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When I was young, I became fascinated with music. I became a convert by listening to my Aunt Eddie play the piano. Yes, her name was Eddie, a nickname for Edna, which no one used. Eddie helped me plunk out some simple tunes on her Spinet, and when I showed an aptitude, my parents borrowed a monstrous upright piano from a friend, whose kids had no interest in learning to play the piano. I don’t think it had ever been tuned, but most of the keys worked.
Eddie became my teacher. She inherited a hopeless ADD student, who loved the piano, but who couldn’t sit still long enough to acquire the discipline to play it. Scales were torture. I persevered for a few years with the hope that I could learn to play “Fur Elise” and “The Spinning Song.” I tried to tackle the “Exodus” theme and “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” but failed miserably.
Later, I embraced the guitar because, in comparison, it was fairly easy to learn and because girls flocked around guys who could play the instrument. Suddenly, my goal migrated from playing Beethoven to becoming a rock star. (Am I revealing too much in this article?)
But back to the piano story. I remember my first lesson. Eddie plopped a Grade 1 piano book in front of me and I was in culture shock. Suddenly, I was confronted by ten horizontal lines that held treble and bass clefs, time signatures and odd-shaped music notes -some open, some solid, others dotted and flagged.
It was a confusing language. Somehow, all those symbols were supposed to represent and render beautiful melodies. I felt awkward, uncoordinated and dyslexic. My left hand had the responsibility for the symbols on the bottom horizontal lines while my right hand had the responsibility for the symbols on the top lines, and somehow they were supposed to work together. I couldn’t even chew gum and walk at the same time!
I hadn’t come to this point without having had experience with symbolic language. Music was my third significant exposure to the emblematic world. Some years earlier, Mrs. Stands, my teacher at Jolly Time Kindergarten, introduced me to nine symbols that represented numbers. Over the next dozen years, I learned that these nine numbers could be used in endless combinations, equations and applications that were represented by more symbols.
The language of math never resonated with me, but English did. In that same year, Mrs. Stands acquainted me with that which became a love of my life: the twenty-six letters in the alphabet.
Initially, I struggled to commit to memory the names of those twenty-six symbols and their various sounds, just as I would later struggle to memorize the symbols that represented the names and locations of music notes. As a kindergartener, I fumbled about trying to teach my hand to grip a pencil and trace the alphabetical symbols on ruled paper.
Those were awkward moments. The symbols were difficult to master, and I often wrote them backwards or upside down. Frequently, I mispronounced them or misidentified. In those beginning days, I focused only on the weird shapes of the alphabetical symbols, so much so that I remained oblivious to their inherent power to combine in meaningful ways to create words, phrases, sentences and books.
Over time, I learned to overlook their odd shapes. Recognizing the symbols’ shapes and sounds became second nature to me, and they became friends instead of aliens. With that step behind me, I was free to explore the art of combining them; then the world of literature and creative writing began to open before me. I began to appreciate that the possibilities of those twenty-six alphabetical symbols were endless. The world of literature and infinite creativity was within reach.
Later, when I became familiar with the symbols of music, I discovered that they also held infinite possibilities of beauty and creativity. The symbolic language of music differed from that of the English. Whereas the English alphabet has twenty-six stand-alone symbols that represent letters and sounds, music tones are represented by a dot that is positioned on one of ten horizontal lines or in a space between lines. More lines can be added to the dot to position it in higher or lower register, and the tone can be altered by half steps by preceding the dot with the symbol of a sharp or a flat.
The duration of the tone is determined by making the dot solid or hollow and by adding a stem that protrudes either up or down from the dot or is flagged or is followed by a period. Can you see why I felt overwhelmed?
I persevered in both symbolic languages of the alphabet and music. Regarding the alphabet, I learned that its symbols could be merged to form myriad words, which in turn could be combined into phrases, sentences, paragraphs and books. Rules of grammar, literary form, pacing and figures of speech could add layers of beauty to the symbols and create stunning poetry and prose.
Likewise, dots on and between lines that are stemmed and flagged could be combined in the chromatic scale to render countless harmonies, rhythms, songs and symphonies. I never cease to be amazed at the endless potential that is contained within the few symbols of the alphabet and music.
You’ve guessed by now that I didn’t become a rock star. In fact, that dream was interrupted by a call to serve a mission in Argentina. Now I was confronted by a new challenge: Spanish. That language adds a few more symbols to the alphabet, including the famous – an “n” with a squiggly line above it.
Learning Spanish sent me back to kindergarten. My tongue had to learn new sounds for the old symbols of the English alphabet; I had to learn new symbols in order to read, write, understand, speak and be understood in Spanish. I learned to read the new Spanish symbols with the vocabulary of the Book of Mormon and paying attention to street signs; I learned to verbalize the new symbols by talking to little children, whose vocabulary was simple.
Over time and by practice, I gained a degree of confidence with the Spanish symbols, just as I had become confident with the English alphabetical symbols and with musical symbols. I learned to read and speak Spanish without halting and mental distress.
After I received my mission call to Argentina, I applied for a temple recommend and went to the temple for the first time. I was wholly unprepared. In those days (David O. McKay was the President of the Church), I wasn’t offered a temple preparation class. No one sat down to prepare me for the temple experience. I was attending BYU at the time and basically was on my own. My roommates, who also had dreams of being rock stars, were my escorts.
When I entered the temple that first time, I was a fish out of water. Suddenly, I was thrust into a new world of symbols that were as foreign to me as had been the alphabet and the chromatic scale. I was in kindergarten again, barely able to sound out words; I was starting on page 1 of a music primer, staggering to find notes on the piano and plunk out a simple tune.
My first temple experience simultaneously fascinated and overwhelmed me. As I wrestled to make sense of the symbols, I was neither aware that they revealed a divine language nor was I cognizant that they formed a logical sequence that is capable of turning keys to access divine knowledge and power. Like the child who labors to recognize the shape and sound of an alphabetical letter, then marry that shape and sound with other shapes and sounds to form a word, I was laboring on the most elementary level to make sense of temple language that was being revealed to me in new symbols.
Fortunately, I was intrigued and enamored with temple language, so I persevered to try to become more acquainted with it. I continued to attend the temple, and over time, I began to learn a few things about the language that was contained in the symbols. I became astounded that God has placed within our grasp the totality of universal knowledge and keys to access His infinite power with these few symbols.
Listen to His words concerning priesthood ordinances that are available equally to His sons and daughters:
“And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.
Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.
And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh.
For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live” (D&C 84:19-22).
Imagine! The key of the mysteries of the kingdom, the key to the knowledge of God (knowing God and knowing what God knows) and the key to the power of God are all manifested in the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Even seeing God is made possible by these ordinances. These blessings and more are doors that temple symbols unlock, if we are willing to pay the price to comprehend the language and faithfully align our lives with the associated covenants.
Moreover, the symbols are delivered to us in such a way that the most humble and unschooled among us can learn to understand them and draw upon their power. God “hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 11:25).
We might ask: Could a few symbols really be employed so that we could speak with the tongues of angels, open the doors to the mysteries of the kingdom, and access the actual knowledge and power of God?
Yes! Listen to Moses’ description of Enoch, who saw himself as a lad whom the people hated because he was slow of speech. Notice how he persisted and learned temple language so that he could employ it to perform marvelous acts of faith:
“And so great was the faith of Enoch that he led the people of God, and their enemies came to battle against them; and he spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers were turned out of their course; and the roar of the lions was heard out of the wilderness; and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch, and so great was the power of the language which God had given him” (Moses 7:13, emphasis added).
What was the word of the Lord that Enoch spoke that had such great power? What was the powerful language that God had given him? Certainly not his spoken language, which his parents had taught him as a child. The language that God had given him was the temple language described in Doctrine & Covenants 84.
Over the years, I have spoken to people who became discouraged with English or music lessons and gave up early. Consequently, they never experienced the power of the English language or the possibilities of creating beautiful music.
Similarly, I have spoken with people who stopped attending the temple after their initial experience or after a few tries. Consequently, they never learned to see past the symbols to try to become proficient in the language, and sadly, they never unlocked the doors to the mysteries of the kingdom and the knowledge and power of God. They were given the keys to the Cadillac, but they never drove the car out of the garage.
President Benson taught, “The temple ceremony was given by a wise Heavenly Father to help us become more Christlike. The endowment was revealed by revelation and can be understood only by revelation. The instruction is given in symbolic language. The late Apostle John A. Widtsoe taught, No man or woman can come out of the temple endowed as he should be, unless he has seen, beyond the symbol, the mighty realities for which the symbol stands'” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p.251; emphasis added).
How marvelous is the economy of God, who endows us with a few symbols that are capable of unlocking all His mysteries, knowledge and power. Scripturally, the meek and the humble ones have received great knowledge and power in this way. Likewise, we must be willing to pay the price to become proficient in the language of symbols. Are we content to play “Chopsticks” or would we like to learn to play “Rachmaninoff”?
If we really understood what was available to us in the temple, no one or nothing could keep us away.
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Jackie youngApril 1, 2014
Larry, This is a very interesting article! It's strange that we don't equate more things in life in terms of "types" of language. I have never been able to grasp foreign languages which is an annoyance and handicap in many ways. However, I love English, I have known musical language (and associated foreign languages) since before I was five and enjoy the Temple (still much to learn in that language). I love the "language" of history, peoples and cultures. If we understand one type of language, it seems logical that we should be able to find a way to learn other types of languages and not feel a "disconnect" and inabililty to grasp them. We somehow need to find the "keys" to those languages. It is certainly something to contemplate!
Jorge Enrique MasegosaMarch 30, 2014
good article. Question :you serve on a Mission in Argentina. ? what time ? I joined the church on 1956 at Florida Branch(afterwards known as Vicente Lopez branch/ward Buenos aires suburbs) have you being there?