The Rites of Manhood: Man’s Need for Ritual

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 16, 2013 · 65 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

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Does modern life ever feel excruciatingly flat to you? A bleak landscape devoid of layers, rhythm, interest, texture?

Are you ever haunted by the question “Is this all there is?”

Have you ever looked at an old photo and felt that the scene held such an inexplicable richness that it seemed you could practically step right into it?

The barren flatness of modern life is rooted in many things, including mindless consumerism, the absence of significant challenges, and the lack of shared values and norms, or even shared taboos to rebel against. But what is the solution?

Many would be quick to say faith, or philosophy, or relationships. All good answers.

But what is it that vivifies beliefs to the extent they can transform your perspective not simply for an hour on Sunday, but also in the mundane moments throughout your week? What can move an understanding of abstract truths from your mind into your very sinews? What can transform superficial ties with others into deep and meaningful bonds?

The answer I would suggest is ritual.

Our modern world is nearly devoid of rituals – at least in the way we traditionally think of them. Those that remain – such as ones that revolve around the holidays – have largely lost their transformative power and are often endured more than enjoyed, participated in as an obligatory going through of the motions. Ritual has today become associated with that which is rote, empty, meaningless.

Yet every culture, in every part of the world, in every era has engaged in rituals, suggesting they are a fundamental part of the human condition. Rituals have even been called our most basic form of technology – they are a mechanism that can change things, solve problems, perform certain functions, and accomplish tangible results. Necessity is the mother of invention, and rituals were born out of the clear-eyed perspective that life is inherently difficult and that unadulterated reality can paradoxically feel incredibly unreal. Rituals have for eons been the tools humans have used to release and express emotion, build their personal identity and the identity of their tribe, bring order to chaos, orient themselves in time and space, effect real transformations, and bring layers of meaning and texture to their lives. When rituals are stripped from our existence, and this fundamental human longing goes unsatisfied, restlessness, apathy, alienation, boredom, rootlessness, and anomie are the result.

The Rites of Manhood

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In the coming year we plan to do in-depth posts on some of the rituals that have been most central to the meaning and making of manhood, such as rites of passage, initiations, and oaths. This week we will be laying the foundation for these posts in two articles; the first will set up a definition of ritual, and the second will explore the many ways rituals are so vital for a full and meaningful life.

Today we’ll provide a little context as to the nature of ritual and why it has largely disappeared from modern societies.

What Is Ritual?

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According to Catherine Bell, professor of ritual studies and author of the preeminent textbook on the subject, ritual has been traditionally defined as an action that lacks a “practical relationship between the means one chooses to achieve certain ends.” For example, shaking hands when you meet someone can be considered a ritual as there is no real reason why grabbing another’s hand and shaking for a second or two should lead to acquaintanceship. It is a culturally-relative gesture; we might very well greet each other with a pat on the shoulder or even no physical contact at all. As another example, washing your hands to clean them is not a ritual since there exists a clear practical relationship between your action and the desired result. But if a priest splashes water on his hands to “purify” them, that’s a ritual, since the water is largely symbolic and not really meant to rid the hands of bacteria.

Bell lists six attributes of rituals:

  • Formalism: This is a quality rooted in contrast and how restrictive or expressive the accepted code of behavior is for a given event/situation. For example a backyard picnic is very casual and will not feel like a ritual because there are few guidelines for how one may express oneself. A very formal dinner, on the other hand, has a more limited range of accepted behaviors and thus can feel quite ritual-like. Bell argues that while we sometimes see formality as stuffy, since it curbs more spontaneous expression, formalized activities are not “necessarily empty or trivial” and “can be aesthetically as well as politically compelling, invoking what one analyst describes as ‘a metaphoric range of considerable power, a simplicity and directness, a vitality and rhythm.’ The restriction of gestures and phrases to a small number that are practiced, perfected, and soon quite evocatively familiar can endow these formalized activities with great beauty and grace.”
  • Traditionalism. Rituals are often framed as activities that carry on values and behaviors that have been in place since an institution’s creation. This link to the past gives the ritual power and authority and provides the participant with a sense of continuity. The ritual may simply harken to those who came before, as when university graduates don the gowns that were once typical everyday classroom wear for scholars, or it may actually seek to recreate a founding event – as in the American celebration of Thanksgiving.
  • Disciplined invariance. Often seen as one of the most defining features of ritual, this attribute involves “a disciplined set of actions marked by precise repetition and physical control.” Think of soldiers marching in drill step or the sit/stand/kneel pattern followed by Catholics during the course of a Mass. Disciplined invariance suppresses “the significance of the personal and particular moment in favor of the timeless authority of the group, its doctrines, or its practices,” and “subordinates the individual and the contingent to a sense of the encompassing and the enduring.”
  • Rule-governance. Rituals are often governed by a set of rules. Both war and athletics are examples of activities that can be quite ritual-like when their rules regulate what is and is not acceptable. Rules can both check and channel certain tensions; for example, the game of football channels masculine aggression into a form of ritualized and controlled violence. On occasion the rules fail to sufficiently check the tension that is always bubbling right at the surface, as when a chaotic brawl breaks out amongst players. That the game reflects a similar submerged tension within society at large is part of why the audience finds the ritual so compelling.
  • Sacral symbolism. Ritual is able to take ordinary or “profane” objects, places, parts of the body, or images, and transform them into something special or sacred. “Their sacrality,” Bell writes, “is the way in which the object is more than the mere sum of its parts and points to something beyond itself, thereby evoking and expressing values and attitudes associated with larger, more abstract, and relatively transcendent ideas.” Thus something like incense can be a mere mixture of plants and oils designed to perfume a room, or, when swung from a censer, can represent the prayer of the faithful ascending into heaven.

  • Performance. Performance is a particular kind of action – one that is done for an audience. A ritual always has an intended audience, even if that audience is God or oneself. Tom F. Driver, a professor of theology, argues that “performance…means both doing and showing.” It is not a matter of “show-and-tell, but do-and-show.” Human are inherently actors, who wish to see themselves as characters in a larger narrative, and desire the kind of drama inherent in every timeless tale. Rituals function as narrative dramas and can satisfy and release this need. In the absence of ritual, people resort to doing their “showing” on social media and creating their own drama – often through toxic relationships or substances.

The more of these attributes a behavior/event/situation invokes, the more different from everyday life and ritual-like it will seem. The fewer of these attributes present, the more casual and ordinary it will feel.

For a more simple definition of ritual, here’s one that works: thought + action. A ritual consists of doing something in your mind (and often feeling something in your heart), while simultaneously connecting it to doing something with your body.

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Rituals fall into a wide variety of categories. Theorist Ronald Grimes lists 16 of them:

  • Rites of passage
  • Marriage rites
  • Funerary rites
  • Festivals
  • Pilgrimage
  • Purification
  • Civil ceremonies
  • Rituals of exchange (as in worshipers making sacrifices to the gods in hope of receiving blessings from the divine)
  • Worship
  • Magic
  • Healing rites
  • Interaction rites
  • Meditation rites
  • Rites of inversion (rituals of reversal, where violating cultural norms is temporarily allowed, as in men dressing like women)
  • Sacrifice
  • Ritual drama

The important thing to understand about rituals is that they are not limited to very big, very formal events. Rituals can in fact be large or small, private or public, personal or social, religious or secular, uniting or dividing, conformist or rebellious. Funerals, weddings, presidential inaugurations, church services, baptisms, fraternal initiations, and tribal rites of passage are all rituals. Handshakes, dates, greetings and goodbyes, tattoos, table manners, your morning jog, and even singing the Happy Birthday song can be rituals as well.

Whither Ritual?

In many traditional societies, almost every aspect of life was ritualized. So why is there such a dearth of rituals in modern culture?

The embrace of ritual in the Western World was first weakened by two things: the Protestant Reformation’s movement against icons and ceremonialism and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationalism.

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Historian Peter Burke, argues “the Reformation was, among other things, a great debate, unparalleled in scale and intensity, about the meaning of ritual, its functions and its proper forms.” Many Protestants concluded that the kind of rituals the Catholic Church practiced gave too much emphasis to empty, outward forms, rather than one’s internal state of grace. They rejected the “magical efficacy” of rites to be able to do things like change bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ.

The magical efficacy of ritual was attacked from the other side by Enlightenment thinkers. As discussed above, ritual is inherently nonrational since there is no practical relationship between the action and the end result. It is not rational to think that painting one’s body before battle will offer protection, that a rite of passage can turn a boy into a man, or that smoking a peace pipe can seal a treaty. Thus, ritual began to be associated with the superstitions of primitive peoples.

Suspicion of ritual again grew after World War II, in the wake of the way in which ritual ceremonies had been used to solidify loyalty to the Nazi cause.

Cultural embrace of ritual then really began to unravel during the social movements of the 1960s, which emphasized free expression, personal freedom, and individual emotional fulfillment above all. Rituals — which prescribe certain disciplined behaviors in certain situations, and require a person to forfeit some of their individuality in service to the synchrony and identity of the group — constrain spontaneity and the ability to do whatever one pleases. Ritual thus came to be seen as too constraining and not sufficiently “authentic.”

For these reasons, the use of and participation in rituals has been greatly curtailed. Or perhaps as historian Peter Burke argues, we’ve just replaced old rituals with new ones: “If most people in industrial societies no longer go to church regularly or practice elaborate rituals of initiation, this does not mean that ritual has declined. All that has happened is the new types of rituals—political, sporting, musical, medical, academic and so on—have taken the place of the traditional ones.” But the new rituals – watching sports, attending music festivals, checking Facebook, shopping, visiting a strip club on your 18th birthday — are light on nourishment and do not satisfy. Traditional rituals provided a mechanism by which humans could channel and process that which was difficult to grapple with – death, maturation, aggression – allowing the participant to discover new truths about themselves and the world. New rituals, if they can even really be called such, attempt to deny anything ugly in life (lest that lead you to close your wallet) and present a shiny, glossy façade — “confetti culture” – that facilitates passive consumption and turning away from examining given assumptions.

In our next post, we will argue that despite the cultural disdain for ritual, it is a human art form and practice which should be revived. It is true that ritual can be used for good or for ill, yet its benefit is so great that fear of the bad should not lead us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Even if a man sees no place for ritual in his faith, he can have great use for it in other areas in his life (indeed, if his faith is completely unritualized, he has all the more need for other kinds of rituals). We will argue that even the most rational man might make room in his life for some “magic,” and that while ritual may seem constraining, it can paradoxically be incredibly empowering and even liberating. How that might be so, is where we will turn next time.

Read the Entire Series: 
The Rites of Manhood: Man’s Need for Ritual
The Power of Ritual: The Creation of Sacred Time and Space in a Profane World
The Power of Ritual: Building Shared Worlds and Bonds That Transcend the Everyday
The Power of Ritual: The Rocket Booster of Personal Change, Transformation, and Progress
The Nature and Power of Ritual Series Conclusion: On Ritual Resistance

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Sources:

Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions by Catherine Bell

Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual by Tom F. Driver

{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Derrik Ollar December 16, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Very good article! Thank you. It certainly broadened my understanding of and appreciation for rituals. I’ve got three sons, the oldest is an Eagle Scout, and the younger twins are one project away from their Eagle Scout ranks. I can’t begin to express how scouting’s stepped achievement/ritual process has helped me raise, sincere individuals, high achievers and all around great young men.

2 Brandon R. December 16, 2013 at 8:39 pm

I would love to see more rituals and formality in our society. I work at a school, an environment that should be steeped in ritual and formality, but it’s not. I would be perfectly fine if the principal was treated like a ship captain; staff and faculty should be expected to stand when he enters the room, for example. Sure, I could follow what I feel are ritualistic rules, but–honestly–it’s kind of meaningless if I’m the only that does it.

It makes me kind of sad that when I suggest that staff should wear formal robes for graduation, everyone kind of laughs it off. I have a master’s degree. I want to wear my master’s robes! Everyone else on staff that would qualify for them should want to wear them as well.

3 charles carver December 16, 2013 at 8:48 pm

excellent article! this needed to be written.

4 Eaen December 16, 2013 at 8:54 pm

The downfall of ritual might also explain the increase in singleness and the decline of marriages in modern society. It seems that during former times, even during our parents’ and grandparents’ generation all the way back to the beginning of time, societies set up courtship and men knew what was expected of them and women knew what was expected of them. Nowadays, people are not getting together for any legacy-related long term relationships, or they are getting together in much lower rates, possibly because they really don’t know what to do. There is no structure set up for it. And so things have gone haywire. What do you think?

5 Doug December 16, 2013 at 9:00 pm

Interesting perspective Brett and Kate… Almost reminds me of the post that you did some time ago on why men should red more fiction. It’s as if participating in some form of a ritual (whatever it may be) can enhance the creativity nerves in your brain! As least that’s what it sounds like from a superficial perspective. I’m interested to read more.

6 Hiram December 16, 2013 at 9:07 pm

As a Freemason I can tell you many young men today really enjoy Rituals and Ceremonies we conduct. Each one has a lesson and it is up to the man to figure out what that lesson is. If any of you have been interested it only takes a visit to our local Lodge. The light is within….

7 Jack December 16, 2013 at 9:35 pm

I took a class in college that focused a large portion of study on ritual. I agree 100% with your thoughts and look forward to your articles. It certainly deserves a place on AOM as rituals often help define who we are as men and as human beings in general.

8 Chris December 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Just when my day was feeling bland and pointless, AOM delivers again. This post has reminded me of my high school days in which I always had a book or pen in hand. I think it’s time to pull a fresh notebook from the stack and get to familiarizing myself with my old ritual or writing. Thanks Brett & Kate!

9 Stephanie December 17, 2013 at 1:07 am

One other thought – so many of these rituals have been usurped by government – marriage licenses, laws regarding burial where/how, manhood initiation = driver’s license and drinking age, even the magic of childbirth – getting a birth certificate. I’m not saying those are all bad things, but they don’t grab our hearts they way the parish register did, or the clan gathering, or family rituals did. These modern “rituals” are flacid and colorless because they are initiated by a demanding, faceless bureaucracy that most of us feel very little affiliation with.

10 Wade December 17, 2013 at 2:50 am

Looking forward to part 2! Your website/blog has really helped improve my thinking!

11 Gorka Molero December 17, 2013 at 5:00 am

Hey everyone,

While this is a very interesting article, I would like to say the beginning of it is very misleading.

I agree wholeheartedly with the need for rituals. From the everyday ones to those as rites of passage. Our society finds itself an orphan to these. But not by arbitrary chance. As a young man I see everyday how we all have grown estranged from our past and our forefathers. I find this is a consequence of what they led us to. There is a general lack of disrespect for the past and this is not a bad thing. My guess would be this is a cyclical and generational feeling that arises from time to time, after or in the middle of the horrors of the doings of past generations.

I, sir, have no respect for false morals, false politics, false idols, a society built upon false principles. I think we live in an age of advertising and deceit and I know people are innocent. I will never blame it on the consumers. They are the ones that suffer that principle vortex imposed by others.

The point is the irony of the whole situation. We all know now Christmas is a fake. But who is planning on having a good and meaningful Christmas here? Who will keep the myth living on for a greater cause, for their children? My guess is everyone involved.

I am a believer in humanity, manliness, womanliness and general good things so I believe what’s going on is this need for rituals will end up shifting the way we look at things. We have to find new rituals because the important thing is not what the ritual is but the ritual itself. I believe it’s possible to escape this excruciating flatness of life, as you put so beautifully.

Good day to you all

12 Taylor December 17, 2013 at 6:19 am

I have noticed that there is an extreme lack of rituals and passages for boys to become men in our current age. There seems to be a lack of focus on what it means to be a man and how one becomes these things. If only we had a group or club where men can go and learn these things and have a rite of passage and a ritual to make them a man and be seen as such by not just their fellow men, but everyone.

13 Dr. David Powers December 17, 2013 at 8:05 am

Great timing on this post for two great personal reasons. We’ve been pondering some type of manhood ritual for my son once he turns 16 and this will be a great help. Also, on the first Sunday of each year, directly after church, we go jump into the ocean for a polar bear plunge as a cleansing ritual to symbolize washing away the previous year and opening up the next one to new successes.

14 Mark December 17, 2013 at 8:10 am

After reading this I did a Google search on civic organizations in my area. Frankly things aren’t looking good. Websites are years out of date or memberships look to be aging very quickly or both. My Father in Law was a member of his local Lions group and he often lamented about how there were fewer and fewer volunteers to do things because the current membership was dying off with no young men coming in to fill the ranks.

I wish people would lessen their quest for amusement and become more involved in the world around them. It has to start with me, though.

15 Sarig December 17, 2013 at 8:11 am

This was a bit awkward to read.

I’ve graduated, been matriculated, graduated again, these were transformative rituals with lots of meaning. I could continue, but the modern west in no way lacks rituals, you just need to be able to see them.

We go through so many liminal phases, it’s a challenge to describe them all.

Read the Anthropology of Religion by Bowie for a quick primer, it’ll sum up a lot of the important points from Victor Turner, and others.

16 Panteleimon December 17, 2013 at 8:51 am

I enjoyed the article, but one thing struck me. It seemed that rituals were seen as universally anti individual. I understand where this mentality comes from, but being Orthodox Christian, with many strong and abiding traditions, I disagree with this sentiment.

In my experience the purpose of traditions is to promote community, a continuity to our lives (where we came from and where we are going), and to point us to our oft neglected spiritual life. Ritual is not the enemy of the individual, but of isolation, dissipation, and soul destroying materialism.

17 Charles December 17, 2013 at 9:10 am

As a cultural anthropologist I loved this article. Takes me back to my foundations of ritual class in sophomore year of university when I first read Catherine Bell! I will admit is served as a nice little refresher, and was well written in the extreme. With that said, I do not think it is possible to say that a society needs more or less ritual. Anthropologist Mary Douglas did a lot of work to show how some cultures rely on individual action (group) and some rely on societal rules (grid). If a society has less rules, then individual agency is celebrated (like in American society where individuality is celebrated). Societies where individuals are more closely governed by strict rule and customs, preference for a grid often becomes central. Group societies rely on their families often without formalized connections (you can relate to your grandpa without some system allowing you to). In these grid societies you might need ritual to make allowances for a support structure. While I love ritual, I don’t know if it is something you can just create more of in our society, or more concretely I don’t know how meaningful a ritual created for ritual sake would really be.

18 Matthew December 17, 2013 at 9:13 am

This article is on point, and I especially admire your inclusion of our rampant consumerism as contributing to the problem. Why should we cultivate a richer internal life, when the emptiness of our lives fuels our endless consumption? It is in the interests of corporations to keep our lives shallow, which keeps their pockets deep.

19 Vincent Milburn December 17, 2013 at 9:25 am

Fantastic article! I’ve been thinking about this for some time myself. Here’s a few thoughts:

Rituals give life a sense of purpose and meaning as well as break the ice between people. Rituals can even lead to more spontaneity. It should be no surprise that our current generation sometimes has made it hip to be awkward.

Spontaneity and the need to come up with things to say and do at every last moment of life can become a heavy burden.

While rituals leave room for going though the motions, they are not inherently phony. Rituals unearth something common in us that we would probably not have discovered otherwise.

As man’s ritual nature is unavoidable, our modern times have replaced meaningful, conscious rituals with superficial, passive routines. Something will always fill the vacuum.

Spontaneity, of course, is important, too. A healthy lifestyle has a balance of both things.

20 Paul Stokell December 17, 2013 at 9:31 am

This is a very good article explaining ritual from a basic, secular point of view.

As a young man, my first real talk about ritual came from a Presbyterian minister at a convention of my college fraternity, who discussed the connections between the “mere externals” in a certain initiation ritual and the values they hope to express to its participants.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I am now a teacher, lay minister and liturgist in the Catholic Church. The article is spot-on for our being “hard wired” for the expression of common beliefs and values, but also the need to express and explain them when we’re away from the ritual/worship space. The very word “liturgy” (“laitos ergos” in Greek) means the obligation each member of society has to gather, observe, celebrate and later ponder and practice what we hold in common. The practice of growing these values (“cultus” in Latin) can be an important part of life among, and with, others. I would recommend even to secular readers the works of Joseph Campbell on the subject, or Dom Virgil Michel who focuses on ritual, values, and the sense of social justice it builds in all of us. Again, well done.

A happy Advent and Merry Christmas to all!

21 Johnny the Freemason December 17, 2013 at 9:51 am

Well done, Brett & Kate!

This post is spreading like wildfire among Masonic circles- and we’re certainly impressed and thankful for your work on this article!

22 Mark Ruddick December 17, 2013 at 10:03 am

In Scouts Canada we use rituals and ceremonies all the time. They are important to the youth.

“A ceremony emphasizes the worth of something or marks an achievement. It gives members a feeling of “oneness” with the group and a measure of esprit de corps.”

23 Fabricio December 17, 2013 at 10:09 am

Taylor, there is such a group. It’s called Order of DeMolay, it’s an international order, sponsored by Freemasonry, where young men from 12 to 21 have all these things, including rites e rituals.

24 Martin December 17, 2013 at 10:34 am

This series has the potential to be among the best content on this site, and that’s saying a lot. Thank you.

BTW, Ron Grimes was a mentor of mine–his book “Marrying and Burying” is among the best I’ve read on the topic of personal ritual.

25 Jerry December 17, 2013 at 12:25 pm

There is a Masonic appendant body for young men, called the Order of DeMolay. It is for those from 12-21 years of age, and members are taught leadership and character-building. There is plenty of ritual work to perform, fun events to plan, and brotherhood to experience. Check out http://www.demolay.org for more info.

26 Eric Hauck December 17, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I love this article, and I enjoy the points both it and the comments bring. The need for rituals in a persons life is critical, it gives life structure and a meaning. Joseph Campbell, who I would love to see referenced in this article series- his work on Mythology would be an excellent source for this; said in his book “The Power of Myth”, “… So that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality..”
I think in fact that this series shouldnt be held only to the discussion of the importance of rituals to a society, but could also extend itself quite easily to the vital importance of Mythology and the Humanities in our growing technocratic world.
I agree with Charles’ comment that it may not be so simple as creating new rituals. And I warn against the groups such as Freemasons and Demolay. Not to say that they are bad, I think they serve the same purpose that I am searching for; they give meaning and structure with ritual and mythology that can help to lead a good life. But they create a sense of exclusion it seems to me. The rituals are only for those that enter into the brotherhood, and so the good life is only for those who are in this brotherhood. They do a lot of work for the communities they live in, but there is still that group mentality, that has had a history of causing ill things to this world.

27 Ben Harman December 17, 2013 at 1:12 pm

FANTASTIC! My feelings for years regarding our culture put into words!!!!! Lookin forward to the pieces on ritual that you have planned.

28 Pura Vida Nick December 17, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Great article!

One ritual I joined was Peace Corps after college – that was my rite of passage. It helped me have a defining moment in my life where I feel I went from an immature boy to a man.

29 Kevin December 17, 2013 at 5:13 pm

good thoughts. I’m 25 and my generation is way anemic in meaningful rituals. There are graduations, ikea trips, friday night party rituals, etc, but nothing that binds and fortifies you as a community of peers, band of brothers, or even really as a family anymore.

Looking forward to the next article.

30 Josh December 17, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Boo to that! The persistence of ritual just shows how irrational people really are!
Although I do see the point in being mindful of how and what becomes ritual. Since it clearly won’t go away on its own lets at least harness it for the power of good.

31 Brent Wolke December 17, 2013 at 8:12 pm

As a Freemason myself, I cannot agree more with this article. A large failure of society is the removal of ritual (by whatever means) from the importance in our lives.

Masonic Lodges across the US have seen a surge in membership as modern young men have become disillusioned by what passes for meaningful culture.

Thanks!

32 Rob G December 17, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Great article! The bit about even the most rational man needing a little bit of “magic” reminded me of G. K. Chesterton’s work “Orthodoxy.” If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do.

33 Paul D. December 17, 2013 at 11:41 pm

Being Jewish, I can attest to the importance of ritual in one’s everyday life. Both as a community and as an individual. Loved the article.

34 P.M.Lawrence December 18, 2013 at 2:39 am

For example, shaking hands when you meet someone can be considered a ritual as there is no real reason why grabbing another’s hand and shaking for a second or two should lead to acquaintanceship. It is a culturally-relative gesture; we might very well greet each other with a pat on the shoulder or even no physical contact at all.

No, shaking hands has a very practical connection with building acquaintanceship: it started out as a way of each making sure that the other couldn’t easily attack, which allowed them to get closer figuratively as well as literally.

35 Don Meinshausen December 18, 2013 at 3:08 am

One reason that I became a Pagan is that we are becoming a ceremonially dying society. I have talked to funeral directors who tell me that this ancient rite has been passing into their hands as ministers study theology and fund raising but do not understand the theater and bonding of ritual

36 Leyla December 18, 2013 at 7:39 am

At high school, I often asked myself “is this it? Is this everything we can get out of life?” It all felt empty: meaningless consumerism, no clear goals in life (other than happiness, but it would definitely not be achieved only by being surrounded by those whom you love/owning things that you love/having a job you like.) I needed something independent of all worldy matters, something that would make me feel satisfied even if I’m all by myself and have nothing. I needed structure in my life and copying most rituals/traditions that you see nowadays wasn’t an answer (to me). Most of these rituals, if you look at their origin, roots, it tells you so much about life, our history, and our desires/beliefs. I found all my answers in the religion of Islam, a way of life that gave meaning to my life and everything fell in place. Feeling satisfied, fulfilled, never lonely even when I’m alone. A way to work on my innerself, knowing my weaknesses and how to become a better person. A way to work on the community, contributing to it, educating ourselves and others. Knowing what to expect from one another in bigger lines, still being able to be yourself as an individual however having structure that creates unity like no other. Sorry for going on and on but this is the first thing that popped into my mind when reading this article!

37 simplebuck December 18, 2013 at 7:53 am

I think this article is right on-time, and I’m an avid reader of everything Brandon writes.
There is another “order of men” I know of, that’s existed for about 20 years now, and has become international.
It’s called Mankind Project, and is mainly about Male Initiation.
You might want to visit their site .. mkp.org
Back in 1994, I went through MKP’s male initiation weekend (known as New Warrior Training Adventure).
To this day, enrolling into that weekend was one of the best things I’ve done for myself, as a man.
BTW, I’m not getting paid to say all this, and the NWTA weekend, and MKP’s follow up trainings, circles, and events that also include women, are priceless.

38 Zach December 18, 2013 at 10:32 am

I too agree that this society of ours lacks ritualistic endeavors that can help young men, such as myself, find a path to follow.
As an Eagle Scout myself, I relished and thrived in the rituals of scouting. It gave me discipline and purpose. Once I was through though, I felt lost and empty inside.
Like most of my classmates, I naively thought that going to college would help to alleviate some of that emptiness, but it instead made it worse, at least for me. Each day that I went to class, it just felt like I was digging myself into a hole with no end in sight.
I have now enlisted with the Navy, which is chock-full of many military traditions, which remind me of scouting. I now feel that I am on a path that will lead me to a life of excellence, rather than one of wallowing in self-pitty.

39 Joe December 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm

The biggest blow to rituals in Western society were the changes in liturgy resulting from the Vatican II Council. A thousand years of tradition were replaced by the banality of the Novus Ordo liturgy.

40 Steve December 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Great article Brett. I’d guess this topic will be really difficult judging from the anthropological and/or experiential expertise of many of the commenters: Masons, scouts, Catholics, military, islam, areligious, etc. I look forward to further installments. As a member of a few of the groups mentioned above, I find ritual very important. I think Joe (#39) is right, too. Greater impact than the reformation/enlightenment mentioned in your article.

41 Alex Z December 18, 2013 at 4:52 pm

I suspect for many people, but certainly not the majority, ritual fulfills a deep need. Especially during and since the Enlightenment for if I recall correctly many of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment were involved with the rituals of the Masonic Orders, Rosicrucian Orders, the Illuminati (in the non-pejorative sense) and other esoteric groups.

In contemporary Western cultures, some of the fastest growing Religions are the Earth-Based or Neo-Pagan religions that incorporate incredible amounts of ritual, visualization, meditation and rites associated with Life, rites of passage and the seasons of the year.

While there may have been a time when such practices were fashionable, when every other handshake or greeting was a secret sign, esoteric practice is seldom more than a passing fancy for the masses. Yet for a sincere percentage of the population ritual, mysticism and esoteric practices are a cornerstone of their lives, even in the face of persecution; hence many such groups maintain a veil or locked door to the populace at large. We have long memories of martyrs seeking wisdom while being labeled Heretics or worse.
A7
The Boot-Strap Expat
http://7thpillar.wordpress.com/

42 Enjoy Every Sandwich December 18, 2013 at 6:36 pm

I think that the lack of meaningful rituals for crossing the threshold to manhood is rooted in more than a general dislike of ritual; our society has a very negative attitude toward men and traditional rituals of manhood are seen in a negative light. Our society needs to learn to value men again rather than seeing them as defective women.

43 David Rainey December 18, 2013 at 10:19 pm

An amazing book on this same topic is called Adam’s Return by Richard Rohr. Just tossing it out there.

44 Michelle December 19, 2013 at 7:46 am

I want to thank Brett and Kate for this excellent website. I am newly homeschooling my 10th grade son, and I have used several essays from this site as reading assignments/discussion starters for him. Today he’ll be reading this essay and responding about how Boy Scouting does or does not fill some of the roles of ritual. Thank you so much!

45 A6 December 19, 2013 at 11:03 am

“Visiting a strip club on your 18th birthday….” OK I’m done….that did it for me.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!!

46 Brad Felmey December 19, 2013 at 11:26 am

Although I cannot possibly posit that ritualistic activities are for everyone, I can relate that I found a significant amount of focus when I joined my Masonic lodge and applied myself to learning the lessons of manhood and of good men. End-all and be-all? Perhaps not, but certainly a significant piece of the picture painted by my journey to manhood (which I point out is different than simply aging).

I’m looking forward to additional installments in this series.

47 Brad Williams December 19, 2013 at 10:54 pm

I respectfully disagree with almost everything said. In fact, this kind of thinking actually worries me, and I’m shocked so many have jumped on the bandwagon in the comments without a second thought.

We are all entitled to our opinions, so I’ll just throw mine in the bucket here as concisely as I can, but really I would have to have a face-to-face conversation to really go into the reasons why this is dangerous.

Rituals, to me, will always be the false goals and fake doors of society that distract from the real enjoyment of life.

We tend to thing of our lives in terms of those big turning points: the first day of school, the day you graduate high school or your senior prom, the day you graduate university, the days you change jobs, the day you get married, the day you get divorced, the day you celebrate a birthday or the many Christmases and Valentine’s Days that roll by. But these are fool’s gold, the bait that distracts you from living life to the fullest every day.

I’m not the first person to notice that it is foolish to think if your relationship has problems, that they will disappear or change after a big wedding ceremony. The day before and the day after your wedding will still represent a baby-step in the overall progress of your relationship no matter how much pomp and ceremony and expensive photographers intervene.

There is a reason men generally are less into planning weddings than women. There is a reason for books like “Why Men Hate Church.” Men desire wildness, freedom, and the ability to meet a situation with practicality and logic and therefore many of us guys despise any kind of unneccesary, unpractical ritual or ceremony.

I’m not the first person to notice that many people expect to feel some major change in their life after they are baptized. But the day after, the week, after, and the years after, they continue to struggle with the same sins and the same doubts.

To think that when you cross a stage and turn the tassel to the other side of your hat your status as an educated person is confirmed is as false as any advertisement that commercialized our society.

I am a teacher in a foreign country and I have seen amazing teachers come over with no prior qualifications besides a bachelors degree and do fantastic work. I’ve also seen teachers with state-certified credentials or multiple teaching certificates get fired after a few months.

Credentials on paper or mounted on a wall are actually no indication of skill at all. It is an illusion designed to keep us focused on “rites of passage” that will improve our lives instead of just improving our lives. (there are alot of issues, pros, and cons, with higher education and I’m not saying people shouldn’t get higher education I’m just saying that any idiot with enough money can get a masters degree and never use it for anything worthwhile.)

There are dangerous problems with some rituals — every seen Blood Diamond and thought about the racket diamond companies run on consumers because of the engagement ring “tradition.”

A man is a free thinker who does not let his mind be controlled by his society. He is not bound by rituals or ceremonies. He is only bound by truth. He sifts through what truly matters and dispenses with useless decoration.

I was never an eagle scout, but I daresay after years and years of hiking, camping, caving, and rock climbing done on my own, I could give any eagle scout a run for their outdoorsmanly money. Their badges, sashes and “rites of passage” are a waste of time better spend actually using those skills. Meetings, committees, lodges and the like are a distraction from the activities they seem to encourage. Just get off your butt every weekend, get in the car, and go do stuff.

Traditions and rituals are what we call things everything we do that we can’t give a rational reason for — is there a rational reason to cut down a tree and bring it into your living room or burn fake money to ghosts in August (China). There are micro-economies running on these traditions — existing to do things that don’t neccessarily need to be done. Talk about commercialism.

So what alternative am I offering?

We stop viewing human progress as a ritual destination and view it as it actually is: a very gradual process. I am a surfer. If I surf twice a week, every week, I will progress. There will be no illusory capstone at which I suddenly summit a new level. There is no white belt, green belt, brown black, black belt. But step by step, so slowly its like your hair growing I will improve. If I surf 5x a week I will improve faster. At some point I will look back and see my incredible progress and feel happy.

The same is true of learning a language, of improving at ones job duties, at having a loving friendship or courtship, etc.

We stop chasing false idols like the wedding ceremony, the black belt, the family reunion photo. I don’t want a life where sacred moments happen only at special times.

Every moment is sacred and by denying formality and ritual, we affirm that. Every moment is a chance to turn it all around…

48 Brett McKay December 19, 2013 at 11:59 pm

@Brad-

I appreciate the comment. It was a well-articulated, passionate, and generally respectful counterargument that I truly enjoyed reading and thinking about.

That being said, I must respectfully disagree with pretty much everything you said.

Much of what I would say in rebuttal to your points we’ll be discussing in future posts on this subject, so I’ll let those articles speak for themselves. But there were a few things I wanted to make a note of at present:

-It is rather insulting and dismissive to imply that those who agreed with the sentiments in this piece, did so “without a second-thought” and that if anyone thought about this piece they would disagree as you did. I hope you will entertain the possibility that some people thought about the argument AND still agreed with it.

-It does not make sense to use modern day weddings and church services as proof that men are not suited and inclined toward ritual. Planning a modern day wedding extravaganza is nothing like a tribal rite of passage nor an 18th century fraternal initiation. It is more likely that modern day rituals do not suit man, rather than that man is not suited for ritual. It is a historical and anthropological fact that in primitive societies, men took part in a greater number of rituals than women. Pre-hunting rituals, post-hunting rituals, pre-battle rituals, post battle purifications, rites of passage and initiation and on and on. Why would men in their most “natural” state layer their lives with numerous rituals if they did not have a basic, innate inclination towards them?

-The idea that “every moment is sacred” is one that sounds great at first blush, but makes less and less sense the more you think about it. What does it really mean? How can a category like “sacred” exist without being contrasted with something else? Saying every moment is sacred is like saying every person is special. If everyone is special, then what does special mean? If every moment is sacred that would mean there is no qualitative difference between the experience of buying a pack of gum and holding your baby daughter for the first time. But this does not line up with the lived experience of I would imagine nearly everyone. And that’s my main issue with your argument: it sounds good at first, but it just doesn’t match up with my lived experience. Though I would not rule out the fact that maybe I just need to surf more.

49 Wil Bryan December 20, 2013 at 8:23 am

When I was 11 my grandfather and I were roommates for a year before he went to hospice. He was bed ridden with a broken hip so he couldn’t do a lot besides talk. One day when the house was empty except for the two of us, he called me back to our room and asked me to fetch a few things for him. A black bag and a silver bowl from the cabinet. He had me fill the bowl with hot water and bring him two white towels (he was very specific about each of these items and their locations). Finally when it was all assembled, he had me wheel his hospital style table over the center of his bed and unpacked the black bag next to the bowl of water. It was his shaving kit. He started talking to me as he began his shaving ritual… it was apparent this was not only important to him and something deeply ingrained as second nature, it was also clear that it stretched beyond the physical act of removing stubble. He taught me how to shave that day (though I wouldn’t need the lesson for at least another 7 years). More importantly, he also taught me lessons about how to maintain a tool, the importance of caution and care with tasks, the need for having the right items on hand and most importantly for making the time, not just to do things but to do those things well and with intent and purpose. It wasn’t until years later that I would fully understand all the he imparted that day… he also knew it wouldn’t sink in for years but that he wouldn’t be around to share it later. Now as I look at my daily life and the small rituals I find the time to incorporate and the bigger ones I aspire to integrate into my family I can see the influence that one Saturday I spent with my grandfather had on my psyche and how deep the impact was, simply because of the time he took to share a personal ritual with a grandson who was to young to fully appreciate it. talk of ritual and a need for it in our lives reminded me of this story so I thought I would share. I was a lucky kid.

50 Brad Williams December 20, 2013 at 8:28 am

I appreciate your well-thought-out response and willingness to read my overlong wall of text.

I want to read your future articles and see what you sort of rituals you think we should revive in our culture.

However, I do think it’s fair to compare weddings and church services to what you’re talking about. These are what most people think about when you talk about a formalized initiation or any other kind of ritual. These are very very old traditions and an area where our society hasn’t changed much despite technological and scientific progress. The same passages get read, the rings and veils and all that scream tradition.

If you’re talking about pre-and-post hunting/war rituals and cleansing and things of that nature — again, these have gone away because they were steeped in unfounded superstition. I believe the aboriginals of Australia would rub cave paintings of certain animals before hunting in the belief that doing so would make them more likely to encounter and kill that animal. So many rituals have vanished because we live free of superstition and false claims about how the world works thanks to modern science. Maybe practicing hunting and studying tracks and droppings and how to hunt into the wind is more important than your pre-hunt ritual for your success? Cleansing is another issue of dubious morality. Like a religious person who prays for forgiveness after wrongdoing. This “cleansing ritual” just allows that person to feel the transgression has passed and offers a way of continuing to do wrong and not accumulating guilt. If you do something that you don’t feel wrong about, you don’t need “cleansing.” If you don’t pray, you cannot rid yourself of the guilt and are forced to change.

I suppose I am not an Edenist. A very popular response to problems with the modern world is for people to say, “We need to go back to the way things were…” which is a very unproductive idea sometimes. The future is in the future, not the past. De-inventing the Internet and cell phones and living like Mennonites is not going to solve the world’s problems. I say forward, not backwards into cave man rituals.

What I mean by every moment is sacred is really to say that “sacredness” is just an illusion. To think that inhaling some incense changes you, or that dipping your body under some water changes you, or that sliding a ring on someone’s finger changes the two of you, or that getting a piece of paper changes you, or that saying a prayer before a football game is going to protect the athletes or give them a better chance of winning, is very consoling to some but in a way that is less beneficial than accepting the truth about reality. We are simply enshrining these ideas in our mind, and when we look forward and back to those moments we falsely deem “sacred” we are saying some moments are more valuable than others. To say every moment is sacred is to say that no moment is sacred. They’re just moments. They’re all equal. One key to happiness is not to always live your life looking at the past and future – but to focus on the present. It’s easier to that without these life gateways as reference points.

I’ll shut up now until I read the next installments.

51 Sarig December 20, 2013 at 3:31 pm

“It is a historical and anthropological fact that in primitive societies, men took part in a greater number of rituals than women. Pre-hunting rituals, post-hunting rituals, pre-battle rituals, post battle purifications, rites of passage and initiation and on and on. Why would men in their most “natural” state layer their lives with numerous rituals if they did not have a basic, innate inclination towards them?”

I would like to see a source on that anthropological fact, since I am an anthropologist, and it’s new for me.

Also, the notion that some societies have less culture and is more natural is *very* outdated and ethnocentric. Even people that laymen would think as living more in tune with nature have so many layers of culture that’s it’s simply astonishing. A hunter-gatherer in the bush, is just as cultured as someone on the internet. If you are ever in doubt about that, try to grasp the Australian dream time. Rituals, of course, is just another layer of culture, and to say that men are more inclined to them than women and that it’s proven by people in more “natural” states is quite simply not something you have very good bases for saying.

52 Brett McKay December 20, 2013 at 3:59 pm

@Sarig-

I don’t have a specific source for the fact that in premodern cultures men had more rituals than women. But in all the books I have read on tribes, the men were described as having more rituals. It’s possible they just left the women’s rituals out more. If you have a source that talks about a culture where the women had as many or more rituals than the men, I’d be happy to take a look and be corrected.

Though you also see this in ritualized secret societies and clubs. Women did not not form such organizations on anywhere near the level of men. One might argue that that is because they used to not be able to do so, not have the power and freedom to get together. But even now, when some Masonic lodges have opened to women, women have not joined in great numbers, and the sister organization Order of the Evening star is tiny in comparison to Freemasonry.

I was not saying that premodern cultures have less culture than modern cultures. By “natural” I meant they had not been influenced by “the Man” or corporations or Judeo-Christian religion (which I thought Brad was implying in his comment) in forming their rituals. Their rituals came from their own community and culture.

53 Brett McKay December 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm

@Brad-

Thanks for the response. I understand your position more now. We’re probably too far apart in our perspectives to find much room for agreement, but I appreciate you taking the time to share a good counterargument. I enjoyed reading this one too.

54 Craig December 20, 2013 at 9:13 pm

I just want to tell you that I am really enjoying these blogs. I think men desperately need an initiation rituals to progress into manhood. The lack of rituals results in idiocy such as fraternity hazing. Thanks for exploring this topic.

55 Sarig December 21, 2013 at 4:43 am

“But in all the books I have read on tribes, the men were described as having more rituals. It’s possible they just left the women’s rituals out more.”

This is exactly what happened for a long period of time. Ethnographers and anthropologists were men, studying other men, forgetting about women. Things got better from the 70′s and onwards.

56 Robert December 22, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Great article and discussion. It was Joseph Campbell that piqued my interest in these subjects. Ritual should not be seen as the enemy of the individual. The enemy of the individual and of the true strength of ritual is mans authoritarian proclivity and the obsequiousness of the meek. Ritual can have great value, it just depends on how it is used. Ritual has power and can hold sway. Ritual can be used to direct and influence, or be used to facilitate less predictable and more individual outcomes.

57 Kenny A. December 31, 2013 at 10:07 am

I have oftentimes found myself wanting more from life. Alas, I am resigned to my fate with little hope for change.
However, articles like this give me great inspiration to work with my Godson’s parents to include rituals in his life as he gets older.

58 John Baines January 3, 2014 at 3:45 am

Thank you – I found this post very interesting, and am looking forward to reading the articles that follow in this theme.

As a Parish Priest in the Church of England I am very involved in ritual – both presiding over rituals and providing a space and framework for rituals to be enacted in. I have long considered that the more society moves away from ritual, the more impoverished it becomes.

I regularly see at first-hand the importance of, for example, a funeral liturgy. Done well it allows space for grief and mourning, a time to reflect on the one who has died, and a time to look with hope to the future. It allows those who are grieving to begin the process of moving on, safe in the knowledge that they have done for their loved one the same thing that their ancestors have done for generations before.

Additionally, being part of the Established Church, I am used to offering this to those who have little or no contact with the church – but who are still helped by the rituals we offer.

My resolution this year is to take steps to reassure those who waver that ritual *is* important for their spiritual well-being!

59 Emanuel Ravelli January 3, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Brett & Kate,

The role of ritual came up in a comparative religion class I taught to high school freshman. The question that popped up was in our society how does a girl know when she’s a woman and a boy know he’s a man.

One *boy* answered that girls begin to menstruate, but no student found an answer for the boys. There is no biological defining moment for boys, and in the absence of any clear protocols from older men, boys will create their own rituals—most antisocial.

One of thew few rituals left in America (that’s not a hollow sports metaphor) is a Jewish boy’s bar mitzvah for which he is taught the responsibilities of manhood and declared a man henceforth responsible for his own behavior. But, even this ancient ritual has been trivialized over the decades, its meaning lost to parental vanity, consumerism, and political correctness.

I look forward to your follow-up articles. Thank you.

Ravelli

60 J. Mc. January 4, 2014 at 2:45 pm

I would like to thank you for this article series. I know, from personal experience, ritual is a way to disconnect the brain, stop thinking, and be in the moment when participating. While ritual can become an empty thing, it does so most often when there is no personal connection to those participating in the ritual.

Now, all I need to do is find the right group…

61 Albert January 5, 2014 at 9:19 pm

Some may dismiss ritual and ceremony as superstitious and irrational. However, it is that irrationality that makes ritual so important. Ritual has the power to reach past the rational conscious mind down into the depths of the psyche. Down into that place where the animal mind still operates underneath our veneer of civilization and rationality. Properly performed ritual can cause important changes in the psyche, much like a psychologist might use hypnosis to effect a change in a patient. This makes ritual a powerful tool for both good and evil. Each use of ritual needs to be examined for the underlying motives. Questions must be asked: Is it in the best interest of everyone involved? Is it a liberating ritual or one designed to control? Does it lead to enlightenment? I realize that some of this might make me sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I have found groups that practice ritual for selfish motives and I am happy to say that I have found many that practice ritual for the benefit of not only their members but for the greater good.
-Al Turek-
Past Master of International City Lodge #389, Free & Accepted Masons of California.

62 Peter Ryan January 9, 2014 at 6:22 am

Another thought-provoking article.

My take is that I believe there has been a transformational change in society over many years, and certainly over the span of the last few generations. We are much more informal in almost every setting, increasingly impatient, and we expect full disclosure and answers to every question on demand. “If you don’t tell us we will find it on Google”

I believe an essential part of ritual, or rites of passage, is being willing to accept that there is a structure. There is a predetermined correct time for you to experience it, be involved in that phase, or exposed to that knowledge or wisdom. Unfortunately many don’t have the patience or trust in ritual (conducted for the right reasons) to enlighten them at the appropriate time.

I think this is coupled with a general distrust of anything not seen as 100% mainstream. Once again, if people can’t find the full answer on Google it must be fishy….. But if you do know all the answers, what is the point of the ritual?

Part of ritual is mystery. It is discovery. It is being introduced to new things (knowledge, concepts, self awareness..).

The trick is, I believe, in finding the right people, body or organisation that you trust for your personal rituals. As my learned colleague states “Is it a liberating ritual or one designed to control?”.

We all seek more knowledge in this life, and self awareness is one of the most important forms of knowledge. In my opinion ritual and rites of passage are some of the most effective ways of imparting this.

Personally I have found this environment in Freemasonry, but many will find it in other organisations, bodies or groups to varying degrees.

Thanks again Brett and Kate for the article – you do excellent work.

Pete
Immediate Past Master
Lodge Saint George No 246 UGLQ
Queensland, Australia.

63 Daniel Broaddus January 13, 2014 at 10:59 am

Splendid article! What was touched upon in this article is one of many reasons why I became a “reformational catholic” (Lutheran(.

64 Andrew January 20, 2014 at 7:57 pm

Rituals arise from a unifying belief in the transcendent. Our culture today doesn’t believe in the transcendent anymore. If only the here and now exists, then rituals, which have no here and now practical value, have no place. Even if we did start practicing rituals, they will have an artificial quality to them because we know they dont actually mean anything, so the benefits of ritual wouldn’t even be felt. They would be mere sentimentalism. So, until our culture recovers a unifying belief in a transcendent reality, ritual will continue to decline.

65 Thomas January 28, 2014 at 12:33 pm

My father played football in high school and has told me various stories of the things he experienced. Although he has never alluded to any actual set hazing rituals, many of the stories he seems to enjoy telling the most had to do with some sort of hazing (even though he might not have called it that directly). I’m a senior on my high school’s baseball team and we’ve been strongly discouraged from any attempt at any form of hazing of the underclassmen. While I believe that hazing can very easily go too far, I also think that the lack of it could be “sissifying” many males today. In some senses, hazing could be thought of as a form of a coming of age ritual and is how I personally see it. I would like to possibly see an article on this subject that examines the pros and cons of hazing, and the effect it has on males in society.

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