My sister’s email sent shivers down my spine. It was ten days before the wedding, and somehow we had forgotten to turn in two absolutely necessary documents. Was it even possible to get them in time?
Everyone knows what a nightmare weddings can be. First, you have to find a church that is available for the day and time you have in mind. Then you have to line up a venue for the reception, dinner and dance. Then you have to find a bride or groom who’s both available and willing to marry you on that date. I may have these items out of order, but everyone knows the drill. Then there are the thousand and one details that need tending to; so I’m not at all surprised that some people give up in despair and hire a wedding planner. Or elope.
But there are a few things that can throw a wrench into it all. In this particular instance, as we looked forward to the impending wedding of my nephew, my sister (his mother) emailed to get two items that had slipped off their radar and out of my memory entirely. The first was a document stating my “suitability for ministry.” The second gave me legal authorization to witness a wedding in the state of Oklahoma. Getting the first document would be a breeze. With only ten days to go, the second document might just be a nightmare.
Few people know that when a priest functions outside of his home diocese he needs a document that attests to his suitability for ministry. Normally it’s the bishop who signs it; but in my case, as a Benedictine, it’s the abbot who provides it. This is a straightforward piece of paper, filled with canonical legalese; and if you’ve never read one you need to brace yourself. They are not the sort of bland letters of reference that you send on behalf of former employees or students, filled with pious but ambiguous statements like “you’ll be lucky if you can get Bill to work for you,” or “of all the students I have taught through the years, Alice would most certainly rank among them.”
No, this is a bone-dry statement that affirms that I am in good standing as a priest, am qualified to perform the sacraments, and have achieved an expertise that ranks me above monster or idiot. In other words, I can read through the service book with a minimum of competence, and I won’t embarrass too many people at the reception. But absent entirely is anything about being a gentle soul or a decent preacher. No, we are looking for the least common denominator of ability. Fortunately I had pulled myself beyond that years ago, and the abbot was more than willing to sign off on the testimonial. The very day my sister asked for the letter, out it went from the abbot’s office.
It was the license to witness a marriage in the state of Oklahoma that worried me. I had done a wedding there many years ago, but if I couldn’t find that license I would have to initiate the lengthy process to get another one. Fortunately, I knew I had a document that referenced the license on file in Oklahoma County. Unfortunately, the information was written down on a scrap of paper in a drawer of my desk in my room in the monastery. However, that morning I was sitting on the tarmac at San Francisco Airport, and the said scrap was in Minnesota. Worse still, I had not planned to go home before heading to the wedding in Tulsa, the seat of Tulsa County.
I could scarcely hide my anxiety when I told my sister coolly that there would be no problem. “Just call the records office in Oklahoma County, [where I had last witnessed a marriage in Oklahoma], and they will find the license in a flash in their digitized database.” Wrong. Thirty minutes later my sister emailed to report that some poor clerk had sheepishly explained that nothing had been digitized. The search would take forever as he went line by line and page by page through shelves of volumes of marriage records. With that bad news I started to sweat bullets. I might very well be watching the wedding from a pew rather than the altar.
Plan B was daring in its simplicity. I had six hours in Minnesota after landing in Minneapolis. It was just enough time to bolt up the interstate to Saint John’s, find that scrap of paper, and drive back. I steeled myself at the thought, but it had to be done. There was no other way; nor could I ask a confrere to rifle through my files to find something I could scarcely describe. It was hopeless, but I would succeed, maybe.
When I landed in Minneapolis and opened the email, there was one from my sister, and all my anxiety drained away. Remembering that I had witnessed my niece’s wedding many years ago, she had called the clerk and offered the year of that ceremony. At least this would narrow the search by eliminating dozens of volumes. The enterprising clerk took it from there, and his line by line search of a whole year of weddings in Oklahoma County had finally turned up the name of my niece. Sure enough, there was my name listed as the presiding official. And to my astonishment it noted that I was registered in Kay County, where my sister’s family had once lived.
I never would have looked in Kay County, but at this stage I didn’t care where in Oklahoma I was registered. The document would be in hand in one day, and the wedding would be on, thanks to the amazing courtesy of one office clerk in Oklahoma City. People can speculate all they want about the kindness of strangers, but that day I experienced it first hand. Sadly, I never even got to thank that kind soul.
Now you may assume that this cooperation is available in every government office across the country, but I suggest you not bet your nephew’s wedding on it. Just last summer, for instance, I witnessed a wedding in New York, and the registration with the city records office went just fine. After the wedding we gathered in the sacristy of the church and got all the signatures we needed to complete the marriage license before we scattered to the corners of the country. With signatures on the paper, we blotted the ink and carefully sealed, stamped and mailed the envelope. There was nothing more to do, unless we had blessed and incensed the envelope. In retrospect, we should have done that.
A week after the wedding a voice from the records office of the City of New York called to report that I had spilled coffee all over the marriage license and that all the names were smudged beyond recognition. I would have to get a new form and get everybody to sign again. Otherwise there was no official marriage.
I was tempted to object with a question. “Do you know how hard it is to spill coffee on a letter when it’s already sealed in the envelope? Give me a break!” But I thought better of sarcasm. So I just groveled in submission and admitted my mistake. “Gee, I was hoping you guys wouldn’t notice. So I guess I’ll have to do it better this time around.” “Correct,” came the tart-tongued reply.
I have learned two things from these two weddings. First, keep a list of all the places where I am registered to do weddings, and carry it with me all the time. This will not be all that hard, because it will have only four entries: Minnesota, New York, California and Oklahoma. Second, be grateful for the kindness of office clerks everywhere. It’s amazing what some generous souls can and will do to help people when they don’t have to. Whether you want to attribute their goodness to God’s handiwork matters less than does the need to be grateful for the kindness of strangers. There’s no law to say they have to be nice. But when they do it out of the generosity of their hearts, such people are gifts to us all.
As for the tart-tongued clerks of the world who can do no wrong, it’s important to pray for them. Someday they too will need to depend upon the kindness of strangers. And while my first temptation is to pray that they get exactly what’s coming to them, there is a much better prayer. May they be treated with a kindness beyond anything they’ve ever imagined.
+On February 3rd I was in San Francisco and took part in a meeting to plan the investure in June of the Order of Malta. Experience has shown what a complex and challenging event it is to put together and pull off, but the result is always a great experience.
+On Tuesdays following evening prayer the monks at Saint John’s Abbey meet to discuss various items, as well as to hear occasional conferences from the abbot. This last week Abbot John addressed the issue of our prayer, and he noted that it has now been twenty-five years since we last revised our liturgy of the hours. While all monasteries follow virtually the same format of the office, each tweaks the prayer cycle according to the needs and schedule of the local community. It is a lot of work to revise this, which may explain why it has been two and a half decades since we last looked at this. But it may be time to see what needs to be done. Thankfully my lack of expertise means I likely will not sit on any committee. But I do have opinions, which I will share most generously.
+On February 7th our confrere Fr. John-Bede Pauley received word that he had been awarded the Ph.D. in music from the University of Durham in England. He currently teaches in the music department at Saint John’s University.
+The pictures in today’s post come from the Cluny Museum in Paris, a photo of which is at top. The alabaster figures are from the 15th-century tomb of Duke Philip the Bold, and consist of mourners from his court as well as Carthusian monks from the Charterhouse of Dijon, where the tomb was located. The Cluny Museum now houses those figures. The final picture is something totally out of character for this blog. Sometimes you run across a scene that sums your day up perfectly, and I spied this as I walked just outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It should have been inside.