Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Ceremony is the Heart of a Wedding

There are as many ways to wed as there are couples.  Personally, I'm a fan of any variety of wedding that truly honors the couple's uniqueness, whether it's a big traditional wedding, a small informal one, or anything in between.  As a celebrant, though, what I'm not a fan of is how buried the actual ceremony can get under other details like the dress, the cake, and all the rest of it.  Those things can be beautiful and meaningful and fun, but are hollow if the ceremony itself is not held as the heart of the wedding.  And this is why the most meaningful weddings are sometimes the simplest.

I have had the great blessing of officiating a variety of wedding ceremonies now, and the ones that stand out most in my mind are those that incorporate words, gestures, family members, and objects of symbolic value in simple but meaningful ways.

Shannon & Rachel's wedding ceremony
Last week, for instance, I got to perform two handfastings.  Both of the couples made their own handfasting cords with materials and colors that were meaningful to them, and both had family members take turns winding the cord around their clasped hands.  The first couple, LisaAnn and Jeremy, were married under a huge cottonwood tree on their property, which we all climbed a hill to get to.  They included LisaAnn's young son in the ceremony by giving him a ring to symbolize his part in creating the new family structure.

Shannon and Rachel had their ceremony in the center of the labyrinth at Adobe & Pines Inn; the entire wedding party and I entered the labyrinth in procession after being smudged with sage by a family member.

Back in March, I officiated Dawn & Tiff's river-themed ceremony.  They wanted to get married on the Rio Grande, and in the couple questionnaire that I have all my couples fill out, they expressed their love of water and nature, especially rivers, so I created a ceremony that honored that.  If you think about it, rivers are, in fact, a wonderful metaphor for a good marriage.  One of the readings I included, written by author James Dillet Freeman, says it well:

Rivers hardly ever run in a straight line.
Rivers are willing to take ten thousand meanders
and enjoy every one
and grow from every one.
When they leave a meander,
they are always more
than when they entered it.
When rivers meet an obstacle,
they do not try to run over it.
They merely go around
but they always get to the other side.
Rivers accept things as they are,
conform to the shape they find the world in,
yet nothing changes things more than rivers.
Rivers move even mountains into the sea.
Rivers hardly ever are in a hurry
yet is there anything more likely
to reach the point it sets out for
than a river?

A marriage really is like the confluence of two great rivers, and the wedding ceremony is the point at which they converge.  And that is why I consider myself fortunate beyond measure to be a wedding celebrant, to stand at that confluence naming, honoring, and blessing, it with my couples.  The couples that I've married always recognize the gift of that moment with each other, but they may never know how very much it is also a gift to me.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why Bother With Ceremonies?

In Western culture by and large, ceremonies are not hugely valued these days.  The only time many people experience ceremonies is in the context of weddings and graduations.   And I don't know about you, but when I think of graduation ceremonies, I don't feel particularly inspired.  In fact, most of the ones I've attended have been downright boring.

We all know life is a journey -
take time to mark the milestones.
With weddings, there is often so much emphasis on external details like the cake, the dress, and the decor, that the ceremony can almost be an afterthought.  Typically, only five percent of the budget is spent on the actual ceremony (including the officiant's fee), even though it is in fact the central - and only crucial - part of a wedding!

Even when a loved one dies, many people nowadays don't see the point in having a funeral.  Much less do folks see the need for things like coming-of-age ceremonies or ceremonies for parents-to-be, new babies, and blessing and dedicating new homes. This de-emphasis on marking the passages of life through ceremonies is largely because fewer and fewer people are involved in a religious body - the traditional source of such ceremonies, of course. 

But I submit that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  A ceremony does not have to be religious to be valuable; in fact, the more it's personalized to the participants' own beliefs and style, the more effective it will be.

What do I mean by "effective"? you might ask.  Well, in the simplest terms, a ceremony, when done right, is a truly transformative experience.  Ceremonies that mark rites of passage can be more than just a symbolic representation of crossing a threshold - they can actually be the experience of crossing that threshold.  In some cases a ceremony is a great preparation for such a crossing, such as the blessing of a mother-to-be; when it comes time to give birth, the mother will actually be better prepared mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.

A ceremony well done, with awareness and intention, is not an empty, superficial gesture.  It is the creation of an elevated - or sacred, if you will - space in which to connect fully with the story of one's own journey, which then, paradoxically perhaps, allows one to leave one chapter of that story behind and move into an unknown new one.  The ceremony creates a safe space for and spotlights that transition, that in-between moment in a way that the participant can surrender to and fully experience its mystery and transformative grace.    


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why I Became a Celebrant

At the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, weddings and funerals became themes in my life.  I have a writing business, and had been blogging for a client whose products are related to estate planning and other end-of-life issues.  In the process of researching these topics, I became more and more aware of (and disturbed by) how deeply in denial our culture seems to be about all things death-related.  I began to feel a strong urge to do something about that, but I knew not what.

Meanwhile, in January 2012 I was asked to write a feature for the Taos News about local wedding officiants.  Interviewing these folks inspired me, and I thought, "What a wonderful vocation - ushering couples across such a joyful threshold of life!"  I have always appreciated the value of ceremonies and rituals, and this spoke deeply to me.

Then, at the beginning of February 2012, my world was rocked by the unexpected death of my brother, and I took on the task of planning and leading his memorial.  I had never done anything remotely like this before, and  I was dismayed to discover very few quality resources were freely available on the Internet.  The poems and readings I found were mostly cheesy and/or bland, and I was horrified that several sites wanted to charge an arm and a leg for very basic resources like funeral program templates.  

After many, many hours of research I managed to put together a meaningful, one-of-a-kind ceremony that truly reflected who my brother was, but the whole process reinforced my growing awareness of the need for change in how funerals and memorials are approached in our culture.

During the time of planning my brother's memorial, I happened to read in a magazine about the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, which trains people to become professional Life-Cycle Celebrants®:  people who create and perform personalized ceremonies with and for people.  It began to dawn on me that this might be my calling.

So many events in recent months had all worked together to form one big twinkling, neon arrow pointing to celebrancy.  It started with writing about wedding officiants, which reaffirmed for me the power of honoring rites of passage.  But the biggest thing, of course, was planning and leading my brother's memorial, which was a deeply moving experience for me.  Many people who attended let me know that they too were moved by the ceremony.  A couple of people (neither of whom I had met before) actually said, "I would want you to do my funeral."  Out of a terrible tragedy came this wonderful gift, for which (though it may sound strange) I will always be extremely grateful to my brother.

And so I enrolled in the Celebrant Institute and spent the next eight months in deep training to become a professional ceremony-maker.  I later was ordained through Universal Life Church in order to perform weddings.  

I feel incredibly blessed and honored that I now get to play such a profound and rewarding role in the world.