Thursday, March 18, 2010

Further Negotiations: Fall-ing in Love

People still talk about our wedding: The best party they’d ever been to. The most moving ceremony. (Our prayers, the only part that could be truly individualized within the Rite, were especially moving for some of the guests.) The most enjoyable reception. The most heartfelt and meaningful toasts. A magical night. Fun. Truly an expression of us as a couple.

The Rite of Marriage was observed at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the early afternoon of Halloween. A masked ball, the reception was held that evening on the back lawn of the University of Redlands Alumni House.

My paternal grandparents were already gone; they had died within months of each other in 1993. The extended family all wished they could have been there, even my mother who as the ex-wife of their son and my father, hadn’t spoken to them in a dozen years. My cousin, Kathleen, a good Catholic woman, said she could feel them there at the reception, smiling over us.  I didn’t feel them there, but Kathleen wasn’t the only person who told me they were thinking of Grandma and Grandpa.

(I just felt good, awash in the swirling magic of a romantic evening—Italian lights in the big live oaks around the dance patio and the pergola; paper lanterns in the trees; candle light flickering over everything; champagne and dancing under the warmth of a Southern California autumn night sky.)

The problem with awe-inspiring weddings, priests are fond of reminding congregants, is that couples focus on the wedding and not on the marriage. Catholics speak of discernment a lot. Couples ideally should discern whether to marry one another. Discernment, as far as I have been able to gather, is prayerful decision making. I imagine that a person who is in the process of discerning, prays and meditates and waits for inspiration as to the correct course of action.

A brief perusal of Wikipedia and on-line Catholic Encyclopedia yields this paraphrase: discernment is between those spirits or angels who entreat us to join them in obedience to god’s will and those spirits or angels who entice us to rebel with them against god’s will. Within ourselves, the lower levels of consciousness, of the flesh, growing out of the fall, entice us away from god’s will.

In 1990, several weeks after meeting my husband in the men’s room at a graduation dance (that’s where the keg was being hidden), I was an odalisque on the turquoise Naugahyde sofa of an efficiency hotel room near Northbrook Illinois. My husband and I were staying there, as his mother, a good Catholic woman, would not allow me to spend the night in their home. We had spent the last twenty-four hours in bed. We had seen spots. We had been dazed. We had seen God.  My husband, fleshy and recumbent on the bed, asked me if I wanted to have children. Technically, this was our second date. I said, yes.

That we would marry one another was a foregone conclusion pretty much from the first kiss on. When we met, we spent the remainder of the weekend together.  The morning of the men’s room/keg night, I told my mother that I had met the man I would marry.

Many years later, the year my paternal and beloved grandmother died, my beloved and I were en couchant when I sensed someone standing in the doorway to the bedroom. There was no physical presence there when I looked, but I knew it was my grandmother up near the ceiling. Grandma! I thought fiercely, this is not a good time.  I was mortified. (har har har.) She thought back at me, It’s ok. I like him. He’s a good match. Blessings. Her message wasn’t conveyed in language—more like sending the energy of goodwill with specific intentions. And then she was gone.

That is my experience. It is true. And in it lies the kernel of another conflict I must negotiate. (Catholic teachings acknowledge the existence of souls, the tradition of living humans talking to dead spirits, most notably in our petition of the saints. I see dead people and the Church is cool with me talking to my dead grandma.) No, the problem is that in my metaphysics, flesh and sex and lust and romantic love aren’t an evil to be overcome, but a joy to be celebrated. (Cue up Sly and The Family Stone’s It’s Your Thing.)

Sometime after I wrote my letter to the Bishop, my husband and I met with the parish priest at the Catholic Church in my home town a two hour drive east of Los Angeles.  We were there to take a compatibility test. We took our test booklets, Number 2 pencils and ScanTron bubble sheets into separate rooms, and spent the next forty-five minutes filling in bubbles with graphite in response to questions like “have you ever engaged in sexual activity with a member of your own sex?”

According to the ScanTron test, my answers raised several “red flags”—divorced parents, less than a Kinsey 0 heterosexual, no strong faith tradition.  I am a sucker’s bet as marriage material.  (Maybe the Church screens for perfect 0 heterosexuals and thus has a constituency that is naturally inclined to favor an ahistorical, literal read of the Leviticus dictates? Just a thought.) Our officiating priest sternly told us that the test results did not predict a successful marriage. (My husband denies that this happened: Not to my recollection, he says, in the same tone his mother uses when she says, Oh, I don’t know anything about that, which means, I’d rather not do that and I’m not going to. In his language it means that he will not tolerate a less than romantic version of the story of our courtship, betrothal, and eventual marriage.)

I remember Rich responding that there was nothing the test could tell him about me that he did not already know, and then a pregnant pause while the priest waited for us to change our minds, call the whole thing off, at least postpone.

The priest rubbed his hands on his knees and inhaled deeply.

So, I suppose we should discuss the ceremony, he conceded. Rich told him about how we planned to name our first child Rilke, boy or girl; how we had felt God in our relationship from the beginning; how we are matched as friends, lovers and spirits; how fond we were of Rilke’s Letters on marriage (two bordering solitudes); how he felt he had seen God in the Face of Love I had shown him.  (I’ll have to remind myself to read this paragraph when I’m looking at a table full of cereal bowls no one could be bothered to bus for themselves: He’s not just that annoying guy who leaves his socks everywhere.)

There were lots of questions on the test about whether we were worried about the cost of the wedding, whether we felt the reception was overemphasized. I remember answering no. We had a budget. Sure, we’d overspent a little here and there, but the point of a wedding, we agreed, was the public affirmation of what is essentially private and unknowable—a mystery to outsiders. The wedding wasn’t really for us; it was for our friends and family. The wedding was meant to invite a celebration of that mystery. (Admittedly, the wedding party table was the only one to be served from a bottle of Dom Perignon, and we dispensed with those parts of the tradition we found tedious—no receiving line.) On a purely pragmatic note, I told more than one person, even if you believe marriage is an arcane, outmoded arrangement concerned with inheritance and property rights, it is for those reasons alone that one should marry before breeding, and we were ready to breed. That’s why you “make it legal” or “get married,” right? To fornicate and be fruitful in the context of social, legal and economic stability.            

On a summer afternoon in New England in the early 90s, I officiated the wedding of my friends Mary and Matt. Matt had paid the twenty bucks and done the paperwork for me to become a pastor in a likely evangelical and definitely mail order church.  My homily went something like this: We are gathered to formally acknowledge a marriage that has already been lived in the hearts and bodies of Mary and Matt. There were elaborations, examples, flowery musings on marriage being a vow made in the heart language of a couple and the fruits of its expression being all that others are able to witness. That was the central talking point.         

It is probably because of my husband’s shared belief in such ideology that he feels he can “call” a marriage. Every ceremony we’ve attended, every newlywed couple we’ve encountered—at some point he leans in and whispers, I give it ten months, two years, or simply, This one’s doomed. Or, This one’s a keeper.     

You’re either married in your hearts, or you aren’t and no amount of paperwork, Church or civic, can increase or decrease your commitment to one another or the institution. We all know people who while married, hold in the institution and their partner in contempt. Equally, we all know people who hold the institution in contempt but live together in what for all intents and purposes is a loving marriage for multiple decades. Think of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robins. My husband and I for the first eight years of our relationship.  All the gay men and women of a certain age who met one another before the era of same-sex marriage, and who twenty plus years later are still together.                       

Decisions that grow out of our debased, fleshy nature. Hmm. While I will confess to the sin of gluttony, I have a hard time believing that the fleshy union of my marriage has anything to do with an absence of God or a retreat from God. I have every reason to believe that this relationship was anointed long before the Father at Sacred Heart knew we existed. Not only did Grandma come back from the dead to bestow the blessings of The Universe on our union, she picked her moment.