Rites of Passage

Openly discussing celibacy is undesirable because marriage and sex are rites of passage. We’ve encountered people who have suggested that we just haven’t grown up, that we’re late bloomers, or that we haven’t explored our sexual potential. These people allege that in choosing celibacy, we are avoiding growing up and are dangerous because we encourage people to shake off adult forms of responsibility. We do acknowledge that sex has plays a role in many different cultural rites of passages, especially as it relates to various marriage customs around the world. However, we note that scholars and journalists who write on American culture frequently lament the lack of coming-of-age rituals for adults, especially as more and more college graduates find themselves struggling to find work and move back in with their parents. Amid this economic uncertainty, one might argue that marriage, and its requisite parts of entering into a consensual sexual relationship and founding an independent family life, seems to be the last stable form of marking the transition from child to adult.

For people discerning celibacy, especially outside of religious life, the emphasis on sex and marriage as essential rites of passage deprives them of the opportunity to explore celibacy as a meaningful way of life. Celibacy is often seen as a default option for the young, the weird, or the otherwise undesirable. According to most people we know, the only folks above a certain age who aren’t having sex are those who lack the coordination and the resources to ask for sex.

(Queering Celibacy amid Fixation on Sex, emphasis in original) The authors reflect on the ease with which we (generally) talk about sex but how very uncomfortable talk of celibacy seems to be. They suggest various reasons for that, but that one most arrested my attention.

It’s been too long since I thought about rites of passage. They are so nearly universal that it’s very WEIRD of us to lack them – if, indeed, we do lack them.

I thought I’d do some research on rites of passage, but a quick look suggests to me that it’s so huge a topic, that any research I did would be superficial, and anyone who thought me expert would be deluded.  So take the following, even more than usual, with the “not scholarly research” disclaimer. I’m not even going to use hyperlinks to distinguish from my musings what I actually saw in my very brief web overview.

It seems that in Catholicism, first Communion may be a rite of passage. Jewish boys famously have Bar Mitzvah and girls in some Jewish traditions have Bat Mitzvah.

Hmm. We Orthodox Christians commune infants as soon as they’re baptized. There’s no confirmation class subsequently. Kids are in the Liturgy, singing the hymns and hearing the homilies from infancy (in most Churches; a few have adopted a version of Sunday School, for various reasons, that have the kids absent for part of the Liturgy). Now the Orthodox Crowning (Wedding) service is a big deal, as is monastic tonsure. Maybe that’s why they’re the two (and only two) traditional adult paths to salvation, with no recognized non-monastic “in-between” (which, if I need to be explicit, would be at least sexually abstinent, whatever else it might be).

There seems to be an urge for some rite of passage. We’re fascinated by the exoticism of some rites we see. Google “rites of passage” and you’ll find lots of “trees,” little forest, though there are a couple of domains or organizations that seem to be devoted to the topic. German secularists and Unitarian Universalists have made up rites, and I gather they’re not alone in doing so.

The thought occurred to me that smoking to “look grown up” may have functioned as a rite of passage. Getting a driver’s licensed used to do that, but that’s such a “no big deal” today that some kids, especially in big cities, don’t bother, and it as never surrounded by ceremony. High school graduation certainly did as well: I know I graduated 6/10/67 even though I couldn’t begin to tell you where my diploma is. There was a ceremony.

Today, when smoking is déclassé and religion moribund over vast cultural swaths, perhaps declaring oneself sexually active (and making good on that declaration) marks being grownup.

My own experience blurs one dominant cultural rite. Many, many people look back at college with the kind of awe that suggests that moving into the dorm is adulthood. But I moved into a dorm at age 14, under no few illusions that I was really adult, and look back with that sort of awed fondness on high school. So college, which still isn’t universal, isn’t “our society’s” rite.

I’m not convinced that we can make up a rite of passage as secularists and UUs have tried, any more than we could “start a new tradition” as our Headmaster oxymoronically put it about some now long-forgotten innovation.

But I wonder, and at least for the duration of writing this worry, about what our ersatz substitutes may be, and how perverse they may be.

Some day, someone will look back, and see what today is so big that it’s invisible: either the rite we couldn’t see as rite, or how the lack of such a rite hurt us.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.