Weddings and Commitments with Readings

I share the following draft ceremony with couples and invite them to play with it, thinking about the best and worst weddings they have attended.  I assume that couples are already married in the sense that they have made a profound commitment to one another.  My role is to facilitate a creative process of making that commitment public, sharing only what the couple feels comfortable sharing with the wedding community.

This ceremony can be adapted for LGBT commitments, civil unions and domestic partnerships.


The couple applies for the license.  A NYS marriage license is not good until after 24 hours from receipt and is valid for 60 days.  The clerk of the court types in the information, e.g., birth certificate, valid address, etc.  In NYC, the couple and two witnesses, with names and addresses printed, must sign.  In upstate NY, the couple does not sign, but must include on license the date and exact place of the wedding.  The signed license must be returned by the officiate to the office from which it was obtained within 5 days.  It may take 3-4 weeks for the couple to receive a certified copy back from the clerk.  For out-of-state weddings, the burden is on the couple to get the necessary information.  NJ & CT have a reciprocal deal with NY; other states have varying requirements.
Website for NYC:

Honorarium: no charge for Ethical Culture members, $750 for non-members

* * * * * *

Welcome.  My name is Anne Klaeysen, and I am a Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.  As you know, Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the wedding ceremony of ____________ and _____________ .

As couples have done for some thousands of years, these two come before you, their wedding community, to make their pledges to each other.  They come before you to make an ancient promise that binds the wedding couple across all previous boundaries.  They come before you to join their two lives in marriage.

In the Ethical Culture wedding ceremony we encourage the couple to find and share words that come, for them, as close as possible to the joint truths of this event.  This ___________ and ___________ have done.

Poems, songs, essays, family sayings and writings, personal statements, etc. selected to give special meaning to the ceremony and/or to provide a family member or friend with a role. Many compilations of wedding readings have been published and are readily available.

Three sample readings:
1) “A wedding does not depend on flowers
or bells or candles, choir or lace.
It does not need a congregation
or a vast marquee.
Only two people taking the courage to leave
one life and find another – trusting each other
for true patience, forbearance, strength and love to
face any hardship that the years may bring.”

2) “The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words.  We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word.  And this must be an unconditional giving, for in joining ourselves to one another we are joining ourselves to the unknown.  We can join one another only by joining the unknown.  We must not be misled by the procedures of experimental thought:  in life, in the world, we are never given two known results to choose between, but only one result that we choose without knowing what it is.

“Marriage rests upon the immutable givens that compose it: words, bodies, characters, histories, places.  Some wishes cannot succeed; some victories cannot be won; some loneliness is incorrigible.  But there is relief and freedom in knowing what is real; these givens come to us out of the perennial reality of the world, like the terrain we live on.  One does not care for this ground to make it a different place, or to make it perfect, but to make it inhabitable and to make it better.  To flee from its realities is only to arrive at them unprepared.

“Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge.  What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be.  Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go.  It is going where the two of you – and marriage, time, life, history and the world – will take it.  You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.

“Forms join us to time, to the consequences and fruitions of our own passing.  The Zen student, the poet, the husband, the wife – none knows with certainty what he or she is staying for, but all know the likelihood that they will be staying “a while”: to find out what they are staying for.  And it is the faith of all of these disciplines that they will not stay to find that they should not have stayed.

“That faith has nothing to do with what is usually called optimism.  As the traditional wedding ceremony insists, not everything that we stay to find out will make us happy.  The faith, rather, is that by staying, and only by staying, we will learn something of the truth, that the truth is good to know, and that it is always both different and larger than we thought.”
poet and essayist Wendell Berry

3) “Though I speak in the tongues of men or of angels: if I have no love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  Though I prophesy and see into all the mysteries and all hidden knowledge, and have faith enough to move mountains: if I have no love, I am nothing.  And though I give away all my possessions to feed the poor, and offer up my body to be burned: if I have no love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient and kind, is never envious or boastful or conceited, does not act rudely or selfishly, is not easily angered, does not count up offenses, takes no pleasure in injustice, but rejoices in the truth; includes all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.

“Love never ends.  If there are prophecies, they will disappear; if there is ecstasy, it will cease; if there is knowledge, it will vanish. . .  When I was a child, my speech, my outlook, and my thoughts were all childish.  When I grew up, I had finished with childish things.  Now we see only puzzled reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face.  My knowledge then was partial, then it will be whole.

“In a word, there are three things that remain forever: faith, hope and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
First Letter to the Corinthians by Paul of Tarsus

I am very pleased to be here today and would like to share some wedding thoughts with you.  Why marry?  Why not just live together and love each other without a public declaration?  What makes today remarkable?

First of all, __________ and ___________ love each other.  That much is obvious.  No ceremony can create a human relationship; it can only recognize, and celebrate, an existing relationship.  These are people who share the same values, who delight in each other’s company more than any other’s, who together are somehow more than they are apart, and who promise, at life’s most critical juncture, to help each other deepen and heighten their own best selves.

You and I are also involved in that promise.  We have the right and the responsibility to hold them to their vows, to help them struggle against the voices of modern distraction.  What is it to marry because you love?  What is it to stay loving because you have married?  These things are mysteries.  The work of questions such as these is also an obligation assumed by the heart and the will according to the promises made today.

Across many centuries, traditions, geography and generations, weddings take place at the heart of the world.  In the smallest hamlet and the largest metropolis, people are getting married, and people who love them are in attendance.  The best hope of the world is represented in this community of beloved families and friends here gathered, perhaps at some sacrifice, to wish this couple well.  Look around.  Though we may not all know one another, still we are members now of the same wedding community, family in an extended sense, sharing our love for this couple and our hopes for the success of their life partnership.

Secondly, a wedding ceremony is a unique opportunity for a couple to openly declare their personal feelings and to share with us, the wedding community, what is most important to them.  What is most important to __________ and __________?

[Shared thoughts from interview and meetings with the couple: what is most important and meaningful, how they experience and appreciate each other, etc.]

Vows may be recited from memory, read, or repeated after the celebrant.  This constitutes the legal contract and must be witnessed by those chosen to sign the marriage license.

The Hands Passage
“Please face each other and hold hands, so you may feel the gift that you are to one another.

 “These are the hands of your best friend, young and strong and full of love for you, that are holding yours on your wedding day as you promise to love each other today, tomorrow, and forever.

“These are the hands that will work alongside yours as together you build your future.

“These are the hands that will passionately love you and cherish you through the years, and with the slightest touch will comfort you like no other.

“These are the hands that will hold you when fear or grief racks your mind.

“These are the hands that will countless times wipe the tears from your eyes, tears of sorrow and tears of joy.

“These are the hands that will tenderly hold your children.

“These are the hands that will help you to hold your family as one.

“These are the hands that will give you strength when you need it.

“And lastly, these are the hands that even when wrinkled and aged will still be reaching for yours, still giving you the same unspoken tenderness with just a touch.”

Sample vows:
I, ____________, take you, ______________, to be my wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, for the rest of our days.

I, _____________, take you, ______________, to be my wife/husband.  I give you my hand and my heart.  I pledge to share my life openly with you and to speak loving truth to you.  I promise to respect and honor you, care for you in tenderness, support you with patience and love, and walk with you through all the seasons of our lives.

I, _____________, take you, ______________, to be no other than yourself, loving what I know of you, trusting what I do not yet know, with respect for your integrity and faith in your love for me, through all our years and in all that life may bring us.  I promise to try to be ever open to you and above all, to do everything in my power to permit you to become the person you are yet to be.  I give you my love.

“Rings are an ancient symbol,
blessed and simple.  Round like the sun,
like the eye, like arms that embrace.
Circles, for love that is given
comes back round again and again.
Therefore, may these symbols
remind you that your love, like the sun,
illumines; that your love,
like the eye, must see clearly;
and that your love,
like arms that embrace,
is a grace upon this world.”
(from “The Golden Rule”)

With this ring, I thee wed, and bind my life to yours.

By the power of your choice and the words that you have spoken to each other, I do declare that from this moment forward you are married, husband and wife, wife and husband.  You may now kiss one another.

We wish for them such goodwill and respect towards one another, and such support from others, that they may grow stronger in their love and be able to turn every crisis and challenge into an opportunity for the renewal and deepening of their relationship.

In Ethical Culture, we say, “The place where we meet to seek the highest is holy ground.”  Today in this place, at this time, we have truly sought the highest and together shared holy ground.

Selected Wedding Readings

Sharing of wine and Breaking of the glass:  “It is the goal of marriage to achieve a blending of hearts and lives, but let there be spaces in your new life together, so that each may encourage and nurture the individual growth of the other.  Even so, your separate lives will become one life; your separate homes, one home; your separate fortunes, one fortune.  Over the horizon of the future, there comes toward you even now hours of brightness and hours of shadow, for such is the nature of life.

“As you share from this cup, a symbol of both the past and future, so may you draw contentment, comfort and happiness from the cup of life.  May you find life’s joys heightened, its bitterness sweetened and all things hallowed by the true companionship of life.

“In the Jewish tradition, a glass is broken by the groom at the end of the wedding ceremony.  Both ____ and ____ will break this glass with the symbolism and intention of breaking and permanently disintegrating all barriers between them.  When the glass is crushed underfoot, please join me in saying: ‘Mazel Tov.’”

Family Vow:
Will the families of ____ and ____ please stand?  This union brings together different family traditions in the hope that a new family tree will become strong and fruitful.  Theirs is a personal choice and a decision for which they are primarily responsible, yet their life will be enriched by the support of the families from which each comes.  Do you affirm your continuing support and love for ____ and ____ as they grow in their marriage? [“We Do.”]
Do you celebrate with them the decision they have made to choose each other? [“We Do.”]

1) “Sonnet CXVI” by William Shakespeare
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.  Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no!  It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

2) “A Dedication to My Wife” by T.S. Eliot
To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quickens my senses in our wakingtime
And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,
The breathing in unison

Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other
Who think the same thoughts without need of speech
And babble the same speech without need of meaning.
No peevish winter wind shall chill
No sullen tropic sun shall wither
The roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only

But this dedication is for others to read:
These are private words addressed to you in public.

3) “A Prayer for a Wedding, 29 November 1963” Joel Oppenheimer
because everyone knows exactly what’s good for another
because very few see
because a man and a woman may just possibly look at each other
because in the insanity of human relationships there still
may come a time we say: yes yes
because a man or a woman can do anything he or she pleases
because you can reach any point in your life saying: now, i
want this
because eventually it occurs we want each other, we want
to know each other, even stupidly, even uglily
because these is at best a simple need in two people to try
and reach some simple ground
because that simple ground is not so simple
because we are human beings gathered together whether
we like it or not
because we are human beings reaching out to touch
because sometimes we grow
we ask a blessing on this marriage
we ask that some simplicity be allowed
we ask their happiness
we ask that this couple be known for what it is,
and that the light shine upon it
we ask a blessing for their marriage

4) “It is Marvellous to Wake Up Together” by Elizabeth Bishop
It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightning struck the house now, it would run
From the four china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening:

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one’s back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise

The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking.
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

5) “Sonnet XVII” by Pablo Neruda
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

6) “Native American Marriage Ceremony”
Now you feel no rain,
For you will be the shelter for the other.
Now you will feel no cold,
For each of you will be warmth to the other.
Now you will feel no loneliness.
Now you are two persons but,
There is only one life before you.
Go now to your dwelling to enter
Into the days of your life together.
And may your days be good,
And long upon the earth.

7) Leland Foster Wood – 20th Century American author:
“Married love is love woven into a pattern of living.
It has in it the elements of understanding and of the passionate kindness of husband and wife toward each other.
It is rich in the many-sided joys of life because each is more concerned with giving joy than with grasping it for himself. And joys are most truly experienced when they are most fully shared.”

8) from “To Have or To Be” by Erich Fromm:
“Can one have love? If we could, love would need to be a thing, a substance that one can have, own, possess. The truth is, there is no such thing as “love.” “Love” is an abstraction, perhaps a goddess or an alien being, although nobody has ever seen this goddess. In reality, there exists only the act of loving. To love is a productive activity. It implies caring for, knowing, responding, affirming, enjoying: the person, the tree, the painting, the idea. It means bringing to life, increasing his/her/its aliveness. It is a process, self-renewing and self-increasing. . .

To say “I have a great love for you” is meaningless. Love is not a thing that one can have, but a process, an inner activity that one is the subject of. I can love, I can be in love, but in love I have . . .nothing. In fact, the less I have the more I can love.”

9) from “Letters” by Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Marriage is in many ways a simplification of life. It combines the strengths and wills of two people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than they did before. Above all, marriage is a new task and a new seriousness, – a new demand on the strength and generosity of each partner, and a great new danger for both.

“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 their solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side by side can grow up for them.

“. . . [The question is] whether you are willing to stand guard over someone else’s solitude, and whether you are able to set this same person at the gate of your own depths, which [s]he learns of only through what steps forth, in holiday clothing, out of the great darkness.”

10) Excerpt from “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but Really loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “But when you are Real you don‘t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit.”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

11) “When You Are Old” by W.B. Yeats
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sad, “From us fled Love,
He paced upon the mountains far above,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

12) “How to Kiss” from Romantic Love and Personal Beauty by Henry T Finck (1887):
“Kissing comes by instinct, and yet, it is an art which few understand properly. A lover should not hold his bride by the ears in kissing her, as appears to have been customary at Scotch weddings of the last century. A more graceful way, and quite as effective in preventing the bride from ‘getting away’, is to put your right arm around her neck, your fingers under her chin, raise the chin, and then gently, but firmly press your lips on hers.”

13) “Love without marriage can sometimes be very awkward for all concerned; but marriage without love simply removes that institution from the territory of the humanly admissible, to my mind. Love is a state in which one lives who loves, and whoever loves has given himself away; love then, and not marriage, is belonging. Marriage is a public declaration of a man and a woman that they have formed a secret alliance, with the intention to belong to, and share with each other, a mystical estate; mystical exactly in the sense that the real experience cannot be communicated to others, nor explained even to oneself on rational grounds.”
Katherine Anne Porter

14) from the Buddhist adaptation of the benediction:
“May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
The rains fall soft upon your fields
And as you walk through life
May every flower bloom in your path.”

15) “The Old Song and Dance” by Kenneth Rexroth
You, because you love me, hold fast to me, caress me,
Be quiet and kind, comfort me with stillness, say nothing at all.
You, because I love you, I am strong for you, I uphold you.
The water is alive around us.
Living water runs in the cut earth between us.
You, my bride, your voice speaks over the water to me.
Your hands, your solemn arms, cross the water and hold me.
Your body is beautiful. It speaks across the water.
Bride, sweeter than honey, glad of heart,
Our hearts beat across the bridge of our arms.
Our speech is speech of the joy in the night of gladness. Our words live.
Our words are children dancing forth from us like stars on water.
My bride, my well beloved, sweeter than honey, than ripe fruit,
Solemn, grave, a flying bird,
Hold me. Be quiet and kind. I love you. Be good to me.
I am strong for you. I uphold you. The dawn of ten thousand
Dawns is afire in the sky. The water flows in the earth.
The children laugh in the air.

16) from “The Prophet” by Kahil Gibran
“You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death shall scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

“Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

“Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

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