A rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person’s progress from one status to another. There are often ceremonies that accompany these rituals, designed for both the individual(s) transitioning as well as the community.
There are examples of rituals marking rites of passages in most cultures and religions throughout the world, most commonly accompanying milestones such as birth, puberty or coming of age, marriage, and death, as well as initiation. Each of these rites tends, as articulated by van Gennep in his book Rites of Passage, to have three phases: separation, transition, and reincorportation.
An example of a ritual rite of passage is a wedding. In the traditional wedding, each member of the couple is walked down the aisle by their parents – this represents separation from their family of origin. The ceremony is the transition, where they take vows in front of their community and announce their devotion. The couple has left their old home and is in the process of forming a new home, together. They are in the threshold. Finally, they are reincorporated into the community. They walk down the aisle together, they dance with their community, eat with everyone, and then are sent off together to start their new life. The ring they wear is symbolic of their new status of union.
These days, people often eschew old traditions and rituals, feeling they are old-fashioned, unnecessary or irrelevant. Why get married or have a wedding? In some cases the marriage might not be legally binding. In other cases, there is no plan or ability to have children. Parents are no longer alive to “give them away.” Marriage just leads to divorce anyway, so why do it? How can we be sure “this is The One?” Similarly, people feel disconnected from other rites of passage – they are not an active part of a spiritual or religious community, so baptism, naming, bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation, vision quest, or other rites of passage are not available or seem alien to them.
But these rites and rituals have existed for a long time and for good reasons that often are not apparent until during or after they have been completed. Oftentimes people are shocked by how moved they feel when they experience the rite of passage ritual they were initially reluctant to complete or to witness. As we move through life, we all transition through rites of passage – we are born, we start school, we go through puberty, we finish school, some form a union with others and/or with God, we grow older, and we die. Each of these rites of passage is very powerful, whether we mark it with ritual or not. Marking with ritual simply serves to help us, and our community, transition through the experience together, and with meaning and connection.
Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images