For the most part, we accept the reality we're given. That was certainly the case with me. Growing up in the church, I was taught the usual stuff; the church is true, Joseph Smith is a prophet, the Book of Mormon is true, and so on. It was easy for me to accept, because I trusted what my parents and church leaders taught. This was reinforced each Sunday, in seminary, youth activities and the like. Plus, just about everyone I knew shared these beliefs. I grew up in Utah, after all. But things changed dramatically once I decided to go on a mission.
The first experience that really left me questioning my own reality and the veracity of the church was going to the temple for the first time. I was always taught that the temple was a special, even sacred place. Going was a goal that was drilled into me from the very beginning. I was always taught to live a life worthy of those blessings, so that when the time was right, I could go and accept the gifts that God had in store for me. But nothing really prepared me for the experience.
Very little was said to me beforehand about what to expect. But honestly, there really was no way to be ready for what goes on during the ceremony. This was in July 1993, and the church was generally able to control the information that got out. Anyone who did reveal its secrets were labeled as anti-Mormon, so they were easy to ignore. I knew we shouldn't talk about what went on inside, so I didn't arrive at the temple with any prior expectations.
As I recall, it all started with the washing and anointing. Had to strip down and have olive oil dabbed on me, with very little to cover up with. Some old, wrinkly guy performed the ceremony. It was humiliating and traumatic. Even as I look back on it, the strangeness of it still bothers me. That was really just the tip of the iceberg.
Once reunited with my family, we went forward to the endowment ceremony. I had my packet of clothes, but still didn't really know the purpose of it. Whatever, I figured if I just followed everyone else I'd probably be okay. Seems like there's a metaphor there...
I sat down with my dad and grandfathers, who assured me that they'd assist me throughout the ceremony to ensure I did everything properly. I was nervous, and still pretty shaken from the anointing, and was worried I might do something wrong or inappropriate. Having them there was reassuring, at least.
Then the movie started. Yeah, they showed a movie to us. I thought that was really weird, showing a movie in the temple. I started to question if this all was really happening. I could see my dad and grandpas, my mom and grandmas were there on the other side, so I figured I really was living this, but it was surreal. Almost other-worldly. My head was spinning and I wanted so desperately to leave. However, I thought better of it and decided to "roll with he punches." I really didn't want to disappoint any of my family, who had traveled a fair distance to be at the temple that day. My parents had invested so much in making it possible for me to go on a mission. I knew it was a major sacrifice for them. Besides, I had committed to serving a mission, and I didn't want to go back on that.
But still, I really didn't know if the church was true or not. I was taught that it was, and I had faith, but I didn't really know. I desperately wanted it to be true, but this was not helping. Up to this point in the temple experience, things were pretty confusing, and I was trying to get this all straight in my mind. I figured I could do this. After all, since we're just watching a movie maybe the weird stuff was done.
I was so very, very wrong.
We started getting dressed up with the robe, the green apron, the stupid baker hat tied to the robe, making covenants to God to give up everything we own and oven our very lives to the church if asked to do so. Everything in my mind said to run, but I couldn't do it. I just kept going with the program.
Then came the prayer circle. Damn, the prayer circle. I went up to be part of it, along with my mom. As I'm going through the hand motions and reciting the prayer, serious confusion set in. (If you really want to see what the prayer circle is like, I've seen video of it on the internet. I'm not going to link it here, but it shouldn't be too hard to find if you're so inclined). I looked at my mom, dressed in her temple clothes, watched her as she went through the motions, and it was almost more than I could process. To this day, that image of my mom all dressed up is burned permanently in my mind. NONE OF IT MADE ANY SENSE.
The end of the ceremony involved going through the veil. I had heard about this part, and was honestly looking forward to that. Members had always spoken fondly of that experience, particularly since it meant entering the Celestial Room afterwards. At least that would indicate the end of this ordeal.
Yeah, not so much. At the veil, you have to give the secret handshakes to some old guy on the other side, to show that you were among the elite and worthy to enter. Seriously. FUCKING SECRET HANDSHAKES that had been taught to us throughout the ceremony, and had to repeat the secret incantations and passwords to be given entry to the other side of the veil.
There was one more step that had to be taken, that of getting a new name. I was sternly instructed to never reveal this name to anyone, other than my wife, at the appropriate time in the future. I made a covenant to never reveal it.
MY SECRET NAME IS ISHMAEL. I'M ABSOLUTELY NOT KIDDING ABOUT THIS.
Onc it was all over and I entered the Celestial Room, I was relieved to see my family all together again, but mostly, I was grateful it was over. The way I saw the church was forever altered, and my perception of reality was permanently skewed. My reality was shattered and a new reality put up in its place.
At dinner afterward, my mind would not stop racing. Is this really what my parents did when they went to the temple? They acted like it was perfectly normal, but something in the back of my mind made me realize that it was anything but normal. Is this really what I want to preach about for two years? I can't get into heaven without the secret handshakes and passwords? And why the HELL were there cash registers in the temple? The Bible said Jesus didn't like cash registers in the temple, but there they were. Did I imagine that? Did I imagine the whole experience? I'm wearing garments now, will God get angry if I fart while wearing them? Shit, did I promise God I wouldn't fart on the holy garments? Maybe, but I'm not sure. I made lots of promises, but I can't remember them all. A prohibition on farting could've been in there, but I can't be sure. Better to risk it and let it rip. Don't want to ask the question and show that I wasn't paying attention.
All of these questions and more rolled through my head immediately after it was over. It didn't make sense. It wasn't a special, spiritual experience. To be honest, it was pretty horrifying. Even now, nearly a quarter-century later, it still pisses me off. The temple was basically the exact opposite of what I had hoped it would be.
I started my mission shortly thereafter. But the wheels of my eventual apostasy were set in motion that day, and by reality would never be the same again.