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Wednesday, June 02, 2010


It's a brave, new world. Or, maybe we're just embracing the old one.

I've been contacted by a young couple who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious". It's all the rage these days. You may have noticed.

They are getting married in August and have asked me to officiate but . . . you guessed it . . . they don't want a 'religious' ceremony.

We've had some interesting conversations. What they've decided they want is a 'handfasting' ceremony.

Apparently, it's an ancient tradition, well known in European and Slavic countries, which is now being 'claimed' by many Neopagans and Wiccans.

It's neither Neopagan nor Wiccan. Necessity has always been the Mother of Invention. It's a ceremony that arose from a people much in the same way that 'jumping the broom' arose from the slave quarters in this country.

People have been 'marrying' themselves since before the Wedding Cake. Indeed, it wasn't until the Council of Trent in 1545 that Rome changed the marriage laws to require the presence of a priest.

Interestingly enough, that law did not apply to the churches of the Protestant Reformation, and in Scotland, marriage by consent was recognized until 1939.

The Church is very clear that we are 'witnessing, celebrating and blessing' what the couple do together 'in the sight of God' and the company of the saints, past, present and yet to come.

The prospective Bride has shared with me some of the language of the ceremony she would like to use. The words are very powerful in their simplicity.

Here's a piece of it:
(To the Bride): will you share his laughter?
I will .
(To the Groom): will you share her laughter?
I will .
[To Both] Will both of you look for the brightness in life and the positive in each other?
And so the binding is made. (Drape chord across the couple's hands.)

(To the Groom): might you ever cause her anger?
I might...
Is that your intent?
(To the Bride) might you ever cause him anger?
I might...
Is that your intent?
[To Both] Will you together take the heat of anger and use it to temper the strength of this union?
And so the binding is made. (Drape chord across the couple's hands.)

(The cords are bound together as these words are spoken): Just as your hands are now bound together, so too, are your lives. May you be forever one, sharing in all things, in love and loyalty for all time to come.

As it is, you cannot always be physically joined. (The Hand-fasting Cords are removed, without untying them, and replaced on the altar.) And so, we use the wedding ring to symbolize that connection. It is a constant reminder of the sacred bond shared between a husband and a wife.
There's more - the sharing of burdens, anger, joy, etc.

I don't know for certain, but I suspect that this may be the origin of the term "tying the knot".

While certainly not explicitly, I think the ceremony speaks to some very Christian ideas and notions about vows and promises which we hear, for example, in the hymn St. Patrick's Breastplate.
I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.
The Cyberhymnal has this note: The lyr­ics are a trans­la­tion of a Gael­ic po­em called “St. Pat­rick’s Lor­i­ca,” or breast­plate. (A “lorica” was a mys­tic­al gar­ment that was sup­posed to pro­tect the wear­er from dan­ger and ill­ness, and guar­an­tee ent­ry in­to Hea­ven.)

A 'lorica' reminds me of the 'scapular' - a religious pendant of cloth worn under the clothing, which is usually adorned with the picture of a saint - which we were given as young Roman Catholic children.

I've long forgotten the symbolism of the various colors - red, green, black, white, blue and brown as I recall - but I know from Ms. Conroy's work in Hospice that many people who haven't darkened the door of a church since their Confirmation (or Wedding, or child's Baptism) insist on having a brown scapula because the promise is that if you are wearing one at the time of death, you are promised immediate entrance into heaven.

Actually, here's what a little online research revealed:
According to Catholic tradition, the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Simon Stock at Cambridge, England, on Sunday, 16 July, 1251. In answer to his appeal for help for his oppressed order, she appeared to him with a scapular in her hand and said: "Take, beloved son this scapular of thy order as a badge of my confraternity and for thee and all Carmelites a special sign of grace; whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant".

The Brown Scapular thus carries with it the promise never to die without the opportunity to confess or otherwise achieve forgiveness of sins. It also carries the second promise of being freed from Purgatory on the first Saturday (the day of Mary) after death. Like the rosary, the Brown Scapular has become the badge of the devout Catholic and the true servant of Mary. Any priest can invest a layperson with this scapular.
Well, and there it is, then.

Here's the thing: I don't know if we have much room, as members of an 'organized religion' to criticize what some young people are choosing to reclaim as part of the deep spiritual experience of exchanging vows and promises in marriage.

We can try to dismiss it as 'Wiccan' or 'Neopagan', but it seems to me that the church has always taken what is common - and, sometimes, deemed 'unholy' - and blessed it with the authority - and, therefore 'purity' - of the institutional church.

I mean, is not our Eucharistic liturgy a symbolic, religious, spiritual reclaiming of the Temple ritual of the 'sacrifice of the lamb' for atonement of sins? Which, actually, is a religious, spiritual reclaiming of pagan sacrifice?

Is this not a wee bit of the 'pot calling the kettle beige', as it were?

Mind you, I find the words of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in the Book of Common Prayer beautiful and timeless. It's a ceremony I would like for myself and my Beloved, when that day comes in the not-too-distant future (please, God).

But, this is not my ceremony. It's theirs.

My job is to 'witness and celebrate and bless' the holy union of vows and promises entered into by two people who profess their love and faithful, life-long devotion to each other.

It seems to me that everything else - like the actual words - is just details.

No, this ceremony won't take place in a church.

No, there won't be Eucharist.

In this role, I will be functioning as an agent of the State who happens to be an ordained religious person.

Which is interesting, don't you think?

I mean, they want a 'religious' person to officiate at their 'spiritual but not religious' marriage. I suspect they don't know it - and it's probably a good thing - but my very presence there makes it a 'religious' ceremony.

It's also ironic to me that the word 'religion', can be translated from Latin as "bind".

Modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell favor the derivation from ligare "bind, connect", probably from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re (again) + ligare or "to reconnect."

So, this young couple - like so many, many others - want to be 'bound' together and to each other. Just not to any particular religion.

And, given the track record of most organized religions, who could blame them? More harm has been done - is now being done and probably will be done - in the name of God, or Allah, or Jesus, or Jehovah, or Yahweh than anyone else.

My job, as I see it, is not only to "witness, celebrate and bless" this Holy Union of Marriage, but to be a representative of the goodness and holiness that institutional religion can be.

I am, in the midst of this Binding Ceremony, to be a 'prisoner of hope' - bound to bring all of what's good about the past into the present that it might be carried into the future in the midst of a Most Holy Moment - which is, I think, what this couple is trying to do as well.

At least, that's what I'm going to attempt.

Might I fail?

I might.

Would that be my intent?


But, I promise to take the best of what church is for me - the Incarnate Love of Jesus who bound himself to the cross - and bind it into the love that is shared by these two wonderful, thoughtful, caring, intelligent, spiritual, unintentionally-but-none-the-less religious people.

This is my solemn vow.

In the Name of the One who is Love, who is Lover, who is Beloved. Amen.


Jobove - Reus said...

religion the opium two people

very good blog, congratulations
regard from Reus Catalonia
thank you

Brother David said...

Our spiritual ancestors have been binding the word of God to themselves for millennia; phylacteries.

Nice ceremony.

RevMama said...

I once did a handfasting for a couple, who - like yours - were also “spiritual but not religious.” My mom got me into that one. The groom and his family had grown up next door to my family, and our mothers were still good friends. His mom mentioned to my mom that her son was getting married, but needed someone to do the service. My mom said, “I’m sure Christianne would be glad to do it.” I said, “Gee thanks mom” through gritted teeth. But I agreed to meet with them. And they turned out to be two very fine people with a very good understanding of what marriage is all about and a strong and deep love for each other. I agreed to officiate at their wedding.

They wanted a ceremony without the religious stuff - no mention of God, please. That was a little tough for a girl raised on the BCP - 1928 and 1979. But I found the handfasting ceremony, and they were delighted.

So they married each other and, as you said, the binding was made. Like you, I witnessed, celebrated and blessed their union. And I witnessed to the Holy who is always present with this couple, and who was certainly present at that gathering - invited or not.

Toward the end of the ceremony there was a time for people present to say a few words to or for the couple. The groom’s grandmother, a good German Lutheran woman, stood up and said the Lord’s Prayer. Everyone said “Amen.” So God sneaked in the back door.

And that’s how I married the boy next door - to someone else. I’ve also married the boss’s daughter - both of them.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for visiting from so far away, Té la mà Maria - Reus. Come back again anytime.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dahveed - I had forgotten about phylacteries. Thanks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

RevMama - I'm guessing many more of us have Officiated at sermons like this than we know.

Thanks for sharing your experience. I have no idea what might happen with family members. I feel a bit more prepared.

I've also been thinking that this would be a great model for a commitment ceremony - for LGBT people as well as 'straight' folk. Although, I must say, most LGBT people who want a commitment ceremony want something Very Close to the BCP. Still, it's a good resource to have, methinks.

JimB said...

When I ask folks what they mean by
"spiritual not religious" I find mostly folks who are very put off by what I think of as the fundygelical ideas of Christianity and jihad. They want something in their lives that makes sense not dead bodies. It is a fascinating idea.


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MarkBrunson said...

Okay, let me go ahead and get it over with, as an act of charity for our detractors who are to busy with actual pastoral letters from actual pastoral bishops:

You horrible pagan woman! *foamfoam*

You're the reason Baby Jesus cried! *foamfoam*

If it weren't for your - your . . . pagan ritual nobody in the Middle East, Asia, or Africa would ever die and would ride to their six-figure-income jobs on unicorns who give chocolate milk! *foamfoamfallover*


I've done my good deed for the spiritually-challenged.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Mark. What was I thinking?

Anonymous said...

In my experience, "spiritual but not religious" means the person acknowledges God but does not want to respond to God by being in community with other believers. The person does not want to be asked to teach Sunday school or go to a prayer group or work at the soup kitchen, or even show up for an hour or so on Sunday.
It's been so long since I've been to a church wedding. Lately I've been to weddings at catering halls, or parks. And often there is a quasi-religious officiant, maybe even an instrumental of a familiar hymn.
In this way, the couple can satisfy the relatives (or themselves) that it was a "real" ceremony.
I find it sad.
I write this in the firm belief that the true wedding happens in the hearts of the couple and the ceremony is just an outward affirmation, where you join with your community to ask for support, and to celebrate what you have already decided.
I trust you have invited this couple to church. I hope that your words on that day will will blossom into a desire on their parts to attend.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

We live in 'sure and certain' hope. Sometimes, when they have children, they come back for baptism because "my inlaws insist". They may even come back for "Church School" but not likely. They will be back for funerals.

We have a term for these kinds of folk: "Rice. Water. Dirt."

Anonymous said...

<> Love it!
Seriously, though, having argued about the need for participatin gin a faith community for more years than I care to count, I would like to share this insight: For those coming from a Roman Catholic background, where the state traditionally supported the church, it is natural to expect the church to always "be there" when it is needed. No participation is needed- heck, taxes help fund the church anyway. I understand this mindset, even in American RC's. Although it is flawed, I understand.

However, for protestants, this attitude is destroying our respective churches. Protestants have to get over the anger that the church isn't self-sustaining, and that church is something a priest does for an audience on Sunday...