Last spring in Edmonton, I attended a graduation for my grandson. It was exactly as you’d expect — excited anticipation as families and friends scrambled with cameras and celebratory bouquets of flowers for the graduates who, sporting mortarboard hats, filled the first rows of the horseshoe-shaped theatre. In the background, school staff, corsages pinned to their best outfits, prepared to take both guests and honourees through the highlights of their recent adventure before handing out the coveted diplomas.
Sitting back for the spectacle, I realized that I quite like rites of passage. Which wasn’t always the case. I belong to the generation that skipped our college graduations and wrote our own wedding vows — if we got married at all. The more time-honoured the convention, the more I wanted to flout it. Older now, I have changed my tune — but only partly.
Every culture has ways to acknowledge important life passages. Various First Nations send young people on vision quests as part of their transition to adulthood. Before such hunts were banned, a young Maasai in Kenya would have to kill a lion. In the Hamar tribe of Ethiopia, a boy has to jump over a herd of cattle in order to become a man.
For many Canadians, there’s no rite of passage quite like a graduation. It takes the individual on to the next stage of a prescribed journey. It signals to a family that everything is normal; their child is keeping pace.
Here I should point out that the graduation we were attending was from kindergarten. And save for birthday parties, it was the first rite-of-passage ceremony Timothy had experienced — neither of my grandsons got an infant baptism.
The church used to have the corner on life ceremonies. The very terms “rite” and “ritual” are in fact ecclesiastical definitions. For Protestants, baptism and confirmation stood for many generations as the main markers in early life. However, as everyone knows, people are not turning to churches for the traditional rituals anymore. United Church numbers, for example, tell us that baptisms dropped from 66,000 in 1960 to 10,000 by 2009 (marriages dropped from 29,000 to 8,500 over the same period). Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean our need for rites and rituals has disappeared. Rev. Bill Kervin, professor of public worship at Emmanuel College in Toronto, says that “human beings are by nature ritualizing creatures, articulating meaning through symbolic acts. Rites of passage define cultures through a matrix of meaning.” So what the church once gave us — and still gives to many — must now be found elsewhere in secular society.
British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner posited that the need for ritual comes out of the sense that passages are inherently scary, even dangerous. Everything from puberty to death is perilous and so, he argued, needs communal assent to negotiate. The communal dimension is paramount, says Kervin. “It helps us not be alienated or isolated.”
In the past year I’ve been to a couple of baptisms. One was in the church I attend in Toronto, another my wife and I witnessed as tourists in Thomaskirche, the church of J.S. Bach in Leipzig, Germany. We fell in with four extended families gathered with their small children. This holiest of Christian ceremonies was lovely, inherently conservative — not in a bad way, but in the sense of reaching back to tradition — and on some level felt almost tribal. Yet in our world, tribal is not what most people want. One of the most profound changes to society in the last couple of generations is how it has become an amalgam of cultures, ethnicities and religions. When church and community were one and the same, things were easy. But now, even if we go to church, what we think of as our community is likely to be much broader than our congregation. In our post-Christian world, churches are, if you will, vertical silos rising from the horizontal plane of society. The challenge is to enact shared community in an increasingly fractured or fragmented world. Each of us comes from our own tradition, but the people we rub shoulders with at work or as neighbours are less and less likely to share that same background. Rites of passage may be about tradition, but they are also about community. What seems to be happening is that community is superseding tradition; our need to share milestones with friends and colleagues trumps our need to share them with ancestors. (This is why posting life events on Facebook has become almost a rite in itself).
One place to which the search for something more “horizontal” will take us is our public schools. More and more, schools fill a gap with rite-of-passage events, enacting them not because they are cute, but because they permit people to share experiences as well as progress. Graduating from kindergarten is not the only life passage that merits a ceremony more extravagant than it did in my generation. Another comes at the end of Grade 6, Toronto teacher Kathryn Day tells me, before a huge one on the way out of Grade 8. “That one,” she says, “is insane, with suits and formal gowns and everybody getting their hair done.”
All kinds of things can be a rite of passage, and sometimes people invent their own, which they then impose on their group. At a crucial stage of adolescence, young people often pursue physically dangerous or legally risky ventures like skateboarding or tagging a wall with graffiti. These rites (and they are very much rites, which you fail to pass at your peril) are invented by the kids and judged by the kids. If you reach the summit as a video-game player, you might not get congratulations from your grandparents, but your peers will stand in awe. The quests that involve danger — a little like the Maasai youth’s confronting a lion — sometimes end with terrible results. A friend of Day’s son lost his life chasing a train with his spray-paint can in hand.
Occasionally, old traditions manage to hold their own. Not long after the kindergarten graduation in Edmonton, I attended a graduation for students from a private high school in Ontario. Founded 150 years ago by Anglicans, the school clings to a modicum of ecclesiastical ritual that gets trotted out vigorously at its annual graduation day. With Muslim, Hindu and Jewish students from 31 different countries, the school today is stridently multicultural; barely 25 percent of the students declare themselves to be even nominally Anglican. Yet the graduation ceremony is heavily loaded with church ritual, including a procession in full vestments through the chapel. To participate fully, one must know not only the school prayer and school departure hymn, but also the words to Jerusalem — and be prepared to sing with gusto. Nods to a changing world meant that closing prayers were presented in Turkish, French, Spanish, Italian, Hindi, Mandarin, Russian, German, Greek and Latin, but the ceremony as a whole had not changed much in 150 years. And everybody bought into it. Parents from Nigeria and Hong Kong celebrating the graduation of their child beamed as they struggled to follow the Sanctus and Benedictus.
“Rituals,” Bill Kervin reminds us, “have never had a fixed meaning; they have always been evolving.” This can feel unsettling, but it’s the way of the world. Like everything else, our celebrations are subject to perpetual evolution. Yet in the midst of these shifts, one thing that hasn’t changed is our need for ritual itself.
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