I’ve recently described my ex brother-in-law’s battle with Myasthenia Gravis and his journey through a Neurology-Intensive Care Unit on life support systems. During his 2 month hospitalization, Joe and I often talked about the traumatic awakenings to our expanding fragility.
Once he asked me if I would perform his wedding ceremony; he wanted to marry Pam, his companion of the last 20 years. I loved the idea, not only to celebrate Joe’s survival, but also to honor our shared existential mindfulness about what we want to do with the rest of our lives.
I had to find a way to officially sign a marriage certificate. It turns out it’s easy to get ordained: for $39.95 and a very basic questionnaire, you can get it online. It is official and legal in most states for you to perform weddings, burials, and baptisms. I sent $49.95 (the deluxe package) which included sample ceremonies, prayers, and the option to choose what you want to be called. Four days later the mailman delivered the package; inside, was a laminated card for my wallet announcing the Rev. Dr. Carl Hammerschlag, a clip-on badge for a jacket pocket, sample services, and a car window sticker that announces I am “engaged in religious duties as an ordained clergyman and parked here on official business.” (When my wife saw the parking permit she decided she’d also get ordination.)
I will do Joe and Pam’s wedding as soon as the family all arrive, but in the meantime I just performed my first wedding. A dentist friend, Mike, was going to attend a workshop I was doing in Austin, entitled The Head, Hands and Heart of the Authentic Healer. As part of this workshop I have groups create healing ceremonies. Mike asked me if I would marry him and his fiancée while I was there. My recent certification was good in Texas, so I told him if he and Maura let me perform their wedding as the healing ceremony, I would love to do it.
We met together the night before the ceremony and talked about what they wanted for themselves and for the rest of us. At the end, I said if we came from a place of open-hearted love and trusted in the spontaneity of the moment only good things would happen.
On the morning of the wedding day we met at the retreat center’s beautiful sanctuary. The multi-tiered Temple combined the architectural elements of a tipi, yurt, and Buddhist shrine. The structure was surrounded by waterfalls and gardens, and completely enclosed by a stone wall. When the time for the healing ceremony came, I announced that today the ceremony we would create was a wedding and this was the first time I would officiate. Then to the audience’s complete surprise, I introduced Mike and Maura as the bride and groom.
Mike and Maura told the participants why they decided to get married at this retreat. Mike said this was his third marriage, and that he’d about given up on ever finding someone he could love and trust until he found Maura. Maura said this was also her third and never wanted to re-marry. She had come to the place where she liked flying on her own wings. Then she met Mike, and said, “I knew we both had broken wings and that we could fly better together.” Both said they hoped the participants would feel their love and that this ceremony would be a healing for them too.
The group was randomly divided into four groups of eight, and each group was instructed to prepare a five-minute wedding ritual. The groups could use any of the instruments and objects we had already used and could also create their own symbolic elements. The bride and groom were sent off by themselves and asked to focus on what they hoped would happen. Maura and I went back to our rooms and dressed up; she was radiant in a white flowing skirt, and I wore an open-necked white shirt with an embroidered ceremonial shawl draped around my shoulders. The shawl was given to me at a wedding by a Native American spiritual leader. Woven into the shawl were the symbols of all the great religions, and feathers dangled from each end.
I led the bride and groom into the sanctuary, and we walked around the circled assembly as they sang Amazing Grace in English and I in Chippewa-Cree. Then each group performed rituals of such creativity and beauty that words alone cannot capture their intensity. One group tied their “broken wings” together; with their hands clasped their forearms were bound with a vine into which flowers had been woven. Another picked them up and rocked them back and forth, while visualizing themselves as one bird each lifted on the wing of the other. One group supported them as they walked over their past of unsteady pillows onto the solid ground of their new journey together. Another created a poster with their words and symbols, as well of those of great poets, adorned with pictures, flowers and which left room for every participant to sign. At the closing, I read the traditional marriage vows, they exchanged rings and I introduced them as husband and wife.
The place broke out into cheers, whistles and hugs — you could feel the love. It is in these moments that you know what you’re feeling is not purely physical. When I signed the marriage certificate, my hand was illuminated by an aura. The power of love and seeing joy in each other is the light, even in these dark times.
I signed as the Rev. Dr. Carl Hammerschlag.