Last weekend in Minneapolis I got a new wedding ring. Nothing wrong with the old one, it was just Time.
In our going-on-12-year partnership, Trish and I have gifted each other with new rings whenever there’s been an important change of season in our marriage. It helps us give deep attention to the subtleties of our relationship as it carries us like a river into new territory to discover.
As we shared this with the good people at Irish on Grand (where I found my ring) and the other artsy places along Grand Avenue (where I didn’t), they all said they’d never heard of this way of doing rings. Since I’m a blogger now, I could not hide the lightbulb above my head under a bushel basket. (I’ll pause a moment for you to enjoy that image.) Here’s the story:
Trish and I have realized from the beginning that our anam cara relationship is a spiritual practice. That is, it’s one of the primary ways we are transformed and enact transformation in the world. I love talking with people who do relationship this way. Each partnership is a unique dance, a one-of-a-kind jewel. When I hear stories from other couples, I see possibilities for what our own marriage might be up to. Relationship requires a rich imagination because, like my friend Jonathan Rundman sings, “Love is science and love is art.”
There are two parts to a lasting relationship: change and stability. To the first point, relationships are dynamic, flowing and often bewildering. They change all the time. You can’t step into them twice. No surprise here, since both parties are presumably living, breathing creatures, each of whom is evolving in their own unique way. But to the second part, there’s also the dimension of stability and trust that happens over time. Between the partners there is a heart-opening sense of safety and strength. If the needle goes too far one way, you have a dusty institution on your hands. Too far the other way, it’s chaos.
The mysterious weaving of these two juicy elements is one reason I am here on the planet.
Getting new wedding rings plays with this potent blend: Trish and I desire a sign of our relationship’s strength, AND we want that sign to change over time. To honor such glorious mystery, however you do it, is a gift to the world, because you know and I know there are plenty of places mystery is snuffed out. So instead of a lifetime ring on each of our hands, we decided it might serially evolve. The changing shape, style and color of the rings on our hands is part of the delight of paying close attention to what our Beloved is doing with us.
Side trip for liturgical geeks: This is not unlike the visible sign of the sacrament that represents an invisible grace. When you partake in Holy Communion, for example, you may experience the Meal differently every time. There’s the anamnesis element of remembrance alongside eschatological celebration, connection to the human story of existential isolation but also the salvation of community, connection to the Jesus Story in crucifixion lament as well as resurrection joy. Or when you witness Holy Baptism where we are both drowned to death and raised to New Life. There’s lots to unpack. In this way, I can appreciate why Roman Catholics see marriage as a sacrament. Sheesh, that ring’s got a lot to hold.
In my marriage with my partner, I think of these two entwined mysteries as being held not by either one of us, but by a kind of Third Holy Thing. Which brings me to the name we have for our marriage: Beloved. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying: Beloved. This Beloved holds us together.
It seems to have a wisdom, compassion and will all its own.
Sufis speak of Allah as the Beloved that is closer than we are to ourselves. The Christian tradition speaks of the Christ-life in which we live and move and have our being. In the Hebrew scriptures there is the Garden of Eden holding space for delight and holiness, and the Song of Songs with the dazzling dance between Lover and Beloved that is the passionate love of G-d for Israel. To me, our Beloved has that kind of heart.
As a spiritual practice, relationship can be both a magically ecstatic and nakedly terrifying place where you face the Truth. I am continually amazed at what our marriage brings to me (and asks of me) if I am paying attention. I’m amazed, I suppose, because I don’t quite get what’s going on here. For example, Midrash around the book of Genesis is rich with dialogue exploring human sexuality, equality and uniqueness among the genders. In the story of Eve and Adam, the Hebrew term for their partnership has a loaded connotation: “an adversary, as it were”. That is, your best life partner is one who will be against you in all the best ways. Wo. Is that what I signed up for? Truly, yes, because how else would I grow, but it’s good I didn’t think about it too much on the day I said “I do.”
When things get complicated, crazy or scary, the main temptation in our society is to oversimplify. Tame it. Control it. Kill the mystery in it so we can be sure where we stand. In other words, to keep from being overwhelmed by a thing, we overcome it with understanding. That’s often the urge in relationship: to box it up and label it. And, by the way, this is true for any relationship: parent-to-child, grandparent-to-grandchild, neighbors across the backyard fence, dorm room-mates, middle school frenemies, adult life partners. These interconnections are powerful because they are under no one’s control. They are a luscious blend of you, the other and some third thing in orbit around you both.
Side trip: There’s a Native American idea about this, that in any gathering there is a spirit created out of the unique persons present. The people’s intentions, moods, their choices to speak or listen, all of this is woven into the making of a spirit that has never existed before and never will again. Our presence and choices in community matter as much as if we were giving birth to a whole new being.
To consider a relationship an honest spiritual practice, you do a rare and amazing thing. You open yourself up to to be changed by this out-of-control thing. You give yourself to something Other than you. It’s really nothing short of a miracle for that to happen, survival-oriented, biological-success-driven beings that we are. To approach a relationship this way requires vibrant imagination, and a trust that this thing is alive and knows something you can’t access alone. I operate in life favoring and cherishing this mystery because I feel protective of it. The alternative is a relationship that has crystallized, under tight containment in an effort to keep it the same through seasons. As Thomas Moore writes, literalism in any relationship is the end of it. Any time we think it’s arrived, it’s over. The fun is celebrating each moment while knowing full well that it will never be the same again.
When Trish and I got married 11 years ago (which we were privileged to do by law because we claimed to be heterosexuals) we noticed something about the service we designed. Whereas many beautiful weddings are a moment of ritual to bring a partnership into official being, ours was about celebrating what we knew was already true.
So back to the rings. How are our rings ringing true to our Beloved in this current season?
The last time we got new rings for one another was in Florida few years ago. In the midst of a retreat, we realized we were discovering something new about who we are for each other. My new ring had a silver swirl like an ocean wave or a curling arm.
The one I chose last weekend has a loose Celtic knot spinning in infinity (hey, hallelujah) like Pentecost wind and fire. It’s good. It’s perfect for how I’m stretching right now. And it will someday grow stale, ceasing to spark my imagination about what our Beloved is doing. Then it’ll be ring shopping time again.
I do go on, don’t I?
Your thoughts? You partnered people, how do you keep it fresh? How do you celebrate both the stability and change of your primary relationship?