July 13, 2009
Here is the story of one recent wedding ceremony. The details are not typical, but the effort at originality is. The couple not only penned their vows, but their English bulldog walked up the aisle in a collar that matched the best man’s vest. Each of their 125 guests went to the microphone and spoke. Weddings are now widely viewed as theater, occasions to display a couple’s production skills.
Couples today don’t just worry about the dress, the tux, and the party. They often feel the need to write their own wedding vows too. Unfortunately, a bride and groom usually succumb to vanity, romance and amateurism when they throw out traditional vows. Most prefer to do away with the whole “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” business. Who really wants to think about poverty and illness at one’s own wedding? It’s only the stern wisdom of convention that added this gloomy stuff to the festive day.
The truth is couples struggle to make weddings a good show. In an age of sexual license, weddings just aren’t exciting. They make for great parties, but the thrill is gone. Often, the marrying couple has been living together for years. Their daughter may be the flower girl or the bride may be pregnant. There’s an after-the-fact tone to the whole thing that no amount of novel staging can take away. As Anthony Esolen put it, “where there is not much to celebrate, we can only distract ourselves from the lack by throwing big parties, getting drunk, spending a lot of money, or, what is more likely, causing a lot of people to spend a lot of money whether they like it or not, and then pretending excitement as the bride in white is whisked off by the groom to spend the night in their apartment before heading off for the fifth time to their favorite honeymoon hideaway.”
When a man and woman who have never slept together stand before family and friends, pledging to spend their lives together, there’s sexual tension and excitement in the air. A wedding – and especially the wedding night – is the beginning of a new life. The crowd feels the adventure and risk. Weddings have long been occasions for spectacle and feasting, but people strain to make them a thrill when the couple will be embarking on nothing new.
I have been repelled over the years at the vows I have heard at otherwise wonderful weddings. It is always a mistake to try to improve the old vows. Almost no one writes as well any more as even the worst writers of 300 years ago. The trouble started with that pesky stuff about honoring and obeying. No modern American wants to promise to obey anybody.
Then there’s the kitchen sink aspect. Couples don’t want the Apaches in the congregation to feel left out, so they throw in some Apache saying or custom. Ditto for the Chinese, the Jews, the atheists, on and on. Then, of course, they don’t want to offend any listeners by a too-froward denominationalism, so they remove most references to God and Jesus, cut any formulae that have been handed down over the centuries. Also, they want it over quick, so no one grows impatient, so they cut the “non-essentials.” The celebrant, if he be a clergyman, is thereby denatured, and with him the celebration.
None of these weddings thus patched together higgledy piggledy ever work. They destroy the philosophical, religious and moral integrity of the ritual, and gut it of all meaning, aside from the sentimental bathos of two people’s love for each other. All that is left is the love. Which is good, and important; but inadequate.
For love is not enough to build a marriage, just as freedom is not enough to build a society. You need structure; you need limits; you need duty-bound commitments to that structure and those limits. In short, you need that humble obedience from which you fled in the first instance when you decided to write your own vows.
When my wife and I were wed, we selected the oldest liturgy we could, changed nothing, memorized our vows. We were married in church, with a choir. The only thing we chose was the music, and every bit of it aside from the opening pavane was liturgical. The effect was that, rather than everything about the ritual being pointed at us, instead it was pointed at God. This included our two lives and our life together as a couple, and then derivatively the lives of all our friends and family who were taken up as participants in our union: the effect of the old integral ritual was to orient everyone in attendance toward the Eternal. Everyone without exception told us it was the most powerful wedding they had ever witnessed. It was Holy Matrimony; so holy that the hairs pricked up at the back of my neck and I felt the room sway and open outward to forever, as is only proper on such occasions. The air was thick with it; so thick, that when we said our vows, we whispered. Everyone heard.
These vanity vows are so revealing of the general crisis in marriage. The wedding day is the moment one bows to form and steps into the superstructure of love, the house that holds past and future generations. These vows are a type of rebellion, a way of saying, “No, we will not participate in the institution. We are just two people innocently in love.”
Kristor is right, rejection of the word “obey” started the downward slide. After that one significant and necessary word was tossed out, the gates were opened for all kinds of improvisation, for Shakespearean sonnets and Buddhist prayers, for homemade poetry and confessional monologues. The rebellion is covered up with lots of pretty gestures and expensive accessories. These vows do not negate the meaning or beauty of all that is taking place. But, there’s an undisguisable emptiness.
Kristor says, “This included our two lives and our life together as a couple, and then derivatively the lives of all our friends and family who were taken up as participants in our union …”
In Ancient Greece, there was a beautiful wedding custom. After the ceremony and feast, the couple and all their guests formed a procession and walked to the couple’s home. The mother of the bride carried a torch that was lit at the family hearth. The torch was used to light the hearth in the newlyweds’ home. There it was to be kept burning continually, a symbol of the presence of invisible others – both living and dead – in the couple’s life. This was the sacred fire of nuptial love. No couple survives as a married union purely on their own or for themselves alone. Every marriage – and every divorce – is a communal event.