In the preface to "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman wrote that “There soon will be no more priests. Their work is done…A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women.”
For all of his brilliance, Whitman missed the mark by a mile with his prediction. Perhaps, he was unable to see or unwilling to concede that Americans, despite all of their praise of individualism, were firmly in the clutches of organized religion. One hundred and sixty years after the publication of "Leaves of Grass," America is much more secular, but still deeply religious, and quick to conform to the rituals and doctrines of scriptural ideology. While young Americans attend church in far fewer numbers than previous generations, in the loose community of advanced nations, the rate of religious belief among Americans is off the scale.
One of the most boring and persistent questions that the religious use to hound the secular is that which inquires into the possibility of meaning in the absence of a deity. In a self-satisfied state of single-minded arrogance, the clerical inquisitor asks, “Without God, or the liturgical devices of the pre-scientific world, how is one to connect with the transcendent, the inspirational, and the sustenance of the spirit in times riddled with catastrophe and chaos?”
I recently got married in Whitman’s “church of men and women.” There were no prayers. There were no hymns. There was not a priest. There was not any religious iconography on the walls or hanging from the ceiling. There was no mention or endorsement of a force larger than the love between my wife and me, and all of our family and friends who filled the room. We were married not in what Gore Vidal once called a “charnel house,” but a greenhouse conservatory shining from stark rays of the sun, living in the aroma and visual poetry of flowerbeds, and boasting of botanical beauty.
More than sufficient, the ceremony not only enshrined the devotion, commitment and love my wife, Sarah, and I feel for one another, it confirmed the values that helped attune our hearts to a harmonic melody of union. Our aim and aspiration was to make our wedding – the ritual and reception – a tribute to love, and an expression of what we cherish: romance, friendship, literature, music, and the magnificence and mystery of human connection.
Sarah and I walked the aisle together in the nature center, while a close friend of ours, a gifted and spirited singer, songwriter and guitarist, Kev Wright, played an instrumental version of Sarah’s favorite love song – “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young. Kev would perform a beautiful rendition of the same song, with his own evocative voice, during the reception for our first dance.
Instead of Bible verses with little or no relevance to our lives, Sarah and I thought it most resonant to select our favorite passages from literature on love. My friend Tim Hall – a great novelist himself – read my choices. The first was Jim Harrison’s tribute to the elevation a man feels when surrendering his heart to a woman, from the novella “Revenge.” Harrison describes the mysterious power of involuntary movement into a “love trance” – “a state that so ineluctably peels back the senses making them fresh again whatever ages the lovers might be. You see it happening from grade schools to retirement communities: the certainly accidental cohesion of two souls and bodies, often resulting in terror and happiness because so much previously unknown energy is released.”
Even among the secular there is an acknowledgement that a large degree of life transpires without the endorsement of the self. When one falls in love, one is at the mercy of a mystery. The investment of time, emotion, energy, and labor into the fulfillment of that mystery into intimacy can and should create a fortress. It is a fortress that Ernest Hemingway describes so well in his alternative ending to A Farewell To Arms, my second reading choice, which concludes with a steely delineation of love as alliance against threats from the external world: “We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others. We were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.”
Sarah asked her sister Kathleen to read Mary Oliver’s loving description of difference as a “tonic” in romantic relationships. When two people act as architects in the ongoing project to build a life together out of separate worlds, it can strengthen both the singular individuals and the bond they form. As Oliver writes, “The touch of our separate excitements is another of the gifts of our life together.”
The ceremony gained energy and rhythm, while remaining consistent to the theme that Sarah and I worked to project, with a performance of a song I wrote with my friend, Brent James. Brent plays guitar and sings lead vocals, as a charismatic and talented frontman in a Southern Rock and Blues band that Sarah and I both love, the Righteous Hillbillies. For my wedding, I wrote the lyrics to an original song, and Brent composed the music. “Remember Memphis” derives from a vacation, full of joy and promise, that Sarah and I took to America’s capital of rock ‘n’ roll. With the aid of Brent’s powerful voice and musical invention, I attempted to communicate to my bride that through life’s inevitable bruises, no matter where we find ourselves, as long as we have one another, we can recapture the feeling of safety and ecstasy we experienced in Memphis: “When it rains too much / Reach out for my touch / And we’ll clear the skies / Remember Memphis.”
Before we exchanged vows, and publicly committed to one another, our friend and my former teacher, Roger Sullivan – the officiator of our ceremony – privileged us with a message of inspiration, wisdom, and direction. We asked him to perform the ceremony, because we respect and admire him, but we also cherish his friendship. His presence and participation had much more meaning than whatever service a strange and arbitrary “man of the cloth” could provide. Roger is ordained from the “Universal Life Church,” a popular online ordination service, becoming more in practice as millions of millenials opt for irreligious weddings.
In his secular sermon, Roger emphasized sacrifice, conversation, and kindness. In an age when people wonder if young Americans can “rediscover the art of conversation,” Roger joked, “I hope your intercourse is abundant and delightful.” He closed with a poetic explanation and endorsement of the effect love has on those who share it, and those who surround it:
“I believe someone can sense a subtle radiance in the presence of two who have kept the love that they have nurtured from the beginning. They don’t need to demonstrate or wear it on their sleeves. Rather, it is the unmistakable grace and harmony of two people quietly caring for each other. In the spirit of dancers, they move to the same rhythm, lightly touching with an occasional glance or smile. Become like this, and the world sees a spark of passion in your hearts. More importantly, you will remind each other of a distant moment in the past which sealed your love.”
It is often said that love is not visible in the image of two people looking into each others’ eyes, but two people standing next to each other, looking in the same direction. A wedding should not only give public projection of how and why two people join hands, but also what they make the center of their shared gaze. The music, the literature, the message, and the company allowed for the access of our vision. We involved as many friends as possible, from the photographer to the performers, and we tried to invite our family and friends into our love story for a night. The reception took place at the Chicago St. Pub in Joliet, Illinois – an important place, owned by friends, to Sarah and me, and our getting to know each other. She and her sisters, along with my mother, transformed the bar into a bistro, and we selected our favorite food items – from gourmet appetizers to pulled pork sandwiches – to serve as an ongoing feast throughout the evening. We asked Dave Weld and The Imperial Flames, a favorite Chicago-based blues boogie band, to make sure, when the time was right, that the dance floor was jumping. Before they lit up the crowd, our friends Kev and Brent played short, respective acoustic sets of their own music.
Because it is impossible to peer into the future without reflecting on the past, we honored our loved ones – my grandfather and Sarah’s mother – who could not attend the ceremony. We had a memorial candle on a shelf in the bar, and Sarah had a picture of her mother in a locket on her flowers. By the end of the evening, many of our family members and friends told us that it was the most beautiful and enjoyable wedding they have attended. The personalization of the wedding moved people, and Kev explained that he was inspired by it to ask his own wife of many years to have a vow renewal ceremony in similar style. Ceremony and ritual should not only celebrate or mourn. They should guide and inspire. They offer an opportunity for people to join together in communal collaboration to consider the most important ideas and inquiries not subject to scrutiny in the tedium of everyday life, or in the transactions of the market.
Sarah and I hoped to elevate our love, and amplify what we value. It seems we were successful, but in the frenzy and agony that accompanies all wedding planning, we struggled against pressure to conform to the social expectations of mainstream Americana.
We both come from Christian families, and it is easy to understand why differing speculation about the supernatural creates such deadly conflict throughout history and throughout the world. Even in tight-knit, loving families, apostates are subject to scorn; often having to navigate the spoken pressures of conversion and interrogation, along with the worse form of silent tension that fills the room whenever a topic of dispute rises to eye level. The concept of a secular wedding, when Sarah and I first introduced it to certain family members, resulted in confusion. Religious believers, when confronted with new knowledge or alternative interpretations of old topics, often act as if they have just stumbled onto the surreal, rather than maintaining an open mind, and making an effort to learn. Sarah and I had relatives who were no different. My friend Brent, who is white and was raised in the Chicago suburbs, told me that his family reacted with the same chagrin when he and his wife informed them that their North Dakota wedding would take place according to the Lakota-Sioux ways of Native American spirituality. For a nation of self-proclaimed “individualists,” America is tremendously unimaginative in its insistence on conformity to the mainstream.
No one told Sarah and me that we are on a highway to hell, even if some might think it, but some did openly ask how our wedding would meet a standard of seriousness that religion supposedly injects into ceremony. Others wondered how our wedding would have any “meaning” without some invocation of their preferred conception of a creator.
I remember a surprisingly honest moment from my eighth grade home room teacher at the Lutheran school where I studied from kindergarten through junior high. He told the class that religious institutions maintain their relevance in people’s lives by monopolizing the “big moments.” They “hatch them, match them, and dispatch them,” he further explained in a rhythmic reference to baptism, marriage, and funerals.
Those who find it difficult to imagine meaning without religion are likely victims of their own lack of introspection, and refusal to engage with the world on individuated terms. Meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Rather than encouraging each person to inspect the intellect and interrogate the soul to truly discover what can serve as a source of meaning, religion imposes a one-size-fits all template on top of the person. That template provides comfort and consolation, and the risk of losing that comfort and consolation, only to stumble into the dark alone with one’s own thoughts, is what causes many religious people to react with hurt or hostility when family members reject the faith, or desire a secular ceremony.
When I had a conversation with my friend Kev about the temptation to alleviate tension by having some benign religious aspect in the ceremony, he spoke the simple words that Sarah and I maintained as defense until we walked down the aisle: “It is your wedding.” It was our wedding, and it was our responsibility to determine its meaning – not our family’s role, the Pope’s, or anyone else’s.
At the risk of sounding boastful, many of our family members, including the religious ones, told us that the ceremony was one of the most beautiful they had ever seen. It is likely they found it so deeply touching not despite its lack of religiosity, but because of it. A wedding is a human event about human emotion and connection. Religion is like static on the phone line. You can hear the human element, but you have to work harder to decipher it over the noise. Cutting out the static makes the human element louder and clearer.
There wasn’t much of a battle once Sarah and I decided to make that cut – a few uncomfortable conversations, but no threats to boycott the ceremony, no promises of damnation. People looking to have an unconventional wedding should remember that if their families genuinely love and care for them, they will swallow their pride and offer support. The human element, among family and friends, defeats ideology, and when it loses, those who would rather enforce theological doctrine than demonstrate kindness for a loved one, probably don’t deserve invitations in the first place.
The other battlefield Sarah and I had to navigate existed because of a particularly American religion – materialism. The average wedding in America now costs $31,213. The rabid commercialization of American culture, the growth of the wedding industry, and the pressure to conform to materialistic measurements of success have indoctrinated young people to believe it is necessary to spend what could amount to a sizable down payment on a house to get married.
Social and familial expectations for weddings now include the standard banquet hall with the boilerplate dinner, lavish décor, and extravagant trappings meant to give the appearance that television cameras are around every corner capturing the event for “reality” programming. Sarah and I share a strong hatred for the wedding industry. Due to our commitment to resist cheap commercialism of a day that is supposed to honor love, and not consumption, along with our own budgetary constraints, we vowed to spend considerably less on our ceremony and reception. Our total costs fell just under $6,000.
It raised the eyebrows and ire of members of both our families when we explained that we wanted to have our ceremony at an Irish pub. The pub’s owners are friends, and they have run against the suburban wind by making their business a communal institution for original music, visual art openings, and literary readings. Our friends have engineered a connection between good food, strong booze, and support for the arts. Seeing how Sarah and I are aggressively devoted to the pursuit of all three pleasures, the Chicago St. Pub became a headquarters for the construction of our relationship. We also met many friends inside those walls, including Brent and Kev, and we find it impossible to disassociate our love story from that setting.
The labor Sarah, her sisters, and my mother invested into the transformation of the bar into an aesthetic more appropriate for a romantic reception demonstrated the value of sweat equity over transactional promiscuity. The reception had elegance, but it also had authenticity. Materialism in America is about the domination of an image over the internal. Consumer culture convinces people that the image they project is more important than what they think and feel is actually important. The disapproval Sarah and I confronted with our decision to have a simpler ceremony and reception was a result of image insecurity. By the end of the night, after everyone enjoyed the wide variety of food, and danced to the rhythm and blues of Dave Weld and The Imperial Flames, no one seemed stuck on any imagery. The energy in the building was one of palpable, but oddly peaceful ecstasy. The energy emanated from a gathering of genuine people connected only by the voluntary bonds of care, concern, and compassion.
It is my hope that everyone could access such joy, beauty, and uplift when they get married. It order to open the channels of access, they must find the courage to engage in the introspection necessary to discover what gives them meaning. If they find that they genuinely feel that it is liturgical, that’s wonderful for them. If it is not, however, they must have the resolve to conduct their wedding according to their desires, not anyone else’s demands. Norman Mailer said that “love is not a virtue. It is a reward for the only virtue – courage.” Courage is the prerequisite for falling in love, and the accompaniment to honoring love.
As fewer younger people feel the need to attend church, and as more Americans classify themselves as irreligious, the grapple to define the utility and efficacy of weddings will become more strenuous and onerous. Injuries will likely result, and regardless of who wins in each family, someone will feel wounded.
When two people get married, they offer their lives to one another in the belief that their union is not only worthy of protection, but a benefactor of protection to its members. The outside world, full of tragedy and catastrophe, will create disaster and leave piles of wreckage in every life. With the right partner and lover, a person can find the strength and faith to repair and rebuild.
The wedding should empower two people with rough hands and hearts swinging hammers and laying bricks to create a sanctuary against the emotional warfare of the indifferent universe. Christopher Lasch called the family a “haven in a heartless world.” In the prioritization of human decision over religious dogma, and intimacy over imagery, it might be most instructive to reimagine the wedding as the ribbon cutting ceremony for that haven.