Two evenings ago, Susie and I went to a lovely early music concert at Cluny, the Museum of the Middle Ages, several blocks from our apartment. A group of five women named De Caelis sang motets and plainsong from England of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. The music was quite glorious. The last number on the program was a five part composition, in English, written six years ago. The music was complex and interesting, although not up to the compositions from the late Middle Ages, but the text was banal – sections were called “Purify,” “Teleology,” “Change,” and such. As I listened, I was reminded of weddings I have attended between upscale college educated couples. The two young people, as like as not, have chosen to write their own vows, which they recite to one another in place of the traditional wedding ceremony. Their vows are heartfelt, earnest, and utterly banal. They strive for poetry but achieve only the most mechanic of prose.
Invariably, I find myself thinking how much wiser the couple would have been to opt for the traditional language: “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God – and in the face of this company – to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is commended to be honorable among all men; and therefore – is not by any – to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly – but reverently, discreetly, advisedly and solemnly. Into this holy estate these two persons present now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together – let them speak now or forever hold their peace.” And so forth.
I don’t care whether you believe in God [which I do not], that is genuinely beautiful language. What is more, it is the traditional language, and inasmuch as the fundamental purpose of a wedding is to situate a couple within the multi-generational traditions of which they become a part through the ceremony, writing one’s own language is about as sensible as the decision by the U.S. Air Force Academy, when it opened in Colorado Springs, to invent some “traditions” which it presented solemnly to the very class of cadets who arrived in 1955.