This is the second of a two-part article. Daily Episcopalian will return on Monday.
By Donald Schell
My alarm goes off at 5 or 5:30 weekday mornings. I get up quickly to leave my wife sleeping and go downstairs to make us breakfast before our prayers together. Seeing her sleeping as I leave our room, my thoughts are not a rehearsal of promises made long ago. I offer the briefest prayer, “Thank you, Jesus,” and cherish a first moment of wonder at love.
The promises we make at a wedding mark a beginning for faithful love, but the path forward is something else. Walking forward from promise comes in finding the grateful freedom of a path chosen newly each day. That freedom feels truer and readier to suffer if need be than trying to hang tightly to, ‘I gave my word so it’s settled.’
Full disclosure – a long time ago, for a handful of years I tried walking that path the other way, dealing with a mutual failure, confusion, not knowing each other in a first marriage that became, for both of us in its way, a dogged attempt to hang on to the vows.
So when I said wedding vows to Ellen thirty-six years ago, it was my second time saying them. I leaned hard on my own spiritual director and a priest mentor for prayer and counsel to sort out how I could make the promises again. It was additionally heavy in 1975 because I was already ordained. I know only one priest who was divorced and remembered. Remember patterning our lives after Christ? Today the number clergy we know who are divorced and remarried or divorced and now in a same-sex partnership feels comparable to the once married or celibate. But in 1975, at least one good clergy friend and one very close lay friend told me they could not be present to witness my second speaking of those vows because my first marriage had ended in divorce. The friendships weathered that absence - both of them are glad that Ellen’s my wife.
Now I love hearing those vows again at a wedding. It gives me deep pleasure to wonder and hope and dare along with a couple speaking those words to each other and feeling that they mean everything they’re saying even though they know they can’t know what such unreserved commitment will mean for them. I love hearing them, love that moment of beginning, but feel no desire to speak those words to renew the moment.
When Ellen and I got to twenty-five years we threw a bit party and invited family and friends, but we didn’t renew our vows; we asked a good priest friend to pray the nuptial blessing over us again and welcomed the hearty toast of family and friends. To me vows feel like a workable, holy beginning, but we’d traveled on. In time the path becomes clearer and holier even than the wonder of its beginning. Living in faithfulness is all discernment and as those vows come close to saying, it’s full of unknowing.
In the film Of Gods and Men, we watch two terrified monks veer toward losing their faith as they’re itching to flee back to safety in France. Grace overtakes them as they find their old love.
I have a small taste of the clarity of such love emerging for the Trappists in the film when I open my eyes to the wonder of someone I know so well and am still getting to know a third of a century later. I thank God for morning light and another day we can share. So I’m remembering and hoping in the life together the vows launched, but not thinking of the vows.
No, I’m not saying the promises we made don’t matter. They’re pointing somewhere, or better, they’re pointing toward someone. At this Eastertide, I want to come stand by Peter and have Jesus challenge and question me too. Rumi supplies the music as Jesus asks me, you, and us again, ‘Do you love me?’
“Come, come whoever you are, worshiper, wanderer, lover of leaving, ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows as thousand times, come, come again, come.”
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.