Shield and Protection
I have heard stories all my life of how garments miraculously saved someone’s life. There are tales of people surviving fires or horrible accidents, and only suffering injury where garments did not cover them. It is even part of Church History. Willard Richards was the only one of the 4 church leaders at the Carthage Jail who was wearing his garments at the time the mob attacked them. He is the only one who was not injured. Many claim it is because the garments were a literal shield for him. It is rare that anyone refers to John Taylor saying that church leaders often would not wear garments when weather was hot. There seems to be little desire to offer precedent for those who choose not to wear garments when it is extremely hot. Yet, even though we bristle when others say we believe in wearing “magic underwear”, we seem to love repeating or embellishing accounts of miraculous physical protection provided by garments.
Even though the garments are meant to be symbolic reminders of covenants; we, as humans, love to turn symbolic items into objects imbued with literal powers and inherent truth.
Unfortunately, this habit seems to intensify the harmful shame or worthiness rhetoric we have concerning wearing garments. Women who experience uncomfortable, even painful rashes and infections when wearing garments, struggle with trying to endure it all to somehow prove their faith and dedication to covenants. Or if they look for individual ways of wearing them at regular times, but not so often that they are in constant pain, they are often shamed for not being willing to endure in order to prove their dedication to God.
This disconnect from honoring the symbolic, and clinging to the literal, has helped create a harmful, often abusive practice of encouraging, enabling, allowing, or even expecting men who hold leadership positions to ask about and instruct women concerning their underwear. I have been appalled by the very inappropriate inquiries made by a past leaders, and suggestions that my worthiness was in question because I was not willingly sharing details about my underwear. I have often heard women say that they need to check with their bishop before they alter, even in the most minor way, anything about their garments in order to make them fit, or stop them from causing irritation. I assure them they don’t need to do so, and that their bishop has no need, and probably no desire to know about this issue.
I am grateful for recent efforts from temple matrons to instruct and encourage women to create their own healthy connection to garments and what they symbolize. I hear more often that we are each to seek personal guidance as to how to make the garment become a symbolic shield and protection in ways that are more powerful than anything literal or physical. I see steps in emphasizing the importance of symbolic learning rather than adherence to literal meaning.
And…I feel deeply grateful for a recent experience that reminded me that there are times to recognize the blessing of literal, physical protection.
I was providing support for my husband as he was riding his road bike over the high passes of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. On this particular day, I was waiting at the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park. Even though it was a clear summer day, the altitude over 11,700 feet and the constant wind meant temperatures stayed low. There were crowds of people there, enjoying the stunning views, taking advantage of the restaurant and restrooms. I wandered from one view area to another, waiting for Mike to get there.
Then, I noticed someone who did not blend into the crowds. It was an older man. He was tall, and I think he was probably muscular at one time. He could have been as old as 70. He had about a week’s growth of beard. His shoes were well worn, and his long hiking shorts were hanging loose on his hips. Unlike everyone else there at the cold windy pass, he was not wearing or even carrying a jacket. The only thing that covered his upper body was a worn, stained garment top. I could see several places where there was a hole or tear. It was worn thin, and was almost transparent in some spots. He looked hungry, but he was not asking anyone for anything. He walked calmly through the crowds. He was not shivering.
His only shield and protection against the cold wind was this thin, stained garment.
I felt blessed to be able to witness this literal manifestation of something that has powerful symbolic meaning for me.
I whispered the familiar blessing and promises that are a part of this symbol, hoping it would imbue additional protective powers on this worn garment. In this moment, this man was the least of these. The god in me saw the god in him.
In this moment, the symbol was literal. And magical.