We witnessed my niece’s wedding this weekend in the French countryside.
The wedding was held outdoors at Domain des Evis, a fifteenth-century fortified farmhouse set in the rural landscape of the Perche region, not far from Verneuil-sur-Avre on the Normandy border. The few days before, unseasonable torrential rains poured upon the land, nearly flooding the narrow roads, but a Saturday sun worked its way mightily through dark billowing clouds.
We took our places on benches under the suddenly bright sun and watched the bridesmaids step up the aisle, followed by the bride, arm in arm between her father and her brother. It was a curious blend of old and new, and the secular ceremony, while never mentioning God, spoke of love and commitment and how-we-met. Poems were read and vows exchanged, hearts were touched, and eyes were moist with tears. The wedding reflected the beliefs of the bride and groom, as it surely should, for they are poised on the edge of a dying culture in a France tragically beautiful in its diminished faith.
Later, during the dinner, since they had asked me to speak as my niece’s godmother, I mentioned God who, while not invited to the wedding, was ever-present, loving them anyway:
As godmother I made my own vows for my niece at her baptism, and as her godmother I said a few extra prayers each evening, asking God to bless her. The prayers clearly worked, for she has found her prince charming who is now added to my list of intercessions each evening. And now two families have been united…
Weddings are rites of passage. The philosopher Roger Scruton notes that “rites of passage are the vows that bind generation to generation across the chasm of our appetites.” In this rite of passage we call marriage, family and friends of many generations witness the vows of love between a man and a woman. The vows are made in a public ceremony, before a community that gives assent and approval by their presence. When the bride walks up the aisle, alongside a member or members of her family, the journey through the gathered witnesses reflects her journey from one family into another, as well as the creation of a new family. This is the “giving away” of the bride and as archaic as it may sound in today’s world, it represents a giving over to the groom certain responsibilities, that of loving, protecting, and sheltering the future mother of his children.
The wedding ceremony in our Anglican Book of Common Prayer states that matrimony is a holy estate. Indeed, it is considered one of the seven sacraments, for it is sacred. Matrimony produces life, and all of life is holy, sacred. With marriage comes the blessing of children, and those children will step through their own rites of passage…
I thank my niece and her new husband for sharing this sacred day with us. Love and cherish one another, comfort one another, honor one another. Have and hold one another, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health. Be true to one another…
It is curious, I now reflect, that as the Judeo-Christian roots of Western Civilization shrivel, folks cling to these shadowy memories of faith. They hold on to the symbols and ceremonies that speak truth even though they don’t believe in the author of those truths, he who designed our marvel-ous natures, he who created us to love. For without belief in the source of love, the symbols and ceremonies will wither and disappear. How many generations will it take for nihilism to eclipse Christianity? And how many generations will it take for the religions of death to fill the void left behind?
We are entering a new Dark Age, for we take for granted the inheritance bequeathed by Judaism and Christianity, the values that birthed our culture of freedom. It is this heritage of liberty protected by law, rights birthed by responsibility, marriage and family ordained by sacraments, governance authorized by democracy, that has defined the Western world and has given hope to peoples living in poverty and tyranny. It is this Judeo-Christian culture of the West, planted and watered for millennia, that is envied the world over by refugees, regardless of their own beliefs. Immigrants flood our borders for they understand what and who we are. We all know the Western world is not perfect, for it is shaped by humans, but it is our best and brightest hope for the future and for peace.
So on Saturday we heard good words in this elegant and sweetly beautiful marriage ceremony beneath stone towers and alongside dry moats of medieval stone. We saw love blossom, taking root in the garden of marriage whether the lovers believed in the sacrament or not. Their love was watered by the words and the vows and the faux-rituals. One day they will hopefully bear children so that another generation will water the roots of our culture, if they can remember this day and others like it. Perhaps, in the future, they shall recognize the God who loves them so, reflected in the leaves.
I’m glad I was able to attend the wedding of my sister’s daughter, who I held in my arms the first week of her life. I’m glad I was present to see our two families intertwined, one French and one American. My prayer list is longer, and I rejoice in this binding of generations.