There are three times in our lives when the presence of love is most profound: first, when we are born - but we do not usually remember much of that; second, when we die - similarly, no memory. The third time is when we commit to love another person for the rest of our lives. In my experience as a wedding celebrant, it is the moment when the couple voice their commitment to each other through their vows, that I experience the blessing of love taking place. I happen to be the fortunate witness close at hand.
When I first address the couple at the beginning of the Ceremony, they are often nervous. Being so public with their love for each other, standing in front of family and friends, is quite challenging. At the end of the Ceremony, having exchanged vows and rings, these two people looking back to me are radiant and transformed. It never fails to touch me. Not only does the blessing reach me, it also touches their loved ones.
The wedding vow is a promise or commitment from the heart. The vows form a foundation for shared devotion throughout the marriage. Like any other agreement, a vow needs to be workable - not so demanding that it is impossible to keep and not so romantic that it has no real substance for the more difficult times in the partnership.
My point of view is that the vows are central to the wedding, and the Ceremony is central to the day. In my first conversation with a couple, I invite them to reflect on their love for each other with a few questions that speak to their hearts. I ask them to discuss the love they have for each other, how their love is special; what is the intention for their marriage. Later, when I listen to them, I am looking for their unique qualities, individually and as a couple, that they express to, and most appreciate in, each other. The word courage comes from the French word “coeur”: heart. To live from the heart is not weak. It takes strength, intention, even at times endurance for a couple to flourish in a healthy partnership. At the same time, it is the loving and sweetness of the spiritual heart that makes the commitment possible. In the heart, we also find light - both in the feelings of levity and joy; and in the ability to see and understand clearly.
As a general rule, daily life is too demanding for most of us to be living from the heart. In preparing for a wedding, a couple has a lot to think about - organizing a guest list, choosing invitations, finding a venue, catering, flowers, photography, videography - the agenda goes on. As the celebrant, I have sometimes been the last to be called upon.
Last summer, I designed and officiated a Ceremony for a high profile couple whose full names were not given to me for fear of unwanted publicity. As is my custom, I asked some quite direct questions to get a clear picture of their backgrounds, motives and love for each other. All of this over a long distance phone call. I was working in the dark. I had been told that the couple wanted a non-religious Ceremony, though some spiritual words and references were acceptable. I do ask questions about ages and cultures of origin because it can be really important to know if there are strong religious traditions in either family; if there are children from previous relationships to be considered; words or phrases they want included or excluded. It is quite personal. When I asked this particular bride her age and the age of her fiance, she responded that she was 19 and he was 72. “That’s fine”, I said. “It would not surprise me to hear that you are 72 and he is 19.” At which point, she laughed and seemed to relax.
As the couple is beginning to reflect on their vows, I begin the process of drawing up a Ceremony draft. The joy of doing this is to be aware of their deepest wishes and to find ways of fulfilling those heartfelt dreams. It is fascinating to me how some couples are very close in a “hand in glove” way. Others lead far more individual lives, but are none the less loving for that. The Ceremony will reflect in its content their intention for their marriage.
“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise, we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” Thomas Merton
The Ceremony usually opens with a musical processional during which the bride walks on the arm of her father, other relative or family friend to the place where the Ceremony is being conducted. She may even come alone. The beauty of the bride as she approaches never fails to inspire me and warm my heart. I can also feel her beauty touching the waiting groom.
After the welcoming words, or sometimes a brief prayer, readings, chosen to reflect the quality of the marriage, may be read by family members or close friends. Symbolic exchanges are also fun and make the wedding distinctive. They could be with roses, water, candles, sands - all ways of expressing the sharing of love in the marriage. Next comes a prelude to the vows, and then the vows themselves.
The bride and groom do not have to remember their words. I invite them to face each other. Starting with the groom, I feed the lines they have prepared, one by one. They can look into each other’s eyes and speak their commitment from the heart, without concerns about memory loss. It is a sweet moment to be with the loving that has just been expressed. Usually, there is a musical interlude between the vows and the ring exchange that follows.
After the ring exchange, there may be a blessing from the families and guests. I love that the Ceremony is not just the bringing together of two individuals but the joining of two families into a new community. This new community brings their happiness to the occasion. Closing words, a final blessing, the declaration that the couple is now husband and wife, and “You may kiss” concludes the Ceremony. When they turn to their guests, their joy is met with applause and smiles.
A musical recessional allows a closer connection with their happiness as the couple walks past the guests.
My role in all of this? It is first to listen carefully to the wishes of the couple and interpret what they want into the Ceremony of their dreams. This is such an honour because I invite them to be open with me and to trust that I will take best care of what they share with me. I love the process of then tailoring the finished product to their satisfaction. It may take weeks or even months - given that they are busy with other elements of the wedding plans – to achieve the finished product.
On the day, everything is in place. The bride and groom feel like friends to me. Above all, I am there to hold the peace so that no matter what happens, everything is perfect. Either bride or groom may feel shy to express tears. But if they come, they are tears of happiness and dry quickly. How often do we get to see deeply into the heart of another person that we love and care for? It is so natural that we are moved when this happens. When I was married in the Church of England in 1987, I was offered a choice of 3 sets of vows. I did not have the possibility to prepare my own. In 2008, things are different. For a life-time commitment, you can now set the scene for the partnership you both want to share.
“You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments when you have really lived are the moments you have done things in the spirit of love.” Henry Drummond
© Anne Naylor 2008