Encouraged by Primary, I grew up imagining God like my father: brilliant and impressive, but with a lively sense of humor and a deep affection for me; he could alternate easily between interviews with distinguished newspapers and a chatty phone conversation with me about whatever was on my mind. I felt close to my dad, growing up, in part because he was a loving father who dedicated time to his children and in part because we are so similar in personality—we make the same jokes, have the same competitive streak, and geek out about some of the same topics. I’m lucky in this, but I was comfortable and happy with the idea of a heavenly father, thanks to the example of my own. “Divine nature” made sense to me, and it was easy for me to take my concerns to God in prayer, in the same way I’d take my thoughts about an interesting math problem to my earthly father.
Then I went to the temple.
I was 23 and not going on a mission or getting married, but I was eager to go to the temple and had been preparing for nearly a year, reading everything I could get my hands on, studying temple-related passages of scripture, and following instructions from present and former bishops as to how I should ready myself. I was in graduate school and finding my faith challenged at every turn, and my patriarchal blessing promised that in the temple I’d truly understand my relationship to God. I was excited about that and anxiously awaited the promised spiritual support.
I can’t and won’t deny that my initiatory was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life; as the women put their hands on my head and pronounced their authority to bless me I felt shivers of all that was good and right and true. And yet, when they pronounced the final words of the blessing it felt like a sudden power outage, the Spirit shuddering to a stop and darkness descending. Going into the endowment only led me further into blackness, as it felt like I was promised an eternally secondary position to my (non-existent) husband, covenanted to obey my (non-existent) husband, watched my female role model pushed to the side and silenced, and was told to cover my face during the true order of prayer. The veil over my face felt like a potent symbol of all the temple was teaching me: in true prayer, I was to be neither seen nor heard. The veil felt claustrophobic and dark, and my father’s grip on my arm felt not like reassurance and love but a controlling power.
I married a few years later. My father-in-law is a good man, devoted to his work and his family, and I can see in him some of the things I love best about his son: a wry sense of humor, a passion for the outdoors, a strong work ethic, and a certain stubbornness usually expressed without anger. I respect and like him, but we are not close; we don’t have much in common besides his son and we don’t know what to say to each other. I think he spoke his first direct words to me more than a year after I married his son; while we were visiting their house, he called me into the living room to point out a deer in the front yard. When he calls and I answer, we exchange a few polite words before I pass him over to my husband so they can talk about their shared interests.
In the temple, God went from being my father to my father-in-law. I could see nothing in the temple, that supposed source of the true and pure gospel, that indicated I could have a direct relationship to God, or that I might take after him directly. My covenant of obedience was not to God but to my husband. At the veil I clasped not God but my husband, representing God again. During the most true and powerful prayer I felt covered and cut off, held firmly in a patriarchal grip. The promise in my patriarchal blessing went from being an exciting blessing of power and spiritual joy to a curse: what if this really is my true relationship to God?
After the temple, I did everything I could to find peace. I cried on the phone to my parents, who both love the temple and couldn’t quite see where I was coming from; they could only tell me to focus on the good and ignore the parts I didn’t like. I visited the temple matron, who hugged me as I cried and told me that I should talk to her husband, because “he is so much smarter about these things.” I visited the temple president, only to be told that this was all justified because “men and women are different.” I dove into research and read every essay I could find, historical or apologetic or personal, and found no answers, only more questions and dark, hurting confusion. I attended many more times, listening for redemption or relief from my interpretation. I read the scriptures, only to see repeated, over and over, “sons of God” and D&C 132 talk of women being given to men like so many baseball cards. I spent a night in the desert pouring out my heart in tearful, begging, pleading prayer, asking first for answers and then just for comfort, but got only the stars silently glinting back at me.
I wanted to wait to write this until I had something more to offer but raw hurt: some conclusions or comfort or call to action. I want to be the person who works through this, who finds answers and wisdom, and who can comfort others. I’ve got nothing. I’m still active in the church, attending regularly and holding a calling, but everything feels different. I pray regularly, but my prayers feel like polite words to a near-stranger, and I don’t know how to rebuild a new relationship with Him when I feel so betrayed, distanced, ignored, and mediated. I am perpetually one gentle breeze away from falling off the tightrope into the oblivion of my own cognitive dissonance.
I’d love to be able to share this hurt openly with my sisters and brothers, to give and receive solace in my community, but I still can’t bring myself to be fully vulnerable in that way; I’m lucky to have a supportive family and an understanding ward and stake, but when we talk about the temple I have to stay silent. It feels like I’ve had to build a hard shell around this experience just to protect myself, to scab it over with silence in fear that I can’t stanch the bleeding. Fear, that’s right. I’m afraid that I will cry. I’m afraid that I won’t phrase it well and I won’t be understood. I’m afraid that my words, my hurt, my experience will devalue or damage someone else’s—many people experience the temple differently and that’s valid too. I’m afraid that someone’s dismissiveness (“you just don’t understand the temple”) will be the nudge I can’t handle, the bruise I can’t take. I’m afraid that I’m wrong, that all of this is my fault. Most of all—because I take it seriously, because my religion means something to me, because I want to dedicate myself to the gospel and receive its promises—I’m afraid that I’m right.
It’s been nearly six years since I was first endowed, and yet when I write this I am weeping still with the sting of it. I believe in God still, whether as father or father-in-law, and I desperately, passionately want to believe in Mormonism; many of the teachings of the gospel—human potential; agency; personal revelation; the loving, weeping God—thrill my soul and fill me with hope, and I’ve felt the spirit in prayer, in listening to prophets, and even in the temple. And yet, how do I make Mormonism work for me when its highest rite, its most sacred place, its most eternal promise holds no joy for me, only terror? Lord, I believe, but how can anyone help this my unbelief?