Wedding Watcher: On Personal Meaning and Religious Tradition (October 2003)

The title of outsider brands me. Even as a child, I had my own ideas. I announced at the age of three that I didn’t want to be president of the United States. My simple logic said that people like you before but do not like you after you’re in office. Raised Roman Catholic, I promptly stopped going to church upon being confirmed as a teenager. That particular sacrament signals adulthood in the faith, and as an adult I chose to be an honest heathen rather than a hypocrite. I didn’t buy the meaning behind the hoohah, so I stopped going. Also, I was one of the first in my family to graduate from college.

Despite financial pressures, I got loans and scraped up enough money to finish, rather than quit and take a nice job at a bank. That’s not to say family traditions hold no meaning for me. On the contrary, many of these quirks provide comfort in their own logic of love. I believe in rituals, but only if they have meaning to those taking part. So, when I married, I sought my own rituals, symbols, and meaning–much to the chagrin of some family members. Since I write for a living, of course, I wrote my entire wedding ceremony and merely found someone to perform it. I live in Colorado, and marriage laws are not tied to religious rites. You can simply purchase, sign, and hand back a marriage license, and it’s done. No ordained minister needed. Fast-forward a decade into my life as a freelance writer.

For nearly two years, I’ve been the “Vows” columnist for The Denver Post. It’s a human-interest concept that started at The New York Times long ago. When my local newspaper editor wanted to do it here, she turned to me. I’m good at building rapport with people I interview. I’ll ask anyone nearly anything, and, honestly, I love weddings. I enjoy seeing people in their beaming moments. My ideas on God, government, and life may be alternative, but my thoughts on love, I think, are universal.

Working as a journalist requires accuracy, objectivity, and even diversity. I told my editor from the beginning that if I only did expensive, white, Christian weddings that I’d shoot myself. I try to cover people of different cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds. This isn’t news writing, however. It also isn’t society writing. These are regular folk, for the most part, and my job is to tell their stories. So imagine me sitting through at least 26 weddings each year. Imagine me listening to the words people say, the rituals they use to cement a relationship. Imagine me–feminist, independent thinker–hearing religious texts that discuss outdated roles of women in marriage. Imagine my sadness, sometimes watching people go through the motions of a tradition with no personal meaning. Types of weddings Weddings, it seems, fall into four categories: creative, municipal, religious with heart, or religious without heart. Creative weddings often feature stunts or outlandish mechanisms.

In other words, they are so outside tradition that they can be a bit odd. My favorite so far is the couple who met and later married at a bowling alley. The facility didn’t close for the nuptial event, so strangers stopped bowling for a few minutes and watched. The snack bar even announced that someone’s order was ready right in the middle of the ceremony. Now, that’s funny. Sure, creative weddings make good stories, but they also carry an independent spirit that I enjoy. Municipal weddings, on the other hand, can come off a bit institutional, unless you know the story behind them.

On a Friday before a three-day holiday weekend, a photographer from the newspaper and I showed up at a nearby county courthouse. We accosted people who were eloping. One couple met through mutual friends and wanted a simple ceremony. The bride’s young son came along and told me that the time so far with his new stepdad was way better than years spent with his biological father, which was both sad and compelling. Another couple met and dated in high school, went off to their separate lives and found love again on a reunion cruise. They were in their 60s and as giggly as a couple of kids. I often meet couples who are truly devout, and these religious weddings have heart.

Whether Christian, Jewish, or Pagan, this faith-based bond plays large roles in many relationships, and I honor that as best I can by telling the stories I find. As a professional observer of love, I can say it’s sometimes very moving to see people glowing with fervor. The best religious weddings feature a minister who clearly knows the couple and has a long-term relationship with them. The couples truly live their faith, often obeying church rules on premarital sex or cohabitation–a point they make clear during interviews. Surprisingly one of my favorites was a Catholic wedding held at the local cathedral and performed by Denver’s archbishop, who happened to be a longtime friend of the groom.

The ceremony was funny and real and felt fairly modern, while covering all the religious bases at the same time. Trust me, I’ve sat through some bad ceremonies. I once heard a priest talk about the couple’s childhood pets while explaining that animals weren’t enough companionship for man, so god created woman.

At another wedding, the deacon gave marital advice, including “don’t loan friends your car or your wife.” That brings us to the final category of weddings: traditional religious weddings with no heart. Here couples blindly follow rituals, reciting words that they do not whole-heartedly believe. These events usually include a minister and church merely hired for the day.

I watch modern, urban, professional couples stand before a minister who quotes Biblical passages and notes duties of the proper wife. I hear things about the man as head of the house, wife as helpmate, and I squirm. Because I do the interviews in advance of the big day, I know these people. They tell me about their lives, careers, and relationships. They let me listen to their newlywed banter. Together we laugh through their cocktail party stories about how they met or how he proposed. So, it breaks my heart to witness cold traditions masquerading as something meaningful.

Luckily, I know and can share the real story. Tradition of type At all of these weddings, I stand and sit as protocol demands, but I do not pray, sing, or kneel. I’ve certainly sat amid guests shouting out praise, arms raised in passion. Sometimes people want to hold my hand during prayers or shake it in a sign of peace, and I feel goofy. So, as much as possible, I sit off to the side, in the back and alone–not participant, not celebrant, just watcher. I usually tell the couples, “You won’t even know I’m there.” I do get a little misty when an event is clearly infused with personal meaning, be it religious or otherwise.

For the others, I’m sad but also grateful to have the opportunity to listen and write the real stories. Consider it my own tradition through type on the page. Roxanne Hawn is a freelance writer, living in a mountain meadow west of Golden, Colo. In addition to being the Vows columnist for The Denver Post, she writes about lifestyle topics for regional and national magazines.  Roxanne and her husband Tom Hawn.

“Being a professional writer has its advantages, and feeling comfortable crafting my entire wedding ceremony is one of them. I researched wedding structure from a variety of cultures and religious traditions. I then used that framework–at least the parts that made sense to me–to support what we wanted to convey to each other and to our assembled family and friends. “I chose a poem for our ‘reading’ called How Will I Know You? by Meryl Fishman because I liked its message. “Before exchanging vows with my husband, I had our officiant say this: ” ‘Standing before you today, Roxanne and Tom promise not only to seek but to find, not only to find but to accept, not only to accept but to rejoice in all that they discover in each other today and for each day forward.’

“That led into our vows, which were: Today, I become your husband/wife.
I promise to give and to receive,
To speak and to listen,
To inspire and to respond
In all circumstances of our life together.
I pledge you my love and my loyalty,
My strength and my respect
Above all others, forever.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation