As a first post it seems very appropriate to reflect on the recent big event in my life, my husband and I celebrating our marriage. I had promised to write about the point of going to Quaker Meeting, but that can go on the back burner for the moment.
I’ll being with a quote from Ecclesiastes: I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. [1:14].
What a jolly quote in a post about marriage. The author of Ecclesiastes, named the Teacher, meditates on the futility of existence. Where is the place for meaninglessness in marriage, one of life’s most meaningful experiences? Well, let me explain…
To bless or not to bless
At the beginning of the month the Church of England issued a report refusing to publicly bless same-sex unions. This caused two reactions within me. The first was sadness at the continuing wrangling and discord within the C of E. The second was hilarity! Coincidentally, at the beginning of the month, I married my partner. He happens to be the same sex as me. The idea of clergy withholding a blessing from us was laughable. Everyone present at our marriage celebration can testify to the blessedness of the occasion, a weekend overflowing with goodness. Jesus came to bring abundant life and life that day was certainly abundant. At the beginning of our ceremony, a dear Quaker friend read the words of George Fox:
For the right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priest’s or magistrate’s – for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s – and therefore Friends cannot consent that they should join them together: for we marry none it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.
We do not marry, we recognise what is already there. We recognise the sincerity and sacredness of the relationship. I think that in it’s truest sense, this is what happens when we bless. Meals within Judaism are preceded by a berakhah. God is blessed as the King of the Universe and the source of all blessing. God is King of the Universe whether we bless God or not, but the acknowledging of it is important and heightens the awareness and mindfulness of the bless-er.
A problem arises when we see blessing as conferring some Divine property. When we choose to bless one thing but not the other it becomes about drawing lines in the sand, building a wall that divides us into sheep and goats, the worthy and unworthy. On the day of our marriage celebration I was totally overwhelmed. In searching for words to express how I felt, to say I felt blessed seemed inadequate. To me it suggested that I had earned it, or I deserved it. The joyful extravagance we experienced was of such proportions that it couldn’t be balanced against our own achievements. I settled on the word graced. I felt graced, totally undeserving of the love lavished on me. Grace is by its nature a gift, free from any sense of ‘just deserts’. It is not a case of cause and effect. We find the experience to be deeply meaningful, but in relation to our own efforts we find it to be meaningless.
A pattern-seeking organism
Please allow me a quick digression into a little music psychology. The brain is a pattern-seeking organism. We yearn to find order in the storm of data constantly bombarding our senses. We only hear sound as music if we can superimpose a pattern onto the noise. Music that is unfamiliar, such as from a different culture, or purposely disorientating and freeform, as in certain avant-garde styles, is ‘unmusical’ to our ears as it doesn’t match any pattern we’ve come across before.
To constantly seek a pattern, an explanation, might lead us to silly conclusions. An extreme (and unfortunately not uncommon) example is blaming a natural disaster on human activity, such as same-sex marriage causing a drought in New Zealand. Relentless pattern seeking leads us back to the language of ‘just deserts’, self-righteousness and guilt. To recognise grace we have to abandon our instinct to search for cause and effect. We have to accept that chaos, random chance and meaninglessness are vital components of the universe. Of course we should not take it to extremes. If we said that everything was meaningless we would be nihilists, rather Quakers acknowledge, to quote Martin Luther King, ‘the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice’. There is an infinite ocean of light and love that flows over the ocean of darkness.
A steadfast hope in the God who is love should be complemented by a respect for the unpredictable and often inexplicable nature of our world. Are we often too quick to find answers, to seek patterns and to smooth out uncomfortable situations of unknowing? Perhaps if we dwell with meaninglessness, as the writer of Ecclesiates did, something deeper than swift trite platitudes may emerge, opening us to the mind-bending mystery of grace.