I attended the wedding last Saturday morning. No, not that wedding. Not the one between Prince Harry and the marvelous Meghan Markle, who currently seems to enjoy the greatest name recognition on the planet — for reasons I can’t quite fathom.
Instead, I attended the second major wedding of the morning, the one between my friends Rick and Gail, and I didn’t have to wake up as early as those glued to their TVs at 4 a.m. I’m happy for the young royal couple and wish them well, of course, and look forward to the ridiculously excessive media coverage if and when the new Mrs. Windsor becomes pregnant and observers breathlessly speculate on what the newest little Windsor’s name might be and whether it will qualify as a technical breach of royal tradition.
Gail and Rick’s wedding, on the other hand, was a more down-to-earth and relaxed affair, two good people getting married much later in life, both of whom had been disappointed in love once before, their marriages ending for the usual reason marriages end: the inability to find true partnership.
But they never gave up and, thanks to the miracle of high-tech online dating search engines and good old-fashioned, low-tech persistence, they found one another.
It has been 40 years since Rick’s first wedding, which I also attended. In fact, I was his best man. Forty years is a long time to trek through life unproperly partnered — a journey of biblical proportions. Yet he never gave up on finding his anam cara.
“The Celtic understanding of friendship finds its inspiration and culmination in the sublime notion of the anam cara,” according to John O’Donohue, who wrote a book by that name. “Anam is the Gaelic word for soul; cara is the word for friend. So anam cara means soul friend. The anam cara is a person to whom you can reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This friendship is an act of recognition and belonging. When you have an anam cara, your friendship cuts across all convention and category. You are joined in an ancient and eternal way with the friend of your soul. … The anam-cara experience opens a friendship that is not wounded or limited by separation or distance. Such friendship can remain alive even when the friends live far away from each other. Because they have broken through the barriers of persona and egoism to the soul level, the unity of their souls is not easily severed. … With your anam cara, you awaken the eternal.”
It may be possible to have a soul friend earlier in life, but becoming acquainted with one’s soul takes time, and if you aren’t acquainted with your own, how can you achieve union with another’s? I don’t know if Harry and Meghan are soul friends yet, but I do know that Gail and Rick are, and that makes theirs the true royal wedding.
First marriages, perhaps because of a couple’s immaturity, often seek a faulty kind of “emotional fusion,” which Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin captured in a long-ago song:
Now that we are one / Which one shall we be? / Shall we be you / Or shall we be me?
A lot of young marriages flounder when one or both attempt to turn “we” into “me.”
Or as Rilke put it in one of the readings Rick and Gail so thoughtfully chose for their wedding, “The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of [his or her] solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.”
A young marriage is all about promise (not only the ones we make and aren’t always prepared to keep, but also the promise of unrealized potential, which we aren’t always prepared to fulfill). Young marriage is the attempted triumph of hope over experience, whereas a marriage between olders is more about the triumph of experience over hope.
Or as Susan Sarandon’s sadder-but-wiser character says in the film Shall We Dance?:
“We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet [billions now]. What does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness’.”
In a good marriage, then, we are one another’s witnesses, we are the protectors of one another’s solitude, we are each other’s soul friend. We aspire to be all that when we take the breathtaking plunge into a life together.
I wish Duke Harry and Duchess Meghan well, but I’ve witnessed the journey Rick and Gail have taken. As the promotional poster for the film The Painted Veil put it some years back, “The greatest journey is the distance between two people.”
During that journey every couple is buffeted by “the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity,” metaphors for the turbulence that attends any life partnership. But as Teilhard de Chardin famously wrote, “Someday [after we have mastered those forces] “we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world [or the history of two lives], we will have discovered fire.”
That’s the ultimate goal, our evolutionary destiny, but for the time being, Rilke has a more realistic take on marriage, whether between youngsters or oldsters, soul friends or fellow travelers, so he gets the last word on Wedding Day:
She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
Of her life, and weaves them gratefully
Into a single cloth –
It’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
And clears it for a different celebration
Where the one guest is you.
In the softness of evening
It’s you she receives.
You are the partner of her loneliness,
The unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
And she stretches beyond what limits her,
To hold you.