In spring 2006, a pair of wonderful students who sat in the back of my class asked if I would perform their wedding ceremony during the coming summer. I agreed and ordained myself at the website of the Universal Life Church. The wedding was a pleasure, and an honor. I will always be grateful for the trust of my students and the generosity of their request. As a web-ordained minister (I have a certificate! I printed it myself!) I can also preach, baptize (Oops! Splash!), and memorialize the dead. As I say in a joke, “I can do everything but the bris, and I am taking an online course for that.” But I will do none of these things, despite my ability to solemnize most occasions with my words. My career as an officiant is probably over.
Ceremonial occasions are important to observe, as I have told students who would otherwise have skipped out of graduation. They are times of recognition, promise, and (in that most vital word) confluence. In ceremonies we pause – we actually stop and come together — to observe that something has been changed by the will and work of loving and rescuing each other. A person stands before others and acknowledges that the flow of a life has changed; something has happened to alter its course. When we participate in these ceremonies, we are prepared to live with a sense of having begun something or having become something. These are ceremonial moments we should not ignore. Apart from what a commencement or a marriage or a death might matter to our families, they are even more important parts of what we have promised to ourselves, to acknowledge and remember each other. These changes help us move toward the lives we want to make for ourselves.
During this past year my two daughters and their chosen men each asked me to conduct a ceremony of marriage for them. Each occasion began with the same poem.
I want to be your friend / for ever and ever. / When the hills are all flat / and the rivers are all dry, / when the trees blossom in winter / and the snow falls in summer, / when heaven and earth mix – / not till then will I part from you.
[The Yüeh-Fu, translated by Arthur Waley]
The idea of wanting to be a friend of someone forever moves me deeply. It reminds me that we often speak of marriage as though love is its only or primary dimension. As my ceremony later shows, my perspective on marriage is grounded in knowing that it is meant to be lasting, and that its bond is grounded on mutual trust and confluence. There are lessons in the moment that I strive to make visible. I like to think of the moment of marriage as the beginning of something unknown, private and unseen, and perfectly unpredictable. I think the unknowns – each one different, hundreds of thousands, millions of them — are what make marriages strong or weak.
The ideals and perfections that most weddings seem to emphasize are to me artificial. I like the contractual side of it better. Marriage ceremonies ought to be founded on the concepts of a marriage as work and discovery, and of being a “friend for ever and ever” in that work and discovery. A wedding day is a happy day, but not a delusional day.
Work and discovery. That is what we do together, when married. In my ceremony I tell the assemblage that we have come together to express our love and encouragement to the two who stand before us, and to witness as they begin to make their way. We gather, I tell them, as observers at this beginning – at this unusual moment of human promise – unlike any other kind of promise we make. In my first wedding ceremony, I asked my students to turn around and see all of the people who had come for this expression. I told them, “All of us who love you are here to wish this moment’s grace to last for your lifetime together.”
“Life asks us,” I say to the two before me, “to give the gift of ourselves to each other, to strengthen and comfort each other over a long time. If we are not meant to be for others, we are not meant to be. We are meant to be generous and to be kind, to take care, and to find shelter, grace, and safety among others.” But marriage means something even greater: “When destiny captures us, and we know that we must live up to it through loving one person above all, we have arrived at a moment that changes us forever. For you both, this is that moment. For you both, your good fortune stands beside you today.”
My ceremony is brief. It includes an expression of thanks, a reading, a lesson, an exchange of rings and vows, and a pronouncement of marriage. It takes about seven minutes and probably could be shorter, but I always want to say some things.
For example, on these occasions, I am thinking of my parents and my wife’s parents, and the missing grandparents and other lost forebears of the people who are joining their lives. I express thanks to those who have preceded us but who are no longer here with us. I say that we feel their lives in us, and we know we are their children and their grandchildren, and we thank them for their mindful strengths and loving hearts. I reminded my daughters and their partners that other lives flow into ours “and allow us to give the grace of living and loving to each other.”
Love is of course present in these ceremonial moments. Love is lovely, being loving and being loved is lovely. The reading is about love, from Thomas á Kempis, whose model for love emulates Jesus. But the idea of love in his words is sensual and universal to me, it is secular and not religious, and it reminds us that love has many forms, many expressions, many lovers.
Love is a great thing, a great good in every way; it alone lightens what is heavy, and leads smoothly over all roughness. … It carries a burden without being burdened, and makes every bitter thing sweet and tasty. Love wants to be lifted up, not held back by anything low …. Nothing is sweeter than love; nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider; nothing happier, nothing fuller, nothing better in heaven and earth …
Love keeps watch and is never unaware, even when it sleeps; tired, it is never exhausted; hindered, it is never defeated; alarmed, it is never afraid; but like a living flame and a burning torch it bursts upward and blazes forth. … Let me grow in love, so that I may learn to taste in my innermost heart how sweet it is to love, to be dissolved and to plunge into the ocean of love.
[Thomas á Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ]
Each marriage I have performed has happened in the presence of water: still water in a reflecting pool, furious waves on a windy North Carolina beach, water rushing down rapids in a Virginia park. Perhaps not “the ocean of love,” but flow and confluence, tides and reflections, and the infinite depths and planes of our lives were made present by water.
I have been a teacher throughout my life, but I now understand (at last) that I sought to express to my distant classes all of the things I could not teach them, all the things that would happen to them in ways they might not expect. I taught my students that our greatest skills are improvisational, perhaps unexpected, and always artful. I think this is true of marriage as well.
In my ceremony, still thinking like a teacher, I call them these unexpected skills the lessons of marriage. “There is no greater wish than that each of these lessons will become clear to you,” I say, ”and then always clearer to you, as they have to those who have loved and married before you.”
But really I have no “lessons” as we might expect from the school-induced contexts of that word. “These lessons,” I say, “cannot be taught or learned by anyone other than you, and they could not be learned today or yesterday, only tomorrow and every day after. They are lessons learned by two people, for and from each other.”
This is another reason for the ceremony, to mark a day when the lessons begin to change in form and permanence:
- The lessons of responsibility and trust for you.
- The lessons of thinking together with you.
- The lessons of laughing with you.
- The lessons of giving courage to you.
- The lessons of taking courage from you.
- The lessons of growing with you.
- The lessons of being, quietly, with you.
I might add the lessons of generosity, the lessons of gentleness, and all the lessons of touch. “How will you discover these lessons for yourselves in your shared lives?” I ask. “No one can say but you. No one can know but you. And no one will be able to express – perhaps not even you – what these lessons will mean. But these lessons will become the best and most of your marriage, and now you are ready to learn them.”
My ceremony is nearly over now. There is an exchange of rings, where each person says this vow to the other:
I take you into my life in equal love. I take you as a mirror to my self and a partner on my way. I give you my open heart completely for all of my life.
It is time to seal the marriage. “Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be a shelter to the other. Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth for the other. Now there is no loneliness for you; now there is no more loneliness. Now there are two bodies, but there is only one life, and it is time to begin that life as a living trust.” I remind the couple, “Every day you will find each other in new ways and learn the lessons of this marriage in new ways. Every day, you will be companions and partners, partners and companions, to each other.”
Your friend, for ever and ever and ever.
“With a kiss and an embrace, and with the love and affection of everyone present,” I end my ceremony, “it is time to start on your way.” And as the ceremony ends, the embrace happens, the kiss happens, the marriage begins.
For Lisa and James, Anna and Brett, Eve and Dave, and for Carol
June 15, 2011