I got married fairly recently (baby was born 9 months after the wedding, and she’s not yet a year old) so the wedding-planning experience is still fresh in my mind. One irksome tendency among women posting on message boards like The Knot is the denigration of traditional weddings as “cookie cutter weddings.” If you didn’t choose a unique “theme” for your wedding (like “boats” or “King Kong”), if you held it in a normal venue (i.e., a church), if you wore a white dress from David’s Bridal, then the implication is that you accepted empty forms instead of expressing your own authentic individuality. Worst of all are the couples who don’t write their own vows; their very affections have been defined for them by others.
But I think writing your own vows is, in many cases, less sincere than using the ones from the Book of Common Prayer (though there are circumstances in which writing your own may be warranted: for instance, if it is expected in your culture, or if you are a non-Christian for whom the traditional vows would be dishonest). During emotionally powerful experiences, it is common for people to lament the indequacy of language: “words fail me,” “I cannot express how much . . . ” It is for moments like this that liturgy and ritual are given to us. Ritual becomes a kind of “structured silence” in which our own mental chatter ceases, instead allowing a greater power to speak through us. To refuse ritual, to insist that you are still perfectly articulate and self-sufficient, is to deny the sublimity of the experience and thus to be less “true” to what is really going on.
Of course, the institution of marriage is not defined by the individual wills of those who enter it. That’s one reason to retain the traditional vows. But I also think that the inner experience of love demands rituals commensurate with its true power.