Transitions and Ritual

My friend, Lisa, asked me yesterday at gymnastics (our sons’ class, not ours) how I became interested in transitions. I told her that it must have started when my parents created a non-religious rite of passage to honor my brothers’ transitions into adulthood. These coming of age ceremonies were a big deal in our house and I couldn’t wait to have mine when I turned thirteen. Although we were Jewish, we weren’t religious, so we wouldn’t be having the traditional Bar or Bat Mitzah to commemorate our transitions into adolescence and young adulthood. In its place my parents created an elaborate ceremony in which we each picked a topic to study for a year, then wrote a twenty minute speech on the topic. My oldest brother’s topic was “Freedom”. My middle brother chose “Discovering Myself.” And my topic was “The Courage to be Me.” After the speech, each family member would speak to us, followed by gifts that each held a symbolic meaning. At least 120 people attended these rites of passages. They were beautiful, meaningful and left a lasting impression.

As I progressed through adolescence, I longed for rituals to honor and contain other rites of passage – and found none. I wanted women surrounding me to celebrate and teach me about the blessings of being a woman. I wanted older sisters to show me the way regarding the opposite sex. These longing weren’t the fanciful wishes of a young woman but aches that burned deep into my soul. So it came as no surprise that when I got married I longed for rituals and meaningful information that would contain my experience. And at each subsequent transition – moving, buying a house, losing my grandmother, losing my beloved pet, pregnancy and motherhood – the longing appeared again.

Interestingly, the rite of passage I’ve written about the most – the wedding – carries the most ritual in this culture. We buy special clothes. We walk down an aisle with one or both parents. We exchange vows in the presence of a spiritual mentor. We sign documents. Sadly, the focus in this culture is rarely on the rituals but on the details of the reception. We generally walk through the motions without awareness of what the rituals mean and why they were initially created. For most other rituals we’re left bereft. We become mothers with a “baby shower” in which the unborn baby receives clothes and accessories he or she couldn’t care less about. We move without honoring the space of the old house and the memories it holds. We celebrate birthdays with the “rituals” of gift-giving and singing a Happy Birthday song. Because we live in a culture that places a high premium on material acquisitions, the internal realm of all life’s transitions is subjugated in favor of the consumer focus.

I haven’t studied rituals the way I’ve studied the intellectual and spiritual aspects of transitions, so I don’t have many ideas abut how to create rituals. But I hope that through writing this blog and responding to the wise and insightful comments of my readers we can begin a dialogue about how to create meaningful rituals that can honor and celebrate life’s many transitions. What rituals have been meaningful for you?

Comments >> Transitions and Ritual

  • Allison Rockwell Trinklein

    Sheryl-

    I love what you wrote here, about rituals and significant ceremonies! You are dead on about how our culture’s rituals are often superficial with emphasis placed on material objects bought and given without much thought about deeper, more meaningful wisdom/ emotion/ significance.

    Loved hearing about your bat mitzvah. Made a bunch of memories flood back to me. . .I remember how tuned in your parents were and how cool your house was, with lots of hand made pieces of art– ceramics and weavings and paintings. I remember spending the night at your house and making turkey sandwiches the night before to take to school. You were a significant person in my life during that adolescence transition. Training bras, periods, boys, parties. Wow! And you have always been such a smart, organized, thoughtful, and beautiful person. Glad to see that continuing.

    Love, Allison

    • Thanks, Allison. I have all those same great memories of you, too – and how essential our little circle of girls was to help us through that transition. We really were there for each other to try to make sense of all those big and strange changes. Thanks for writing and sharing your comments and memories.