I found my wedding ring today about noon.
It’s been missing for 10 days. I only ever take it off when I’m putting something slippery or sticky all over my hands. In this case it was shampoo to wash my children’s hair with, and I set it right beside the bathtub, but I forgot to put it back on when I was done. When I came back for it it was missing.
I was acutely aware of its absence. I kept dreaming I’d found it, and I noticed every roundish, shiny thing out of the corner of my eyes, always checking to see if it was the ring. When I saw my husband’s ring sitting on the counter, my heart would leap for a moment and then fall. Yesterday the skin on my finger started breaking out where I’d been unconsciously rubbing it.
Contemporary Catholic sacramental theology thinks and talks a lot about symbol. Karl Rahner discusses how every real symbol (not merely an arbitrary sign) makes the thing it symbolizes present in a real way, and not just abstractly present, but present for those to whom the symbol is addressed. (See a post of mine here for more.) Louis-Marie Chauvet points out that in every symbolic presence it is important that the thing symbolized is not only present, but also, in a way, absent: we cannot manipulate or control God through the symbols given to save us (a great mercy, in my opinion).
But the best description, in my opinion, comes from the theologically-inclined Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. In the second volume of his phenomenology of givenness, Being Given, he considers the wedding ring as an example of how part of the symbolic power of our symbols comes from the fact that they refuse to be what they symbolize (I know one or two of you are starting to have heart palpitations about Eucharistic presence, but transubstantiation is a special and complicated case; just stick to the wedding ring for now and I promise to talk about Eucharist another time):
The wedding ring . . . attests that the Other has given himself . . . to me in giving me this object, and reciprocally; but the two gifts (the ring and the Other) never coincide. . . . By contrast, the ring attests the gift that I became in receiving (that of) the Other precisely because in reality it is not equal to it, but offers the symbolic index of this gift, without common measure with what is nevertheless shown in it (Marion, Being Given, 105).
In other words, as I go on to put it in Efficacious Engagement:
This excellent example demonstrates that the symbolic reduction of the gift occurs because the gift does not (yet) exist: the gift of self enacted in the marriage ceremony and in the life of commitment to the partner cannot be made available to the receiver because it is not present to the giver. The self offered in marriage never exists when it is given. It can, perhaps, come to exist only because it has already been given (Efficacious Engagement, around p. 174).
In more concrete terms, the ring I lost was superficially replaceable: here is one that looks exactly like it did when it was new, for example. What it symbolizes, of course, Matt’s gift of his life to and for me and my gift of myself to him, is certainly not replaceable (nor did I lose it in losing the ring). As Marion says, the ring was significant not because it was exactly the thing I want, but because it represented to us the gifts we hope to become for one another. The absence of the ring, for a short time, became an even more poignant symbol of my marriage, and the sore spot I rubbed into my finger was, in a sense, a physical symbol of its absence. But there is such a thing, I think, as too many symbolic removes!
This ring has a history wound up with it, 10 years of visible and invisible bumps, important memories. I lost it under a deck on my first anniversary but regained it due to the intervention of a Good Samaritan with a cordless drill willing to tamper with federal property. I dropped it in the snow by the side of the road in Chicago, too, where it evaded recapture for a few hours. More importantly, Matt put it on my finger after it had been blessed on our wedding day; I would never wear a replacement unless it had been blessed and given in a renewal of vows. As we looked through the house for it, we talked about these things, a liturgy of the word of sorts.
Now it has a new story. My daughter, Juliana, was the probable culprit for its disappearance. Since she’s only two though, it’s hard to get a full response to “where’s Mommy’s ring?” She kept pointing to a shelf in my closet, where there was no ring of any sort. No doubt she put it there once, and it fell through (the shelves are wire), which she remembered without knowing what she’d done with it after that. I finally went through the rest of the upstairs thinking about all the places, were I a small child, that I might put a ring. When I looked under her dresser, I found it, amid a cluster of other girlish treasures: barrettes, a small flashlight, a couple of stuffed animals.
Now it’s back on my finger, again part of the sacramental body we build together in marriage. Thanks be to God.