Rites Resurgence: Marking the passages of a life

Author and scholar Ronald L. Grimes ’67T has observed rites of passage across cultures, from sacred Pueblo Indian initiations to Sikh turban ceremonies. He has even played a homemade didgeridoo (an Aborigine wind instrument) and worn a mask of feathers during ceremonies he organized for friends.

But the rite of passage that affected him most deeply was of a more personal nature — the birth of his son and daughter. Both were born at home with the assistance of a midwife, which provided the freedom to play music, serve tea, and formally recognize the drama of childbirth.

“The event becomes elevated, if you give it its own space and set up room for that to happen,” Grimes said, in a phone interview from his home in Waterloo, Ontario. “Serving tea, folding cloths, simple things suddenly become charged. With a birth, there is already a sense of awe and danger and mystery inscribed into the event. You’re just attending to it.”

Grimes, a professor of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, is the author of Deeply into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passage, published in 2000 and recently released in paperback, and the autobiographical Marrying and Burying: Rites of Passage in a Man’s Life. He’s currently working on two documentaries on rituals and rites of passage.

“Whatever the reason, the past two decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the construction of rites of passage,” Grimes says. “There’s a lot of nostalgia for a rich, symbolic life in North American culture. People are searching for meaning, for communal solidarity.

“Passages can be negotiated without the benefit of rites, but in their absence, there is a greater risk of speeding through the dangerous intersections of the human life course. . . . Unattended passages become spiritual sinkholes.”

Grimes, who has a doctorate in religious studies from Columbia University, was spurred to examine the topic of “re-inventing” rites of passage after various friends and colleagues asked if he knew of any ceremonies to mark the arrival of menopause, cross-cultural weddings and same-sex commitments, and helping terminally ill people to end their lives.

“Ronald Grimes has carried forth the work of [late anthropologist and world religions scholar] Victor Turner in drawing attention to the power of ritual not only in religious contexts but in everyday life,” says Bradd Shore, director of Emory’s Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life. “His work is very broad-ranging, and includes both traditional academic style analyses and more personal accounts of the power of ritual in human life. Grimes is probably the most important contemporary figure in ritual theory alive today.”

Rites of passage mark powerful transformations, turning singles into partners, children into adults, adults into parents. Such rites, Grimes says, incorporate three main themes: the human life course, the phases of passage, and the experience of transformation.

“A transformation is not just any sort of change, but a momentous metamorphosis, a moment after which one is never again the same,” he says. “Even a single rite of passage can divide a person’s life into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ An entire system of such rites organizes a life into stages.”

Rites are stylized and condensed–choreographed actions and value-laden images that are driven deeply “into the marrow” by repeated practice and performance. Some are inherited from one’s family or community, such as baptisms or bar mitzvahs; others are revised to fit new situations, such as contemporary ceremonies recognizing blended families, divorces, or adoptions.

The danger in modernizing rituals, Grimes says, is losing tradition and context, creating superficial rituals that penetrate only skin deep. Checking e-mail over morning coffee or watching videos together as a family may be habitual, but are hardly transcendent, experiences.

“Ritualization happens all the time,” he says. “We have started to have to ritualize our relationships to technological things, TVs and computers. But technology rituals tend toward disembodiment and passivity.”

But there is also a risk in rigidly adhering to traditional rites that may be oppressive or discriminatory. Instead of leaving a void, Grimes says, why not deliberately enact new rites that connect us to our bodies, each other, and nature?

When Grimes’ friend decided to leave the Lutheran church after seventeen years as a minister, she asked for his help in creating a rite that would both mark her departure and address the emotional complexity of the decision. The resulting “un-ordination” involved formal responsive readings and donning all of her religious vestments at once–six chasubles and six stoles–which she then removed one by one.

“She needed to mark the occasion,” he says, “because it was tremendously traumatic to her.” Being surrounded by a community of friends and colleagues during the event provided the support and acceptance she needed.

At their best, rites of passage connect people and renew our ability to “embrace the ordinary,” says Grimes. “The goal of ritual is to spice up daily existence with flavors so exquisite that we are unable to forget the banquet.”–M.J.L.