Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.
Song of Solomon 8: 6-7
“I, Candace, now take you, Wanda, to be my Life Partner, to laugh with you in joy, to grieve with you in sorrow, to grow with you in love, to be faithful to you alone, as long as we both shall live. And now, to you and to God, I make this solemn vow and promise.”
It was May 11, 2001 when I spoke those words to my partner, Wanda. We stood before God, our families and our friends and spoke words of love, commitment and joy to one another, vowing to love and cherish one another until death do us part.
I quickly ruined the solemnity of the moment, however, by insisting on singing a woefully unrehearsed solo to my new spouse. The gathered loved ones were kind in their assessments of my performance later, but the videotape never lies. It was awful. Unless you are Barbra Streisand, I don’t recommend singing at your own wedding.
But, the levity provided by my tuneless rendition of the Indigo Girls’ “Power of Two” is quite indicative of my partnership with Wanda. The sublime and absurd go hand in hand. Profundity and comic relief mark our relationship. We laugh with each other in joy and we grieve with each other in sorrow, sometimes moments after one another. It is in these times, these thin places, where our relationship grows even stronger – where we experience those moments of grace as a couple.
Wanda and I met through mutual friends on an outing they swear was not a set up (but later admitted it was – maybe because it worked out). I had been single for about two years after an 8-year relationship ended because of irreconcilable differences. I spent much of those two years pining for “the one.” I obsessed over one woman in a most unhealthy fashion and after much prayer, pleading and screaming at God about my lonely state, finally began to climb out of my pit of self-imposed despair.
The key was learning that I was complete on my own. I did not need another person to complete me. It’s not just a disorder of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community to place our self-worth in the hands of others. Our heterosexual counterparts do the same thing. GLBT people certainly didn’t invent co-dependency. I was so desperate to have that “other” – that person outside of me that completed me – that I was willing to latch on to anyone who looked kindly on me. It led to some awful times. In short, I looked for love in all the wrong places. There was nothing outside of me that could complete me. But, my loneliness persisted. Okay, maybe I didn’t need a partner to be complete, but it would be nice to have someone, right?
It was Henri Nouwen who helped me survive my despair. I clung to many of his words during this lonely time, but these meant the most to me:
“Be patient. When you feel lonely, stay with you loneliness. Avoid the temptation to let your fearful self run off. Let it teach you its wisdom; let it tell you that you can live instead of just surviving. Gradually you will become one, and you will find that Jesus is living in your heart and offering you all that you need.”
My mother tells me about a time when I was about 5 years old and she had tucked me into bed.
“Stay with me,” I cried. “I don’t want to be alone!”
My mother smiled at me and said, “you’re not alone. God is here with you.”
“I know,” I replied tearfully, “but I want something I can touch.”
Even in the loneliness of my 30s, I remained that small child wanting something concrete in my life – a God I could touch, a relationship I could hold on to – anything real to touch and use as my anchor.
Nouwen reminds us that our anchor is Christ. With Jesus living in our hearts we have all that we need. The rest of life is simply gravy. That’s a tough lesson for someone like me, who likes to touch and feel the things in their life and has little use for ethereal beings.
But, I did learn this lesson, finally. It was exactly a week before I met Wanda that I prayed earnestly to God this prayer:
“Okay, God, if this is it, I can handle it. If I’m meant to be single, then so be it. I can do it. I have a great job, a great house, a wonderful dog, a great family and friends. If this is my life as you wish it, then so be it. I will accept your will.”
That next week, I opened my front door and locked eyes with the woman who would become my life partner. When I saw her, I heard a clear voice in my head that said, “Well, there she is!”
The next though that ran through my head was first uttered by the famous Homer J. Simpson: “Shut up brain or I’ll stab you with a Q-tip.”
But, the damage had been done. I was a hopeless case the rest of the night. This woman was funny, charming and smart, but I tripped over myself all night and couldn’t look her in the eye. She was the one, I was sure of it, but I had been here before and had not fared well.
Frankly, I was very angry with God. I had just, that past week, told God I was okay as a single person and now this – stricken by love at first sight? It was maddening. What if she didn’t feel the same way? Was I spiraling toward another pointless obsession?
My questions were answered later that night as Wanda and I shared our first kiss. Months later we both discover that the energy of that split second at the door had been felt by both of us. It truly was love at first site in both sets of eyes.
All that time spent pining for someone like her – all that time spent crying, pleading with God to ease my loneliness. I had tried to fake God out, telling him I was okay with my life, that single was great! God never fell for it. It wasn’t until I made that honest prayer – that moment that I found Jesus in my heart offering me all that I needed – was the moment that my heart’s fondest desire was granted. God sent me “the one.”
We had been dating for less than a year when she proposed to me. I was elated to accept. We were married in a small ceremony in a wedding chapel in Senoia, Georgia that had been used previously as the spooky chapel in the movie Pet Sematary II.
A Love Recognized
In our ceremony we vowed to love one another, to support one another and to be not only lovers but friends. As we exchanged rings we made this promise: “I offer you my love, I offer my strength, I offer my support, I offer my loyalty, I offer my faith, I offer my hope . . . that in all the changing circumstances of life, we shall always live together in love.”
Our union has been marked by all of these qualities. We love one another beyond measure. We don’t always have to say it, but we say it often – while embracing, while riding in the car, while talking on the phone, while shopping. We have been each other’s strength in times of weakness. We have been each other’s support in times of challenge. We have been loyal to one another, faithful and the source of each other’s hope for an even better and more loving future together. We are partners in every way, through all the changing circumstances of our life.
Our love does not go unnoticed. In stores, we are often mistaken for sisters, even though we don’t exactly favor one another. People recognize the love we share, but in our conservative Southern state, they can’t bring themselves to put the “lesbian” label on us. “Sister” is the first thing they grasp for when faced with a deep love shared by two women.
A member of Wanda’s family, and one of her friends, remarked at a party at our house that they believed gay and lesbian couples had better relationships. “Y’all never fight,” her family member said. “You always get along and look really happy together.”
Now, we’re no poster children for lesbian relationships. We have our ups and downs like anyone else. But, our love for one another is what gets us through it all. We simply can’t imagine life without one another. We have fun together. We often are thinking the same thought – we’re on the same wavelength, so to speak. We blurt out the same thought at the same time or just moments ahead of the other. We are in sync. We can finish each other’s sentences and know what the other person would say or do in any given situation. We share an intimate connection marked by open communication and a deep and abiding concern for each other’s well being.
We’re not joined at the hip, by any means. We let one another go and pursue their interests. We are not monolithic. We each have our own opinion on things and feel free to express ourselves to one another. We are content to be individuals even as we join together as “one flesh” in the bond of marriage.
Aren’t all marriages like that? I thought so, but apparently not if our heterosexual counterparts are marveling at our compatibility, friendship, love and mutuality.
I’ve heard so many married heterosexuals rail against same-gender marriage and how it will damage their marriage. I thought this protest meant that we would somehow tear the institution of marriage apart, but maybe what they really meant was that their marriages might pale in comparison to ours. That’s what our straight friends were saying! They seemed to feel that their marriages were somehow “less than” ours because we seemed much happier together than they did with their spouses.
Perhaps our definition of marriage differs. For me, the marriage relationship is meant to mirror our relationship with God – both the profundity and the absurdity of that divine-human connection. Unity in marriage is meant to be an earthly replica of our search for unity with God. The mutuality, the unconditional love, the surrender to one another, the seeking after one another’s heart, the discerning of one another’s will, the sting of the absence of the other, the disconnection experienced in times of crises or disagreement. These feelings, emotions and states of being happen in every marriage, don’t they? If they don’t, what does it say not only about the state of our marriage, but about the state of our union with God?
In our spiritual as well as our earthly marriages, we are to set our beloved as a seal upon our heart, as the Song of Solomon so eloquently puts it. Our married love is a love stronger than death, our jealousy for our loved one stronger than the grip of hell – it is an eternal bond to another person, as well as our maker.
Floods of misery cannot quench this kind of thirsting after the beloved.
Madame Guyon, a Roman Catholic mystic who lived during the 17th and 18th centuries writes of this passage:
“If the manifold waters of afflictions, contradictions, miseries, poverty and distresses have not been able to quench the love of this soul, it is not to be supposed that the floods of abandonment to the Divine Providence could do it, for it is they that preserve it. If a man has had courage enough to abandon all the substances of his house and himself also that he may possess this pure love, which can only be acquired by the loss of all the rest, it is not to be believed that, after so generous an effort to acquire a good which he values above all other things, and which in truth is worth more than the whole universe, he will afterwards so underrate it as to return to what he had abandoned. It is not possible; God by this shows us the assuredness and persistence of this state, and how difficult it is for a soul who has reached it, ever to leave it again.”
Once we have experienced marital unity, either with the partner of our choosing or with God, why would we ever seek to leave it and return to the life we abandoned to have this union? The fact that the divorce rate among heterosexuals is almost 50 percent shows that most straight folk do not equate their union in marriage to a person to their spiritual marriage with God. Unless, that is, nearly half of those people are given to abandoning God whenever a shiny new spiritual idea catches their eye. I suppose this could be the case!
One of the best signs I’ve ever seen at a gay pride parade read: “Gay marriage NOW, or we renovate your neighborhood next!” What a chilling idea for some people, to have gay people gentrify their neighborhood. If we can improve their neighborhoods, think of what we can do with the institution of marriage. We can rehab it and sell it back to them at twice the price!
And what a slum heterosexual marriage has become – cheapened by such TV programs as “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” and “The Bachelor.” Not to mention that the main supporter of the Defense of Marriage Act, then Sen. Bob Barr of Georgia, was on his third wife (after an adulterous affair ended his second marriage) while pushing that piece of legislation. Whose marriage is he defending?
But, I suppose the real argument at hand is that marriage is between a man and a woman because it has been that way from time immemorial. It is “Adam and Eve” after all, not “Adam and Steve.” This homophobic nugget comes to us from the book of Genesis, of course. But a closer look at the passage shows that in reality God created “Adam and Adam!”
Genesis 5:1-2 reads: “This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.”
Indeed, male and female God created us. Gendered. Sexed. Separate. To procreate (never mind love) the two must become “one.” But, what is telling about this passage is in verse two. God “called their name Adam.” In Hebrew, “Adam” means simply “human being” or “mankind.” We are gendered, yes, but God calls us “human being” not “man” or “woman.” Paul echoes this sentiment when he tells us that before God “there is no male or female” (Galatians 3:28) – we are simply humans, endowed with a spark of our creator’s divinity.
This is why I believe that marriage, even though it is described in the Bible as being between a man and a woman (or one man and many women, in the Old Testament) is not exclusively for men and women. God created “human beings,” not men and women. I don’t believe God cares one bit about the genders of the two spouses as much as God cares whether there is fidelity, love, commitment, mutuality, respect and desire to show forth God’s love and mercy in their relationship.
No Law Against Love
Jesus tells us that the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). Marriages that mirror that unity with God, and branches out to show love to the community around them are marriages blessed by God, no matter the gender of the two partners. Both Jesus and Paul emphasis that it is love that matters. There is no sin in love and when the fruit of the spirit comes to life in a union of same-gendered partners – when there is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – how can anyone condemn it? Against these things, there is no law, Paul tells us (Galatians 5:22-23).
Our family sees the fruit of the spirit in our relationship. They have commented on it. They have praised it. They recognize that something of this quality is missing from their own marriages. If gays and lesbians can bring this reminder of marriage’s purpose and majesty back to a world desperately in need of this message, how can it possible “ruin” the institution? It can only make it stronger. It can only build stronger, more loving unions and maybe, just maybe, remind people that this union should be a reflection of their own union with God.
Marriage is a seal upon our heart that no one can break. Our spiritual marriage to God is the same and should be reflected in our earthly union. If it is then no waters or floods of crisis can prevail against it – not even a society that says both unions, for gays and lesbians, have no right to exist.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.