Late in 2021, I had the great honor of being asked to preside over the wedding of a former student and friend, Zach as he married his long time partner, Molly. In the midst of COVID19 still and all the chaos in the world, it was a moment of respite and celebration and a sign that life continues on. Here’s the better part of it to mark a commercial holiday with all the meaning that we make of it.
Welcome friends, family, and all of you who gather today to celebrate Molly and Zack. After nearly two years of uncertainty and fear, there are few things more life affirming and hopeful than this–two people confirming their love for each other and asking their community to stand with them to recognize that in a shifting and unsettled world, this is something to count on.
As a sage once said, how did we get here? When Zach first asked me before the Pandemic to officiate I said yes without hesitation–not because I have any authority or experience in doing so, but because I can think of an honor no greater than this, to stand here and help Molly and Zach speak into existence something they made for themselves, something to shape, define and comfort them for the rest of their lives.
As is the custom with these things, I am in a position to offer some reflection and advice to the soon to be wed couple on what marriage means. Three short stories; three things to think about: politics, passion, and age.
I was Zach’s teacher in the Department of Brandeis University in the Department of Classical Studies. I used to joke to Zach that the nicest thing said about marriage in all of classical literature comes in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus, naked and bedraggled, gives a blessing to the young princess Nausikaa
“May the gods grant as much as you desire in your thoughts,
A husband and home, and may they give you fine likemindness,
For nothing is better and stronger than this
When two people who are likeminded in their thoughts share a home,
A man and a wife—this brings many pains for their enemies
And joys to their friends. And the gods listen to them especially”
σοὶ δὲ θεοὶ τόσα δοῖεν ὅσα φρεσὶ σῇσι μενοινᾷς,
ἄνδρα τε καὶ οἶκον, καὶ ὁμοφροσύνην ὀπάσειαν
ἐσθλήν: οὐ μὲν γὰρ τοῦ γε κρεῖσσον καὶ ἄρειον,
ἢ ὅθ᾽ ὁμοφρονέοντε νοήμασιν οἶκον ἔχητον
ἀνὴρ ἠδὲ γυνή: πόλλ᾽ ἄλγεα δυσμενέεσσι,
185χάρματα δ᾽ εὐμενέτῃσι, μάλιστα δέ τ᾽ ἔκλυον αὐτοί. 6. Od. 180-185
Doesn’t this sound great! The lesson here, it’s a political one, the promise of the married couple working as a team to achieve their goals and punish all those who oppose them. But there’s a limit too-a close reading shows that homophrosyne, likemindedness, means having shared aims and plans, but it really looks externally, to surviving the world outside the home.
If the Odyssey tells us about the politics of marriage, and dominating your neighbors, another famous story is about passion. Ovid’s Metamorphoses gives us the Babylonian Pyramus and Thisbe. Two young lovers, forbidden to be with each other, housed right next door. When they sneak out to meet, Thisbe runs from a lioness and leaves her veil behind only to have Pyramus arrive to see what he thinks is a predator with a bloody grin. The two end up taking their own lives in sorrow and inspiring tales like Romeo and Juliet.
This story is in a way an warning allegory about passion and excess–it reflects the kind of love that burns bright and then fades. The frantic love of youth is a memory. It inflames, but is hard to sustain.
The one story from the ancient world that has always seemed to me to understand love the most is Baucis and Philemon, also told by Ovid. They were an aging couple in a wicked city and when the gods came to test them, they were the only ones who offered strangers hospitality. In thanks, Hermes and Zeus turned their home into a temple and when they died, they turned into two trees, rooted near each other, and over time they grew so intertwined that you couldn’t tell where one started and the other ended but you could still clearly see the wood and character of each tree.
This too is an allegory for love: the way people grow together and change, shaping and shaped in turn, creating a life and story that is so intertwined that you cannot remember where one starts and the other ends. As I have learned in spending more than half my life with my partner, few gifts are more comforting and sustaining, to be part of something bigger while still yet becoming yourself. Passion inspires us to love; life requires us to team up and face the daily struggle, age and the passage of time brings this great, unexpected gift: becoming more than yourself by loving someone else.
May you bring joy to your friends and eliminate your enemies, may you feel the passion of youth for as long as it burns, and may you grow so close and strong together that no power on earth can move you apart.
I am presiding over another wedding this spring (!) and will have to come up with new stories to tell.