It is April, which means we have entered one of the unofficial seasons of the church year: Marriage Season. It begins sometime after Easter, and continues pretty much until Advent. A few months ago, I was covered up in couples working through their pre-marital counseling; now, the church calendar is a stream of weddings — joyful, beautiful people clustering in the narthex, flowers in hand and photographers in tow. They come to the church for a variety of reasons: because it is beautiful, because they want a “traditional wedding,” but always, tucked in there somewhere, because they know that a lifetime commitment to another person is a heck of a thing to promise, and they know they will need God’s help to carry it through.
I have never married, but working with these couples, praying with them, blessing them, being given the opportunity to partake in their joy, has had me reflecting about what we think we are doing when we bind ourselves with vows. I, myself, lead a vowed life: I have stood before an altar twice, once when I was ordained a deacon and then, six months later, when I was ordained a priest, and made promises that I knew, even as I was making them, I could not fully keep. In the Episcopal tradition, we also take vows at our baptism: to accept Christ as our savior; to put all our trust in his grace and love (accepting that we really do need to be redeemed); to follow and obey his teachings. Most of us will not do these things, not all the time. At best, they are promises we strive to live into. The point is that they guide our striving.
Many years ago, the poet Dante began his great epic with these words:Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita. In the middle of the road of our life I found myself in a dark wood wandering because I had marred the direct way.
Anyone who lives more than a few years will find herself in those tangled woods. That is why we take vows. They bind us to our best selves, to the people we hope to able to be in this world. When the pressures and temptations of the world close in, when we are lost, confused, in pain, unable to figure out a way forward, the vows point out the next good step, even if it is a small one. The issue is not whether we will end up in the woods, but whether we will find our way back out, and how.
King David, the king after God’s own heart, found himself there when he abused his royal power by summoning to his bedchamber Bathsheba, the wife of one of his warriors, and then had her husband killed in order to marry her and have a child together. The prophet Nathan came before his throne and asked him to judge a case between a poor man and a rich one, who had stolen the poor man’s only lamb in order to feed a guest. David was appalled and condemned the rich man, who could easily have taken a sheep from his own flock. Nathan replied, “You are the man!” He held David up to the mirror of his own sense of right and wrong, and the king repented in dust and ashes. Nathan acts as a living vow, recalling David to who he really wishes to be, to person he can still become, once he sees himself clearly.
That is the good news in our vows. They guide us home. At the end of the Inferno, when he has wandered through all the domains of the lost, Dante and his guide come upon a hidden cavern concealed in the deepest room of hell. It is a stony path, washed by the waters of a small stream (perhaps our tears), and it climbs slowly back toward the bright world. And climbing and climbing together, frantic to leave behind the terrain of pain and sorrow, the two men emerge through a small round opening, to see, once again the stars.
At the end of all our promises, there is a glimpse of le cose belle che porta ‘l ciel — those things of beauty that heaven bears. Let your vows lead you there.