Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Deeply into the BoneRe-Inventing Rites of Passage
By Ronald L. Grimes
University of CaliforniaISBN: 0-520-23675-0
Chapter OneIntroduction Rough Passages, Reinvented Rites
Within a few months of one another, four different women asked me if I knew of any rites they could use to celebrate menopause; an actor from Los Angeles requested some examples of birth and naming ceremonies; three students asked if I could recommend a reliable, cross-cultural book on weddings; and four film companies asked for advice on documenting rites of passage.
Not long after finding myself in this thicket of inquiries, a neighbor asked if we could talk about how her family might prepare to initiate their toddler when he reached adolescence. Having read about teenage neo-Nazis in the newspapers, she wanted to spice up his life with celebrative occasions that would make racist rallies and ceremonial hazing less attractive. Today's teenagers, she felt, are without moorings or elders capable of transmitting enduring human values to the young. I admitted that, like her, I was concerned about my children's transition into adulthood: If wise elders don't initiate adolescents, won't adolescents initiate themselves? But who, I mused, will train us uninitiated adults in the art of initiating?
Within a few months, a man who identified himself as an employee of a state legislature said he was involved in a project to introduce rites of passage in that state's public schools; was I interested in consulting on the project? I had to ponder: Would I want public school teachers initiating my school-age children? Did I have confidence that schools could do a better job than churches, synagogues, or temples have done?
Then an inquiry came from the president of a group that assists the terminally ill in ending their own lives. He said he was beset with requests for help in constructing appropriate rites for such an occasion. Some people, he remarked, considered the taking of their own lives a sacred act, but they could find no resources in traditional Christian or Jewish books of worship. Would I assist in constructing such a rite?
On another occasion a group called to ask if I knew of rites that might be adaptable for North American Buddhist children. There are, they complained, few ritual resources in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that might be used for birth or early childhood celebrations.
Finally, one of my own brothers surprised me with an e-mail message. Had I written my own funeral-he knew I sometimes assigned such tasks to poor, unsuspecting students-and if so, could he read it? Writing his will had set Darrell to contemplating things he could no longer avoid.
What fuels this surge of interest in ritual and this anxiety over passages? Perhaps synagogues, temples, and churches have been slow to revise existing rites and create compelling new ones. Perhaps people sense the need for bodily and collective ways of making meaning. Perhaps we desire personal control of crucial moments such as birth and death, coming of age, and marrying. Perhaps religious authorities and commercial entrepreneurs such as funeral directors and wedding consultants do not know what is best for us.
Whatever the reason, the past two decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the construction of rites of passage. The aim of inventing or constructing rites is bold, some might say arrogant. But without constant reinvention, we court disorientation. Without rites that engage our imaginations, communities, and bodies, we lose touch with the rhythms of the human life course, just as we become temporally disoriented without seasonal and commemorative rites that recreate our connections to the natural world and the course of human history.
The question I try to answer in this book is often put to me like this: "I am planning a wedding (or some other rite of passage), but I'm not happy with the traditional ceremonies offered by mainstream religious institutions. Can you give me some ideas about what's done in other cultures or at least suggest some readings that would help?"
The professor's inclination is to deliver a minilecture: "You can't make sense of rites outside their cultural and historical milieu, and, therefore, you shouldn't go around scissoring out parts of a rite for your own private use. Rites belong in their home cultures." Even though I do believe that rites depend on context for meaning, most of us will never live in cultures other than our own. We glean what we can from books, films, and stories, all of which select, summarize, and distort. One danger is that rites encountered in such media will seem like plums for the taking, but cross-cultural learning about ritual does not have to take the form of crass imitation or wholesale importation of other people's rites.
Even though I sometimes deliver the professorial minilecture on understanding rites in their context and insist on studying practices that we cannot translate into action in our own society, I also take practical inquiries seriously. The question, then, is not whether but how inquirers can enrich their own ritual sensibility by attending to rites from places and times other than their own.
Since most of us have little choice but to imagine the rites of others, and since some of us have no rites to call our own, the words imagining and inventing appear repeatedly in this book. Inventing has a more practical ring, while imagining sounds more spontaneous. When it comes to ritual, inventing is perhaps the more primary notion, since we cannot invent without imagining, but we can imagine without turning what we imagine into an invention. When we invent, we give teeth to what we imagine. Ritual, like art, is a child of imagination, but the ritual imagination requires an invention, a constantly renewed structure, on the basis of which a bodily and communal enactment is possible. Unlike some other forms of creativity, imagining ritually cannot transpire merely "in the head" but is necessarily embodied and social. Furthermore, the imaginative is not the opposite of the real. Rather, imagining is a way of transforming and renewing the real.
We sometimes think of imagining as the act of originating, as coming up with firsts, not poor duplicates. But neither imagining nor inventing is a creation out of nothing. Even if our desire is to create new rites of passage, we do so with the materials at hand, with the stuff of our cultures and traditions. Even if we radically dismember this stuff, we are still dependent upon it. Rites, unlike wheels, survive precisely by being reinvented and reimagined; there is no other option.
Reimagining ritual can be threatening to religious institutions, since, conventionally understood, imagination is about the made up, whereas religion is supposed to be about the given. Although I treat ritual traditions with respect, I challenge them-sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly-by setting an imagined ritual alongside an actual rite. By reimagining, I dance into the abyss that comfortably separates the spiritual from the social scientific, the personal from the scholarly, and the narrative from the analytical.
Although I write on ritual and teach about religion, I am often at a loss to provide quick answers to the questions people ask. Ritual studies scholars are seldom up to the task of advising people on questions of practice; answers to theoretical questions come more readily. Although I have been conducting research on ritual for over twenty-five years, it still seems pretentious to claim expertise on such an ancient and globally varied phenomenon as the rite of passage. Who can hope to become an expert on rites of passage in North America, let alone the world? My only option is to enter the fray, struggling along with others to find more insightful ways of comprehending the great human transitions and reinventing meaningful ways of ritualizing them. I mean to challenge the all-too-comfortable segregation of those who practice ritual from those who think about it.
Deeply into the Bone is about the power of rites, both traditional and invented, to facilitate or obstruct difficult passages in the course of a human life. Not every passage is a rite of passage. We undergo passages, but we enact rites. Life passages are rough, fraught with spiritual potholes, even mortal dangers. Some passages we know are coming; others happen upon us. Birth, coming of age, marriage, and death are widely anticipated as precarious moments requiring rites for their successful negotiation. But there are other treacherous occasions less regularly handled by ritual means: the start of school, abortion, a serious illness, divorce, job loss, rape, menopause, and retirement. More often than not, these events, especially when they arrive unanticipated, are undergone without benefit of ritual.
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. Some cultures litter the human life course with numerous rites, cairns to keep pilgrims on course; others hardly blaze the trail at all. These ceremonial occasions inscribe images into the memories of participants, and they etch values into the cornerstones of social institutions. Effective rites depend on inheriting, discovering, or inventing value-laden images that are driven deeply, by repeated practice and performance, into the marrow. The images proffered by ineffective rites remain skin-deep.
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. Having skipped over a major passage without being devastated by a major upset, we may prematurely congratulate ourselves on passing through unscathed. In the long haul, however, people often regret their failure to contemplate a birth, celebrate a marriage, mark the arrival of maturity, or enter into the throes of a death. The primary work of a rite of passage is to ensure that we attend to such events fully, which is to say, spiritually, psychologically, and socially. Unattended, a major life passage can become a yawning abyss, draining off psychic energy, engendering social confusion, and twisting the course of the life that follows it. Unattended passages become spiritual sinkholes around which hungry ghosts, those greedy personifications of unfinished business, hover.
The notion of a rite of passage depends on three key ideas: the human life course, the phases of passage, and the experience of ritual transformation. Life-cycle theorists suggest that human lives follow a relatively uniform path. A life proceeds according to a scenario, a stock plot, with enough flexibility to allow for improvisation. The path of human development is intersected by a series of turning points that divide it into predictable phases. Each turning point is both a crisis and an opportunity.
Rites used for negotiating these turns proceed through three phases: separation from the community, transition into an especially formative time and space, and reincorporation back into the community. The effect of ritual passage is to transform both the individuals who undergo them and the communities that design and perpetuate them. Rites of passage change single people into mates, children into adults, childless individuals into parents, living people into ancestors. Rites of passage are stylized and condensed actions intended to acknowledge or effect a transformation. A transformation is not just any sort of change but a momentous metamorphosis, a moment after which one is never again the same.
Classical rites-of-passage theory, first formulated by Arnold van Gennep, invokes spatial metaphors to explain how rites work. According to this theory, a rite of passage is like a domestic threshold or a frontier between two nations. Such places are "neither here nor there" but rather "betwixt and between." Just as a person moving from outside to inside a living room is met with ritualized gestures (handshaking, greeting, or hugging), so one who crosses a national boundary is subjected to passport checking and customs, the required ceremonial gestures. Since the threshold zone is a no-man's-land, it is dangerous, full of symbolic meaning, and guarded. A rite of passage is a set of symbol-laden actions by means of which one passes through a dangerous zone, negotiating it safely and memorably.
Ritual knowledge is rendered unforgettable only if it makes serious demands on individuals and communities, only if it is etched deeply into the marrow of soul and society. A rite of passage is more than a mere moment in which participants get carried away emotionally, only to be returned to their original condition afterward. Witnessing a moving play, attending weekly worship, or experiencing an orgasm can transport us into reverie, but a few days later our commitment needs rekindling. Ritual practices such as daily meditation and weekly worship are responses to recurring needs. These rites move but do not transform. By contrast, when effective rites of passage are enacted, they carry us from here to there in such a way that we are unable to return to square one. To enact any kind of rite is to perform, but to enact a rite of passage is also to transform.
Effective ritual knowledge lodges in the bone, in its very marrow. This metaphor first struck me with force while in a discussion with an archaeologist. He was explaining how certain values and social practices can be inferred from ancient bone matter. An archaeologist candeduce from bone composition that the men of a particular society consumed more protein than the women. On the basis of bone size and shape, it may also be evident that in some cultures women habitually carried heavier loads than men. Certain social practices are literally inscribed in the bones. Even though we imagine bone as private, and deeply interior to the individual body, it is also socially formed.
Of course ritual is not really a something that dwells in a literal somewhere. Rites are choreographed actions; they exist in the moments of their enactment and then disappear. When effective, their traces remain-in the heart, in the memory, in the mind, in texts, in photographs, in descriptions, in social values, and in the marrow, the source of our lifeblood.
To speak of meaning as if it resides in the marrow is, of course, to speak ideally, about the way a rite of passage should work. As a matter of fact, rites can run shallow or become decadent. We should honor the corpses of dead rites. We can learn much by studying rites that are no longer practiced, especially if we understand why they died.
Rites do not always do what they ought to do. As a result, readers may know as many bad examples of passage as good ones. Rites can not only fail to achieve what they purport to do, they can also become a means of oppression, so we cannot afford to view them through a fuzzy, romanticized lens. If rites drive meaning to the marrow, then the criticism of rites must cut to the bone.
Excerpted from Deeply into the Bone by Ronald L. Grimes Excerpted by permission.
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