Sunday, October 23, 2005

The M Word

It was my f/Friend Kate’s wedding today. As Quaker weddings go, this was a big one – 90 in attendance. The kids were noisy, as kids are at Quaker weddings, and the potluck supper was superb. The families were real troopers too, standing up to sing or read messages, even if it all seemed a little weird to them. They played pass-the-baby and whose-turn-is-it-to-mind-the-squawkers. And throughout it all, we held the whole bunch of them in the Light the best we could.

My mind did wander. I’m not a stellar Quaker. But at one point, I started thinking about marriage itself

It’s a custom that we have in common with most of the world’s people. Yet even though so many have this concept, the word does not have a single meaning.

In some parts of the world, you can be married to more than one person. Whereas in this part of the world, you can’t: not just because of the law, but because the relationship would lack the intimacy that is part of our definition of the word.

In some parts of the world, marriage is a physical and economic bond. In the West, it's a personal and emotional bond.

But even in the West, the way we view marriage isn’t uniform. Some people focus on the noun-ness of the word, and others focus on the verb-ness. This difference creates a big communication barrier.

Noun people think of marriage the way they think of a word like “horse” (has four legs, a mane, a long tail). It’s a thing, a fixed concept. These people would never substitute, say, “donkey” or “ox” even though these animals share many of the same features and functions as “horse” -- because these animals are not “horse.”

Verb people think of marriage the way they think of a more abstract noun like “beast of burden.” It’s the role or function of the word that is central to their understanding of the word. So “horse” or “ox” or “donkey” are all reasonable applications of the word. In fact, any animal that could be fitted to bear a burden could also fit their definition. (Think bunny with a backpack!) To this group, the meaning of marriage is the commitment, rather than the people making the commitment.

My purpose here is not to justify the opposition of noun-people to non-heterosexual marriages, but to offer a way of understanding their perspective. They can’t see what we verb-people mean. By explaining how words can be thought of as nouns or verbs, as concrete, fixed ideas or abstract, process-centred concepts, we may be able to break down the communication barriers.

The marriage I witnessed to today would not even have met a noun-person’s definition of “wedding.” There were no bridesmaids, no groomsmaids, no aisle, no clergy, no hymns, no programs, no vows, no procession. The bride and groom carried in their 7-month-old baby as well as a bouquet, and the groom’s other two children walked with them. The bride’s father sang a song to open and another to close. Some of the children sang songs, some of the adults read messages or prayed aloud. Nothing was polished or rehearsed. The rest was utter stillness.

If you define “wedding” by all those outward trappings and notions, then there was no wedding today. But if you define it by the light in the bride and groom’s eyes, the tears in the eyes of others, in the depth of love in the prayers and songs offered, in the tender passion as the bride sang a song to her man, the circle of joy that surrounded them as they told the world they were henceforth husband and wife, then you will understand me when I say: The Lord of Love passed here today, and bound these two in marriage.


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