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Friday, September 24, 2004

Embellishing Spiritual Experiences 

by Aaron B
It was the late 1980s. Las Vegas, Nevada. The Church had just completed construction of the Las Vegas Temple. I was in highschool at the time, and the leadership of my Southern California ward decided to plan a youth field trip to the Open House. I have various random, but vivid, memories from the trip: Flirting via CB-radio with the occupants of a minivan on the ride up, heckling a prostitute and her John at our motel, being handed anti-Mormon literature outside the temple, etc. Most vivid of all, however, are my memories of walking through the Celestial Room. Although I’d been inside a temple before (to do baptisms for the dead), I’d never visited an actual Celestial Room, and I thought it was pretty impressive. No, I didn’t have an overwhelming spiritual experience that changed my life, but I did think it was an amazing, spiritual place, and I was quite taken aback by its beauty. I also made a point of looking around at all the other people walking through the room, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, to gauge their reactions. It seemed that most found the experience similarly impressive, and there was very little conversation, except in hushed tones.

The following Sunday was Fast and Testimony Meeting in my home ward, and the Bishop announced that the bulk of the hour would be set aside for the youth to talk about their experiences on the recent temple trip. I didn’t go up to the pulpit myself, but several other youth did, including a Young Woman named “Jenny.” Through flowing tears, Jenny shared in vivid detail her thoughts and feelings as she walked through the holy building. The climax of her narrative took place in the Celestial Room, where Jenny said she was totally overcome by the Spirit. She apparently found the experience so moving that she cried profusely while walking through the room. Then, at one point, she looked around to gauge the reactions of others in the room, Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

“Brothers and Sisters,” Jenny exclaimed. “When I looked around me, I suddenly realized that everyone else in that room was also crying along with me! Everybody! Even the non-Members were brought to tears! Let me assure you that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house!”

Jenny closed by bearing her testimony, and sat down. All in all, hers was a very moving performance. Her testimony seemed heartfelt, and was rhetorically effective in conveying the meaning and spiritual intensity that she wanted to convey. I have no doubt that she was sincere in her recounting of the experience, and really related the event just as she remembered it. But unfortunately, much of what she said was completely false

For you see, I was standing only a few feet behind Jenny the entire walk through the temple. The entire time that Jenny was in the Celestial Room, I was standing right behind her. And Brothers and Sisters, let me assure you that NOBODY in that room was crying…. O.K., I can’t really say “nobody” … maybe somebody was. I didn’t scour the room for evidence of tears. But I didn’t notice a single person crying in the Celestial Room the entire time I was there, and since I was consciously observing the faces around me, it’s virtually impossible that I would have missed something that obvious.

Was Jenny lying? Was she intentionally exaggerating to spice up her narrative? Possibly, but I really don’t think so. I really believe that she believed that everyone in that room had been crying. Everyone. That’s what her memory of the event was. So that’s what she shared with the congregation the following Sunday.

I probably wouldn’t even remember this incident, but for what happened next… After the meeting came to a close, I was approached by my 12-year old cousin, Darcy. Darcy knew that I had gone to the Open House, and she assumed (correctly) that I had been in the Celestial Room at the same time as Jenny. Darcy was a very emotionally effusive person, and she knew me to be exactly the opposite: a stoic, unemotional robot. So she made the following statement to me: “Aaron, that’s soooo neat that you got to go to the Temple! And that’s soooo sweet that you were crying in the Celestial Room! I mean, you don’t ever get emotional like that!” Darcy then walked away before I could respond. I stood there a bit mystified by her strange comment. Then I remembered what Jenny had said, and realized why Darcy had jumped to the conclusion she did about my alleged sobbing.

At the time, I was simply irritated with Darcy. “Oh great,” I said to myself. “Now Darcy’s going to go falsely tell everybody in the family that I’m a “crier.” Just what I need!” However, as the years have passed, and I’ve looked back on that incident, it’s taken on a new significance for me: An entire congregation had been informed about an amazing spiritual experience had by one of its members. Certain of the details of that experience were crucial in giving it a quality worth remembering and possibly recounting. There was no obvious reason for the listeners to doubt the details of the story. Surely some in the congregation would reference this event to others, including the details about mass weeping brought on by the Spirit, just as Darcy did. And those details were totally and utterly false.

We have had recent discussions on the reliability of historical accounts of spiritual or visionary experiences in Mormon history. And as the critical historian turns his eye to the past, there are various questions he might ask: What is the evidence that Incident X, Vision Y or Transfiguration Z really occurred? Did the actual witnesses of the alleged event record their experiences? Or were they merely recorded second-hand by non-witnesses many years later? If the actual witnesses did record their experiences, did they do so immediately, or only decades later, after their memories have had time to evolve into something other than what they used to be? If the actual witnesses didn’t record certain notable details of their experiences, why not? What do their omissions suggest about the reliability of the traditional versions of these events?

These are all good questions. But I have an even more fundamental one: If a sincere, first-hand participant in a spiritual experience can get the basic facts of her moving experience so terribly wrong less than one week after having it, how reliable is anybody’s testimony regarding their spiritual experiences?

Aaron B

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