Getting Married

Yesterday afternoon I walked the young couple through their wedding rehearsal. I swear when the wedding is done this evening I really will be on sabbatical.

Now I’m at a point in my life where I only do weddings for members of the congregation, and their close relatives, or people I know and love, and their close relatives. This was a situation where everything came together, connections to the congregation and long time relationships with the family outside of church life. And it was only a week into my sabbatical date. I couldn’t say no.

But I swear this is the last official thing before taking off on sabbatical.

That said, I’m really glad I agreed to do this wedding. This young couple have known each other since High School, kept close through college and then lived together in New York City while launching their adult lives. (Of all the weddings I’ve conducted as best I can recall only two couples did not live together, and I suspect at least one of those couples was lying about the facts. How cultures shift…). Last year they decided to make their relationship official. And what I saw was open eyed-commitment. For me underscored by their wanting “till death do us part” language in the wedding. To my mind this gives them vastly better odds than the various euphemisms currently popular such as to be married “as long as love lasts,” which for me could mean ‘till that first fight.

But what generates this reflection was a moment last evening just ahead of the rehearsal dinner. The young folk were mostly across the room. Jan and I were standing with the old fart club, of which we’ve become charter members. We’ve been married now for about twenty-five years. Our friends the proud parents of the bride have been married about thirty-five years. And the bride’s mother’s parents who were standing with us, as well, married for somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty-five years.

As I looked at this group I saw people who had done something with their marriages. They seemed better people for their commitments to another person than I suspected they would otherwise have been. Of course there’s no guarantee such will be the case. But I’ve known bitter and sour monks as well as bitter and sour marrieds. Takes work and a little luck. In life you pays your money and takes your chances…

I felt I really saw people who could be said to have taken on marriage as a spiritual practice. As a Buddhist I know this hasn’t always been the view of the hierarchs, who for the most part over history have tolerated but also vaguely despised those who marry. On the other hand this vague distaste has led to a broad tolerance. Buddhists in one culture or another have given their blessings to heterosexual monogamy as well as polygamy as well as polyandry. And today, while the Dalai Lama hasn’t been able to bring himself to come aboard, it seems to me the majority of Western Buddhist clerics have been willing to bless same sex unions and in my own beloved Commonwealth of Massachusetts bless same gender weddings.

But for the most part marriage has not been seen as a spiritual practice with as much possibility to it as embracing the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic codes. For those who marry the best deal is to support the monks and nuns and because of that get a propitious rebirth which means deciding that time around to become a monastic.

However I felt I was witnessing among my older friends how marriage really can be a spiritual discipline, a spiritual practice. The young couple getting married this evening seemed to me to be doing everything right, full on straight ahead commitment. And with the others I saw markers along the line of longer and successful marriages.

One reason I see this as an authentic spiritual path is how hard it can be. It may be a bed of roses, but there are plenty of thorns in that bed. And there’s something of the point here (as it were). Commitment and working together to make a life means the sharp edges get rubbed down, or even, occasionally, knocked off. The ego shifts from center stage to being part of something larger.

And every once in while with continued commitment, continued work, and just a little luck, something even deeper may be found.

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  • Berrysmom

    Lovely thoughts, James. When I meet with a couple to plan their wedding, I tell tham that I will insist on vows that promise “forever.” None of this “as long as love will last” baloney. I”m doing a wedding myself this afternoon, for an older couple (67 and 52), both of whom have been married before. It will be just them and me and my husband (and co-minister); among the 8 or 9 guest they originally invited, 2 decided early this week that they couldn’t come after all, and then the groom went into the hospital with congestive heart failure. He’s out now and feeling better, but says this experience made him realize he just wants to get married. So they are, without any guests.This speaks to me of the real intention: being married. I have been lucky that most of the weddings I’ve done have been for serious couples, whether first-timers or more-than-oncers. What I don’t want any part of is “Let’s give a party with a wedding theme.” Feh…Have a lovely evening, and thanks for the inspirational thoughts.

  • Cheryl M

    Hi James, I agree that “being married” is the unmentioned spiritual practice. It has been the greatest enabler in my life and helped me to grow more than my job or friends. The sustained effort to “be” married and sometimes to “stay” married for a lifetime can perhaps be compared to other spiritual practices requiring patience and love. Marriage teaches you a lot of things – how to bite your tounge without making it bleed, how to forgive and be forgiven, and how to build together. I do recommend it.Cheryl