I’m standing in the foyer of an LDS Stake Center, a large Mormon church used for special events like this one. This specific building is a vanilla-yellow-brick plus white stucco number built to mass-production specs back in 1976. It’s a design reminiscent of that era: too old to be modern, not old enough to be vintage. You can find hundreds of churches identical to this across the U.S. Still, there’s something about this place I like. It feels clean here. I feel clean here.
I never know exactly why. I wonder if it’s a Pavlovian response to years of rituals that guided me to thoughts of love, redemption, and acceptance, all happening churches identical to this one. Maybe it’s even some nostalgia for this exact place. This is the building, after all, where I was ordained into the LDS priesthood.
For the LDS Church, which believes that all male members are given the sacred right of wielding God’s powers for both ceremonial and personal acts, this “ordination” was the right of passage – and one that came alongside the rest of the new world of adolescence.
It was the day after my twelfth birthday. Once the standard church meetings were done, my immediate family gathered in the bishop’s office, along with our bishop, my soon-to-be priesthood leaders, and a few members of my extended family.
That day, I was wearing black slacks, black shoes, old white socks, a white shirt, a tie I’d taken from my dad’s collection (each of his ties being as lovably tacky as the last), and a suit jacket that I had yet to grow into.
The bishop’s office was a ten-by-ten room lined with chairs and sporting a desk toward the back. I sat in a chair in the middle of the room. My two sisters, my kid brother, and my mother sat in the chairs closest to me. The men had gathered in a circle around me, each tilting toward the right to place a hand on the next man’s shoulder while resting the other hand on top of my head. It was President Young, the Second Counselor in the Stake Presidency – and my father – whose hand actually touched my hair.
“Robert Daren Young,” he began. “By the authority of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood which we hold, we lay our hands on your head and confer upon you the Aaronic Priesthood and ordain you to the office of Deacon.”
Then, with the scripted portion out of the way, he continued to tell me about the priesthood in his own words. He asked God to help me understand the importance and beauty of holding His sacred priesthood. He asked that I be able to remember the Savior, and that I might follow in His footsteps. He told me that priesthood is service, and blessed me that I would be able to serve faithfully and joyfully.
He told me God loved me. He told me that he loved me, and my mother loved me, and that my entire family loved me. He blessed me that I would be able to find further fellowship in my new calling.
The blessing ended, my dad said “Amen,” and I echoed the word. Then everyone in the priesthood circle took turns shaking my hand firmly.
I remember a lot about that day. I remember that my mother looked at me with a pride that I’ve almost never seen her express since. I remember my parents gave me a quad, a set of the four scriptures that Mormons believe in, during my birthday celebration that evening. I remember feeling powerful and frightened and accepted and stressed. And I remember the way the hands of all those priesthood leaders and family members felt as they rested on my head:
I walk down these familiar hallways until my dad (now Bishop Young) and little brother arrive. We then take our traditional seats in the rows of fold-out chairs set up in an overflow behind the main meeting space. There are – if my fast count is right – somewhere between four and five hundred men here. Well, boys and men, with the age ranging from twelve to ninety. We’re all paying close attention to the projector-screen behind the pulpit and the broadcast message of “0:03:11 until the commencement of the 181st Semi-Annual Priesthood Session.”
Today, I’m wearing black slacks, black dress shoes, cushioned black socks, a blue button-up shirt with a pearl finish that makes it look indigo in direct light, a blue-and-silver tie from Joseph & Feiss (one of a half-dozen designer options I’ve picked up over the years), a blue-faced Fossil watch, and a black vest that fits me perfectly. I decided not to wear the suit jacket.
When the meeting starts, I sing the opening hymn, “Rise Up O Men of God,” and close my eyes respectfully for the first prayer. But I don’t say “Amen.”
It wouldn’t exactly feel honest. But then, I feel a little dishonest being here at all. This meeting is kind of exclusive: You’re supposed to be a priesthood holder. And I was, once, but I haven’t touched priesthood responsibility, or worthiness, or even belief in the God whose power I supposedly wielded, for six years now. Not since I was nineteen.
I listen to the first two speakers and enjoy their enthusiasm and storytelling capabilities. I try to hide my smile of amusement when Jeffrey R. Holland talks about how Satan is a real person who wants to take us down with him. I try not to feel tense when Keith B. McMullin repeats the usual indoctrination for teenage listeners, increasing the weight of all the coerced promises these boys were expected to make before they can understand what belief really means.
I excuse myself from the meeting hall and go outside to watch the sunset. With its burning tangerine glow, the skyline gives me a feeling the priesthood session – all my priesthood sessions – lacked. Something hard to put into words. Something spiritual.
I wait until the end of the session to go back in, and I only catch the tail end of the last talk, from Thomas S Monson, the official leader of the LDS church and (according to their doctrine) a living Prophet of God. He tells a funny story about sharing his testimony during a bus tour of Dallas, Texas. I smile at his charm; I guess I’ve gotten over some of my grief with Monson and his history of promoting political actions, like Prop 8, that seemed so – in a word – un-Christian.
When the closing prayer and hymn are done, I walk to my car, feeling uncomfortable. This entire night has me bothered. It’s not the speakers or the faith; I have my issues with them, but it’s not as though there’s a religion I do agree with.
It’s that there’s something about this place. It feels clean here. I feel clean here. And I’m still trying to work out why. It’s a good feeling, right at the center of my chest, glowing white. Once, I would have called this “the holy spirit.” It was this very clean feeling that I kept coming back for during the years when I no longer believed in the church’s ability to save me, or in this idea of God’s love and gospel guiding me to happiness. Then, I couldn’t seem to feel anything but angry, depressed, frightened, outcast, and – worst – numb. And the way my mom looked at me most of the time, I felt like I was my own evil twin. God never fixed any of that. God made it worse.
I run through fledgling explanations for this clean feeling. Maybe it’s a learned response, like I thought of before. Maybe it’s some leftover emotion toward the church itself, the kind you might have if you bumped into an ex while shopping for groceries. Hell, maybe they put something in the air filters.
Or maybe it’s that I so desperately wanted, and want, to believe in this. That I’ve seen others walk this path, receiving all the praise and love and admiration that I surrendered. That I can remember that look on my mother’s face when I was ordained. That I hate believing in less and less with each passing year. That I feel like, maybe if I’d been different, done something different, prayed harder or fasted more or – I don’t know – worn a better suit, I could have belonged here.
But I don’t. I keep trying to explain that to people, but it’s like they can’t hear me.
I’m not an atheist because it’s easy or because I want to be. I’m an atheist because it’s the only honest thing I can be. And I still hear the voices of friends and family, telling me to will a God into existence, to become part of a community, to be the person my family has always wanted me to be.
Today, I feel the weight of all those hands on my head. It feels the same now as it felt back then:
This piece was written in Fall of 2011.
Special thanks to Prof Julie Nichols, who provided guidance on this work.