Sunday I served as the officiant in the marriage of Robert and Valerie Pnakovich. The final summer Sunday in September was gentle, warm, graced by soft breezes and a benevolent sun with enough white clouds to moderate its heat. Well tended gardens surrounded the gazebo where the ceremony took place.
My background in liturgical planning and presiding leaves me feeling conflicted about the term “officiant.” It feels cold, sterile, officious – something that is located in the logical brain alone. I prefer to consider myself a presider, attending to the ministerial aspects of service through the uplifting of hearts in prayer. That belief is what energized my demeanor throughout Sunday’s marriage rite. I believe that Valerie and Robert experienced something heartful, prayerful and memorable – as did those assembled to witness and participate in the ceremony.
Will You Cause Her Pain? “I May.” Will you Cause Him Pain? “I May.”
Is that your intention? Both: “No”
I began working in earnest with the Robert and Valerie about a month before the wedding. I believe my role as presiding minister is to walk alongside the couple in a consideration of the larger experience of their relationship. We looked at the wedding day as a marker along a larger trajectory of growing love and commitment that began the day they met and which will continue long beyond the wedding day.
Understanding that couples want “real” vows that feel authentic to their experience, I introduced them to the vows from the Celtic Handfasting rite. My daughter Kara introduced me to these rites as she planned her wedding liturgy some time ago. These vows acknowledge the human imperfections that make love challenging and messy, as well as sublime. I call them “shadow and light” vows because they acknowledge that life and relationships carry within them our darker aspects as well as our lighter sides, with the attendant pain and suffering. The light, which is always present, gains real dimension when its absence, darkness, is acknowledged and felt. These vows give voice to our eternal intentions to live through and rise above, to transform that pain, using it to temper and strengthen our hearts and souls. I believe this is the best we can hope to achieve in our human existence. Finally, these vows acknowledge that love is always the power that will drive a soul’s transformation. Valerie and Robert have been a couple for a long time and happily took on the vows as being a real encounter of their own experience and hope for ongoing transformation.
Technically, this is the second wedding at which I have presided. However, I stepped into this role naturally, enthusiastically, ready for the responsibility and desiring to make the entire ceremony meaningful, respectful, joyous, and prayerful for everyone there.
I have been in involved in liturgical prayer and planning for almost thirty years, earning along the way a 2-year certificate in liturgical studies from the Archdiocese of Chicago. Prior to, alongside, and following that formal study, I’ve participated in and planned liturgical rites accompanying almost every key moment in an individual’s life and in the liturgical cycle of the Roman Catholic Church’s annual cycle of life. Baptisms, Communions, Confirmations, Weddings, Ordinations, Chrism Mass at which the holy oils are blessed and priests re-dedicate themselves to their priestly ministry, Installation of a Bishop, the funerals of bishops, priests, nuns and fellow parishioners, the Consecration of a Cathedral Church, Jubilee masses, liturgy of the hours and more.
Will you cause her anger? “I may.” Will you cause him anger? “I may.”
Is that your intention? Both: “No”
Will you take the heat of anger and use it to temper and strengthen this union? Both: We will.
My marriage of 22 years ended in 1996. When I married in 1974, I was barely 20 years old, the oldest of 12 children in a Chicago south side Irish Catholic family, still under the influence of an alcoholic father who threatened me with family exile if we did not do the “right” thing and get married. The “mortal sin” I had committed was having premarital sexual intercourse with the man I was dating. While my coercion into marriage and what followed is another long story for another time, it is important for me to say that countless beautiful events happened in those 22 years, most important among them the births and lives of three beautiful daughters who are now in solid relationships of their own. Further, as I raised Kara, Anna and Eva, I was also raising myself, discovering my gifts for the visual and performing arts, for the literary arts and ultimately channeling all into a deep reverence for the liturgical arts. As I slowly evolved over the decades into the adult self I know myself to be now, the shaky, coercive reality of the marriage’s faulty beginning finally showed the irreparable cracks in a foundation that could not be repaired. Rather than souring me on marriage, instead I developed a keen appreciation for the many couples I knew whose marriages had stood the test of time and trial and whose love grew more radiant with time.
Will you burden him? “I may ” Will you burden her? “I may.”
Will you share each other’s burdens so that your compassionate spirits may grow in this union? Both: “We will”
I left the active practice of Catholicism in 2002. I could no longer bear the disillusionment and real anger I felt toward the church institutional for the abuses it has heaped for centuries on the souls of those weaker and less powerful. Truth be told, I think it resonated with my experience of my father. That the church continues to obfuscate and otherwise protect itself and the abusers is an abomination to me. Its insistence on marginalizing women and preventing them from full membership in all the ministries is too hurtful to me. I can make no sense of the church’s hypocritical practice of welcoming and fully incardinating married priests with families from other Christian denominations, while denying marriage as a possibility for those ordained in the Roman Catholic tradition. (these married priests, by the way, are most often coming to Roman Catholicism because they are rejecting the ordination of women in their original faith practice). The Church, which professes that God’s love is without boundaries, still seeks through its human inadequacies and overweening desire to control, to limit legitimate committed love to being only that which happens between a man and a woman. Love knows no such boundaries. My daughter Anna and her wife Bridget demonstrate that daily.
Though I experienced my separation from the church as akin to an amputation, I knew that I had to remove the source of the disease in order to regain and reassert my spiritual health and well being. But my thirst for meaningful engagement continues. I need to be an active participant in the power of sacred ritual as it takes place in the midst of a community gathered to focus its prayful energies and attention on what is needed for a loving, healing, nurturing community. Love is the divine force in this universe – available to all.
Warming of the Rings
After the reading, I invited the assembly to bless, or “warm” the rings that Robert and Valerie would soon exchange. My daughter Kara also introduced this element to me. Tied with ribbons connecting them to the pillow carried in by the 8 year old ring-bearer during the procession, the rings were passed from person to person throughout the assembly. One by one, individuals and couples took a silent moment, with their hands placed over the rings, imbuing the rings with the energy of their prayerful intention while instrumental music played. During our preparations, I had advised the couple to be seated and turn their intention upon the many who were transmitting their love for them in this act. They did. Though some looked somewhat awkward (understandable when we consider the growing number of persons without any formal faith practice), the majority there embraced the action as a way to be meaningfully involved. When their turn came, I watched one couple stand, hold the pillow between them, their foreheads touching for a poignant moment. Later in the ceremony I would ask the assembly to stand and affirm with the words “we will” their promise to support the couple in their marriage.
After the ceremony many people came to me to express their gratitude for this meaningful ritual. That it engaged their hearts, minds and souls, was wonderful for me to hear.
Will You Dream Together to Create New Shared Realities? “We Will.”
And so, with these experiences and needs for prayerful engagement woven into the fiber of my being, I find myself grateful for the opportunity to use my gifts, to channel my dreams for a new sacred way for people to be together. As I said on Sunday to Valerie and Robert Pnakovich, “I am honored that you entrusted me with the sacred responsibility to facilitate your marriage, in the heart of this community of family and friends. I am better for it. I wish you both continuing, deepening love, ‘together, forever through time and space’.”
As pictures of the ceremony become available, I hope to add those pictures to this very long narrative. Thank you for reading any or all of this personal witness.