A few months ago, as we entered the grounds of the Washington DC Temple, I saw a curious sight. A beautiful young girl was walking toward the temple, carrying a huge piece of artwork. It wasn’t framed; it was rolled up into a large roll. I wondered what the picture was, but soon put it out of my mind.
Clark dropped me off at the front door, and as I was waiting inside for him, the girl came into the temple. This time I noticed something that was even more curious than the artwork she was carrying. She was barefoot. She wasn’t carrying any shoes with her; she just didn’t have any. Now I was intrigued, but she walked past the recommend desk long before Clark arrived. I thought she had walked out of my life.
To my surprise, she was sitting across from the dressing room when I got there, waiting for the temple recorder to talk to her about the artwork. I sat down next to her and said, “You must have a story to tell.”
“What story?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “you’re the first person I’ve ever seen walk into the temple with a piece of artwork, and you’re the first person I’ve ever seen walk into the temple barefoot. There has to be a story somewhere.”
She laughed. “They’re not connected,” she explained. She unrolled the artwork and showed me a lithograph of the Founding Fathers — a picture that was similar to a piece of artwork that was on the wall behind me. “I thought this would look nice hanging in the temple. Somebody is going to come out and talk to me about it in a minute.”
“What about your feet?” I asked.
She shrugged. “That’s easy. I didn’t know I was coming to the temple today, and the shoes I was wearing weren’t appropriate to wear to the temple. So I decided to come barefoot instead.”
At that moment we were interrupted by someone from the recorder’s office. She walked away with her artwork and I went in the dressing room to change clothes. I never saw her again. But I visualized her, walking barefoot across that huge parking lot. The ground was wet and probably cold from a recent rain. There were little rocks everywhere, and it must have been painful for her to walk over them, but she chose to endure the discomfort rather than to desecrate the temple with inappropriate shoes.
As I walked into the dressing room, I heard the words: “Take off thy shoes, for the place where thou standest is holy ground.”1 At that moment, the words came alive for me and I understood — perhaps for the first time — exactly what a privilege it is to be allowed to enter the temple.
With that understanding came questions:
• How worthy am I to be here?
• Have I made the proper preparations to come to the temple?
• Am I as clean as I can be from the inside out?
From a superficial standpoint, the first question was easy. I had a temple recommend. I was worthy to enter the temple. But had the anticipation of attending the temple influenced my actions throughout the week? That would take some thinking about.
The second question was much harder. Had I really thought about the temple that day, other than making sure I ate lunch and took a pre-temple nap and was outside waiting on time for Clark to pick me up? Was arriving on time despite the rain and the Washington D.C. traffic my biggest consideration?
I knew that once I got into the temple and changed into my temple clothing, I felt peaceful and happy. But before that, earthly considerations were what preoccupied me. I wondered which of my friends would be there, and what assignments I would be given, and if I would have the stamina to take the long walk from the entrance to the dressing room without having to sit down to rest. The privilege of being able to serve there had taken a back seat to earthly concerns.
If the second question was hardest to answer, the third was most embarrassing. Sure, I took a shower and washed my hair before going to the temple. Temple days are the only days I curl my hair, so at least I put some effort into it. But as I thought about my tattered slip and the hole in the toe of my white temple stockings, I realized that my attire was not sufficiently presentable to allow me to be in the presence of the Lord.
That night I paid extra attention to my surroundings in the temple. When I saw a thread on the carpet, I picked it up. I washed off the surface of the desk where I sat for part of the evening. I emptied my pockets and tried to make sure that wherever I went, I left the temple cleaner than I found it.
That weekend I took home the temple dress that had a hem that was coming out so I could repair it before wearing it again. I ordered new clothing to replace what was no longer serviceable, and I washed what was still temple-worthy. But I couldn’t get the barefoot temple patron out of my mind.
Other Holy Places
As I thought of the concept of standing in holy places, I realized there were other holy places around me. I wondered how the concept of standing on holy ground fit in to my Sunday worship. Although part of the question was whether I dressed and groomed appropriately to be in the chapel, there was more to it than that.
The most obvious connection is the sacrament. We take the sacrament every week, and a lot of us “old timers” remember when we took the sacrament twice every Sunday. Anything that is done that often becomes habitual, and when something becomes a habit it is hard to keep that habit meaningful.
No matter how often we take it, the sacrament is something we can’t afford to take for granted. Am I spending that time wisely, or am I too easily distracted by the whispers of other people in the room?
The importance of the sacrament was driven home to me a few years ago in another experience at the temple. Long ago, shortly after we were married, I went to a Salt Lake City department store to buy some stainless steel flatware. It was the beginning of the year, and there were some great sales that would allow me to buy the pieces that were still missing from our everyday utensils.
Clark and I had just made some major purchases from that department store a week before, and I didn’t think there would be any problem spending about a hundred dollars more to finish out our stainless steel service. But I had not reckoned on the salesgirl, who took one look at me in my blue jeans and announced that I couldn’t possibly afford the purchase I wanted to make. She was very insistent — and very rude — as she let me know that I was not worthy of what the store had to sell.
I almost had to call her manager in order to make the purchase.
The thing that grated on me was that although the salesgirl didn’t recognize me, I recognized her. She was the daughter of a former bishop of mine. If she had run into me at church, she would have called me “sister.” But I was obviously very beneath her on the social spectrum. Even though she would have made a commission on the sale, she was motivated more by the idea that I wasn’t worthy of the flatware than she was by the potential bonus for her if she made the sale. She didn’t want to sell those knives and forks and spoons to someone like me.
I thought about this girl over the years, and wondered what kind of person she had grown up to become. Imagine my surprise, some thirty years later, to see her again — this time in the Washington DC Temple. Clark and I were officiating at a session, and I was letting people in the door of the endowment room, I saw the former salesgirl walking toward me. She had no idea who I was, but I recognized her immediately.
There was an aura of goodness that radiated from her. I knew even as she approached me that she was a better person than I was. She didn’t recognize me, and I didn’t say anything to her other than to welcome her to the session. She walked in and took her seat, and that was the end of our encounter.
As I sat in the darkened room, I wondered how someone who had been so rude and so haughty could become a person who radiated goodness.
She had never apologized to me for the way she had treated me. Indeed, I suspect she had been the kind of person who treated a lot of people the way she did me, and never stopped to think she might be doing anything wrong. If she didn’t repent of any of those sins, how could she have been forgiven?
The answer came as quickly as I asked it. She took the sacrament every week. Because of the Atonement, she had been forgiven of the sins she had confessed and repented — but she had also been forgiven of the sins she hadn’t realized she had committed.
Rather than feeling cheated, I felt a profound sense of gratitude. If she had been forgiven of sins she didn’t even know she had committed, I was being forgiven of sins I didn’t know I was committing — not only in the past, but every day. It was a miracle I didn’t understand, and I still don’t understand it. But I don’t need to understand it. All I know is that taking the sacrament can cause that transformation in my life.
I have never again taken the sacrament without thinking what the sacrament did for the person who transgressed against me, and what it can do for me. The Atonement is a miracle, and the sacrament helps us facilitate that miracle. For that reason alone, the chapel where we worship is holy ground.
Another Meetinghouse Miracle
But the sacrament is not the only miracle that occurs in our meetinghouses. There is yet another reason why our meetinghouses constitute holy places. Our places of worship are training grounds where we become a community of individuals who work together for a common goal.
Paul’s analogy of saints being the body of Christ is appropriate here, because each of us has a different function but we all have the common goal of sustaining the body. Just as our legs hold up our bodies, which in turn send nourishment and instructions to the legs, each active member of a ward works in concert with the rest of the ward members to keep the body of the congregation alive and thriving.
Think about it. The people who teach us as sacrament meeting speakers are the students of others as they sit in their classes. People who are leaders today may be followers tomorrow. The ward is sustained by quiet acts of kindness the members do for one another — not just on Sundays, but throughout the week. We give and we take, and in so doing we give life to the body of our congregation. The creation of that life is a holy thing.
The reason our wards are so successful is that we serve together, and we sustain one another. One definition of sustain is to hold up. There’s a great Biblical story that illustrates the grave responsibility we have when we sustain one another. Exodus 17:9-13 tells the story of Joshua’s battle with Amalek. The Lord told Moses that as long as Moses’ hands were raised, the Israelites would prevail. But the battle lasted for hours, and as Moses watched from Mount Horeb his arms got tired. Whenever Moses’ arms fell, the tide of the battle turned and Israelites died. So Aaron and Hur sustained Moses by actually holding up his arms long enough for Joshua to win the battle.
A wonderful painting depicts this scene. In the painting, the aged Moses is obviously so weary that he can no longer stand, much less hold up his arms. So Aaron and Hur hold his arms up for him. The absolute fear in the eyes of Hur shows that he is well aware how important it is for him to sustain his leader. Without his help, his leader will fail.
Aaron and Hur sustain Moses long enough for Joshua to win the battle against Amalek.
A closeup of Hur’s face shows he understands the grave responsibility of sustaining.
Although the results aren’t as immediate when we sustain others — or fail to sustain them — in their ward callings, the long-term goals may be just as dramatic. Who knows how much of a difference a faithful home teacher can make, or how much of a detriment a home teacher or visiting teacher can be when those callings are neglected?
Although we may think we’re not hurting anyone when we stand in the hall and visit during gospel doctrine class or prepare our own lessons during sacrament meeting, every time we do so we are, in effect, lowering the arms of the Moseses around us.
Although everyone’s choices are ultimately their own, each member of the ward plays a small role — or a big one — in the success or failure of everyone else.
When the body is held up by being sustained through acts of kindness, a miracle has occurred. And that place automatically becomes a holy ground.
Keeping the Meetinghouse Sacred
Once we understand that the whole meetinghouse, and not just the chapel, constitutes holy ground, what do we do to respect it? Although my list is certainly not the list everyone should adopt, perhaps it is a starting point for your own thoughts on how you want to treat your own meetinghouse when you are within it:
• Am I always aware that I am in a holy place? It goes without saying that our attire may be vastly different when we’re playing basketball in the cultural hall than when we are attending sacrament meeting, but am I dressed appropriately for the occasion? This by no means gives me the right to judge how others are dressed.
It is my responsibility to keep myself as presentable as I can and assume that everyone else is doing the same.
• Do I sustain ward members and ward leaders in every sense of the word? It goes without saying that every person who holds a calling is going to do it differently, and that means the only way a calling will be fulfilled exactly the way I would do it is if I’m the one who holds the calling. But do I cheerfully support others as they lead, even if they’re not doing it “right”? If I talk behind their backs, or grumble that they’re not being good leaders instead of helping them be better leaders, I’m the one who has the greater sin.
• Do I keep the meetinghouse as clean as possible? It goes beyond leaving a ward program behind in the pews after sacrament meeting is over. Am I cleaning up after myself wherever I go? And when someone else leaves something out of order, do I ignore it, or do I put things to right?
• Do I look for people who need an extra word of kindness? As we go about sustaining ward leaders by holding them up, it’s easy to forget that we aren’t supposed to sustain just the people in leadership positions. Every person in the congregation, including the stranger who is just visiting for the weekend, becomes part of the fabric of our society. The key word here is “fabric.” A piece of fabric is made by weaving single threads together. If one thread breaks, the integrity of the whole is at risk until the thread is reinforced. Likewise, if one person suffers and that suffering continues without being sustained, the fabric of our ward will be weakened.
The Sacred Place of Home
According to the Bible Dictionary, “only the home can compare with the temple in sacredness.” (See entry for temple.) This is a foreign concept to most people in these modern times, where homes can be showplaces or hovels, but are often more likely to be places of strife than havens of peace.
Strife can come from many sources. The first thing that comes to mind is the contention between family members who argue or criticize or undermine one another in big or little ways. The home is where children learn how to treat others — and where they learn to esteem or loathe themselves. Without love between family members, the “sins of the fathers” can certainly show their effects for three or four succeeding generations.
Strife can also come from the sounds within the home. If the television is always on, or if loud music permeates the home every waking minute, the home cannot possibly be a place of meditation or peace.
I was one of those people who thought raucous music didn’t make a difference. My eyes were opened about a year ago, when the new temple presidency decided to run continuous recordings of church hymns in the chapel of the Washington DC Temple. The music is loud enough that hymns can be heard on much of the main floor of the temple, but the effect is one of quiet and reverence.
Although I had always felt peaceful in the temple, being exposed to those hymns for several hours on a weekly basis brought a great amount of tranquility into my life. The kind of music we listen to really does make a difference.
Finally, strife can come from our actual surroundings. This doesn’t mean we have to have the best of everything. Sometimes, through no fault of our own, our furniture is threadbare. Many people in the world aren’t lucky enough to have furniture at all, but their homes can be nevertheless holy.
The strife that comes from our physical environment is the strife of disorganization. When the Lord said that his house is “a house of order” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:119), he meant it literally.
A few years ago, some of my dearest friends gave me a new office as a birthday present. One paid for new floors that would allow me to roll around the room to get from place to place. Two others designed the room and spent weeks putting it together. Clark bought me some beautiful new bookshelves, which are filled with treasures. The room is a thing of beauty, and it is a haven for me.
But I don’t always keep that room the way it should be kept. My desk accumulates piles of clutter. My work table gets stacked with packages. Things overflow onto the floor.
When that happens, my whole life starts to unravel. I begin to feel like a failure in everything I do. This always happens gradually, so that I’m not even aware of the change. But one day a close friend of mine will call, and during the course of the conversation she will say, “I can hear in your voice that it’s time for an intervention. I’m on my way.”
As she straightens my office, stress leaves me and I’m filled with a spirit of peace. Once again the room becomes so holy that it is almost a place of worship to me. In fact, I get many spiritual insights within the walls of this room — but only when it is treated as a holy place.
A Holy Place of One
We all know there can be holy places where only two or three people are gathered together in the Lord’s name (Matthew 18:20). But it may not have occurred to you that you can be a holy place of one.
We’ve all heard stories of people who join the Church because they meet church members and want to know what it is that makes them so different. There is something in their faces and in their demeanors that sets them apart. Outsiders look at those people and want what they have. They want the joy; they want the peace.
Alma 5:14 asks, “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?”
Am I one of those people? Can people tell by my countenance and by the kindness of my actions that there is something different about me? I’m not talking about plastering a smile on my face and doggedly keeping it there no matter what happens in life. This gift of the spirit cannot be faked. Either I have it, or I don’t.
If I have “his image in my countenance,” it’s because of who I am — a person who is close to the Lord and the Savior, and who understands the joys of living the gospel.
If I don’t have it, I can’t pretend that I do. I may be able to deceive myself, but I won’t be able to deceive the people around me. I’m either standing on holy ground, or I’m not.
There’s a difference here between being an island of holiness and an island of piousness. Too many people confuse the two. Pious people set themselves apart because they believe they are better than the people around them. Holy people do not set themselves apart. Like the Savior, they immerse themselves in the needs of the people around them. They are sanctified by their service to those others. And because they are closely interacting with those others, outsiders can see the difference in them — and want to emulate it.
The Savior referred to his followers as “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).
As we go into the world with his image in our countenances, we illuminate the way for others.
As long as we live in righteousness we are bearers of that light. When that occurs, anywhere we stand is a holy place.
1 The actual quotation from Exodus 3:5 is, “And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”