This has been a year of weddings. Four of them, and shockingly none involving my family. I have never been to a terrible wedding—all of them have been beautiful and memorable—but the one I want to single out was unique as my first Episcopal wedding since I joined the church in 2008.
Camp Mitchell is a summer camp the Episcopal Church runs in the middle of Arkansas, on top of a mountain named for a Frenchwoman who disguised herself as a cabin boy to explore America with her captain fiancée. He only found out when she got terminally ill. Today, Petit-Jean’s mountain is the high point of what one could describe as “the heavenly country of all the angels and saints,” looking out over a valley of lush plains, farmland, and rivers that glisten in the sun. Jane spent her youthful summers there.
I met Jane and Laura when I found Brent House, the University of Chicago’s Anglican community, as a refuge from the pressures of grad school in 2009. Jane is quieter and will be a doctor. Laura is a gently but firmly outspoken social activist. They are both incredibly nice and became my friends, and in the time I’ve known them they fell in love, moved in together, and now have made this great commitment.
Their wedding was deliberately planned as a communal affair in the spirit of the earliest Christian communities, the ones Luke described where responsibility was shared and all was held in common. When not exploring the wilderness around us, we prepared and cleaned up after meals, set up the mess hall for the reception, and spent hours (well, some of us did) (including me) baking apple pies for the reception. It was a lot to do in 95-degree sunshine, but we did it with unfailing joyfulness.
The ceremony itself was a full Episcopal service, with communion, hymns, and all, held in the Chapel of the Transfiguration overlooking the valley. And our minister Stacy preached a sermon that struck me to the core.
I had ridden down to Arkansas with Stacy, her husband John, and her daughter. Stacy had been a trifle concerned about her sermon, but having heard her preach for years, I assured her, correctly, not to worry. Although I now understand her care over the matter because Stacy addressed what I think is a great spiritual and social question of our age: the question of what Christian marriage is.
Now that same-sex couples have been granted the long-overdue right to marry, the idea that marriage is about physical procreation (more on this distinction in a moment) is out the window. And today, as Stacy has learned from experience, you can marry in a civil ceremony without a church or a blessing and no one will question the validity. Given these facts, why do we still have the religious ceremony for marriage? What makes a Christian marriage?
Stacy described working with one of her mentors in counseling a couple with marital troubles. Her mentor said that they did not have a Christian marriage. Stacy had not been sure what that meant—their problems seemed to be common to all couples—but after the experience of life she understood.
Christian marriage has romantic love as a component. It can produce children. But it is also an act of recognition. All of us are called to do something to serve God, and while these callings are honors, they also can be lonely. Marriage is the result of finding someone whom you recognize will help you achieve more in your calling than you could have alone, and that you can help them achieve more then they could alone. Such a bond requires mutual respect, compromise, and sacrifice. It requires work. But the happiness to be found in love, support, and fulfillment…love above all…are unquestionably greater than such work. Indeed, one of the texts for the ceremony was all of Romans 8, the greatest chapter in the Bible in my opinion, in which Paul declares that no travails or hardships will compare to the everlasting love and blessings of a life lived with faith in Christ. Marriage is a microcosm of this all-encompassing love, and hence it is a sacrament. A sacrament you live every day as spouses.
Hence the ceremony. For in the ceremony, two people declare to the world their intention to live this life, and in turn the world promises to support these intentions and help them grow and stay closer to each other and God.
I intended to publish this piece sooner but am now glad I waited, for on Friday I described much of the above to one of my friends at the Hopleaf. Over our goblets of strong beer, she wrinkled her nose an instant and said something was missing from this description. And what was missing turned out to complete the picture more fully in my mind and soul.
My friend describes faith as a process in which you die before your body passes away….you die to yourself so you can live fully according to the plan and intentions of God. And since marriage is a sacrament in faith, it also requires death, and with that death a spiritual procreation.
In an instant I was reminded of the great Neo-Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, whose work I read in college and so inspired me I wrote poems about it a decade ago. Ficino described love as death, a death in which the selves of both people die and reconstitute themselves into new wholes. You now carry much of your partner, and your partner carries much of you. You will never be the same after a true marriage.
And I believe this in great part because recently some very formidable women have taught me some valuable lessons in empathy. Specifically, you cannot empathize by speaking from your own experience and your own place in the universe; this can produce hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Empathy is acknowledging that the other person has a space, a history, and an inner life that you can know nothing about, and the finest way to empathize is to say that you recognize the place the other person is in.
Marriage, in its commingling of souls, means you will have a threshold in your partner’s place forever.
This is a great and daunting responsibility that carries a risk all its own. I have already witnessed dissolutions, and a conversation I had earlier this year with another good friend rings in my ears…how my friend declared that sometimes you think a person will love you forever and it turns out not to be the case. The pain and heartbreak that lies in that is right now beyond my imagination and fills me with sorrow. Yet despite that real risk, we marry. We may turn out to be like my parents in their 36 years and counting, or like Jane and Laura who had such overwhelming love emanating through the air on that Arkansas mountain.
For Christian marriage, and this marriage is Christian in spirit no matter what you believe or if you believe at all, is a beautiful thing that brightens the world.