Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Matrimonial Musings Part 2

While trying out a new coffee shop this morning, I'm thinking about another, initially under-appreciated element of my wedding: The unity candle.

I've noticed the unity candle has become rather cliché, especially for the more advanced, hipster couples. Mere mention of its antiquity can elicit eye-rolls and condescending snorts. In fact, unity candles have been cliché for so long that the sand ceremony, the new-agey replacement of the unity candle, is also now cliché. Frankly, I considered the sand ceremony to be a terrible replacement. As an illustration, the bride and groom each pouring their colored sand into a single vessel, fell short as a unifying metaphor for me because, technically, it can be reversed. The sand, even if through great difficulty, can be re-separated. It illustrated unity for me about as well as clicking together legos over a Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez song would. But then I realized that the glass vessel contained the sand. Two can always separate, whether in attitude or in geography; but the vessel of commitment and love shows the two working their individuality out together. At this revelation, the metaphor made more sense to me and I gave it my ecclesial blessing. Doubtless, the sand people breathe relief.

Nevertheless, Kristi and I did a unity candle, so it's to be preferred.

I missed the significance of the candle ceremony until I reflected on the nature of some of our own tensions, as well as the tensions I've helped others through over the years. Before all that, let me walk you through the hyper-complexity of the ceremony:

Before the wedding, family or friends light two individual candles, each representing the two individuals getting married. Once the wedding ceremony is underway, the two candles are taken up by the bride and groom to use to light the center candle, the unity candle. Two thus become one. (As an aside, the individual candles are typically tall and thin, and the unity candle is short and fat. I don't know if this is some devious foreshadowing about the eventual physique of married people, but it's not funny.)

It's a beautiful moment when the center flame is created from the distinct individuals. I vaguely remember this moment in our ceremony being as much a statement of our "us-ness" as the other elements in our wedding. It's exciting. But there's a final moment that makes the biggest, albeit subtlest, statement of all. Once the unity candle is lit, the bride and groom are supposed to blow out their individual candles.

Because at one point, and daily if I'm being honest, you have to decide if you're going to be one, or two. You cannot be both.

I and many others have spent the majority of the married life pointing to the beauty of the unity candle's flame, while protecting our individual candle like it's the last light in the galaxy. How many of our arguments, longstanding tensions, hurt feelings and assurances that the other doesn't "get it" anymore can be illustrated by a bride and a groom standing next to a burning unity candle while protecting their own flame with a rigidly cupped hand? In fact, is there anymore terrifying a metaphor than blowing out your self-preferencing, self-protecting bachelorhood with no concrete assurances about the future? Sure, the unity candle is beautiful. That one's easy to light and photograph. But blowing out the isolated, selfish ego in preference of a new found, interdependent whole feels dangerous. Something in our minds fights against it as though our actual life is at stake. It's so terrible a concept that many of us unwittingly spend most of our lives defending our flame against the very one we married.

I've noticed that when I'm being defensive, I'm admitting at least two things:
1. I believe I am dealing with someone trying to snuff me out. True or not, I believe that the other person is a risk to my precious little flame. To the extent I believe this, I do not love my spouse, because you cannot simultaneously love and fear someone.
2. I have an unsurrendered, protection-needy remnant of myself. I say words like "unity", "one", "us", etc. about my marriage. But in reality there are parts of me that I will defend to the death because no one, not even the one I unite with, is allowed behind the bulwark. So, defense assumes unity is only conceptual. What's concrete to me is that I am on my own, and others are in varying degrees, against me.

The more I learn how vitally important vulnerability and risk are in unity, the more I realize that the defensive cupping of my own flame renders me more alone and weaker. In other words, the more I protect myself, the more I work to extinguish what I really wanted in the first place; unmitigated unity and acceptance from another human being.

A couple thoughts.
*Never demand a spouse blow out his/her individual flame. It's frustrating when a person needlessly takes a defensive position against you. But, when you marry a person, you are marrying them with their current state of insecurities and their doubts about the transformative, freeing power of love. Demanding surrender only makes for a good fight. Everybody knows this, but forget they know it at home.
*Don't live in a "1, 2, 3 EXHALE!" mentality. Unity is a stepped process, and demanding to blow your candles out together to lessen personal risk is childish, no matter how reasonable it sounds. You living vulnerably can't be conditional on the other following suit, or their going first or even their agreeing to do it at the same time. You just embrace the risk and serve. Open, free people are attractive. So, live un-defensively, irrespective of the guardedness or freedom of your spouse. Beautiful lives always change things. Fearful ones keeps it all the same.
*If you think you're being attacked, which is a separate idea from whether or not you actually are, the worst thing to do is retaliate. The best thing to do is work from a oneness default, where you and your spouse being unified and on a journey of growth together is a constant assumption. Admit to feeling attacked, not in accusation but in confession of weakness, and think through issues as two people committed to each other's best. It's amazing how easily our minds work via the assumption that the other wants to conquer or subdue us. Assuming that you both are interested in the other first (if even only in theory for the first decade or so, until it sticks) rockets you past the cycles of defensive, sibling-style stalemates. No matter the issue, you tackle it unified, unthreatened and honest.
*Recognize we're all bad at this. We grow up defending ourselves in almost every relationship we've ever had. Proving our worth, justifying our words and actions, and even trying to survive on playgrounds and in boardrooms are all habits we bring into a marriage relationship- one uniquely marked by raw, naked, terrifying vulnerability. Being "bad at this" isn't a disqualifier. It's just a reminder of how unnatural it all quite often feels. It's a reminder to be mutually humble, gentle and connected to others trying to figure out what to do with their candles too.

As I typed the period on that last sentence, a young couple that goes to Crosspointe came up and introduced themselves. They just got engaged and cannot wait to be married. They want to come in for premarital counseling and are looking forward to discussing the details of their simple ceremony. I can't yet be sure, but they look like sand people. I think I can turn them.

Here's hoping they, and the rest of us who decide to marry, learn how to enjoy the short, fat candle. More importantly, here's hoping we all have the faith and courage to blow the tall, skinny ones out.

"...be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but, each of you, to the interests of the others.In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus."                                                                                                         Philippians 2:2-5 NIV

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