Seeking The Transcendent

The New York Times ran an interesting article this weekend about a Bar Mitzvah called Seeking the Transcendent, Dodging Consumerism. Sound familiar? While I didn’t agree with every point the article made, I thought it did an excellent job of discussing the importance of ritual. If the word ritual makes you feel uncomfortable, substitute the word tradition in your head.

For a long time, the concept of ritual had a negative connotation to me. It meant mindlessly going through the motions, or doing something just because everyone else was doing it. But as I have gotten older and less self-righteous, I have come to see that rituals have a place. We can both learn and take comfort from the fact that we are repeating the actions of our ancestors and, at the same time, molding them to have meaning for our family. As Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman, who performed Ben’s bar mitzvah, said: “Ritual pulls us back from all the mundane stuff and helps make us more transcendent in our lives. Any ritual can have transcendent meaning, but most of the time we miss it because we’re trying to take care of everything else.” So ritual is a way to mark life’s transitions, and it is also a way to make time stop for a moment in the blur of life, to gather family and friends for a rare moment of acknowledgment.

And that, in the end, sums how I think about our wedding. Sometimes I feel like the only Indie Bride that thinks this, but I feel that thoughtful use of tradition can be as revolutionary as throwing out traditional all together. None of the stuff the wedding industry is selling holds much sway when you think of your wedding in this context. Would our ancestors care about our monogrammed aisle runner, sand ceremony, and computerized light show? Somehow, I don’t think that’s their bag. Is it traditional and transcendent to match our favors to our bridesmaids dresses? Um, nah.

Are any of you reclaiming bits of tradition – or even ritual – to make your wedding meaningful and give the wedding industry a kick in the teeth*?

*PS – when they tell you reply cards are traditional, please tell them where to shove it.

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  • I want my father to walk me down the aisle. Not because he’s giving me away, not because I’m a piece of property, but because a lot of the wedding planning involves my mum and I want him to have a meaningful part in the process. And mostly because it means a lot to him.

  • I kind of agree with you. It’s important to be true to yourselves as a couple, but I can’t shake the notion that at least part of the ceremony should involve tradition. A lot of people feel that a major purpose of the ceremony is to allow the family/community to participate and show support, share the moment. It’s nice to be able to connect in that way through some rituals.

  • we planned a chinese tea ceremony and in the beginning i thought i was only going through the motions. that was until i found out my favorite uncle couldn’t make it to the wedding (from out of country), and i realized that i was sad to miss out on this opportunity to honor him in the most traditional way. i called him on the phone to thank him for the gift he sent, and i couldn’t keep myself from bawling. it was quite pathetic.

    either i actually have a sentimental side, or wedding planning was super stressing me out! :)

  • Anonymous

    amen! automatically eliminating traditions from the wedding planning process to ensure a ‘meaningful and personal’ wedding is just as ignorant as keeping all the traditions that hold no meaning for you.

  • We are marrying on my great grand parents wedding anniversary (not that they are still alive) which gives our chosen date extra meaning.

    I am also honouring the ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ as that gives all of my family and my boy’s family a chance to be involved.

    My father is also walking me down the aisle and handing me over to my new husband. Traditional and symbolic. Much like rings. We are having those too.

  • Great post. I don’t think I ever quite got the importance of ritual (despite my Catholic upbringing!) until I planned a wedding. It’s so important to mark the seriousness of big events. I actually prefer the word ritual to tradition, because it feels less hi-jackable by the reply cards and aisle runners brigade.

  • I had always figured I would elope if I got married. I guess I kind of equated weddings with the WIC, and didn’t really “get” the beauty of the ritual act involved. But I knew my mom would be disappointed if I eloped, so we planned a wedding. I still didn’t really “get it” until the weekend of our wedding when all these people came together to participate in this thing. So, I guess my point is, for me just having a wedding felt like I was participating in tradition, and to my surprise I felt really good about it. The ritual of it legitimized our relationship in the eyes of some people, in particular my husband’s parents. Going from living together, in which, like many people, we had already made a lifelong commitment to each other, to being married did not change our relationship significantly. But the ritual gave us and our families a chance to mark the transition, and in the end that’s what it was all about for me.

  • I think the only reason to have a wedding with other people there is the ritual and the symbolism involved. If I would think that getting married is only the signing of legal contract, then I would just go and do that the way I deal with other paperwork, quickly and painless.

  • thoughtful use of tradition–i love it. my own wedding will have to honor a number of different ones. i think that a lot of multicultural couples find this to be the case. we’re having a traditional cambodian ceremony, a Catholic ceremony, and (keep your fingers crossed) an outdoor picnic/bbq reception.

    i’m a big fan of your blog and perspective. keep it up! thanks!

  • I didn’t really approach the wedding as something that I had to completely turn upside down on its head. Our ceremony would probably be described as pretty traditional and barebones.

    I view traditions as something that you want to do not because everyone does them but because based upon your own expectations growing up and what you were exposed to it’s what you expect. Of course I’d like to think the groom gets some say as well (though mine was no help having only attended two weddings in his life one of which was my best friends).

    There is also more than just finding comfort in the familiar for you but also for your family. If at every wedding in the family a bride wore a certain piece of jewelry or a traditional veil there’s no reason to refuse on the grounds that “It’s just tradition”

  • nc

    Yes! We got lots of skeptical looks when we told people that our wedding ceremony would be a full Catholic mass. Seems like the quick 10-minute ceremonies are all the rage these days. Those are nice, but we wanted to celebrate our nuptials the way our parents and grandparents had, and in a way that held meaning for us.

    Funny thing, we got so many comments on how meaningful and beautiful our ceremony was. A lot of people seem to think of traditional and ritual as the opposite of personal, which is just not the case. I wrote about that topic here:

    And I wrote about how it turned out here:

  • bo

    great insight. i notice that the closer i get to my wedding date, the more i want to incorporate rituals. the most surprising part has been the way i want our wedding to feel korean. my fiance and i are both korean american. unexpectedly, we both wanted korean food, and i wanted parts of the wedding to be in the korean language. there is also a ritual where the groom’s parents give the bride a korean traditional dress (hanbok). i never really wanted to wear one at my wedding, but when i found out she wanted to get one made for me, i was happy to wear it. now i’m even excited to wear it.

  • Oh yes. Initially I thought about making our ceremony all different and personalised, but then we both decided we’d like to do what our parents and grandparents have done for generations before us. So we’re saying traditional vows (till death…) and exchanging rings. I think the words will echo with the meaning given them by all who’ve gone before us.
    Really thought-provoking post.

  • kerstin

    One thing that seems obvious but is often overlooked is that marriage, itself is a tradition, tying us to many generations of people who have decided to make this commitment in front of loved ones and the world!

  • When I am in the process of planning a part of my wedding, I think of my grandmother and her lessons on good etiquette. It’s like when you talk about Emily Post being a friend instead of a foe. We won’t include gift registry information in our invitations. We will try to say hello and thank you to every person who came to our wedding. Her thoughts on good manners will remind us that this wedding is not all about us, it is also about our families and our friends who are celebrating our love for a day, and we should be gracious and thankful to them for their gifts of time and presence. Good old fashioned etiquette is one way we’re sticking with tradition.

  • We’re recycling lots of traditions. We chose only the ones meaningful to us. My dad is walking me down the aisle (not giving me away, just presenting the bride), we’re having first dances, my engagement ring belonged to FH’s great grandmother, I’m wearing things that can described as old, new, borrowed and blue. We’re skipping the wedding party, bouquet toss, the garter thing, and announcement of the couple or receiving line. We selected non-traditional music (music with lyrics – oh my!). Also FH has seen my wedding dress which has been the most controversial thing of all so far.

  • I like you. You and I, I think, would have good conversations about hot chocolate, politics and how to make our significant others and friends a good soup recipe for when it is cold out.

    Because this post is so passionately logical it doesn’t need philosophy and logic and textbooks to back up why it is simply, practical.

  • Well, yes, but to say tradition and ritual are important is not nearly the whole story for some of us because there are so many different and competing sources of tradition.

    I actually think of my wedding as very traditional, in that it follows a form that has been used for a very long time with little to no tinkering on our part. But because I was not raised in the religion I practice today, the marriage rituals we will be observing are both not traditional (for our families or in mass US culture, since it’s not a mainline Christian faith) and extremely traditional (within that religion). Or it will be traditional within my family and traditional within my religion but not within mass US culture–i.e., it won’t read to many of our guests as traditional, and may read as being deliberately anti-tradition (though we’re not!).

    Take, for example, walking the bride down the aisle. It is traditional among Quakers that the bride and groom enter together, and not traditional that the bride be escorted by her father or other relative. It is also not traditional in my family for the bride to be walked down the aisle: one set of grandparents eloped, one walked one another down the aisle, and my mother’s father died when she was young, so her father did not escort her, either. So even though some people say, “oh, it’s tradition to do that!” it’s no part of my cultural inheritence, and it matters not a whit to me whether we do it or not. To import that particular “tradition” into my wedding would be more about a stranger’s idea of The Way Things Are Done than anything that ties me to my family, my faith, or our shared pasts.

  • I am so with you on this. Our wedding is all about honoring our traditions and especially for my family this is huge since we were not allowed to practice these rituals when we lived in the soviet union. Just by standing together under a chuppah we are doing something even my parents were not allowed to do. I am proud that we can represent for all of our ancestors.

  • Meg

    Feminist FiancĂŠe – The same is true for us as well. We are having a non-mainstream religious wedding in a faith I didn’t grow up in. So we’re grappling with all of the same issues, I think. I never never do anything because it’s The Way It’s Done, ever. My friends and family would sigh deeply at that, and maybe slam their heads into the wall a little ;) I’m absolutely not suggesting any of us do anything because it’s The Way Things Are Done – in fact, I’d say my approach is more like “deeply question everything.” I just find that at the end of deep questioning, we often find that we can thoughtfully embrace parts of traditions that are meaningful to us, and that is in itself offbeat these days. We’re being walked down the aisle by both parents – that is Jewish tradition, but it wasn’t done by my parents (Christian), or his (both parents were not living), but it still thoughtfully ties us into something greater than ourselves, and has a symbolism we both like.

  • My wedding is very traditional in an old-fashioned sense, and that’s what matters to me. The religious bit will be more or less unchanged from how it’s been done for centuries in my particular denomination. I feel that having it at my childhood home, sewing my dress, having all my friends provide the food- that’s all traditional, too. I feel less like I’m throwing out tradition and more like I’m going back to it. (Like feminist fiance, I am a Quaker)

  • Jenny

    Thank you for this. My fiance and I decided to have a traditional Episcopal high church ceremony. We both were not raised with connection to the traditions of the church so we have loved becoming part of rituals and symbols that people have done for years. We researched a lot of aspects of the ceremony to understand the sacred nature of the different elements in our ceremony. We certainly believe in being subversive and counter cultural by taking back meaning into sacred ritual. For instance with the kiss, we are kissing each other than embracing our wedding party, and then all the guests will be invited to share a sign of peace with each other. We want our kiss to be a sign not only of our own love but a symbol of unity and love that spreads out to our community.

  • Brilliant post Meg- as usual you have articulated some thoughts I’ve had that I can never put into words!

  • Meg, your posts are very insightful. Thanks!

    Much of the same can be said to be true of us – we had a VERY offbeat, non-traditional wedding (a heavy metal Halloween party at a haunted house) but we kept the basic structure and much of the ritual of a more ‘traditional’ wedding.

    My dad walked me down the aisle, we exchanged rings, said vows (which we wrote ourselves but they were short and full of sentiment), and talked about symbolism and family.

    For me, I felt we were blessed to have our family and friends totally support and embrace our crazy, offbeat wedding, even though many of them didn’t really ‘get it’. We owed them an event and a ritual that they could understand and feel part of. We wanted to do our wedding our own way, but not to alienate all our loved ones who shared it with us.

  • Anonymous

    When my MIL expressed concerns over my sapphire engagement ring (would anybody know I was engaged/married?), we tried pointing out to her that diamonds weren’t the standards ston for engagement rings before the 1930s. Okay, that one didn’t work so well. But I have found it incredibly refresing to remember that even a generation ago, especially two, weddings were much simpler and home-done. A great place to look for inspiration!