This sermon was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Wyoming Valley in July of 2021
Every year I coordinate a large event for my chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans in Frederick, MD. It’s a masquerade ball – a formal gala with a faery and fantasy theme. It’s our big fundraiser of the year and features a DJ, a belly dance troupe, vendors, and a pretty impressive lighting system that turns our congregation’s building into a winter wonderland. The event is informally called the Pagan Prom by my community.
It’s honestly not a bad title. For teenagers, the prom is this amazing opportunity to see what it’s like to present a formal version of themselves. There are special clothing items and preparations, customs around corsages and who travels with whom, and everyone’s curfew is generally extended a bit. In a secular culture, prom is one of our rites of passage – a kind of ceremony that acknowledges the progression toward adulthood.
But there’s also the shadow of that ceremony, of course. A lot of people have a pretty miserable time at prom. I know for smart, weird kids like I was, it was stressful and uncomfortable. The gatherings before and afterward with my own small social circle were truthfully more enjoyable. I don’t think I was comfortably seated in my sense of self enough to really appreciate or enjoy what was happening. I wasn’t ready for that kind of social ritual.
I was still in a bit of an awkward phase, shall we say.
As an adult now, it’s fun to take a second swing at prom. I enjoy the opportunity to present that idealized version of self. It’s a chance to be seen and held by community in a different way than usual. We rediscover how beautiful all our friends are at the masquerade. We get to see both ourselves and each other in a new way.
That’s one of the pieces of deep meaning that comes through a Rite of Passage. We see ourselves or the person going through the ceremony in a new way. The ritual honors and formalizes something that is already present. It shifts the way we stand within community in response to that recognition. Many times, the conclusion of the ritual shows the new path forward: a way to take that freshly embodied sense of self out and into the world.
We don’t have many Rites of Passage left in larger United Statesian culture. Graduations, formal dances like prom, weddings, baby showers, retirement parties, and funerals are pretty much it at this point. As ceremonies go, overall, they don’t focus much on personal development.
There are so many times when a ritual or ceremony would help, though. I was married for around eleven years to very unhealthy person. When I left the marriage, I discovered that a lot of the way I had been living in the world had to do with what I needed to present in order to survive a toxic relationship. The unpacking of that and the uncovering of my true face underneath all of the survival adaptations took some time. Saying ‘I got divorced’ simply does not convey what it is to go through that experience. I passed through pain and darkness and emerged on the other side different. I have often thought that a ritual at that time would have been a powerful way to let go of what was, honor what had been revealed, and set an intention for moving forward deliberately and with the wisdom and knowledge that was so hard won.
For all of us, there are times when we look around and realize that we are changed. That even if people looking in from the outside can’t see it, we know it to be true. A rite of passage is a gate, a way through those moments of revealed truth, a thread to hold that takes us to the center of the labyrinth and back out again into the light.
In older times, rites of passage were determined by age or physiological markers, but that metric is so different now. Ceremonies that honored the transition from child to young adult were often tied to the onset of puberty – in the case of young ladies, of the menstrual cycle. Those physical cues vary so dramatically now, though. One of the children in my life got their cycle at age 10. Another at age 15. The 10-year-old was definitely not a teenager yet and the 15-year-old had been one for a bit.
So, what are the markers? Figuring out what our rites of passage should be means taking a deep look at what a human life is like now. What phases do we still pass through? And what are the new ones?
The early phases of life remain unchanged: we are born and grow into children. At some point, we begin to demonstrate some responsibility and awareness of the dynamics of the world around us. My stepdaughter is 17 now and I have been a close part of her life for the last seven of those years. The big transition I watched her make had little to do with her body but a lot to do with her mind and personality. She began to see the larger patterns around her. She became more insightful and started to talk about the connections between actions, motivations, personality, and situation. The child I once carried on my back suddenly stood before me eloquent and observant. And I think that was the moment. I could still see the little girl I loved, but I could also see the adult beginning to reveal herself.
Graduation from college is still a moment of great celebration. And it should be! College is hard, and finishing it is an accomplishment worth celebrating. I’m not sure it marks the full transition to adulthood that we often ascribe to it, though. In a culture where many college graduates are not able to make enough money in our economy to move out or live independently, graduation is still part of the preamble to adulthood. Some college graduates are definitely adults. Many are still in that funny in-between place of teenager and grown up, though. The pattern of going to school and then leaving home is no longer consistent or even reasonable in some cases.
Our lives are much longer than our ancestors were and there’s a good deal more variation in terms of what we do with them as well. We have some better understanding around sexual orientation and expression these days. Not everyone thrives when paired in a romantic relationship, so marriage is still common but by no means universal. And that’s a good thing for the people for whom it would be a prison. For those of us who do get married, around half of us will go through a divorce as I did. I have yet to meet anyone for whom the experience of divorce is minor and does not cause change.
The ability to control human fertility means that the childfree movement is growing and even for people who do choose to have children, that process overall is beginning a bit later in life for a whole host of reasons.
Most of us have shifts in careers over our lives. The most recent statistic I saw indicated that the majority of adults will have eight different and distinct careers over their working lives. Retirement is different now, too. My friends and family who have passed through that gate have not gone on to gently settle into some sort of passive existence featuring a rocking chair and knitting. Most of them are on to the career they really wanted if money was not an issue. They’re off having adventures and creating new things in this world.
A human life is now the path chosen at many different crossroads rather than a shared highway. Some of those crossroads are familiar, but we’re only just figuring out how to put the street signs up for other ones.
So maybe the compass needs to be internal as well as external. Think back for a moment. What was the last big change you went through?
Bonus points if it involved a Fairy Godmother
Was it something visible from the outside? Could your friends and family tell?
It’s okay if they couldn’t. So much of what makes us who we are passes beneath the surface. We can look the same but be profoundly changed on a deeper level. When you went through that change, would it have been helpful to have the transformation honored? To have been seen as your new self by your community?
I have a deep and abiding love of ritual. So much so that I teach other people techniques around making rituals more effective, more transformative. Rites of Passage hold a special place in my heart because of their nature – they only ever happen once. Even if we have more than one child, we’re a parent to that new baby just once. Even if we have more than one spouse over the course of our lives, the wedding ceremony to each individual person only happens once. These gates that we pass through are unique to the story of our lives.
When I’m teaching about ritual, I encourage people to find the kernel at the center of the celebration they’re planning. What is the deep emotional truth that the ritual or ceremony centers itself around? Most kernels can be broken down to just a few words: love, grief, hope, new beginnings, gratitude…all of these very human feelings can then grow into a beautiful ritual specifically designed to hold them.
When we celebrate a rite of passage, we need to look for similar kernels. What is being left behind? What skin is being shed? What structure no longer fits?
Then, where are we now? Who are we at this moment? Even if the mirror shows back the same face, what is happening inside that brought us to this place? We need to find language that honors that newness, that difference.
If we know what we’re letting go of, and we know what we are honoring as the new self, we have a start for a beautiful Rite of Passage. We can then choose the mechanism of the ritual – the physical action that symbolizes the truth we are honoring with ceremony. We can release things through fire, burning away that which no longer serves. We can release the past in water – so many stones sinking to the bottom of a flowing stream. We can release through earth, scattering the words we’re letting go of and then planting a tree over them to transform what was into what will be.
We can mark a new a self or phase of life with blessings for good fortune. We can anoint with sacred waters and scented oils. We can trace symbols in body paint. We can place jewelry, scarves, garlands, or other decorations upon that new self to show the difference on the outside as well as the inside.
And then? We can think about the path forward. Each rite of passage takes us through a gate and the road continues on the other side of it. If we are stepping into more wisdom and knowledge, how do we share that with our community? If we are marking a profound change in our lives, how is that reflected in the path ahead? The difference we feel and honor influences where we go from here.
The larger culture of the United States encourages us to be ever grasping, ever trying to accumulate more material wealth and possessions. My own experience of trying to follow that path was to find it hollow and isolating. I do believe we need to grow as people, but material possessions are only ever just a small part of that picture.
Some of us need to grow tall like the oak. We strive to gain perspective, to capture the brightness of the sky and share it. Some of us need to root deep like the walnut. We forge strong, meaningful connections and learn the lessons that only come with time. Some of us need to spread out like the maple. We do best when sharing our experiences with others and forging friendships with everyone around us.
A forest is made up of a diversity of species. A healthy human community is no different. We need bright, quick minds to shine light in new places. We need wisdom and institutional memory to help us make the right choices. We need social connections and those who are good at forming them to work well as teams and families of like mind. In the best forests, there’s room for so many kinds of growth. In the best communities, we can see and meet each other at each point in one life’s journey. We can honor the rites of passage and also encourage the growth toward the next one.
So, what is next for you? Are you reaching toward the sky, trying to get a better and brighter view? Are you rooting deep into community to help hold the center of it? Are you forging connections and building new ways of being in community?
And, when you look around you and find that you have changed, what will you do to honor that transition point? Which gate, which rite of passage, lies ahead?
As Mark Twain said, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.” Rites of passage in the form of ritual and ceremony have been part of the human experience as far back as we can see. It’s time to find the rhyme of these ceremonies for the modern age. To support our individual search for meaning and connection by honoring the growth we have done, blessing the person we are now because of it, and placing care and intention on the path forward.
The most important step is always the next one.
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