Friday, August 31, 2012

A Mormon's View of Eternal Marriage

If you have heard about Mormons, you have possibly heard something about their beliefs on marriage, and their unique mode of marriage called an “Eternal Marriage” or “Sealing”.  This is a somewhat misunderstood topic, not just by people outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), but also by the members themselves.  Indeed, one of the goals of members of the church is to understand what Eternal Marriage really means, as it is a mystery.   It is my intent to shed some light on this topic for both members and non-members, and ultimately for myself as well.   I’m no expert, I still have a lot to learn, but I hope that what I say will be beneficial to those who want better marriages as well as those who are simply curious to know more about what Mormons believe.
What’s the difference between an Eternal Marriage and a conventional marriage?  I think that is the fundamental question here, and when I am personally trying to better understand marriage, it is a question I ask of myself.  Is there a real, tangible difference?   It seems to me that if Mormons are going to claim a special and unique mode of marriage, it ought to appear, feel, and behave in a manner that is special and unique when compared to the standard convention.     In the next few paragraphs, I will talk about the matter-of-fact surface differences in the two kinds of marriage, then later I’ll talk about how I view these personally and what difference these things make in the way that I think and feel as Mormon in an Eternal Marriage.
The first thing to know about an Eternal Marriage is that Mormons view it as a sacred covenant with God.  It is viewed as something most holy.  The ceremony to solemnize the marriage can be performed only in a temple by a man who has been specifically given the power to seal a couple together on earth and in heaven.   As I’ve mentioned in another blog post, LDS temples are special and distinct from LDS churches.    There are about 10,000 LDS church buildings in the world, but only about 150 temples.   “Sealers”, the ones who perform the marriages in temples, are special too.  Congregational church leaders (aka Bishops) do not have authority to perform temple marriages.  Only a sealer may do so after he has been set apart by the prophet leader of our church.  Sealers are comparatively rare. There is probably only 1 sealer for every 10,000 church members.    
Because the marriage ceremony for an eternal marriage is performed in a temple, the wedding party is limited to Mormons who are living according to the worthiness standards of the church.  This significantly limits the size of the group that attends a temple marriage. Generally, the wedding party in the temple consists of immediate family members and very close friends.   The couple, of course, also must live up to the same standards, which means that they have refrained from sexual relations before marriage and are living clean and moral lives.   The wedding ceremony itself is very simple.  The couple, dressed in white clothing, kneels at an alter across from each other.  There are large mirrors behind each person, creating that interesting visual effect of a hallway extending forever.  This symbolizes the eternal nature of the marriage.    Mormons don’t talk about the exact words of the ceremony outside of the temple because this is very sacred, however I will say the wording of the ceremony is quite a bit different than a traditional marriage ceremony- the most notable difference being the omission of the words “til death do you part.”   As I mentioned before, marriage is a covenant between the couple and God and it is considered to be forever in duration. 
In terms of beliefs, I’ve already mentioned an obvious distinction of Eternal Marriages- that marriage is forever, not just until death.   The implication is that the joys of a happy marriage on earth – companionship, children, family relationships, etc. – all of these continue forever in an Eternal Marriage.     Another distinction is that Eternal Marriage is a necessary preparation to receive Eternal Life, the greatest of all of God’s gifts to His children.   Mormons believe that there are multiple realms in heaven, and that to enter the highest, where God dwells, a person cannot do so without their spouse to whom they have been sealed in a temple.   To say it another way, Mormons believe that in the eternities, men and women exist together as parts of a whole, and in order to enjoy that blessing, one must be married in manner prescribed by God. 
There is another difference of belief that I think deserves its own paragraph.   Mormons have some pretty unorthodox beliefs, and perhaps chief among them is the ultimate potential of humankind.  Mormons believe that each person is a literal child of God, that we lived with God before we were born, and that the Earth was created expressly for the purpose of advancing God’s children and preparing them to receive all of the same things that God has.   To be frank about it, this means, precisely, that a human being has the potential to become a god-  not just an angel in heaven, but a being with the same attributes, knowledge, and capabilities that our Father in heaven has now.   I acknowledge that to some people, this sounds like absolute heresy, and I don’t blame you for feeling that way.  My aim is not to apologize, but simply to inform.  If you want to understand how a Mormon thinks and how a temple marriage is different and unique from other forms of marriage, it is critical to understand this particular belief.     To a Mormon, A temple marriage is the centerpiece in God’s plan for his children- without it, a person cannot realize their ultimate potential.  
So- How does all of this make things different for me, personally?  So far what I have talked about is just facts, but what effect do these facts have on the lives of Mormons, and on this Mormon in particular?  
Speaking generally, I think it is easy to see how the special location and circumstances of a Mormon marriage, and the immense gravity of it all would have a tendency to create a higher degree of commitment from the couple involved.  To a Mormon, this is not an “ordinary” marriage contract, it is a contract with God himself and there is nothing more important.  The extra seriousness acts as a filter for people who would want to treat marriage relationships more casually.     Furthermore, if one desires a marriage of this sort, it can only be contracted with another Mormon in good standing, so there is a another filter there that helps to ensure that each person at least has similar spiritual goals and beliefs.    Neither of these filters are perfect, of course, but things are tilted in favor of commitment and spiritual compatibility.
Once a couple is married this way, now what?   It is all bliss and happiness?   Is the couple magically shielded from the trials typically associated with a conventional marriage?   The truth is that Mormons endure pretty much the same marriage stressors that are prevalent in any other kind of marriage or relationship.   There are still disagreements over money, parenting, sex, work, and even religion and standards.  There is still occasions of strife, hurt, and broken hearts.   A temple marriage doesn’t make a couple immune to these common problems, but a question I must ask myself is if there is something different and special about my marriage that helps me to deal with these stressors and be more successful overcoming them. As I have been pondering this essay and the issues around it, I’ve circled in on an idea that I haven’t deeply considered before.  
Something to know about me is that I’m a consumer of marriage advice.  I read lots of books about it because the success of my marriage is important to me.   At this point, I should offer a confession- my first marriage ended in divorce after 3 ½ years and two children.  It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to endure in my life.   I am still not exactly sure why my marriage failed, but I’ve acquired enough self-awareness since then to see where I made my own mistakes.   I am very fortunate to have had a second chance at marriage and to have a wife who helps me introspect and is patient with me as I go through this process.  In any event,  I read advice and counsel from others because I see the need in myself and I benefit from it in a practical way.   This isn’t much different than anyone else,  however I do notice one thread in marriage advice that shows up again and again:   Good marriages come about when husbands and wives see the best in each other.  There is something powerful and important about filtering the negative and focusing on the positive traits of the other.  Certainly, anyone can do this if they put their mind to it, but Mormons have a certain advantage that comes through their faith and beliefs.   This advantage is that we believe that everyone has a divine nature, with the potential to become a God. 
Think about what it means to truly believe that another person has the potential to be a being as pure, glorious, and intelligent as our creator.  If we can get ourselves to view people purely in terms of their potential, then what I should be able to do is not to simply view another person as “striving to be”, but rather as the real thing.   CS Lewis captured that idea with these words:
"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, … it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal."
Lewis says much more on the topic, but this gets to the heart of the matter.   If a good marriage stems from a couple seeing the best in one another, what could be more potent in that regard than me seeing my wife as a goddess?    Think what humility is engendered to know that this divine being who is my wife has condescended to make her dwelling with me.    What patience, love, and foresight she must have to remain with me and all my flaws and mistakes.   How tenderly and respectfully would I treat her, knowing the majesty of her intelligence, natural attributes, and personality?   Would this not be a supreme benefit to my marriage if I can develop this vision?   What if all women were treated in this manner?   What kind of world would it be?
I think many people, if not most, sense that there is something spiritual in marriage, something special, perhaps even mystical.   I know that I have looked for mysticism in my own marriage, but in the common sense that most people imagine it, I have not found it.  No visions.  No strange or glorious connections.  No amazing happenings.   Just hard work and toil, the occasional whispering of the still small voice, and  peace and happiness sprinkled among trials.   If there is mysticism there, if my wife is a goddess, then it is her natural thoughts, feelings, and intuition that are godly and mystical.  The things she does to gain quiet satisfaction from being a woman are the mystery.   She's not calling lightning out of heaven- she is baking pot pies, washing clothes, comforting hurts.  Eternal marriage is about me seeing those as holy and a door to my own destiny, my own salvation. The extent to which I can cherish what she is and does, and to the extent I can meld her nature into mine is the limiting factor in my progression.
My prayer, my personal plea with God, is that I can see the difference between what the world sees and what God sees and understand my wife for what she truly is.  It isn’t easy.  The world bombards us with false and demeaning images of women, but I am learning that there is a way to see through it and become a man with vision.  One must  keep trying.  Keep reminding himself.  Keep asking hemself,  “How would I approach my wife differently in this situation if I knew she was a goddess?”  Because she is a goddess.  That is the reality, not the imperfect mortal exterior that I see.   Not the cheap caricature of women portrayed on billboards and TV.
To a Mormon, Eternal marriage is a frame for viewing all life and all existence.  The act of pairing and creating a family and knowingly doing it in the similitude of god that you yourselves may become gods is the glory, the intelligence, and plan of eternal marriage.   Our bodies, our marriages, our relationships are not incidental to the mortal experience, they are the central point.   Even among Mormons, some see this, some don’t.    For those that do, I believe that there is a deep and powerful spiritual bond that comes from this vision.   From my own limited experience, I can say that it is real, it makes a substantial difference, and it points me toward something I want to strive for.