Marriage across cultural and ego boundaries

My long-lost-but-recently-reacquired-and-now-we-talk-on-the-phone-for-hours-at-a-time buddy from high school (everyone, wave hi to ) is to be the best man at a cross-cultural (Christian/Hindu) wedding and asked me to help him craft some words to share in honor of the occasion. Being the intellectually inclined, relationally preoccupied person that I am, you can bet I have oodles of books (academic and poetic) on things to do with love. So, I started scouring and found a most enlightening article written on the virtues of, of all things, arranged marriages. It really helped me bring into focus the modern-day struggle between the desire for a marriage to support one’s self-fulfillment and for it to be sacred in the transcendent (as in, “beyond the personal”) sense.

I thought some folks here might also be interested in the ideas gathered from my reading, so I’ve copied my reply to him here. I reprint, without permission, pieces of the aformentioned article from the Spring 2004 edition of Parabola magazine. Copyright CYA: To anyone reading this by way of surfing or random googling, please go get the original text if you want to quote from it. This is a personal blog. So, I quote things to use as springboards for or elements of convergence into my own ideas. This post is open to public comment and criticism because it is likely to be of interest to my friends who don’t have password protected accounts on this blog site.
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Last summer in India, I got a bit of an introduction to the culture by spending time with people, looking at lots of wedding pictures (everyone wants to show you their children’s wedding pictures), and doing a little reading on my own. What struck me most is how spiritual devotion is such an integral element of every day life there. People go to temple multiple times a day. Shrines are in every home and in all sorts of little nooks–seemingly noble (like the gilttering temple on the hill) or mundane (like a little box of a building placed smack in the middle of 4-lane traffic). Basically, temples are built wherever someone had a moment of significant gratitude. No one seems to care if he or she is overheard praying or chanting. Spirituality is right out in the open, and opportunities to give recognition to the interplay and influence of the gods are abundantly available.

At the foundation of Hindu society is the institution of roles. To fulfill one’s station in life to the best of their ability and as an offering to the divine is THE way to live. A brahmin bachelor (one of the intellectual/priestly social caste) has essentially two paths he can follow: that of the ascetic or that of the householder. In fact, part of the brahmin wedding ceremony is for the young man to take a symbolic walk toward a famous pilgrimage center, only to be interrupted by the father of the bride who inspires him with tales of the virtues of married life.

Since all of life is a spiritual endeavor, the marriage ceremony is an acknowledgement of one’s chosen spiritual path and an acceptance of the responsibilities that come with the role of husband or wife. It is considered the most important moment in a man and woman’s life. It is not just the uniting of two individuals but the joining of two families. As the best man or “brother of the groom”, you are essentially accepting the bride’s family as yours and taking a position that you, like all the other family members, will do what is necessary to keep this marriage healthy and these two living up to the divine duties they have embraced.

As a spiritual endeavor, marriage is considered a sacred union and is to be conducted not simply in service of the two individual selves but of the divine. And here’s where I found the aforementioned article (written from the point of view of traditional Judaism) of arranged marriage quite informative.

From “Standing Under the Mountain” by Eliezer Shore:

While loves ebbs and flows, if a marriage is to last it must be tied to something more enduring than personal feelings… Approached this way, marriage becomes one of the primary tools for spiritual growth and for developing the qualities of commitment and responsibility. One must learn to care for one’s spouse despite the latter’s moods or attractiveness (or occasional lack of it), and even when he or she does not fulfill one’s expectations…. The transcendence of self is the necessary prerequesite for any successful marriage….

The Hebrew word that best captures [this approach to life and marriage] is tzedek. While often translated as justice of righteousness, tzedek means dealing with the world in terms of its objective needs, not according to personal benefits…. And a tzadik–an enlightened individual–is one so fully attuned to the needs of individuals and situations around him that his care for them transcends his own personal concerns.

This reflects one of the most important aspects of Jewish spirituality–the union of law and revelation…. [These] are not separate in nature, but two aspects of a single phenomenon…. The mind freed of the self is naturally drawn to actions that heal and repair the world. Judaism has always made this connection. Throughout Jewish history, there has been little dichotomy between the esoteric and the exoteric practice of the tradition…. This implies that true enlightenment is not a matter of transcending morality, but of embodying it. Thus, an enlightened person is not only fully conscious, but “fully conscience”–the embodiment of conscience. For the two are one: inner revelations finds expression in outer actions, and ethical behavior can lead one to inner illumination.

And this is the essence of marriage. It is a day-to-day practice to enlightenment…. While consciousness may leave a person, conscience rarely does. It hangs over one’s head like a mountain pressing upon a person to make amends and to returns to a conscious relationship with one’s spouse and one’s life…. Ultimately, our conscience is what weds us to the present moment. For to truly live in this world, it is necessary to be married to the world. To love the world because it is the face of God, to give to it and be aware of its needs. Not to become angered when it fails one’s expectations nor upset when it contradicts one’s will, but to tend to each situations with love and attention, with justice and compassion, for it holds the presence of God…

[Marriage] requires adjustment, concession, and the endless ability to forgive. And it demands gratuitous love, constant giving, and the relinquishing of expectations…. Real marriage begins when the illusions fade and one comes face to face with one’s spouse…. It means crossing that fine line between what I want and what God wants for me.

Kabbalah teaches that every human relationship is a metaphor for the relationship between human beings and God. This is certainly true of marriage. The Midrash say that at Sinai, a wedding ceremony was held between the Jewish people and God. The Torah was the marraige contract, ministering angels served as bridesmaids, and the mountain itself was suspended over their heads like a wedding canopy. Because this is the essence of marraige–to live under the mountain. to be fully present to another…. For every marriage is a replay of Sinai, a covenant as beinding as that between God and man.

Now, although the author of the above passage was speaking specifically about arranged marriages–an institution most Americans, but not most Hindus, find completely archaic and useless, his point is still relevant to modern marriages. Those of us who have been around the block a few times have learned that falling in love and loving/being loved are two different things. Only after the initial excitement fades, you discover what the relationship is built upon. Historically, marriages have been arranged because they were meant to serve principles that transcend one’s ego concerns. Marriage in this way is envisaged as daily devotion to the discovery of a love beyond a personal one, not simply the idyllic calming of the heaving waves of impetuous infatuation.

Now, if you are, like me, a modern person raised on industrialized world, Western individualism and secure in your belief of your free will and your right to and need for individuation, some of those institutions and principles are a little hard to swallow. And yet there is something of the divine, something “other wordly” that has lifted me up out of myself in romantic relationships. Where else in the course of secular life can something so unpredictable and powerful give us a glimpse of the joy that is possible? How incredibly thrilling to feel a beloved part of something bigger than myself. There’s nothing right or wrong, superior or inferior about our having socially evolved away from traditional institutions and into independently self-expressive beings. It’s just where we are. So, given that, how do we continue to find the desired transcendent element in the outward institution of marriage when all of our temples and rituals have moved inside our psyches? How do we be selfless without losing our sense of selves? Or without falling into the ego trap of the false pride of martyrdom? How does the pain-in-the-ass trouble of waking up next to the same person, with all their annoying quirks, day-in and day-out have anything to do with God or my own self-fulfillment?

Click here for what some less conventional thinkers have to say on the subject.

Now that we’ve heard from the intellectual set. Let’s see what the poets have to say:

The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
This Much I Do Remember by Billy Collins
It Felt Love by Hafiz
Unfolding by Carter Heyward
And just for fun, The Princess Bride

OK, friends, your turn. Any thing you’d like to add or amend? How about those of you that are walking the spiritual path of marriage? What are your vows and intentions? What for you keeps the relationship a living, growing entity that supports both your own ego integrity and your aspirations for transcendence? Spill the beans! Single, enquiring minds want to know.

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