Let me be clear hear. I believe in being careful when discussing sacred things. While I do think that the things we “can't” talk about are really limited to signs, tokens, and names, etc., I still try to be careful about what I say about the temple well beyond that. I want to tread lightly.
Still, after what happened to me when I received my endowment (in 1985) and my mom's horror about it made me promise myself that I'd never let someone go through the temple without hearing this.
Now — as a regular member of the Mormon Momma community prepares to receive her own endowment — I want to share what I learned with her…and anyone else who might benefit. While I haven't found written, authoritative reference to the concern I'm clarifying, I've seen the other general references published by the church and/or general authorities.
When I was a teen, we did baptism for the dead pretty regularly. After we were done, we were sent to a private shower to wash the chlorine off and take off the baptismal “whites” for the laundry. We were given a “shield,” which was kind of like a long, white poncho to cover ourselves while we walked from the shower back to the dressing rooms.
When I arrived to receive my endowment, one of the temple workers led me away from my mom (my escort) to a dressing room, handed me a “shield,” told me to remove my clothes and put the shield on, and then proceed to the “washing and annointing.”
I locked the dressing room door, sat down on the little bench, and nearly passed out. WHAT??? I didn't know what to do. Where was my Mom? Where was Sam? Why didn't they tell me about this???
Dutifully I undressed, but my head was spinning.
After a long delay — and a couple of calls from the temple worker to make sure I was OK — I finally left the dressing room. I was led down a hall. I felt like I was in a movie. The hall got longer and longer and looked like a tunnel with a spiraling ceiling.
My mind flashed back to the past month. My roommate, Suzie (who was a returned missionary and, so, had received her endowment years earlier), had said to me, “Now, Alison, don't be scared. The temple is very different. But it's neat. It's just really different. So don't be scared.”
The next day she reminded me not to be scared. For almost a full month, I was told “don't be scared even though it's really different.”
So this is what she was talking about.
This was much more than “different.” Here I am, walking down to a room full of men, with next to nothing on my body, to be “washed and annointed.”
I knew I couldn't do it. I knew I couldn't marry Sam or anyone who could be involved in something like this. And I was stunned beyond belief that my parents — my conservative Mormon-Mormon parents — were in on it.
My whole world was crashing in around me.
Finally, we walked into the annointing room with…women. There was not a man anywhere to be seen.
Women? How could women perform ordinances?
So, to get to the point, women do the “washing and annointing” for other women (men do it for men) and the “washing and annointing” is more like a priesthood blessing than anything. It's not some scary, crazy thing that was flashing through my mind. And you aren't exposed or uncovered.
Later, when I told my mom what had happened, she felt awful. It just hadn't occurred to her to tell me that women perform ordinances in the temple or really much else. And, to be honest, I'd never wondered much about the temple nor had I ever asked. I just figured when I got there I'd find out.
Since we don't have a model in the “regular” church for females performing ordinances, it isn't something we can assume that people know. In addition, they might be surprised that in a church that seems so “practical” we do, indeed, use lots of symbolism and ritual in the temple ceremony.
Even with the real importance of safeguarding the sacred, I think it's a good thing to discuss the temple enough to prepare our members for what they will experience.
The temple preparation classes are a step toward that, but at least last time I taught it, about three centuries ago, still seemed very general and vague.
By sharing this I simply hope to save some of the fear that I needlessly encountered. The temple is different, but in a beautiful, sacred way. It it my hope that the first visit for our members will be as inspiring as every other.
[Addendum 1: The initiatory has changed markedly since the restoration. In 2005, 20 years after receiving my endowment, it changed again. Parts of the initiatory were modified to make it less problematic (and scary) in our culture and to make it mostly symbolic. You actually put on your garments in your dressing room, along with a version of the shield that completely covers the body and has sides sewn up, before going to the washing and anointing area.
Addendum 2: In January of 2018, I served as escort as another daughter received her endowments. The practice now has the attendee put on her/his garments and then put on regular temple clothing (not ceremonial clothing) before doing initiatory. No more shield at all. Much more comfortable!]