Rites of Passage

Have you ever thought about the importance and power of ritual? I have. In fact, I think about it all the time. As someone who has been a student and a practitioner of both religion and psychology my entire adult life, I have always been fascinated by ritual, and especially by rituals that mark important transitions in a person's life. Perhaps you know someone who is either graduating or getting married this time of year as it is the season for these events. Perhaps you will even be attending a graduation or wedding soon. If so, then you will be witnessing first hand the importance and power of ritual. Specifically, if you are part of a graduation or wedding ceremony, you will be witnessing and participating in what particular kind of ritual known as a rite of passage.

Rites of passage are ceremonies created and celebrated by communities to mark a person's transition from one stage of life to another. They are as ancient as human civilization itself. Everywhere, in every culture, rites of passage occur throughout the life cycle to mark a person's transition from one stage of identity--from youth to adulthood, from student to graduate, from work to retirement, from being single to being married, from life to death.

On one level, both graduations and wedding ceremonies celebrate the choices that individuals have made. A graduate is someone who has made disciplined choices for many years in order to achieve the honor of being able to graduate. A couple getting married is a celebration of two individuals who have made disciplined choices over time to build a relationship to which they now wish to make a lifelong commitment. Without the choices made by these individuals, there would be no rite of passage ceremony.

At the same time though, there would also not truly be a rite of passage ceremony without the gathering of the wider community to witness and celebrate it. It is not a coincidence that most graduation and wedding ceremonies include a gathering of multiple generations to both witness and celebrate the rite of passage. The wider communities of extended family, friends, colleagues, faculty, and neighbors all there to confer their blessing and recognition of the individual's new identity, whether that new identity be as graduate or as part of a newly married couple.

All of this a great reminder that a person's identity is always created through a combination of individual choice and communal blessing. No person is an island. The myth of the "self-made" individual is just that--a myth. Individual choice is necessary to create a new identity, but it is not sufficient. There must also be a formative community that both blesses and marks the individual's choices in order to confer the new identity.

So if you are invited to participate in a graduation or wedding ceremony this time of year, I hope you will joyfully accept. You have been invited because you are an essential part of the community that has formed that person's identity. Without you, they wouldn't be the person that they are today. They need you there to bless and mark their new identity, and to love and support them as they grow into who they are now becoming.