Sunday, June 1, 2008

our union is like this...

1 june 08

Our union is like this:
You feel cold
and I reach for a blanket to cover our
shivering feet.

A hunger enters your body,
so I hurry to the garden and start to
dig up potatoes.

You asked for some words of
comfort and counsel,
and I knelt by your side offering you an entire
book as a gift.

One night you suffered so much from the
pain of loneliness that you cried;
and I said, Here’s a rope: tie it around me, and
I will be your companion for life.
after Hafiz

Today was the wedding. It was a beautiful chapel and was full to the rafters with about 100 people. Everyone scurried around telling each other what to do and arranging things for about 45 minutes, and suddenly we just started. Don Andrea, the parish priest, gave some opening remarks and then snuck out the back door leaving the whole thing to me. There were six witnesses, Stefano and Pamela and the choir with all the children of the choir members all gathered in the sanctuary with me. I didn’t have to say much until the Gospel and the homily. By the time I got to that I was already pretty hot, and not just from the humid cloud that has descended on Florence––what the Fiorentini call una cappa––but from the layers of cloth and a little bit of nerves preaching in Italian. After one little mistake in the reading of the Gospel (I was quickly corrected by one of the witnesses at my side), it all went fine. Stefano had helped me write the homily.

I was very touched by the readings that they chose for the wedding. They weren’t so much about marriage as they were about the context of a marriage and particularly about the choice of a way of life, and the context and state of heart necessary for that choice.

The first reading was that marvelous story from the Book of Kings, the same one, which––Stefano and I marveled at––I chose for my solemn vows, God being revealed to Elijah not in the earthquake or in the fire storm or in the thunder but in gentle breeze. There are other translations of this “gentle breeze.” My favorite, even if it is not the most accurate is that of the NRSV: “the sound of sheer silence.” When the time comes for us to choose a way of life, how can we really know what God wants for us? Well, we have to somehow find the voice of God that isn’t always in apparent things, nor in showy things, but is in this gentle breeze, in this sound of sheer silence. The voice of God is revealed and can only really be heard in this sheer silence. Where do we find this silence? Elijah found it in a cave on the mountain. We, too, find it in a cave––the guha, the cave of our heart, the ground of our soul.

Admittedly, this is a rather optimistic view of the human person, that we can find the will of God written in our hearts, but do not the Scriptures confirm it? Jeremiah prophesies, “I will make a new covenant, I will write it on their hearts” and Paul in Romans says, “The word is near us, on our lips and in our hearts.”

They used Psalm 91 as a response: “You will not fear the terrors of the night, nor the arrows that fly by day…” and the letter of John for the second reading (1 Jn 4:16-21), about the “perfect love that casts out all fear.” The Gospel was Matthew (7:21-27), which was again about God not being in the apparent things––“not everyone who calls me, ‘Lord, Lord!’”––and also about “the house built on a rock.” I hope I didn’t stretch too far, but it all fell together in this way: it seems to me that the strongest ties are those between people who are each one “at home” in their own beings, in their own person, not those between people who fear the terrors of life, or the terror of solitude or abandonment. Perfect love casts out all fear because perfect love carries us to ourselves, again, to our guha, to the depths of our own souls, where the voice of God is. And, to put it simply, this is the house built on rock, the rock of our own Being, a house constructed not of fear, not of scarcity, but built of two (or more) complete people standing on the rock of their being.

Stefano wanted to have a reading from the Indian scriptures too and asked me to choose one. I picked that great passage from the Taittiriya Upanishad (1:9) that’s addressed to grihasta–householders:
They must practice virtue: learning and teaching.
Austerity: learning and teaching.
Control of the senses: learning and teaching.
The sacrificial fires must be lit: learning and teaching.
They must welcome guests: learning and teaching.
They must follow correct social conduct: learning and teaching….
I’ve learned along the way, not only from the Bhagavad Gita but also from the practical experience of the many holy lay people I have met––not to mention from so many of us half-hearted and mediocre religious––, that there really is no one way of life higher than another. That’s just an abstract formulation. The Upanishads for the most part address sannyasis, renunciate monks. But right there in the middle of the Taittiriya Upanishad there is this little passage addressed to householders, urging them to not only study, as a monk might, but also to teach. (Both Stefano and Pamela are teachers, so it seemed even more appropriate.) But study what? In order to teach what? Not just the history of art (as Pamela does) nor math and science (as Stefano does). But to learn the art of living a life that stays close to the heart, and to raise others who can follow the same path that one has discovered, to pass on a way of life close to the heart where the voice of God dwells in the deepest part of our beings.

Anyway, that was basically the homily. Then we did the exchange of vows and the blessing of the rings and all that that involved. It all went quite smoothly until just after the Sanctus, when suddenly the lights went out! The couple was standing next to me by now, at my right and my left. It was a little dark in the old church and I asked Stefano to find a lighter to relight the candles, which had also gone out by this time, so I could use them to read by. The candles wouldn’t relight, and so Stefano tried holding the little lighter next to the Sacramentary, which didn’t work at all either. When I turned to him and said, “No, non va––that’s not working,” we both started to laugh. Mind you I was already halfway through the Eucharistic Prayer by this point. I somehow managed to pull it together and we made it through the consecration. Just after I stood back up after lifting up the chalice, the lights suddenly went back on. I smiled and said, “Ah, il mistero della fede––the mystery of faith!” which caused the whole church then to crack up. I continued with the post consecration prayers when suddenly Pamela started to giggle. Luckily it didn’t get much farther than that, but by this point I was bathed in sweat, between the heat, concentration and trying not to laugh. It could have been a disaster, but it wound up being a really joyous celebration.

There is an extra little part of the wedding here in Italy: the civil code and all the legal agreements that marriage involves must be read out loud at the end of the Mass as well, which consists of two different complicated documents. This was done half by me (the easy part) and the rest by a woman in the choir who is a lawyer (all the technical stuff), and then both of them had to be signed four times, first by the priest, then by the couple, and then by all six witnesses (that’s 36 signatures, in case you’re counting), while the whole assembly stands there waiting to applaud the couple by shouting and throwing rice. This is Italian bureaucracy at it’s finest, but no one complained or even looked annoyed. I suppose they are used to it. I’m not entirely sure the whole thing was valid, but it was at least licit.

I’ll write more about the eight course vegetarian meal that followed in a medieval castle in the Chianti region later.