A few years ago, as the semester was nearing Thanksgiving Day, one of my students told me she would not be attending class in the following week. Her family went hunting every year, she said, but this hunting season was especially important: Her older brother was still the only member of the family who had not yet “bagged” a deer.
“I got one last year, and it’s a rite of passage in my family, and I want to be there when my brother gets his first.”
I nodded and reminded her to keep up with the course readings. I didn’t express my true reaction, which was to question her use of “a rite of passage.” For Native Americans living here four centuries earlier, stalking and hunting a deer was a young man’s proof of his prowess — and proof that he could feed his family when he got married. Native hunting rituals also had a sacred component that included prayer and purification (fasting). In 21st century America, however, especially in Wisconsin, one can find more than one butcher who sells venison. Hunting is not a sacred need, and I’m relatively sure my student’s brother had no intention of purifying himself before setting out with his rifle. To me, his killing a deer would not be a rite of passage.
What we Roman Catholics call sacraments align closely with what sociologists call rites of passage. Birth has ties to our baptism; coming of age is like our confirmation; marriage is a legal arrangement, but we infuse those moments with a serious religious element; and, of course, death, which comes to all of us, is accompanied for Catholics by a last blessing. In the context of my upbringing and with what I know of other religions, I have always connected rites of passage to a sense of the sacred. Circumcision, for instance, is a religious ceremony in the Jewish and Islamic faiths that, like our baptism, establishes a male’s induction into the religious community.
So I think of rites of passage as ceremonially beautiful moments of great personal and public impact, like when my oldest sibling, John, took the vow of Holy Orders to become a deacon. The sunlight filtering through the cathedral windows stitched red, green, blue and gold tweeds on the whiteness of the alb worn by each of the 50 or so men becoming deacons. The words the bishop spoke were solemn; the oaths the would-be deacons took were serious and binding; and the audience was overcome by the joy and sacredness of the event.
Illustrations by James O'Brien
A similar experience occurred when my uncle Francis was given a funeral Mass. Uncle Frank was a priest for the Archdiocese of Newark, and the sight and sound of some 40 priests in unison saying and enacting the words of the Mass was overpowering. It was a solemn and joyous event.
The mistake my student’s family made is a common enough error: They deem a first-time experience to be the same as a rite of passage. I call it a mistake, but according to social scientists, I’m the one making the mistake. I’m like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: I was misinformed. Perhaps.
According to Arnold van Gennep, who popularized the term, a rite of passage may be “sacred” or “secular.” What separates a rite of passage from any other experience is a movement, in his metaphor, from one chamber in a house to another. Ceremonies are optional. The word rite seems antithetical to van Gennep’s main idea. Rite comes from ritual. My student’s brother, when he shot his first deer, would move from the room of never-killed-a-deer to the room of cervicides, but there probably would be no ceremony, no ritual, no recognition dance.
Other “rites of passage” seem no more than recognitions of firsts. Is getting one’s driver’s license a rite of passage? People say so, and Wikipedia agrees. Studying and practicing to pass a test and then passing it is an achievement. But there is no real ritual except, perhaps, waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Is buying one’s first house such a rite? How about one’s first failed marriage? Is one’s third time vowing to love and honor a new spouse a rite of passage? The first time one becomes inebriated on tequila? According to van Gennep’s house/room metaphor, each of these events can be thought of as a rite of passage.
I think van Gennep is mistaken. I believe there is a difference between an event and an experience. For example, to graduate from college takes a serious commitment to achieve something for which you are rewarded with a serious ceremony. One of my sons recently graduated from law school, and at the hooding ceremony, one or two professors helped the student drape a new academic display over the graduation robe. The student was suddenly no longer a student; he or she was now a lawyer. The ceremony was serious, dignified and filled with joy — attributes I connect to an actual rite of passage, sacred or otherwise.
I look at birth and death as acts that ennoble us and those around us. They are moments of deep community.
When my children were young, they were involved in scouting. The move from being in the Webelos, the highest level of Cub Scouts, involved the Arrow of Light ceremony, which is deemed by the Boy Scouts of America a rite of passage. In the ceremony, the Four Winds are called, and members of older troops, dressed in some simulacrum of Native American garb, appear from all four directions. One of these “elders” shoots an arrow into a bale of hay and calls out the name of the young Cub and announces, as to my son, “Go, Thaddeus, take your arrow; you have earned it.” Thaddeus takes his reward and walks across a 5-foot arched bridge to symbolize entry into a new level of scouting. The child is no longer a Cub; he is a Boy Scout.
The event evokes pride in parents, who are asked to respond in a “round of applause,” which entails our clapping while moving our hands in a circular motion in front of our faces. The absurdity of the Indian motif and the silly “round of applause” seemed at odds with the intended solemnity of the bridge symbolism — which is why I find the term “rite of passage” in this context to be a pretense to a dignity the ceremony lacks. In fact, after he had gone through the Arrow of Light ceremony, one of my other sons, Seth, remarked, “Well, that was embarrassing.”
I am not being harsh on scouting or, for that matter, on hunters, but making distinctions about both underscores my point that events called rites of passage are either not rites of passage (killing a deer) or they trivialize the intended dignity of a rite of passage.
Even rites more serious than the Arrow of Light ceremony are trivialized in 21st-century America. Coming of age is ritualized in bar and bat mitzvah and confirmation, but today they are somewhat merely pro forma. Few people really expect the bar or bat mitzvah, who can now read a chosen passage of the Torah in Hebrew, to be able to read all of it. Mitzvah, which means commandment or good deed, is really an entry into a life devoted to reading the Torah and its commandments, and thereby it is a promise to lead a life of good deeds. As several dear Jewish friends of mine have explained to me, most youths going through the ceremony and their parents seem to take a keener interest in the party afterward.
This emphasis on parties doesn’t mean that the youths don’t take seriously their rite of coming of age, but that the traditional expectations here in America have been upstaged by the fanfare of the event. Similarly, the Christian coming of age rite, at least in America, is often more about the new suit or new dress worn at the ceremony than it is about becoming morally adult. Besides, after confirmation, the confirmees are now members of the church militant, but no one really expects newly confirmed youth to lay down their lives to defend the Church. Most confirmed youth that I know have little awareness of the laws, sacraments, traditions — even little of what might be socially accepted — concerning the Church. On more than one occasion, for example, I have sat behind some young adults old enough to have been confirmed who wore to church their public school athletic jackets, with large logos on the back. To my surprise, their team was the Devils. Their logo was some red and black silliness with a pitchfork and yellow fire. I infer no evil on the part of these students, but I question the efficacy of their coming-of-age rites.
And is there any real change in a person when he or she turns 18? Yes, but only legally, for now the 18-year-olds may be charged with crimes, they may be sued, they can get married and so forth. Are most 18-year-olds equipped for these responsibilities? Many state laws suggest not. Why else must they wait to the ripe age of 21 to be able to legally handle alcohol? But turning 18 in America is deemed a rite of passage. So is turning 21. So, too, 65, when one can begin receiving Medicare. But shouldn’t rites of passage be transformative? Aren’t these birthdays merely milestones?
All of which is to say that my uncle Frank’s funeral Mass and my brother John’s entry into the diaconate are events of an entirely different order. If I am right in saying that rite of passage has been trivialized, does the term have any relevance? I think yes. Birth and death are the two rites of passage we all endure. But the stoical saw that we are born alone and must die alone is untrue. I look at birth and death as acts that ennoble us and those around us. They are moments of deep community.
When I was 18 years old, my basic philosophical position was that we must strive to live without pain. I now see that pain is what we must embrace to become more human. Males experience the ordeal of birth only once. Women, should they become mothers, go through another process that is wounding both physically and psychologically.
I was overcome by the beauty of the moment, the gracefulness of her form, the loving warmth of the evening sky. Then I realized, with utter shock, that this beautiful moment would never come again.
In birth, a child experiences the ineluctable passage of crashing head and shoulders through the birth canal. Even a caesarean birth involves a level of violence, if you will, in Shakespeare’s phrase of a man “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb.” The child moves from a complete and blissful dependence to a different kind of dependence — something Saint Augustine might have called an entirely “selfish” dependence. Cries of hunger and discomfort can fill a household and cannot be ignored. But that dependence is arching toward the child’s independence on the journey of life, as the growing child is set on the road to personal selfhood and independence.
The mother experiences something entirely different. And I leave it to mothers to describe those experiences. As a man, I understand intellectually the physical and psychical heartaches mothers go through in the process of pregnancy and birth, and in the aftermath, but viscerally, I cannot. No one really can feel another’s pain. Birth, however, is more than pain. It is a blessing that confers love. Anyone, I believe, can understand that.
What is the love that birth engenders? It’s a strange sort of recognition. As adults, we form attachments that must be earned and continually worked on. But the new infant immediately takes up residence in a parent’s heart. My children have done nothing to place themselves in the center of my life except to be born. As they grow, they earn respect, maturity and independence, but my sense of love was there the moment I knew of their existence.
But that’s not all. With each of my wife's pregnancies, I used to put my ear to her belly and listen to the child’s movements. We let the older kids do the same for their younger siblings. All seemed safe and happy. After the birth of each child, however, I became haunted by death. Like the devil pursuing Cain, death was crouching in the doorway, always, everywhere. Sitting in my living room, with my 3-week-old child on a blanket on the floor, I was cutting articles from a newspaper for my files. The phone rang, and as I rose to go across the room to answer it, I became almost paralyzed by the thought that, with scissors in my hands, I could trip and somehow do damage to this little tyke. Such worries happened constantly, as the births of my children made me keenly aware of how fragile human life is.
Adopting parents also do not escape this sense of human fragility, for rearing a child is an intense occupation requiring superabundant awareness. When our firstborn, Hugh, was sleeping in his crib, Anna and I sneaked into the bedroom to make sure he was still breathing . . . every half-hour or so. We did that for each of the kids. That's how frightening it is to be a parent.
These nightmarish fears weren’t even the worst of it, for, amid the joy of each child’s birth, I was overcome by an awareness that these children of mine would some day be no more. If I dismissed the horrible scenarios of everyday tragedy, I was still left with the fact of my children's mortality.
Less than a year after Hugh was born, President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady, were shot. In the television coverage, I saw footage of Brady lying on the ground after the wound to his head. The look on his face reminded me of two things: my infant son and baby deer. I told this to my parents not long afterward, and my mother immediately understood. She knew that look of utter helplessness and vulnerability.
While one never gets over thinking up the worst possible causes for one of the kids coming home late, for example, even small moments bring to reality what terrors parenting holds. One of my daughters, around age 7, was performing a piano piece for the first time in public. Suddenly she stopped playing. Anna and I had heard her practice the piece dozens of times, but today she had become paralyzed or confused. The entire room of parents and piano students was stock-still. Noonay sat at the piano. Her teacher didn’t move, nor did Noonay. She stared at the black and white keys and at her unmoving fingers. Then just as suddenly she began playing again and finished the entire piece to great applause motivated by audience relief as much as her prowess on the piano. In short, my wife and I had the same Jim Brady moment as I had shared with my mother. But two minutes later, that moment was transformed into sheer delight.
- Passing Through
- Time Travel
- Outtakes from the Highlight Reel
- A Series of Fortunate Events
- Involuntary Prayer
- The Power of Paying Attention
- And the Last Shall Be Best
Even moments of sheer delight may be transformed into something else. When my other daughter, Ankeen, was about 12, I watched her one evening on the swing set. She always flew as high as she could. This time, the waning sun had filled the sky with oranges and reds, colors that were picked up in her long flowing hair as she reached the zenith of her swing. I was overcome by the beauty of the moment, the gracefulness of her form, the loving warmth of the evening sky. Then I realized, with utter shock, that this beautiful moment would never come again. All moments are evanescent, even the most exquisite ones.
These parental moments have never stopped occurring, offering more proof that the birth of a child has a momentous effect on parents’ lives. Birth, for a parent, is as much a rite of passage as it is for the newborn. Birth transforms a person into a parent; it is an event that takes a person not simply from one room to another. It is a sea-change, oceanic in its effects. We are held hostage by the vulnerabilities of those we love but are magnified by their joyous presence. No matter the ceremony marking the parental event — whether it’s baptism, circumcision or the Hindu celebration of a child’s first non-milk meal — birth and parenting open the doors to our becoming fully human.
Death does the same thing, but in a different way. As made plain by Socrates in ancient Greece and by Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s Denmark, we will never know what is after life until we enter the afterlife. So death as a rite of passage is preparatory for those about to die, and it is for those who remain after the funeral is over.
Once, when I was being wheeled into surgery, my father asked me, “Have you been fire-proofed?” I had never heard that phrase before — fire-proofed. What he was asking was if I had confessed my sins before I was to go under the knife and thereby made preparations to avoid hell. I said no. And the disappointment and concern on his face terrified me. I hadn’t even thought of my own death until that question.
I was keenly unprepared for death at that moment, but some people know they are going to die in a short while. Acceptance of death, I’m told, brings with it a kind of peace. Priests who have administered the final blessing often talk about their parishioners who learn to welcome their passing. Of course, we cannot know for sure what they are thinking as they approach their last hours. Their rite of passage is private. Their mourners, however, experience a less private rite. Like each birth, each death affects the community of the living.
Funerals are often terribly sad, even when mourners are aware of a joyous sense of the lived life of the one they grieve. The wake is a goodbye party, as it were. But after the burial, grievers begin to understand fully the vacancy in their lives. It’s the struggle of loss that completes the rite of passage. It ends with a restored balance. The people we mourn and miss, we eventually discover, are still part of us.
I have lost my parents, my wife’s parents, a brother-in-law and numerous friends, yet I still have them. My father taught me the art of persuasion, and though he’s been gone some 30 years, I still run my arguments through him. My mother taught me kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, and when I’m embattled with a friend or relative, I often think of her and her example. My wife’s parents helped us with our down payment, and I often feel their presence in the home their generosity helped create for us and our children. And so it goes. The dead leave our presence, but they never leave our lives.
When my uncle Frank died, he left a sheet of paper detailing what he wanted at his funeral. Uncle Frank was a bit of a prankster, and one of his wishes was that we sing “Silent Night” at the grave after the priest finished the last prayer and the family had thrown flowers on the interred coffin. It was a blustery November day, a month or so before Christmas, and we sang “Silent Night” against the wind. That song has a poignancy in the season of Jesus’ birth, but on this funereal day it was more so. Everyone — even that unemotional icon, my father — cried. And cried.
When it was over, we walked to our cars quietly. My brother Denis put the perfect touch on it all when, lovingly he said, “Uncle Francis, that old trickster — he got us again!”
Patrick McGuire is a member of the English Department of the University of Wisconsin — Parkside. He is the author of the poetic sequence Meditations on the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary; his blog is McGuireHimself.com. He is married to Chicago theater director Anna Antaramian.