Do You Do Marriage Prep?

Recently I ran into someone I had not seen for a number of years. We were getting caught up with each other, asking questions like, “What are you up to these days?” When I explained my work as a wedding officiant and Celebrant, my friend asked a question I frequently get in such conversations. She asked if I was doing any marriage prep or counseling with the couples whose wedding ceremonies I perform. My answer always starts with, “No,” and it often includes lots of explaining.

First let me say that the majority of people with whom I have this conversation are either active Catholics or former Catholics. St. Louis is a very Catholic town! And my work history includes five years of college campus ministry in Catholic institutions and fifteen years of teaching theology at Catholic high schools. So most of these conversations have a Catholic framework and assumptions as a starting point.

For those of you who do not know, to be married in the Catholic church, a couple must meet certain specific requirements, including participation in one of a number of marriage prep activities sponsored by the Catholic church. It could take the form of a couples retreat (not at all like the movie!), a class, a workshop, or a sponsor couple program. One of the hopes for all of these programs is to help the couple take a good look at some of the realities of married life and to assess their own readiness to be married.

In the long run, one goal of these programs is to help couples avoid divorce in later years. Unfortunately, the last time I saw any studies on the subject, it appears that Catholics divorce at about the same rate as the rest of the population. This is not to say that these programs are not helpful to some or even most couples who participate in them. It is simply a suggestion that most current marriage preparation programs in general cannot possibly prepare couples for all of the complexities of married life between two very fallible human beings.

Of course, it isn’t only Catholics who require some sort of marriage prep for couples. There are many churches whose requirements for engaged couples include a minimum number of meetings with a minister or with people specifically involved in ministry to engaged couples.

Celebrants trained by the Celebrant Foundation and Institute do not require counseling, retreats, or workshops of the couples with whom we are planning weddings. Sure, we like to meet with the couple, but usually that meeting is a mutual interview where the couple gets to know us a little and we get to know them a little in an effort to decide if we will be a good match for one another. Once hired by a couple, our work as Celebrants is simply to design and officiate at customized ceremonies which help each couple celebrate their relationship and commitment as they see it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that churches and ministers requiring some kind of marriage prep for engaged couples should change what they are doing. Not at all. I’m simply saying that Celebrants offer an alternative for couples who may prefer not to participate in such programs, and for couples who do not have a particular church affiliation at the time they decide to be married. And isn’t it always nice to have options? I think so.

Changed, Not Taken Away

On their 40th wedding anniversary, Phil and June received a number of gifts from their family and friends. But there was one they particularly liked. It was a cheesy little plaque which simply said, “This marriage was made in heaven – and so were thunder and lightning!” They hung it on a wall in their home for all to see. Surely, anyone who knew them knew just how right-on it was.

After taking an early retirement a few years later, Phil finally had the time he had always longed for to pursue some of his interests and hobbies. As a professional photographer, he had an artistic imagination and a sharp eye for the aesthetic everywhere he looked. One of the things he had more time to look at was their yard. Although he was physically unable to do gardening, he still enjoyed the idea of a beautifully landscaped yard. Every winter and early spring as the gardening catalogues arrived in the mail, he imagined what the yard could look like if they planted this bulb, that shrub, those seeds.

June, though able bodied and energetic, was pursuing interests of her own which did not include spending a lot of time hanging around their house. After thirty plus years at home raising seven children, she was a woman on the go. “Don’t you dare order anything from those catalogues,” she warned him, “unless you are going to plant it yourself!” As far as she was concerned, that was that.

Early that summer, without any warning, Phil died suddenly from an aortic aneurism. After all of the usual rites of gathering family and friends to remember and mourn, June was left with her own private grief. Day by day, she slowly tended to the tasks of trying to make sense of her new life without Phil. As is normal for those early days, weeks, and months of grieving, she had her good days and her bad.

>One day in late October of that same year, a package arrived in the mail from a seed store several states away. Curious, she immediately opened it. What she saw made her cry, then laugh, then shake her fist at Phil’s portrait grinning at her from the bookcase. The package sitting on her dining room table held bulbs and seeds, ordered by Phil that previous spring! It appeared that Phil had gotten the last word.

Or did he? The following spring, on April 21, one of June’s adult daughters called her from Phil’s graveside. It was his birthday, and she had gone to the cemetery to leave flowers there for her dad. When she arrived, she noticed that Phil’s grave was covered with a stunning display of blooming tulips. At first June pretended to be as surprised as her daughter. But she never was a very good liar, and so June proceeded to tell her daughter about the package which had arrived the previous autumn and how she had figured out just what to do with those bulbs Phil had ordered. A few weeks after the package had arrived, she took them to his grave and, after carefully looking around to make sure that no cemetery personnel were watching, June planted those bulbs on Phil’s grave with a triumphal, “Hah! Now who has the last word?”

But just then, after hanging up the phone, June realized that those tulip bulbs had come to mean something far greater to her than just another argument between her and Phil. To June, they had come to symbolize the nature of the change in their relationship. The previous autumn, when she had planted the bulbs, her grief was still raw and intense. What she had planted in the cemetery soil was not just a few bulbs, but with those bulbs all the complicated and mixed feelings that accompanied her grieving Phil’s death after forty-five years of their “thunder and lightning” marriage. What she had harvested six months later was not only the beauty of those tulips but a dawning appreciation for the reality that her relationship with Phil goes on, radically altered by death but not taken away. And, like the tulip that grows from a modest bulb, she could appreciate a beauty in their changed relationship now which she could not possibly have seen last autumn.

And she felt gratitude.

Spiritual But Not Religious?

Something I hear with regularity from couples planning their weddings is that they are “spiritual but not religious.” Apparently, those who feel this way are not just talking to me. This past weekend, PARADE magazine published the results of their national poll on spirituality. In it, 24% of respondents considered themselves to be “spiritual but not religious.”
This can mean different things to different people. Although some people who say this are regular church goers wanting to signal a religious openness to other traditions and beliefs, most people I meet are not regular church attendees. Instead, they either do not currently practice any particular religious traditions, or they have combined practices from a number of different traditions to meet their personal spiritual needs.
Whatever it means to you, the good news is that celebrants trained by the Celebrant Foundation and Institute are ready to work with you on your wedding to create a ceremony that truly reflects your beliefs, whatever they are!

From Control to Celebration

This morning I ran across something written by theologian Matthew Fox which made me think about the small but not insignificant role I see celebrants playing in the world today. Fox said,

We need the courage to leap from one edge to another – from contemplation to compassion; from I to We; from ladder to circle; from climbing to dancing; from control to celebration; from home as nation to home as global village.

Celebrants trained by the Celebrant Foundation and Institute approach each ceremony with a deep respect for the ones who have requested our services. Yes, we have the authority that accompanies training and experience. But an equal or even greater authority belongs to the individual, couple, family, or group for whom we are designing the ceremony. Working together we create a ceremony based on their needs, hopes, desires, and vision, not our own. The image of moving from a ladder model, where the officiant is always right, to a circle model, where the officiant/celebrant collaborates with people to create something meaningful , moves us from I to We; from control to celebration.

When I explain this to people, I am greeted with smiles and nods. So many of us have longed for these types of collaborations in order to celebrate life’s transitions, but we have not known how to do them or where to find them. Celebrants are helping people meet a very real need to create ceremonies to honor what they experience as sacred in their lives.

Sometimes the Best Things Come in Small Packages

Stephen and Christina looked over the list of favorite unity rituals used by many contemporary brides and grooms. They all looked pretty good, but none of the rituals seemed to fit them as well as they would have liked. Then, with a little searching online, they found just what they were looking for: The Wooden Wedding Box.

A tradition which has made its way from Holland to the United States, The Wooden Wedding Box can be a delightful addition to any wedding ceremony. It is about the size of a small tool box, just large enough to hold a bottle of wine, two glasses, and two love letters.

This is how it works: The bride and groom compose a love letter to each other sometime before the wedding day. In the letters they are asked to write about the good qualities of their partner and the reasons they have fallen in love. Then they put the letters into the box either before or during the wedding ceremony, but they are instructed not to show the letter they have written to their partner.

During the wedding ceremony after the rings have been exchanged, the wedding officiant explains to the guests what the box is all about. She or he describes the contents of the box and its purpose. If the couple should find their marriage enduring serious difficulties, before making any irrational decisions they should open the box together, drink a glass of the wine, and then read the letters they have written to one another. Of course the hope is that the couple does not ever encounter such serious difficulties and that they are able to open the box, read the letters, and drink the wine on a big anniversary, perhaps ten, fifteen, or twenty-five years from now!

When the explanation is finished, the couple walks over to the table where the box is waiting for them. There they each take a small nail and take turns hammering the nail into a pre-drilled hole. When finished, the rest of the ceremony continues.

At Stephen and Christina’s wedding, The Wooden Wedding Box Ceremony was acknowleged with smiles and nods of understanding by their guests. It seems that anyone who has ever been married understands the need to take time out now and then to remember and celebrate their love for one another.

If this sounds like a good option for your wedding ceremony, talk with your wedding minister or celebrant. For more information, see .

Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!

OK, maybe an auto museum is not the first place you might think of when imagining your ideal setting for a wedding. It wasn’t the first choice for Beth and Steve, either. But when circumstances arranged themselves in unforeseen ways, the Kemp Auto Museum in Chesterfield was the best choice for their July 11 ceremony and reception.
On gleaming black floors, bathed in dramatic lighting, and surrounded by polished vintage autos, Beth and Steve enthusiastically pledged their love to one another in the company of family and friends. One of the perks they enjoyed by having their ceremony and reception at Kemp was the opportunity to pose for photos in some of the beautiful antiques. As you can see, ViewPlus Photo / Video captured the joy of their special day brilliantly.

The World Is Your Hometown

My husband Rocky and I just returned from the Festival of Nations. This is an annual weekend-long event in Tower Grove Park celebrating the wealth of ideas, cultures and traditions of St. Louis’s immigrants. I dearly love this celebration of the newer members of our community, such as our Bosnian, Vietnamese, and Cajun neighbors; as well as the cultures and traditions which have been a part of our community for more than a hundred years, like the Germans, Irish, and African Americans of St. Louis.

Our main goal when we stopped by the festival was to have some lunch. We made our way down the row of thirty-nine food booths, mouths watering at the difficult decisions to be made between Somalian or Kurdish, Peruvian or Polish, Haitian or Soul Food, and oh so many more options still to come! As we searched for our lunch I was amazed at the numbers of people along the path. We were part of a constantly moving and growing stream of people who came to enjoy the sights, sounds, and flavors of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

Viewing this event with the eyes of a Celebrant, I see an emerging society where people from different backgrounds and cultures will look for meaningful opportunities to share their strengths and to celebrate their rich traditions. This is never truer than when people from different cultures begin to intermarry. Celebrants are trained to make use of rituals from diverse traditions, honoring the heritages of both families whose next generation wants to build a life together.

As I eat my Iranian lentils and rice, I look forward to countless opportunities to co-create wedding ceremonies with couples from rich and varied backgrounds, to celebrate the beauty and joy of their traditions as they join their lives in marriage.

A Treasure Found

Some of the couples I work with choose to personalize their ceremonies by answering a series of questions about their relationship. This enables me to tell their story as a couple during their wedding or commitment ceremony. Each story is distinct, yet they all have something in common. At some point in the relationship, they discovered that they had found someone with whom they want to share love, and someone with whom they are willing to share their whole lives. And they are ready to take the chance that they will be able to live out those lofty marriage or commitment vows for the rest of their lives. No matter how many times I witness this, I find it absolutely stunning!

So, I figure I have one of the best jobs in the world. I have the privilege of learning a couple’s love story and then translating it into the ceremony so that all of their family and friends attending can celebrate that story with them. Each love story is unique, each love story is sacred. What a treasure human beings have found in one another when we commit ourselves to love.

Shall We Dance?

Wedding ceremony = serious business. Wedding reception = fun. Really!?

I have been thinking a little more about that wild and crazy dance entrance for Jill and Kevin’s wedding (see previous blog entry “You Can Dance Right Through Your Life”). I don’t know how hard they worked to put it all together, but one of the things that appeals to me about this dancing bridal party is that they make it look so effortless and like they are having a whole lot of fun. And why not have some fun at the ceremony, rather than saving it all the for the reception?

Something like a dancing entrance procession certainly doesn’t have to take away from the important and sacred event that is taking place in making marriage vows to one another. Marriage is both a serious commitment and an occasion of great joy that two people have decided to join their lives together to create this thing called “couple” and “family.” Isn’t it possible that many of our modern wedding ceremonies could benefit from a few more expressions of joy?

Of course, I realize that not every couple could or would want to have a dancing bridal party entrance for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many people are just too embarrassed to dance! But there are many other ways that you could introduce a little lightness and even playfulness to offer balance to the very serious business of making a lifetime commitment. This could include anything from warming up your guests with a sing-a-long of corny love songs before the ceremony begins, to blowing bubbles as the bride and groom take their walk down the aisle at the end of the ceremony as newlyweds. The possibilities are as endless as your creativity!

If something like this is appealing to you, talk with your celebrant about your interest in lightening up your wedding ceremony. Most will be eager to work with you to create just the right ceremony for you.

You Can Dance Right Through Your Life

A little dancing can go a long way. Like a lot of people, I recently became aware of a video on You Tube of a magnificent wedding ceremony entrance, danced by each and every member of the wedding party of Jill and Kevin. You can find other dancing wedding parties on You Tube, but this one has had so many hits that a little over a week ago the Today Show featured them recreating their dancing entrance live.

Whatever the reason for the video’s broad appeal, bride and groom Jill and Kevin have decided to share some of the positivity they have experienced as a result of their video’s popularity by encouraging viewers to donate to a cause close to their hearts. You can now see their dancing bridal party at While there, the newlyweds ask you to consider donating to the Sheila Wellstone Institute which advocates and organizes efforts to end domestic violence in our communities.

I salute you, Jill and Kevin, as you share your joy with the world wide web and with those in need!

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