So I’m not gonna lie, it is not-so-secretly nearly every clergyperson’s hope that s/he will get to perform a wedding with these lines at some point because they’re hilarious. (And if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride and don’t understand this, you now have an assignment for Movie Friday.)
But marriage itself isn’t terribly funny. I myself am unmarried, so everything I have to say about the institution is secondhand. But I do have a lot to say about it; don’t worry, I won’t go into diatribe mode here. I’m also not going anywhere near defining marriage; I believe it should involve no more and no fewer than two entities and that both of those entities should be adult, consenting humans. Beyond that, I myself am still working through how I understand the relationship and do not wish to take this particular platform to start that conversation.
This is another of the sacraments that’s only a sacrament for Catholics (there also known as “holy matrimony”), and I think that shows in many of the ways we talk about marriage as a culture. I’ve watched an awful lot of marriages fail, some pretty spectacularly, in my life. I’ve been to and in an alarming number of weddings. I have quite a storehouse of advice from watching for so many years, but no experience. All that I have is humanity.
The thing about this sacrament is that it means a lot to me as a sacred thing precisely because I am unmarried, precisely because I have only watched it. Our relationship with God is primary, must be primary, in life. But secondary? The spouse. This is a contract of the highest order; legally and morally you are binding yourself to another person. That’s…that’s kind of a big deal. Look at the very language (that, admittedly, is rather out of fashion now, but still often used):
I…take you…to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.
Until death do you part. Is it any wonder that this is considered sacred, a holy rite of the Church, when Death Itself is on the line? And this is a contract through everything—through sickness and poverty and health and wealth and the in-laws and the children and the inability to have children and the new house and the old car and the retirement adjustment and the outrageous habit of never quite closing the refrigerator. Marriage is every day deciding that this person is still the one you choose as spouse.
This is not to say that there are never grounds for divorce. I absolutely believe that some couples should not stay together—again, I have watched some pretty phenomenally dangerous marriages tear themselves to shreds and I rejoice that those people are no longer together. There are people who make us worse versions of ourselves and we should not be married to them. There are also people who tell us that we are worse versions of ourselves, people who control and abuse and torment, and we should not be married to them, either. (As a note of human and slightly pastoral concern, if you are in this secondary kind of relationship, please do not hesitate to seek help. Find a trusted friend around you, find a shelter; you may even leave me a comment here if you wish, as no comments are posted until I review them and post them myself. If you have no one else and get me that message, I promise I will not publish it but will most certainly try to help in whatever way I am able.)
But much of what we file in the overflowingly messy legal drawer of “irreconcilable differences” as we burn our marriage licenses is an exhaustion of relationship. Relating to another is hard. Relating to another with sex involved and money and life and possibly kids and a history is way harder. How can I possibly stand a lifetime with him when he doesn’t understand…? How can I be expected to grow old with her when she doesn’t listen to…?
Yet God calls us to relationship. God is Himself a relational God, living constantly in the Trinity connected to God’s self and also in relationship with us, Her creations. God manifested in human form to further cement the ability to relate, to be connected to us that deeply. So when we stand before God and say I take this man/woman to be my life partner and offer him/her all of who I am, do we say these words in truth? Do we weigh them carefully, knowing the holy space in which we stand with this other and this Other, wrapping ourselves in the words of promise? Do we accept the covenant of deepest relationship with a fellow human, refusing to give up on this pairing of imperfect people?
I do hope so, Reader. And I hope that if I ever stand in that space, I will feel that weight, heavier and more beautiful even than gold.