Birth/Rebirth: Initiatory as re-birth

Birth stories have a strange fascination for me, but I have also found them to be a moment of exclusion.  I do not have any children, and as a Mormon woman nearing thirty virtually every woman I associate with outside of work has a birth story.  They usually come up at baby showers, play dates, or Mommy and Me.  When one woman begins to reflect the others chime in, telling their own stories and sharing (I presume) a sense of community and common experience.  Naturally, I have nothing to add to this conversation, any more than I have anything to say about potty training or tantrums or motherhood in general.  Often, trying to deflect the sense of awkwardness, a mother will jokingly ask me if all their talk is working like birth control, a sally that is kindly meant but really not my favorite joke.

For all these reasons, when the idea came up on the back list to do this series I said that I would be supportive of others but would not be contributing myself.  Not being part of the mommy club can be one of the hardest parts about being a Mormon woman.  The other bloggers encouraged me to find a different way to contribute something about rebirth in a non-literal sense to provide a different perspective.

I decided to write about initiatory as an experience of rebirth, a new beginning.  I remember the first time I went to the temple, shortly before I left on my mission, one of the things that stood out to me most was the promise that I was completely clean.  I had not expected that, but it felt like a huge gift.  I had been a reasonably diligent repenter, but it was nice to feel like all the mistakes I had made between the ages of eight and twenty had been wiped away, including the ones I had overlooked accidentally.

I only got to go to the temple once before leaving, because at least at that time we were only allowed to take out our endowment a week before entering the MTC, and living a hundred miles from the nearest temple made returning in that time frame impractical. I went a few times in Provo, and then I was in the mission field, trying to remember and live covenants I barely knew.  I had been out around six months when the mission president announced that there would be a mission temple trip.  I served in Baltimore, so the Washington D. C. temple was fairly close, but not within our mission boundaries.  He told us we needed to prepare by memorizing Doctrine and Covenants Section 109:22-23

And we ask thee, Holy Father, that thy servants may go forth from this house armed with thy power, and that thy name may be upon them, and thy glory be round about them, and thine angels have charge over them; And from this place they may bear exceedingly great and glorious tidings, in truth, unto the ends of the earth, that they may know that this is thy work, and that thou hast put forth thy hand, to fulfill that which thou hast spoken by the mouths of the prophets, concerning the last days.

The week before the trip was horrible.  I was a senior companion for the first time and was totally overwhelmed.  We had no one to teach so we just knocked most of the time.  The day before the trip it poured and poured but of course we had nothing to do but knock on doors so that is what we did.  Our shoes were soaked through, with the result that my feet were stained black from my shoe polish by the end of the day and no amount of scrubbing could get them clean again.  I resigned myself to going to the temple with feet that looked filthy.

We got to do initiatory and then a session.  The initiatory is the part I remember though.  I was standing there in my polyester shift with my dirty black feet.  For some reason they didn’t issue me crew socks, though they do at my temple now.  I sat there looking down at how appalling my feet looked in the beautiful clean temple.  I thought about how hard my mission was, how unhappy and discouraged I felt.  I’m not really sure what of the initiatory I’m allowed to put on the internet but my gut says probably not much.  Suffice it to say that I truly did feel armed with the power of God, and that angels would have charge over me. God accepted me covered in grime and broken, and sent me forward with gifts of strength and power.

These days virtually the only temple work I am willing to do is initiatory.  I have helped in the baptistery on youth trips but have not myself been baptized since before my mission.  A few months ago I tried to do an endowment session, determined to feel the old peace I felt and instead I just felt very sad and discouraged and upset that I could not somehow feel good about it.  I love sitting in the celestial room, but for me the endowment is too painful.  So instead I do initiatory.  I like the physicality of the ritual, how women touch and minister. (I admit that I never went through under the older guidelines, which I understand were uncomfortable for some).  I like being in a female sacred space. I like that I feel I am an active participant.  Like birth, it is women who surround you and help you.  You are quite literally drawn through the veil.  I like also that it is the same women passing back and forth helping you at each stage.  It makes me feel like the veil of forgetfulness is similarly fluid, and that women who have died or who have yet to be are nevertheless present in my life, encouraging and aiding me in my journey.

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10 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    This is beautiful, em. As someone who was systematically excluded from relief society activities because i was childless, I deeply empathise with your hesitation to participate in this series. But I am so very thankful for this. I had not previously considered how much iniatory, the veil, and how it is a sacred space for women relates so perfectly to birth. Thank you so much; I needed these words.

  2. EFH says:

    So beautiful. I loved the post.

  3. Emily U says:

    This was lovely. I really felt the power of what you experienced when you said you went forward with strength after that initiatory experience on your mission. I think your sense that the initiatory being a rebirth presided over by women is like birth, which is also presided over by women, is right on. It is female sacred space. During birth the mother is ultimately doing the work, and while she may be attended by women or men, during my own childbirth experiences I was so glad to have other women there as doula and midwife and lactation consultant. Their wisdom and experience gave me something unique that only women can give.

    I feel some trepidation in saying only women have these certain gives to share because that logic feeds into the motherhood/priesthood dichotomy that I find completely unacceptable. But if it is true that women have unique gifts to give one another in temple worship and in child birth, then wouldn’t that be all the more reason why they should be ordained and given the privilege to bless each other?

  4. Rachel says:

    1) I felt those first feelings you described even when I was pregnant, and am sincerely glad you shared them here.

    I was at a party once where I was the only one without a (born) child, and most of the women my age had 2-4 children. I didn’t know how to talk very well about mother things and they didn’t know how to talk very well about PhD things, though everyone was nice, and everyone tried.

    2) The image of the blackened feet was really powerful for me, as were your ties to the female, sacred space of the initiatories, and the veils there. (For some reason I had never thought of that last part.)

    I love initiatories, too.

  5. April says:

    I love how women lay hands upon your head and proclaim blessings during the initiatory. It is like seeing the past, before women were excluded from most such opportunities, as well as the future, when I hope women will have the priesthood.

  6. Caroline says:

    Thanks for your story, Em. What a lovely post. I’m so glad the initiatories have been healing for you. Makes me wonder if I should give them another shot sometime.

  7. Melody says:

    This is perfect. Really. You words carry a sort of sacred vulnerability. . . which brings to life the imagery of birth and rebirth. Which is exactly what the initiatory represents. Thank you for taking time and energy to share your experience. Beautiful

  8. EmilyCC says:

    I love the imagery of your blackened feet, Em. So powerful!

    I love initiatories for the reasons you and our other permas have mentioned. I was a temple worker for a time, and I cherish those times I was able to perform this sacred ritual for my sisters and say those powerful words. I think those times in the Boston Temple helped me to have a glimpse into what heaven feels like.

    Thank you for reminding me of the gift of rebirth through the temple.

  9. Ziff says:

    I really like this post, Em. I like the idea of the blackened feet. And I love the idea that the initiatory feels like a more comfortable space because women preside over it. I’m happy that there’s something good for you in the temple, even though the endowment is painful.

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