We are gathered here because I officiated my first wedding just a few weeks back: a graduate student in the writing program where I teach was marrying an instructor in the German program.
They married in my living room.
The bride wore blue.
The maid of honor wore shorts.
We are here today – before God – because marriage is one of His most sacred wishes – to witness the joining in marriage of GROOM’S NAME and BRIDE’S NAME. This occasion marks the celebration of love and commitment with which this man and this woman begin their life together. And now – through me – He joins you together in one of the holiest bonds.
I became a minister in the Universal Life Church easily enough: visit a webpage, click a button. Ordination is simple. Knowing what to say when two people marry is something else altogether.
The boilerplate language italicized above showed up on a website devoted to helping novice officiants like me find the appropriate words, but even such humble a declaration caused me considerable cognitive anguish. It wasn’t clear if both bride and groom believed in God, for instance. I was pretty sure at least one was not on board with the default masculine pronoun. I certainly wasn’t ready to claim that God acted through me. And to be honest, I doubt that marriage is one of God’s “most sacred wishes,” or that God, whatever that word means, even bothers to notice our silly little organized religious rituals. He/she/God surely has better things to occupy his/her/God’s time.
But we like to think that we are the center of everything, don’t we? And that someone is keeping track.
With respect for individual boundaries comes the freedom to love unconditionally. Within the emotional safety of a loving relationship – the knowledge self-offered one another becomes the fertile soil for continued growth. With care and responsibility towards self and one another comes the potential for full and happy lives.
Now there’s a mouthful of passive jargon. “Individual boundaries,” “emotional safety, “the knowledge self-offered one another becomes the fertile soil…” Perhaps if I had been negotiating a settlement between Israel and one of its neighbors, the language would have suited, but I couldn’t deliver those words to my two friends with anything like a straight face. I’m a writing teacher after all; clarity of language is my sworn cause.
Still and all, it was my job to offer some sort of advice. My wife helped by repeatedly suggesting, “Don’t mention ‘hard work!’” She was referencing a ceremony we had witnessed many years before where the preacher seemingly talked of nothing else; pointing out in every other sentence that marriage was hard, grinding, bone-wearing, teeth-gritting emotional labor. His wife was in the pews when he said all of this, and I can only speculate what she was thinking.
I eventually came up with a few nuggets of advice I wanted to offer, until it occurred to me that at this wedding, my wife would be in the audience, listening to me, and soon enough every sentence I composed sounded horribly hypocritical.
Renita and I are just about to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary, which is pretty good stuff these days, but goodness knows this didn’t happen because I was good at marriage, or because I held some special key to making my wife’s days happy and joyous. These thirty years have happened because Renita was willing to put up with me, and because she is stubborn, and because I am lucky.
That’s not exactly advice.
Do you GROOM’S NAME take BRIDE’S NAME to be your wife – to live together after God’s ordinance – in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and continually bestow upon her your heart’s deepest devotion, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live?
One other oddity of my first marriage ceremony was that neither GROOM’S NAME nor BRIDE’S NAME was new to the nuptial altar. They had three or four weddings under their collective belts already, and were in no way naïve as to the perils, challenges, and odds.
So what do you tell someone who is not innocent, not wide-eyed, not filled with naïve optimism. If I promised them that each day would be as wonderful as the first flushes of love had been, that they were entering into a union of perpetual bliss, I suspect the bride would have laughed out loud.
So what to say?
I didn’t tell them much.
I mentioned that marriage is like writing: you need to show up at your writing desk and at your marriage desk.
I mentioned that marriage is not like writing: writing needs to be attacked, relentlessly, while people need to be handled tenderly, coddled a bit.
“Show up, be tender.” That’s the best I could muster.
The bride and groom smiled and nodded. My wife did not guffaw.