Boyd Matheson: Looking to sacred places and spaces

The announcement that the iconic Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will close for a four-year renovation has brought attention to the importance of sacred, historic buildings and the spaces they occupy in communities and cultures. Such buildings were built with sacrifice and more than century-old tools and were constructed of faith more than stone.

The difference between an old building and a building that is historic is what happened on the inside. Winston Churchill famously said, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us."

I have used this quote many times over the years, and not until recently did I come to understand the full context of his powerful statement. This wasn’t just one more quotable quip from the prolific Churchill. It was notable because he was referring to the rebuilding of the House of Commons that had been bombed regularly as a high-profile target during World War II.

The full quote from Churchill reads, “On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.”

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, and his First Presidency counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor, left, and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor, right, walk through the South Visitors' Center prior to a press conference in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, and his First Presidency counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor, left, and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor, right, walk through the South Visitors’ Center prior to a press conference in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2019.

Churchill understood the power of preserving and restoring a building that was really the people’s house. He knew the rubble represented more than steel and concrete. The building was the vessel that held the echoes of critical debates, the vision of freedom, hope for the future and the very soul of the nation. Buildings, places and spaces do that.

President Nelson details plans for Salt Lake Temple during its 4-year closure for renovation

The announcements regarding efforts to preserve and improve pioneer-era temples are likewise more than just an effort to ensure stone and steel, glass and grounds can be used for another 125 years. These buildings and the sacred spaces that surround them are the vessels of critical covenants for individuals and families — they capture the vision of eternity and hope for the souls of all of God’s children.

There is a sense of sadness that we are about to enter a season when members of the Church will not be able to enter the Salt Lake Temple during the renovation, restoration and construction project.

President Wilford Woodruff, who offered the dedicatory prayer for the Salt Lake Temple in 1893, may have sensed such a period would come.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2019 about renovation plans for the Salt Lake Temple and Temple Square.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2019 about renovation plans for the Salt Lake Temple and Temple Square. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

There is an interesting sentiment toward the end of the prayer when President Woodruff petitioned, “Heavenly Father, when Thy people shall not have the opportunity of entering this holy house” and “when the children of Thy people, in years to come, shall be separated, through any cause, from this place, and their hearts shall turn in remembrance of Thy promises to this holy Temple.”

He prayed for members of the Church to “turn their faces towards this Thy holy house.” President Woodruff understood that even when entrance is not possible, looking to the temple would help guide and shape the hearts of the people.

President Howard W. Hunter instructed members who didn’t live in close proximity to a temple to still look to the temple and to consider their own temple recommend as a symbol of their faith and membership in the Lord’s Church.

In his remarks Friday, President Russell M. Nelson made an invitation similar to President Woodruff when he petitioned members: “As we watch the renovation of the temple and Temple Square, I invite each of us to renew our dedication to the Lord and His holy work.”

Looking to the temple as a sacred space — even when entrance isn’t possible — can lead to great blessings.

A photographer shoots a photo in the South Visitors' Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2019. Leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ or Latter-day Saints announced renovation plans for the Salt Lake Temple and changes to the temple grounds and Temple Square, including the visitors center.
A photographer shoots a photo in the South Visitors’ Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2019. Leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ or Latter-day Saints announced renovation plans for the Salt Lake Temple and changes to the temple grounds and Temple Square, including the visitors center. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

Looking at renewing our dedication to the Lord and fashioning our lives in a manner like the temple requires us to submit ourselves to the Master Builder.

In the words of C.S. Lewis: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

Over the next four years, the Salt Lake Temple and Temple Square will be renewed in a magnificent way. The shaping of these sacred places and spaces will in turn shape and influence all who “come and see” for generations to come. We should look to and learn from this continued shaping and strive to fashion our own faith after it.