I journeyed north to my ancestral homeland (on my mom’s side) to Brigham City, Utah on Friday night to attend the open house of the new Brigham City temple.
Under a blue moon, my boyfriend and I drove north on the I-15 past Ogden and other rural towns before pulling off the freeway into a town that time forgot.
The town was first settled in 1849, two years after Brigham Young led the Brighamite sect of the Mormon Church to the Salt Lake Valley. Originally named Box Elder Creek, the town was renamed in honor of Brigham Young in 1855 and is famous for its peaches. My family line began arriving to Utah in the 1860s and 1870s as Mormon converts from Scandinavia. My dad’s side of the family arrived to Salt Lake then went south to Sanpete County, my mom’s went north to Brigham City, which hasn’t changed much since then.
It’s the place where my maternal grandmother grew up, the town she ran away from as soon as she was old enough. My boyfriend and I drove by her childhood home, which was much smaller than I remember it being, but then again, everything in Brigham City was smaller than I remembered it.
On Friday night the sky was a deep purple with the exception of a blue moon about the size of a nickel when held out at arms length, hanging low in the sky, it’s brightness second only to the shimmering temple. The high mountains to the east, jagged and sharp, glowed under the moonlight. A patchwork of dark clouds that looked like they were outlined in chalk, drifted low in the sky. The only defining structure in town is the new temple, without a doubt the tallest building, illuminated purposefully by spotlights. Like a fire in the distance, the temple is the only building you can see from afar in Brigham City, every other light that encircles the temple is dim and yellow, lights that flicker from the house that spread out across the rural farmland, all seeming to point to the only building in the skyline.
Going to the Temple
The first time I went to the temple I was 11 years old. It was early 1993 and the San Diego temple had recently opened to the public for the open house. One Saturday afternoon, my family drove south on the I-15 from our home inRiverside, California to the San Diego temple. I remember crowds, I remember waiting in line, I remember wearing those little bootie things on our shoes. Friday night in Brigham City was no different.
A shuttle bus took us from a parking lot north of the temple to our destination. On the bus ride an elderly sister missionary told us a about the temple, why Mormons build temples, and instructed us to pay attention to what we would feel in the temple. The shuttle bus dropped us off near the parking garage and we saw the huge crowd of people and a line that didn’t seem to end.
“I hope we’re meeting Madonna at the end of this line,” I said. I had not expected the crowd to be so large, especially at 8:30 p.m. Stepping off the bus we were greeted by volunteers who handed us brochures about the temple- then we waited in line.
I read through this brochure
and was struck by this first heading, “The temple is the most sacred place on earth for members of our church.” The phrase “for members of our church” caught my eye because I don’t remember this prepositional phrase being present in the church produced literature of my youth. I remember the titles being more certain and authoritative, for example, “The temple is the most holy place on earth” but the addition of the phrase “for members of our church” signaled to me a recognition by the LDS Church that they exist in a pluralistic society among people who do not consider the temple the most holy place on earth.
After a short video about why Mormons build temples, we were again instructed by a sister missionary to pay attention to our feelings and “the spirit” while we were in the temple. We followed the line as it entered the temple from the underground parking garage to the first place on our silent tour: the recommend desk. We moved beyond to the baptismal font. It is here school age children will come to be baptized by proxy for deceased persons. The LDS Church cites 1 Corinthians 15:29 as the reason for this practice, even though New Testament scholars disagree with this interpretation.
The line moved quickly into the men’s and women’s dressing rooms but we were not shown the rooms where the washings and anointings are performed, possibly because it brings up the question about priesthood power and women. The entire temple was brightly lit plus it smelled like new construction and carpet. Hard rock maple is used throughout in addition to emperador light stone imported from Turkey. The color scheme was beige, cream, and white.
As the line moved I began to notice a feeling that despite the fancy ornamentation, the artwork on the walls and the stillness and quite, the architecture and flow of the temple seemed strange. It was boxy, it wasn’t intuitive, it just didn’t flow. Granted we were on a tour and moving in a line, so maybe that’s why, but even so, it felt cramped to me. We climbed a flight of stairs as we made our decent higher towards the Celestial Room.
Prior to entering the Celestial Room, we passed through the chapel, which is basically a small waiting room where those going to the temple on a normal day wait before a session begins. The music from the hymns coming through the sound system sounded like a funeral procession- slow and lifeless, as if something can only be spiritual if it’s dull. I felt sad that for so many years I didn’t know any better.
Lately I’ve been attending the Unitarian church where the feelings of community, compassion, and Christlike love are palpable. In their modest but lovely chapel with the large windows that bathe the room in natural light I feel uplifted and inspired. The piano music in their chapel fills me with wonder and awe. I can feel the passion from the pianist as he communes with the divine through his talent. But inside the chapel of the temple I didn’t feel any spiritual nourishment, only a false sense of reverence.
We passed through Instruction Room where the walls are painted with serene scenes of mountains, wild animals, streams, trees and a blue sky. We moved to the next room where we saw the veil, then we entered into the brightest lit room in the temple, the Celestial Room, with its crystal chandeliers, lamps, fine furniture and one frosted window. The ceiling soared above us giving the illusion of spaciousness, yet the room still felt narrow and boxy to me. Indeed, the room was beautiful, but I’ve seen rooms larger and more grand in palaces of Europe.
We were shown the Sealing Room last, the room where couples being married kneel across an alter, where mirrors on opposite walls reflect into each other give the illusion of eternity. As the line made a U-turn around the alter I saw the love of my life who was a few feet in front of me across the alter and for a brief moment I caught a glimpse of us in the mirrors together. Seeing our reflections into eternity intensified my commitment and love to him. That was the only moment where I felt something spiritual, but that came from within me and not from the temple.
An elderly woman usher near the door stood in a modest sweater, a long, dark skirt and a smile. She gently beckoned for us and pointed us down the stairs towards the exit.
Back into Babylon
When we got outside we took a few photos around the temple and of the temple grounds before boarding the bus back to our car , but we weren’t ready to leave yet. Google referred us to what I assume is the only bar in town called B&B Billiards, just a few blocks north of the temple. We were dressed in slacks and button up shirts, in other words, we looked Mormon because we were wearing the uniform, so we weren’t sure what to expect when we went in. We pushed the door open into a bar that looked like a mix between a frat boy college dorm room with too many neon signs and a pool hall with too many Budweiser flags covering every inch of the walls.
Country music blasted from the speakers, women in low cut tops and tight jeans draped their arms around men who had full body tattoos and could have been on parole for all I know.
“Hey!” A toothless, drunk man from a table near the bar yelled out. “Are you two going to the temple!?”
“We just came from there.” We said. “That’s why we’re here now, we need something to drink.”
My boyfriend and I unbuttoned and untucked our shirts, ordered Blue Moon on draft which seemed so appropriate, then sat down at a table in the corner where the heavenly tones of Lady Gaga singing “Poker Face” hit our ears. At last, I felt at home in a place without any pretense, secrets, or illusion. I felt comfortable and peaceful even in the most rough and tumble straight bar I think I’ve ever been to. He and I sipped the ice-cold beers and talked about our future together.
I will never remove the “Mormon” from my blood, nor do I want to. I’m proud of my heritage and history. I’m not a believer, but once in a blue moon, a former Mormon will go to the temple.