Temples and Testimony at Tikal

By Marvin K. Gardner

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    Towering temples rise majestically from the jungle floor, reaching heavenward. Hushed whispers of ancient peoples seem to permeate chambers, corridors, courtyards, and steep stone steps. Wonder and mystery live here.

    This is Tikal, once a thriving Mayan city. When Mayan civilization died, Tikal died with it and was buried beneath the encroaching vegetation of Guatemala’s relentless rain forests. Some of Tikal’s pyramids and palaces—along with a few of her other mysteries—have now been uncovered to our view and to our questions.

    In a Secluded Spot

    Ancient peoples worshiped here at Tikal. Today, Latter-day Saint youth who live nearby find that Tikal is an ideal place to role-play Samuel the Lamanite’s prophecy to the Nephites from the top of a city wall. Or King Benjamin’s address from the pinnacle of a tower. Or Abinadi’s testimony before wicked King Noah. It’s an inspiring place to talk about prophets—ancient and modern. About temples—past and present. About truths—buried and living. About prophetic voices speaking from the dust.

    In a secluded spot, away from the notice of other visitors, eleven Latter-day Saint young women gather, accompanied by leaders and by the brother of one of the girls. Seminary and institute students from nearby San Benito, they have spent the morning together, exploring the secrets of Tikal. They’ve seen wild peacocks and lynx along the trails. They’ve climbed the massive stone steps. (“Someone ought to put elevators in these things!” one girl had grumbled good-naturedly.) From the tops of ancient Mayan structures, they’ve scanned the horizon; the tropical rain forest stretches out like endless waves of the ocean, and the tops of other ancient temples protrude above the vegetation like great ships on the placid green sea.

    It has been a rich, full day. Now, shaded from the burning sun by the protecting shadow of an ancient palace, the young women pause in a stone courtyard to rest and to share their feelings and testimonies. They softly sing “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” and then someone offers a prayer.

    “We are fortunate to live so close to this place,” one of the group says reverently. “It was a special place for our ancestors.” Others agree, expressing respect and gratitude for the legacy and the lessons of Tikal.

    Another Temple

    Surrounded by these ancient temples and immersed in the aura of the place, these Latter-day Saint young women seem to be naturally drawn to reflect upon another temple in their homeland—one many kilometers away in Guatemala City.

    “Our family had an experience not long ago that was the dream of our whole lives,” says Yeszenia Delvalle, 18. “We were sealed in the temple. Now that our family is sealed, we hope to live as a family forever.”

    Without exception, every young woman in this group has entered that temple in Guatemala City to be sealed to her parents or to be baptized for the dead. A couple of years ago, the youth in the branch made the fifteen-hour bus trip to Guatemala City to do baptisms. “By being baptized for the dead, we give others the chance to repent and prepare for the Resurrection,” says Zoila Delvalle, 17. “Then it is up to them to accept it or not. In the temple, you feel the Spirit. You feel calm. You almost don’t want to leave. It makes you feel special. It’s beautiful.”

    “I’m grateful to my Heavenly Father,” says Cleily Valdez, 17, “that I belong to his church and that I have been sealed to my parents in the temple. Having the gospel is the greatest thing on earth that can take us to eternal life.”

    Rubí Monzón, 24, who recently returned from her mission, is the seminary teacher. “When I was fourteen, my mother died,” she says. “It was very hard on my family. Often I would be home alone, feeling lonely. One time, I was crying, and I heard a voice telling me that I wasn’t alone and that the Lord was with me and would help me. It was a soothing voice, and it made me feel good. Since then, I have felt at peace, knowing that the Lord loves me and will always be with me.”

    Three years after her mother died, Rubí and her family were sealed in the Guatemala City Temple. “I feel grateful for the opportunity Heavenly Father has given us to become an eternal family. I know that through obedience I will always be with my mother, father, and brothers and sisters. Many times I think about my mother, and I know that in just a short while we can all be together again.”

    Rubi’s younger sister, Raquel, 22, remembers that she and other family members received their patriarchal blessings when they went to Guatemala City to be sealed in the temple. “My blessing has helped me a lot. It says that by praying, studying the scriptures, fasting, and following the counsel my mother gave me when she was still alive, I can make the right decisions and be faithful in the Church.”

    “The True God”

    Except for its unique setting, this meeting at Tikal is like many similar meetings around the world wherever Latter-day Saints gather to express gratitude and bear testimony. Feelings and tears flow freely as the young women give thanks for a loving Father in Heaven, for the Savior and his atonement, for living prophets and the Restoration.

    “I know Heavenly Father sent us to earth for a purpose,” says Karla Monzón, 17. “I’m grateful that he sent his Son to atone for our sins. He has given us the gospel and the Church so we can progress and return to his presence.”

    “I’m grateful to my Heavenly Father for giving me the chance to find the gospel,” says Olinda Menéndez, 24. “I know that if we read the scriptures and pray, his Spirit will be closer to us.”

    “I know that the Book of Mormon is true,” says Judith Monzón, 20. “It’s an instrument in the Lord’s hands.”

    “I was happy when my parents, my brother, and I were sealed in the temple,” says Juanita León, 12. She explains that her father used to own a restaurant and would drink a lot. “Then one day, a boy came by and talked to my father about the Church. We received all the discussions and were baptized two weeks later. A month after our baptism, my father was called as the president of the San Benito Branch. A year later, we were sealed in the temple. My father doesn’t drink anymore!”

    Juanita is also grateful for prayer: “When I was ill, I prayed and prayed, and the Lord comforted me. I know that he is the true God, and I pray that I will be faithful.”

    Voices of Living Saints

    As these Latter-day Saint youth sing, pray, and bear testimony, the Spirit of the Lord fills this quiet corner of Tikal’s ancient domain. It’s a temple-like feeling.

    Now it’s time to eat a picnic lunch and to play hide-and-seek in the jungle. At one point along the trail, leaves flutter down onto the group, and a clapping, kissing sound comes from overhead. Looking up, the girls see a group of monkeys hanging by their tails from the high branches. Laughing, the girls join the chorus, clapping and making kissing sounds back at the monkeys. Then a monkey throws something down to the ground. Someone picks it up and discovers that it’s the pit from a tropical fruit—and the monkey’s tiny teeth marks are etched in it!

    As the group prepares to return home, a quiet, sobering spirit returns. Many haunting questions remain behind at Tikal: Who lived and worshiped here anciently? What did they know about God, the universe, the meaning of life? What happened to the fathers and mothers, the husbands and wives, the fair sons and daughters? Tikal’s magnificent temples are empty—and there’s a certain sadness here, a feeling that once-great peoples met an unhappy destiny.

    But faith and hope, rather than sadness, accompany this group of young women. They know that the temple in Guatemala City—and the other Latter-day Saint temples throughout the world—are filled with voices of living Saints. Places of light and truth and answers, these modern-day temples are alive with the Spirit of the Lord. Within their walls, latter-day fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters joyfully worship the living God, learn about the meaning of life, and are sealed together as families for eternity.

    Photography by Marvin K. Gardner

    In Tikal’s dramatic setting, role-playing Book of Mormon stories seems to happen spontaneously—especially when you have an appreciative audience! Quiet meditation also comes naturally here.

    After climbing to the top of several ancient Mayan temples, it’s nice to rest in a secluded stone courtyard and share feelings and impressions. The seminary teacher, Rubí Monzón (below), leads the group in a hymn and a testimony meeting.