NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 11
Tom and Elaine McMahon's son, Tommy, married Phuong Nugyen on July 8th. His commentary today explores a complex mix of the personal and the communal, the secular and theological. The underlying focus continues to be this exploration of the meaning of Sacrament in the vastly changed, and changing, world we occupy today.
A bonding of families…
When I began this series I had a vision of exploring the future, something like a Star Wars journey into the unknown; as a cradle-trained Catholic I had seven sacraments from 1542 which I would examine closely, especially as I had personally used them. I find now week after week the Polar Express idling at the station of the familiar, getting re-acquainted with well known experiences that are showing up with God's trade mark on them, without the seven imprimaturs of Trent. So it was for me during the three day rituals of our son Tommy's wedding; the first took place on 08/08/08 — the Asian sign of good fortune — Phuong of Vietnamese ancestry becoming our daughter-in-law. Strong throughout was the bonding of families. My version of the Mystery called God was present throughout. I admit there are a variety of theologies about God, which will be a Catholica series in the future. No longer a company man I can roam the world finding my version of God; I see folly in any attempt to limit the Mystery called God.
Friday evening found us in the back yard of the home Tommy's mother was born into, 1945; Grandma Jennie is still the owner, now living across the street in her new home, and the newly weds are her renters. Tommy had changed the backyard from a dirt pile to newly seeded grass and lovely trees and shrubs. Phuong dressed in white and Tommy in new dark blue suit exchanged vows in a simple ceremony with nostalgic moments of individual freedom sprinkled with 18th century reminders, before a woman minister, how a man and woman should mutually address their future together. I thought of the contrast of 95% of women in the Middle Ages that never saw a wedding ceremony and had no choice as to the man with whom she would live. The license was signed and the State of California was legally satisfied, along with changes in tax status etc. South San Francisco weather is windy in August; 08/08/08 did not spare us as we witnessed, bundled against the cold. I marveled at the realization that the child of 29 years ago was a man.
Saturday, 11.30 am found us outside the family home of Duc Tran and Tri Nugyen, father and mother of the bride; we were formally welcomed by the oldest brother Be (Bay) who represented the ancestral father and we stood before a shrine altar, bright with the color red. Families were introduced, rituals honoring ancestors were performed and their blessing called upon the couple; the groom was welcomed into the family and solemnly father and father exchanged a tiny cup of tea … and daughter Phuong, dressed in red, was thus married. I was emotionally moved and in awe at the ceremony with its depth of traditional meaning, tears filling my eyes. Extended family support followed, advice and monetary. I was moved as mother taking her daughter's hand and looking at her with love and seriousness in Vietnamese gave permission to leave home and build her own. How fortunate was my son to be welcomed into this healthy family system; the ceremony clearly delineated Tommy's obligations. The ritual in its ancient form was male orientated; I suspect, seeing this family's adjustment to western setting, that a combination with modern feminine thinking underlies the whole.
Phuong is a child of the Boat People of Vietnam; their family was attacked by pirates as they fled. I asked Tri if she would tell me their story; this gentle woman looked at me carefully and with a smile said "yes, Tom, to you, but only after the wedding". I respectfully sense more enlightenment and understanding of trauma and how people survive, becoming stronger. Throughout I sensed Tommy was involving with a strong family supportive system.
The big event came on Saturday night in a politically controversial section of San Jose commonly called Little Saigon; friends and relatives who were not at the first two ceremonies were invited to the feast, literally carried out and seen for the majority as the wedding of Tommy and Phuong. Relatives had come from Vietnam, and Canada, and Texas and Sacramento and there was representation from the Italian and Irish sides of Tommy's family, as well as skateboard friends of youthful days. We feasted, toasted, danced, and had fun, even having our photo taken in an old time 4 picture arcade; Tommy had proposed to Phuong in such a booth at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco.
Was God present? This old time cleric, trained in limited 1930's Irish-Catholic grade school and pre Vatican Two seminary inevitable will ask the question. I was in a totally different milieu as far as marriage was concerned, resentful at times that my kids treat me like an old man while completely unaware of my new thinking. Of course my God was there, that wonderful Creator who knows no ethnic identity and who knows how to reward the human race with pleasure and fun in return for accepted responsibility and is skilled at placing godly blessings on newly weds. I rejoice like Simeon who in his agedness saw the dawn of new redemption (Luke 2 v25); as I near 80 I could only marvel at the gifts I have received at my belated age. Praise and thanksgiving to you, O Mystery One. Your gift of life is ever unfolding and truly awesome. You are truly ever present!
The presence of the Mystery of God in everyday life…
The unfinished question that may lurk in the mind of some might be "can one have a sacrament without the church or a priest being involved?" Throughout my writing I have attempted to put into words the presence of the Mystery of God in everyday life. I learned this over time, particularly after I left institutional ministry. Elaine and I had often discussed marriage when I was a church pastor; we were in love and committed but I in particular still held to the hoodoo that a priest was necessary for Catholics to have a proper wedding; we owned a house and when Elaine told me she was pregnant I knew I had to make a break from my accustomed thinking. I brought my letter of resignation from the priesthood to the archbishop and he requested I stay on as pastor, his only stipulation being that I abandon the mother and our about-to-be-son; I saw this as madness. In time a legal ceremony would follow to satisfy the state and our relatives and friends still wonder where and when. We did have a priest witness our vows in our home. As our family grew up I, now gone from institutional ministry, slowly dropped the hoodoos of the past and simply asked what benefit there was in having a priest as witness. Would God send me to hell for falling in love and protecting our children? I knew church law that allowed a couple to marry, parent-father presiding, when a priest would not be available even for such a short time as two months; Alaska had married couples representing the church as the priest numbers dwindled. Did the priest have any real role, outside of State witness? We knew marriage to be the only Trenten sacrament that the couple initiated. Was this a control issue? Besides, the ceremony is not the marriage state.
No church or priestly person has power over God, the Deity flowing where the Spirit wills to all peoples and in the Creator's unique way. After study of the ignorance and spiritual chaos of the Middle Ages I accept that the bishops of the Council of Trent bravely stepped forward offering a simple positive plan as to what they saw as God's continuing involvement with creation; they had the courage to speak their truth as they saw it in a simple manner that even the illiterate could appreciate; they gave us the seven sacred signs — a minimum even the illiterate might understand. Their era of influence came to a crisis point (crisis invites the intelligent person to go one way or the other) as education swept the face of the earth; some have dug in, having circled the wagons around medieval thinking, fearful of change that education will bring and refusing to budge. Some need control by others of their lives, like children thinking they are safe with no need to grow up. Before I left institutional ministry I had made major shifts in the weddings I witnessed; I did not "perform" weddings or marry people. I made sure all knew I was a mere witness, like all the others present, and the couple brought about their own sacred sign, publicly. We witnesses could be their support system and the Spirit of a human Jesus of great value.
Science today has offered more understanding to the Mystery of God than my old time seminary training. Persons who marry have the opportunity to make God present in their daily life; we must work to make that Presence possible. I once asked a woman how long her husband and herself had been married … and she smiled … and said "just got married again this morning".
You have read it before yet allow me to close with an except from Michael Morwood; Michael echoes the mindset of brilliant men who search in faith the universe for understanding of the Creator. I name a few, Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Michael says:
"We are living through the greatest shift ever in Christian thought. New images of our universe and our planet, along with knowledge about the long, slow development of life on this planet provide us with a new context in which to understand the divine presence we call God always present and active everywhere. Reflection on the universality of this presence leads to further reflection on and renewed appreciation of Jesus as revealer of this mysterious presence in our everyday living and loving, rather than on Jesus as the mediator between us and a faraway deity. A Church always in need of renewal must engage, at all levels, this shift in images and thought if it is to have integrity and relevance in the twenty-first century."
Thank you Brian, Telhard, Thomas, and Michael for sharing your gifts. … And thank you God for giving us such intelligent persons. There is not one reader here that cannot appreciate their simple and profound thinking.
Tom McMahon, San Jose, happy our family has gone international. 0/08/2008 … off now to Soda Springs to search the High Sierra for God's footprints.
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What are your thoughts on this commentary?