Weddings are occasions for joy, camaraderie, and bad dancing. A bunch of us from Marquette’s theology department found ourselves blessed with celebrating such an occasion for the sake of two of our very own. This most happy event is one of my favorite memories of the summer already. Also, we almost caught on fire and died. That’s how I’m telling it.
I’m not sure if you have ever attended a wedding where the highly educated form a large section of party-goers, so I’ll say this: the joy is the same, the jokes are different, and the dancing is worse. Such joy and bad dancing brought us to a beautiful farm in Indiana and the outdoors, and indeed several us were fully prepared to camp out to save money on lodgings. This is the functional equivalent of expecting your beloved pet kitten – all fluffy and defenseless, armed with a cute little nose – to survive a night in the wild. In fact, we all met and adored a feisty, tiny kitten while we were there, and he had more wiles than all of us combined. I felt confident that, in the midst of a heated debate over the liturgy, half of us would be eaten by bears. I also felt confident that bears live near farms in Indiana.
The lovely couple was lovely, and we were delighted to share in their happiness. Night and the stars greeted us soon enough, and soon enough the newlyweds called off the enthusiastically horrible dancing – and the enthusiastic observers of the horrible dancing – for a closing ceremony of sorts. We would be taking delicate paper lanterns in hand and releasing them into the clear midnight skies. I could picture the event taking shape like the Disney movie Tangled, which features a remarkable sequence of rising lanterns and music.
We are, all of us, like those fragile glowing lanterns. Filled to the brim with light and hope, lifted by them, longing in profound ways to be carried to great heights. In marriage, two people promise to hope together. That’s what it is, really. Marriage: hoping and dreaming together through thick and thin. Hopes and dreams are the most delicate and important pieces of ourselves, and to share them requires utmost intimacy and utmost courage. Dreams – good dreams, beautiful dreams – are much harder than nightmares. They demand more bravery, more vulnerability. Because they demand risk.
We were all about to partake in a symbolic gesture toward our friends’ new life together. The idyllic representation pressed on me already with its lofty perfection. After all, we all want to capture moments, to make them concrete and wonderful – memorable. These lanterns were just such an attempt.
And of course, everything went cockeyed and wrong.
I’ll grant you that we were nothing but a collection of highly educated kittens lost in the wilds of an Indiana farm, bears waiting hungrily, but the wind did not grant us any mercies. We struggled to light our frail lanterns, and fought to bring them aloft. Mostly the things withered and crashed. One dear friend avoided a fiery death by an act of Providence alone, unwittingly stepping out of the way as another friend’s burning lantern rushed by his head. My best friend had to hit the deck as another lantern careened above her. Several delicate symbols of married bliss tumbled over the grass in a molten fury. Lanterns scattered like glowing tumbleweeds of broken hopes. My own lantern lit itself on fire and collapsed in on itself in a miserable heap in my hands, and I wondered aloud what it meant that my hopes and dreams destroyed themselves before even taking flight. I did not even have the distinction of almost lighting a cherished friend on fire.
The closing ceremonies were, in a sense, a fiery disaster. A burning, riotous disaster inasmuch as it was nothing at all like what it could have looked like, and indeed not at all like most of us imagined. No one could hold hands and sigh in the halcyon light since we were rather consumed with escaping flaming spheres of death.
Yet, in another sense, the messy lantern ordeal is one of my favorite parts of the wedding. It was not only hilarious, but also more real. It seems to me that marriage ought to be just as much about surviving wrecked dreams together as much as it is about imagining beautiful dreams together. If you can somehow find joy through both, you’ve got something special. That’s how I thought of it, anyway. I’m no expert, but I witnessed it at work with my own eyes.
Two of my favorite people, a married couple, walked up to me with one of the unlit lanterns. They were determined to successfully get one into the air. When asked to assist in such an effort, I agreed without hesitation. We journeyed far out of the way, behind some trees to protect us and our lantern from the wind. I watched with quiet excitement as the husband and wife carefully lit the lantern and held onto it as the fire filed it with hot air. The delicate paper expanded and took full form. Working closely with one another, neither of the two let go until they were certain the frail symbol of hope had enough light and fire for its flight. Then – slowly – the husband lifted the lantern into the air. His wife placed a soft hand against his back. We all watched and worried as the little lantern wobbled into the sky. The wind almost took it, but then it broke free. We cheered and stared at it until we couldn’t see it anymore, and we decided it had gone all the way to the moon.
That struggling symbol strikes me as more thorough, and in that sense more beautiful. Surely marriage is something like that? All hope and fire and beautiful determination.
I am glad the lanterns almost killed us all; it was the superior way to kick off a marriage.