Marriage: Celebrate the courage of love

The wedding day is just the first step and only a small part of the courageous act of marriage.


It was Marge Helprin on the phone. Gaga was Marge's mother and, more importantly, given what was going to happen Saturday, Cecily's grandmother. It was Cecily who dubbed her grandmother "Gaga." It just came out of her as a little girl and it stuck and spread.

Gaga was Anne Margaret Hennigan. In her heyday she was a high-priced personal injury attorney and eventually added her name to "Stuart and Fitsch," making it "Stuart, Fitsch, and Hennigan." When in later life her granddaughter named her anew, the family joked the firm should be renamed "Stuart, Fitsch, and Gaga." After her husband, Al, died and she moved to a condominium in the city, it was suggested she go into the phone book simply under the name Gaga. She handled all this well, and now that she was "at an age beyond counting," she relished it. "I like being known by one name," she would say, "like Garbo."

Gaga had to be picked up because on Saturday, April 25, at 3 p.m. at Sts. Peter and Paul Worship Center, Cecily Margaret Helprin was marrying George Herbert Baxter Winslow. The naming granddaughter was being hitched to a man with four names. That's what the invitation said.

Before I could answer, Marge continued. "Once at the church, she's ours. We'll take her to the reception and get her back. It's just that before the ceremony we're all running around. You live down in the city close to her. It's not an inconvenience, is it?"

Marge paused. What she was not saying was: "Since you are single and have more time on your hands than anyone else, you might as well do something productive and get Gaga." But she was thinking it as she delivered her clincher.

"Besides, she likes you."

Driving Miss Gaga
The doorman at the condominium came to the curb. I rolled down the window and simply said, "Gaga." A few minutes later Anne Margaret Hennigan slid into the front seat, buckled up, and bubbled, "You look smashing, Phil."

"Not too shabby yourself, Gaga."

"They roped you into driving Miss Daisy, didn't they?"

She was sharp as ever, taking the tension out of the ride with one witticism.

"Not roped, Gaga. I'm wantin' to drive ya, I willin' to drive ya, I'm waitin' to drive ya," I said, giving my best imitation of Eliza Doolittle's father in My Fair Lady.

"Gallant," she smiled.

As we were pulling away from the curb, she started. "I was thinking, Phil..."

But not talking. Since Al died there was no one on a daily basis to receive the outpouring of her restless mind. Now we are both strapped in, and it is 45 minutes to Sts. Peter and Paul. I am the fill-in, a temporary, second-rate Al. I don't mind the role at all. In fact, I am honored.

"Marriages either end in divorce or death."

"A morbid thought for a wedding day."

"I thought so too at first, Phil. Then it dawned on me. We struggle to make weddings unreal. We want everything to go just right. One place card lost is a tragedy, a wilted bouquet spoils everything. And some uncle with too many beers will toast, 'May the honeymoon last forever.' All this stuff camouflages the daring of the act. I came to the conclusion this morning, while wiping orange marmalade off the floor, that marrying is an act of courage."

"I seldom think while I am wiping orange marmalade off the floor. I am too worried about my back."

"I'm serious, Phil. These two kids are going to say fearless words. The vows are dynamite, but no one knows it. When I said them, I thought the times it would be hard to be true were the worse, poorer, and sick times. Little did I suspect that good times and rich times could split you apart. And, of course, since Al died, the 'till death do us part' has become real."

She paused for a moment and turned to look out the side window. Then she continued. Her words were slower and more deliberate.

"Achingly real. But it was right there from the beginning. I never gave it much of a thought, but it was right there. One of us would die first. Death would do what better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health could not do. But love cannot help itself. We join ourselves to others, even knowing death will separate us. We stand up to death, two mortals defying death with their love. What's that scripture, 'Set me as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave'?"

"Gaga, have you been reading the Bible?''

She would not be interrupted. "They should make that compulsory reading at all weddings."

"You've become a liturgist, too."

"I've become an old woman with too much time and too much to say."

"But it sounds right—the death and love stuff. I've heard that at wakes in the rural regions of Ireland, people go out into the fields and make love. A way of affirming life. Same idea, I think."

"Who told you that?"

"I read it somewhere."

"Well, you know the Irish. They'll use anything as an excuse."

We both laughed. "I don't think people are ready for you, Gaga."

"Don't patronize me, Phil. They've never been ready for me. But lately, I've been thinking more. No, pondering. I've always been a thinker. Lately, I've been pondering. I've got more time. You need time for pondering."

The first time isn't the first time
cov9805eThe invitation called Sts. Peter and Paul a worship center. This is code for a multipurpose building—Saturday night a party room, Sunday morning a sacred space with the faint scent of beer and wine from the night before. As we pulled into the parking lot, we faced a large, round, nondescript building with a cross on the highest section of the roof.

"Yikes," said Gaga. "The Last Supper in a Pizza Hut. Let's stay in the car for a few moments."

I needed to stretch. I pushed the buttons to lower both the front windows, got out, and walked around to Gaga's side. She looked up at me through the open window, and, out of the blue, she said, "Did you know Cec and Bax—that's what they call him—already went away on vacation together?"

I saw where this was going. "No, and I really don't care."

"I called Marge and asked what the sleeping arrangements were going to be. She told me she didn't know and was afraid to ask."

"Nothing like putting a little guilt on your own daughter."

"That's my role. I knew she would be putting guilt on herself, and so as her mother and Cec's grandmother and in the name of mothers everywhere, I thought I would join in. Do you know how guilt is passed on? From mother to mother to mother till the end of time."

I laughed. "What difference does it make if tonight's not the first time?"

"Oh, the first time won't happen for a couple of years."

She paused, and I stepped back from the car and stared. Finally, I gave in and decided to play the game. Gaga had retired from law more than 15 years ago, but she still loved to parry.

"I don't get it. What do you mean?"

"I spent the first 20 years of my life guarding my virtue and the first four years of my marriage trying to let it slip. I know men don't talk about this stuff, but it was the same for Al. His body could let go all right. It's easier for men. But it took him a long time to release his heart. Then one day, you are there, completely and totally there. And whatever you are doing with your body, it reaches clear through the other person. And then, as my favorite poet said, 'God unties the knot.' That's the first time."

"You didn't learn that in law school."

"Law school is good for some things and not for others," Gaga responded, ever the lawyer chipping away at distinctions.

"Well, I'll pray today at Mass that they have a first time in the near future."

Gaga looked up at me, surprised. "There's not going to be a Mass. Bax is Lutheran. The church doesn't allow him or his family to receive Communion. Cec didn't want to embarrass anyone. So she decided to just have a ceremony."

"See how these Christians love one another."

"Well, at least two of them do. That's a start." Gaga shrugged.

"Let's go inside," I said. "I like looking at the bridesmaids running around in a panic."

As I opened the door to the worship center, there was a gust of wind. Gaga preceded me, her hair swept forward, her dress billowing. She turned and smiled.

"Are you my date, Phil?"

I was seriously overmatched with this lady. I had to find some people my own age.

Lifting the veil
Gaga's children and grandchildren quickly surrounded her. They had a million little things to tell her. Each telling was received with a smile. A florist appeared with a corsage and pinned it on the shoulder of her dress. Her daughter Marge took her hand and led her to the bride's room. The door opened, and she disappeared into her granddaughter's hiding place. How many secret places does Gaga know?

I shook a few hands, chatted with a few folks I had not seen in a while, and found an aisle seat midway up. This building was a lot better on the inside than it was on the outside. It was still decorated from Easter. A large wooden cross with a linen cloth draped over the crossbar was over on the side. The altar was completely banked with lilies. Bright colors were everywhere. A good atmosphere for the beginning of a new life.

People were wandering in, looking a little lost, like seventh-graders at their first dance. Ushers directed them to the correct sidegroom right and bride leftand, before long, the worship center was filled. The organ music changed ever so slightly and everyone became silent. The priest walked out and stood before the altar. He nodded his head and the organ music changed again, this time into a procession march. There is something riveting about watching the procession unfold. Everyone is slowly approaching the sacred space and sacred time.

The ceremony—ring bearer, flower girl, bridesmaids, groomsmen, parents, and groom and bride—began.

There is something riveting about watching the procession unfold. Everyone is slowly approaching the sacred space and sacred time. They are dressed and painted. They have done their best to be radiant. They are clearing a path for Bax who is coming down the aisle with both his parents and for Cec who, with her parents on either arm, is the last to enter. At this moment she is the bearer of the mystery.

Cec is dressed in white, and a veil covers her face below her eyes. Actually, it is more like a scarf, made of some diaphanous white material, covering but not completely hiding her face and hair. It is definitely not normal bridal attire, and a man behind me whispers to his wife, "She's seen Lawrence of Arabia too many times." Every wedding has a cynical onlooker.

When Cec reaches the front and takes Bax's arm, she removes the scarf, turns to him and smiles, her face and hair completely revealed. A teenage boy in front of me mutters, "Oh, wow!" His mother looks over at him. The symbolism has not been lost on him. It has not been lost on me, either.

We may hate to be found out, discovered in a space we have chosen to hide. But we yearn to be known, to reveal ourselves, to find a soul mate to whom we can entrust our secrets, to go naked without fear. It was only after they sinned that Adam and Eve made garments. The need to hide came after the ground of trust had been violated. Ever since, we have been looking for a garden without clothes. Even Jesus left behind his clothes when he rose. Isn't that what that linen cloth over the crossbar is? He is back in the garden. Cec and Bax are trying to follow him there. How much is said by simply lifting the veil!

Two become one
cov9805cThe priest is not a priest. He tells us he is a permanent deacon and his name is Roy. The pastor would love to be here, but he is the pastor of two parishes. Right now he is at the other parish doing a wedding.

No doubt with a Mass. But this is not said.

Roy tells us the clue is in the first prayerCec and Bax are a symbol of Christ and his church and "make no mistake about it. The church is not a building, but the people gathered in the building." He reads the prayer, and then a friend of Cec's reads from the Songs of Songs about love being as strong as death. I crane up to see Gaga. She is way in front of me, sitting in the third row. She is rubbernecking around trying to find me. Even from where I am sitting I can detect an air of smugness. Lawyers love to gloat.

The permanent deacon reads the gospel about two people becoming one and how this joining is what God is all about. Then he begins. He doesn't have a "preacher's voice." His tone is conversational, intimate. He is telling us something that matters to him.

"Lawyers look at marriage as a contract. Psychologists look at marriage as the matching of personalities. Sociologists look at marriage as the blending of families. Today we look at marriage from a spiritual point of view. Cec and Bax are here to celebrate the beginning of how two become one. This is a mystical path, but it is the most real of paths and the one that lasts."

Then he talks about how Christ is present in all of us, the church. He joins us to one another, but we do not lose our individuality or uniqueness. We come together without loss and with a deeper sense of how we are united to each other. He thinks that when we gather around Cec and Bax, we are reminded of this truth. Their love and unity with one another throws a light on everybody's love and unity.

I am not so sure about this, but it is an interesting thing to point out.

"I do not know how two become one, but I know it takes a long time, and today is just a first step."

Has this man been talking to Gaga? cov9805b

"In my own life two experiences have become clear to me. First, we gradually come to see ourselves in the eyes of the one who loves us. We really do not know ourselves very well, and we often refuse to look at stuff in ourselves we do not like. But the one who loves us sees all this and somehow goes beyond it. She or he accepts us in a total fashion, and that makes it possible to accept ourselves. Love makes us relax. And in relaxing we come home to ourselves. The one who loves us lets us be who we are. And then our flaws and mistakes are in a larger context. Someone has wrapped their arms around all of us, and suddenly we can do the same thing.

"A second experience flows out of this first one. We seem more capable of love, more capable of giving ourselves. We no longer just give things or time, we give ourselvesand not just the surface. We give the depth. And we realize this giving is not a losing. It is what we were meant to be all along. The giving is not something we do over above who we are. The giving is who we are. Then it dawns on us. We are two who are one or one who is really two. We are a love that is essentially relational."

He paused.

"I read that in a book."

We gently laugh at this admission.

"But it's true. It may be marriage mysticism, but, I believe, it is what Cec and Bax sense on the deepest level of themselves. The vows and rings and candles all say it. I like to look at the candles after everyone has left the worship center. Cec's mother and Bax's mother lit two candles to begin the ceremony. In a moment Cec and Bax will take a light from both those candles and light a third candle together. All three will shine. The one candle in the middle is born of the two separate candles on the sides. It says it all about how two become one.

"What I believe is that this intimate love of two people overflows. It enters other relationships and energizes them. Ultimately, it is the most enduring way to change community and society. One of the prayers says that Cec and Bax should be 'witnesses to God's love in the world.' That's the big picture. What begins as intimate love blossoms as contribution to the earth. I read that in a book, too. But it is also the hope in all of our hearts.

"My final thought—which is really a prayer for Cec and Bax—comes from a poet who once said, 'Now that I have been married to my wife for 40 years, I know her so well she is a complete mystery to me.' Cec and Bax, may you always be a mystery of love to one another."

The permanent deacon moves away from the pulpit, and the marriage ceremony begins. But I am still with his words.

I never saw marriage as he portrayed it. I don't have a social vision of marriage, and marriage as a mystical path has never occurred to me. For me marriage was always an attempt to ward off the coldness of the world. It was two people circling the wagons. I never liked the cynical remark that it was egotism for two. But marriage always seemed to me to be a members-only club. Could this permanent deacon be right? Was it the place where adult love was learned, a love that ultimately was meant to change the world?

The organ was high and loud. People were clapping. The service was over, concluded while I was pondering. Bax and Cec were smiling and leading us out of the worship center into the bright April sun.

I wanted to follow, but I took the deacon's advice. I stayed behind and gazed at the three candles.

Table three
When I arrived at the reception, there were only a few place cards left. I was seated at table three. This was a little higher than I expected—probably a reward for driving Miss Gaga.

I lined up at the bar, got a martini, and began to mingle. cov9805a

I spotted Gaga across the room. She was sitting at a table and retying her great-granddaughter's sash. The little girl was talking avidly. When the bow was tied, she turned around, put her hands over her mouth, and giggled right in the face of her great-grandmother—who giggled right back.

I walked over to congratulate Gaga on how "love is stronger than death" made it into the ceremony and how one more granddaughter was launched. I never got the chance.

When I got close, she looked up and said, "Don't weddings give you an appetite for life, Phil?"

"I hadn't thought about it," I said.

"Don't think about it. Feel. It's a time for blood, not brains. Why do you think Mary had Jesus make all that wine at Cana? She wanted the feast to continue."

"You are reading the Bible." I had caught her in an act of piety.

"I belong to a Bible-study group at church. I told you I had more time. Seriously, Phil, can't you feel how sacred and connected to the earth this all is?"

"I can, but I keep seeing the risks—high divorce rates, sicknesses, compromises, inconveniences, arguments. The whole catastrophe, as Zorba said."

"You know what the other side of all that is, Phil?"

I had played straight man all day. I saw no reason to stop. "What?"

"Adventure. The adventure of spirit in the flesh."

She sipped her wine. I chugged at my martini.

"I had them put you at table three with me. There will be some interesting people at this table. You'll like them."

"You are not playing matchmaker, are you Gaga?"

"I'm learning from the mother of Jesus. I'm just interested in the wine not failing."

That puzzled me, but I did not get a chance to pursue it. Her great-granddaughter reappeared. "Will you tie my sash again, Gaga? It won't stay tied."

Gaga's arthritic fingers did their work swiftly and the little girl was off and running.

"Do you dance, Phil?"


"Over the years I've noticed most people dance badly. But once the music begins, it is hard to resist."

She finished her glass of wine.

"I'm out of wine, Phil. Will you get me some more?" —

John Shea is the author of numerous books, including The Legend of the Bells and Other Stories (ACTA, 1996) and Gospel Light (Crossroad, 1998). This article originally appeared in the May 1998 issue of U.S. Catholic.

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