Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

I perform marriage ceremonies. To some people who know me personally, this seems a bit paradoxical – or maybe even hypocritical – and so, I’d like to take a moment to explain a few things, from my peculiar point of view.

First, let me start by addressing a couple of sources of confusion. Several people have commented that it seems odd I should be conducting weddings because of my history with ‘faith’ as it is typically construed. Although I appreciate and value spirituality, I do not practice or participate in religion. And when people suggest that my participation in wedding ceremonies is somehow a rebellion against social ritual, they seem to get only more confused when I tell them that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Further adding to the confusion is the fact that I have been divorced twice. Many of my male and several of my female friends expect that I should have a dim, cynical, and generally negative view of marriage if only because of my personal history with the practice of it, as it has applied to me. And it is true that, at times in my life, I have participated in some of the stereotypically expected behaviors of a male my age who is twice-divorced. And yet, again I must disagree – all of my cynical proclamations made in frustration, fear, and anger notwithstanding – still I see marriage as an extremely important social ritual.

And that, for me, is a key word in understanding marriage: ritual. After all, why get married? If two people want to spend the rest of their lives together – fine, let them. Who needs a wedding? Sure seems like a lot of paperwork and hassle about something you intended to do anyhow, right? I suppose there’s a little bit of economic benefit – taxes, health insurance and such. But I’m not the sort to view that as anywhere close to a sufficient reason. What about “socially acceptable behavior” – a kind of social validation? Again, that’s not enough of a reason, if you ask me.

So, why then would I still support the social ritual of marriage?

In his book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell discusses the topic of ritual extensively. Here’s a passage from the chapter “Sacrifice and Bliss” that I think might help to illustrate where I’m going with all this:

MOYER: What happens when you follow your bliss?

CAMPBELL: You come into bliss. In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There’s the hub of the wheel, and there is the revolving rim of the wheel. For example, if you are attached to the rim of the wheel of fortune, you will be either above going down or at the bottom coming up. But if you are at the hub, you are in the same place all the time. That is the sense of the marriage vow – I take you in health or sickness, in wealth or poverty; going up or coming down. But I take you as my center, and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, not the social prestige, but you. That is following your bliss.

I will be performing another wedding in April. When I stand that day and marry two people to each other, I will not be there just as myself. Most importantly, I will be there as the role that I represent in that ritual – the outside agent, a tool of the ritual itself, whose purpose is to give a voice to, and to guide those present through, the process of bestowing blessing and sanctification upon the marriage itself. And I do believe that marriage is a sacred thing, in much the way that Joseph Campbell indicates – as an act of following one’s bliss, it is one of the most important steps a human might take during a lifetime. Taken in that context, it seems perfectly natural to me that some couples would want to involve their community and peers – their friends, family, and other loved ones – in a ritual to acknowledge and give respect to the significance of this act.

This is something that I take very seriously. I am deeply honored, every time I am invited to act as “master of ceremony” for such an incredibly important event. I would betray my own heart if I were to take such an event lightly. And as agent of the ritual, I take steps I feel are appropriate to the weight of the event itself. I interview the couple, both individually and together, to make sure that I understand what this event means to them, so that as their agent I may correctly represent the significance of the ritual for them on their wedding day. I write a ritual of marriage uniquely for them – no “text book” wedding is likely to capture the entire nuance of significance and meaning for every single couple. Just as each couple, and each individual’s bliss, is unique – so also is the event of marriage.

Not every couple sees things this way – and I don’t marry just any couple. For some people, unfortunately, marriage is just another social bookmark, or maybe some complicated version of “dating” – like dating, but with more paperwork, and maybe a break on your income taxes. That hardly sounds like “following bliss” to me. And it probably is not worthy of a ritual to acknowledge something sacred. I will not stoop, and lower my self to be an agent giving blessing to something that only dilutes or hides the real significance (potential significance, anyhow) of the ritual of marriage.

I know I’m going to sound arrogant when I say this (I probably already sound pretty arrogant), but if a couple is just looking for some paperwork to go along with their relationship, then I’m not the official that they’re looking for. When I interview a couple before a wedding, one of the things that I’m looking for is whether or not I’m compatible with what this marriage means to them – if I’m not the right man for the job, they should know that right up front, and they should go and find somebody else who does correctly embody what the ritual means to them. That’s not always a negative thing either – every couple getting married should have the wedding that best embodies what they are seeking, and what they are expressing. If I’m not the person for that job, then they should choose somebody else, no matter how much I might personally enjoy performing a wedding. It’s that important.

By invoking the blessing of one’s “community” – no matter how large or small that “community” might be – we take a greater step than most of us pause to realize. I cannot truly speak for anybody’s “community” but I can speak for myself: if a marriage is worthy of my blessing, then it is also worthy of whatever support I might be able to give in the years to come. Who would I be, if I refuse to support something I thought was worthy of blessing? When we commit ourselves to the pursuit of our bliss, with ritual and blessing to mark the significance of such a choice – we embark on one of the greatest adventures of a lifetime. In this regard we’re all adventurers, and no adventure is devoid of challenges. Those who choose to marry, in the way that I understand marriage, are brave, crazy, love-dreamers following their vision of bliss and a better world – they inspire me, and they deserve any support that I can give.

So, before you speak out against marriage, please stop and think – are you sure you’re not just criticizing people who are braver than you? I know that marriage today – as an institution, as an adventure, as a ritual marking a couple’s commitment to the pursuit of bliss – is in a poor state of disrepair. Too many of us sell out the dream for a little bit of socially-acceptable companionship, or for a little respite from the fear of being alone, or for a million other reasons. Trust me – I have the life experience, both personal and vicarious, to prove it. But does that really justify us in selling out the dream entirely? I find it hard to think that way, these days.

As you consider marriage as it relates to yourself, I hope you’ll keep all this in mind. It’s taken me a very long time to come to this conclusion. I deeply regret some of the things I’ve said about marriage along my way to get here. If I had understood from the beginning what marriage was going to mean to me today – as an idea, an institution, and a ritual – I would have been a lot more mindful along the way: mindful of my words for certain, but also mindful the support I could offer or withhold from others, and maybe even of my own marriages, too.

At the very least, I hope you’ll give it some thought.

That’s what Simon says, today.

Blessings,

-S.

1 Comments:

At 11:24 PM, March 14, 2006, Anonymous Kevin Himmel said...

Hey Simon, it's really good to read your words. It reminds me how much thought and passion you bring to everything you do.

As for this post, I hope those you officiate understand how much thought you've given this. Having a "master of ceremonies" who cares and speaks his truth can serve the couple not only on their wedding day but perhaps, if they let it, throughout their lives together.

 

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