcasts of society and often scorned those in religious authority for being self righteous and caught up in the pomp and ceremony of their faith. I couldn't see him endorsing the idea of a members only temple for the righteous.

I felt like a monster thinking these things in the lobby of this building. I felt like I had betrayed God. Even though I was pretty much already emotionally and mentally out, there was still a small part of me clinging desperately to the faith of my childhood. I still wanted it to all be true even though it was getting harder and harder to believe. I was still convinced that the problem was entirely with me and that I was alone with these thoughts.

And I still felt that way going through these open houses, especially with my family who are LDS and temple goers. It felt like there was a large gap between us. There is a whole world they have that I will never experience and am not invited to. This is not their doing, but a consequence of their deeply held beliefs that are extremely dear to them. But, for a brief moment in time, these tours allowed us to bridge that gap in a small way. For that, I am grateful for this tour.