This summer I was gratified to be asked to officiate my son’s wedding. Now, I don’t know about other clergy, but when I was in parish ministry weddings were my least favorite liturgies. “Give me a funeral any day,” I would say. “Most people at weddings are present only because they feel obligated, and most are just biding their time for the reception anyway.” While I am not proud of that cynicism, it accurately reflected my attitude. So, I wanted to be sure that Ben and Olivia’s wedding was a different matter altogether.
I was just coming off my Mary Magdalene and Conscious Love Wisdom School, so for weeks I had been deeply considering the nature and dynamism of love and its central place in an awakened life. The question that confronted me as I approached the wedding was whether I would simply recycle a more traditional and conventional ceremony or take the risk of enacting a Wisdom ritual that attempted to take into account the deeper dimensions of love. I chose the latter.
There are a few preliminary details that will help to set the stage of what transpired that day. First of all, Ben and Olivia wanted their ceremony to be intimate and spiritual, without being overtly religious. My son Ben is Jewish, and Olivia is Christian, but like so many young people today, neither one is tied to formal or institutional involvement. They also wanted to jettison some of the usual baggage of matrimonial ceremonies, like having bridesmaids and groomsmen. And they wanted to generate something active and participatory that would gather their families and their friends together in an intimate way over a whole weekend. So, they booked a rustic Vermont inn for Friday through Sunday and invited everyone to stay there. There was a beautiful knoll with a babbling brook in the background for the outdoor ritual and a large tent where the reception would be held.
What follows in italics and quotations is the ceremonial that I had written and prepared and which we followed. It is interspersed with process comments and explanations about the ritual text and about what was being transacted at different points along the way. What you will very likely discover here is nothing other than a Wisdom teaching—a Wisdom teaching set within a wedding ritual. How fitting and how effective could this be…? The very positive reactions to the ritual re-enforced my conviction that most people will respond favorably if they are given something of substance. That is what Wisdom delivers.
One large caveat, though. I am not sure of the effectiveness of the words being lifted from what I have written for this wedding service. In the end, the ritual ended up being very powerful because these were my words and, in some sort of way, an extension of my being. If someone else were to speak the very same words, they might have an entirely different effect. What I would suggest, then, for those faced with the task of officiating a marriage ceremony would be that they read the service here and just get a sense of the structure and flow and then that they write their own service in their own words. I know that this is a more laborious process, and, outside of Wisdom’s deeper understanding, this may not make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, I know it is true.
While everyone was seated and waiting on the knoll, Ben and Olivia and both sets of parents met out of sight, a distance apart. The six of us embraced meaningfully. We had all been together there since Wednesday, and together we had found a platform of deep commonality on which to engage each other. My wife Cathy and I first escorted Ben to the canopy and waited as Olivia was then escorted her parents. Following embraces in front of the canopy, Olivia’s parents and Cathy sat down, and we were ready to begin.
Welcome and Intention of Purpose
“Welcome to you—to us—all. Words could never express the enormity of meaning that this day has for Ben and Olivia, but also for Cathy and me, for Chris and Bob, and for the siblings and all the friends and other relatives who are gathered here.
“Today, together, we have work to do. This is not just a pro-forma ceremonial we are superficially reciting today. It is a deep and meaningful ritual that will change the lives of Ben and Olivia and, potentially, of us all. This is a ritual that focuses on the intentional and nurtured connection between two people.”
Here I try to set a tone of real and active participation. It is not nearly enough that these promises be witnessed—as important as that may be. In order for things to be really opened up, the people gathered must fully and actively participate. What is required in this kind of liturgy is opened hearts that are willing to be fully present.
“But this is a connection that unites us all. Underneath the more superficial realities that seem to separate and divide us, there is a unifying force that binds us all— one to another. And when one bond is solidified, it strengthens us all. Perhaps we might all be daring enough to just look around with fresh eyes and an open heart to more intentionally see this reality.”
The reality that we are all connected can be more than a belief; it can be a felt sense and a lived reality. This Wisdom perspective is what I am inviting people into. There will be a reciprocal exchange transacted here, but it will require an intensity of presence from everyone assembled.
“Ben and Olivia, I want you to turn around and look into the faces of those who are gathered here for you. I specifically want you to draw on the love and support of all of us here. This is the context—the seedbed, if you will—within which your love for each other can grow, blossom, and bear fruit.”
If the eyes are the window to the soul, then direct eye contact is how we can connect being-to-being. Earlier, I had prepared Ben and Olivia to take the opportunity to maximize their sense of presence by making intentional eye contact. They did just that and looked deeply into the eyes of their families and friends.
“Let’s all just take a couple of deep and intentional breaths and allow the importance and magnitude of this moment to sink in…”
A pause in the flow of words—even when these words are being offered slowly and emphatically—can intensify a sense of presence. During this pause we could hear the wind through the trees, the gurgling brook just ten feet away, and the throbbing beat of two loving hearts. The resonant vibration of these two hearts would begin to be offered up so that all the hearts present could begin to entrain and to beat to the same vibration…
“On this day of joyous celebration, we give thanks for the gift of marriage and for all of the challenges and blessings it bestows. May Olivia’s and Ben’s ongoing love for each other flow from the promise of this present moment and may their commitment to each other grow and deepen over time so that all who know them might be touched and influenced by their love.”
Prayer in this less conventional setting is more than a spoken message to a distant God. Because of our own present and immediate immersion and participation in the divine flow, prayer becomes our own deepest and most loving intentions made manifest. Can you feel the difference?
Reading of Personal Statements
Here first Ben and then Olivia read the statements to each other that they had prepared ahead of time. The declarations of their intentions and feelings were read slowly and clearly, with each of them looking directly into each other’s eyes and the eyes of those assembled. Because they were so personal, I will not include them here, but I will tell you that they were delivered through many tears as well as some unexpected laughter.
But that was not quite enough. Families and friends also needed the opportunity to express themselves in a similar way. While we obviously couldn’t give every individual the chance to speak, I addressed them all, and they responded enthusiastically.
“Now to you, the family and friends of Ben and Olivia: Your presence here is so vitally important. The future of their home together depends, in part, on your ongoing love and support. Through your thoughts and intention and through your actions, you can strengthen their bond. It is time now for your personal statement. And so, I ask you now, will you give your enduring love and support to Olivia and Ben in their life together?”
“The People: ‘We will.’”
To understand the dynamics of what is being transacted here, it is essential that everyone be pretty much on the same page in terms of intuiting the nature of love. But both in our religious traditions and certainly in our culture, we are guided by some very specific and limiting myths. I took it upon myself in the following remarks to try to suggest a deeper understanding that might supplant these misunderstandings. This, you may recognize, becomes a Wisdom teaching. But this can be risky, since no one likes a tone that is demeaning or preachy. I only knew that the usual insipid platitudes about love would not be enough to get us out of the tighter orbit of the culture’s gravitational pull. And so, I stepped out on the end of a limb…
My Remarks: The Nature of Love
“I have boldly suggested that this is ritual can change the lives of Ben and Olivia and, potentially, the lives of us all. That is because it might be a potent reminder of the central force that holds all life together. It affords the opportunity for us all to realign our lives with the fundamental purpose for which we have been born. Of course, I am speaking of ‘love.’
“Mistaking love as a special emotion, we in our culture miss the force of its deeper power. When we put the emphasis on finding just the right partner who will give us what we most need and desire, we misunderstand the direction of love’s trajectory and overlook our own responsibility.”
Right out of the gate I wanted here to present a deeper and vaster understanding of love’s power, and I wanted also to name the culture’s misunderstanding.
“But don’t get me wrong—a committed and intimate relationship can be a royal road to spiritual transformation and abiding happiness, but we just have to get the direction right. More than getting something from the other, it’s about giving what is deepest within us—giving freely and unreservedly to the other. Love’s power is unlocked when we choose to give to the other that which they most deeply need. And surprisingly and quite paradoxically, it is that giving that deeply gifts us and allows us to fulfill the fullness of our own unique individuality. It is, then, the daily practice of laying down oneself for the other—exchanging self for other—that a deeper channel is carved in the heart. And by this deeper heart-knowing we know that we belong to the world and that the world belongs to us.
“This can best be realized through generous self-giving. It is less likely to be accomplished through duty, convention, keeping score, or one-sided gratification. It is in this sense that the institutionalization of marriage, while undoubtedly necessary, can at best only outline its external form. Its inner truth lies deeper down.”
Thus, a juxtaposition of the different interpretations of love is presented, hopefully without putting down our culture’s understandings. It’s not that they are bad or wrong; it’s just that they don’t take us deep enough. Here, I am offering an invitation that we drop down to this deeper level.
“This afternoon we are witnessing the promises to each other of two remarkable human beings. Granted, I cannot claim any sense of objectivity here, but I am quite confident that this is true. And what I am also pretty sure of is that what is being transacted here will deeply affect the future.”
You can probably see where I am going here. There is work to be done, and love provides both the means and the end of this work. And I cannot help but state the challenging context within which this present work must be done.
“But I am not just referring to your future, Ben and Olivia, though that will surely be included. I am actually suggesting something bigger—the future of life on this planet. It will take remarkable people like the two of you and your commitment to each other to help to steer our course away from some of the magnetism that greed, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness seem to currently hold sway.”
Did I get too political? I don’t think so. The state of our country and our world is the elephant sitting in our living room. I thought that that one statement was sufficient.
But now the strong point needs to be made. This has to do with the purpose, the power, and the influence of love as it may be expressed in an awakened life. As I was making this point, I looked out at the people. I could both see and sense that they were following me. I saw tears of recognition and acknowledgment. There was a certain luminosity that was building at this point—a field of openness and warmth was being created. While this may have had something to do with the words that were being spoken, I am sure it was heavily shaped by the open-hearted receptivity on the part of the people assembled. I sensed that a portal was opening…
“Am I suggesting that the kind of sincere self-giving love that is engendered in a committed relationship like this one is going to change the world? Well, yes, I am. Because everything at its root is reciprocally connected and because all the seemingly separate pieces are all integral parts of one unified whole—our actions, and all our interactions, have consequences beyond themselves. It is all of this that points to the gravity of what we are enacting today.”
Here, then, is the final and, perhaps ultimate, point that just begged to be made. This is how the universe is put together, and this is our work in the world. This is why the love between these two incredible people can change the world, and this is why their relationship includes and encompasses us all.
Could all this be heard and internalized by Ben and Olivia’s families and friends as we all came together to celebrate their love? My bet was that it not only could, but that it actually was. Again, I could both see and sense the receptivity. Yes, a portal had been opened. And the capstone of this recognition would come later that evening.
“What can assist you two in this sacred endeavor? You already know what to do. Continue as you have started: Be authentically real and open with each other; listen deeply to each other’s perspectives and points of view; do not be afraid to disagree, but do it openly and with hearts and ears that can actually hear the other’s point of view; work to find the humor in everything; and dance whenever you can. Let your deepest intentions find expression in your actions and trust your own and each other’s deepest knowings. As you continue this path together, your love for each other will overspill its banks and seep out into the world. In this way you will soften some of the world’s current hard-heartedness and close-mindedness.”
Here I turn to some practicalities for negotiating the river of a committed relationship. But I framed this with the articulated recognition that I already see them moving strongly in this direction.
“And for our part, allow us to truly support you. Stay open to receive our love for you. Trust that we will always be there for you.”
We don’t live in a vacuum. We all deeply need each other.
“And now—each in our own way—let us confirm interiorly whatever truth we have heard and can claim in this moment. And rather than merely a mental consent, with a couple more intentional breaths, let us seek to embody and live out these truths…”
So, while this ritual is clearly for Ben and Olivia, is also fundamentally for us all. The opportunity had been given for everyone present to take another, deeper look at our relationships and see how we might realign ourselves with love’s purpose. While too personal to relate in this public writing, I myself had some amazingly direct and intimate conversations in the hours immediately following this service.
Vows — spoken to each other
“I, Ben, take you, Olivia, to be my friend, my love, and my life-long companion. I will respect you, cherish you and love you in sickness and in health, through good times and through hard times, all the days of my life.”
“I, Olivia, take you, Ben, to be my friend, my love, and my life-long companion. I will respect you, cherish you and love you in sickness and in health, through good times and through hard times, all the days of my life.”
Exchange of Rings
The rings are held up and blessed:
“The wedding ring is a symbol of unity—a circle unbroken—without beginning or end. Today Olivia and Ben give and receive these rings as demonstrations of their vows to make their life one, to work at all times to create a life that is whole and unbroken, and to love each other without end. May these rings be worn as signs of love unbroken.”
Ben: “Olivia, I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you.”
Olivia: “Ben, I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you.”
Pronouncement of Marriage
“In the presence of their families and friends, Olivia and Ben have made their sacred promises to each other. They have confirmed their vows by the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings. Therefore, in the presence of this community and by the authority of life itself, I proclaim that Olivia and Ben are now husband and wife.”
“And now, while recognizing the integrity of their relationship as well as opening to the deep connections that unite us all in this field of love, let us raise our hands over this couple in sacred blessing: May your lives open more and more deeply to each other, even as you maintain the dignity and integrity of your own separate individualities. May you be endowed with the courage to be honest even when it is difficult, the forbearance to listen even when the other’s truth is hard to hear, and the graciousness to forgive and to be willing to let go of past hurts and animosities in order to always start anew. May you always be faithful to each other, even as you continue to be faithful to your families and friends. And may we all open to the field of love and mercy in which we are presently standing and living, and may we more truly reflect this love in our relationships with each other and in our care for the world. And now let us all say, ‘Olivia and Ben, we bless you and we love you!’”
Can you see the deeply participatory nature of this ritual? While usually the authority for the pronouncement of marriage and the blessing are given to the priest, I am eager to share this authority with everyone present. Everyone raised their hands in consecrated blessing.
In the end, through conscious and participatory attention, the enactment of this ritual created a field of ripened tenderness. It may not be too much to say that it formed a real foundation for love’s transformation. This could be seen in the faces of everyone present; it was also manifested in the quality of conversations and connections that ensued. Clearly, this was more than “tying the knot” of marriage between two people. It was that, to be sure, but it was also a community’s encounter with the force that holds all of life together—love.
posted August 27, 2018 by Bill Redfield
The Rev. William C. Redfield is an Episcopal priest and a licensed clinical social worker. Ordained in 1976, he spent the first half of his career as a group, family, and individual therapist. At Trinity Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, New York, Bill brought his passion for new forms of “Wisdom” spirituality to fruition, and established “Wisdom House” as an outreach spiritual ministry in the greater community. Retired from parish work after twenty years, Bill has been engaged in full time Wisdom work since 2014 and is the current president of the Northeast Board of Directors.
Bill is currently offering “Wisdom Mentoring,” the confluence of the rivers of psychological work and spiritual work. This work open to anyone seeking to deepen their experience of Wisdom, and for those being called to lead Wisdom practice groups. Wisdom Mentoring is done in person or on the Zoom platform and is aimed at profound transformation—from the inside out. For more information you may contact here at Wisdom’s Work.