The power of rites from a traditional and invented perspective is to facilitate or obstruct difficult passages in the course of human life. Not every passage is a rite of passage. We undergo passages, but we enact rites. Life passages are rough, mixed with spiritual potholes, even mortal dangers. Some passages we know are coming; others happen upon us. Birth, coming of age, marriage, and death are widely anticipated as precarious moments requiring rites for their successful negotiation. But there are other treacherous occasions less regularly handled by ritual means: the start of school, abortion, a serious illness, divorce, job loss, rape, menopause, and retirement. More often than not, these events, especially when they arrived unanticipated are undergone with benefit of ritual.
Even a single rite of passage can divide a person's life into "before" and "after". An entire system of such rites organizes a life into stages. Some cultures litter the human life course with numerous rites. Some keeping groups on course; others hardly blaze the trail at all. These ceremonial occasions inscribe images into the memories of all participants and they etch values into the cornerstones of social institutions. Effective rites depend on inheriting, discovering, or inventing value-laden images that are driven deeply, by repeated practices and performance into the marrow. The images offered by ineffective rites remain skin-deep.
Passages can be negotiated without the benefits of rites, but in their absence, there is a greater risk of speeding through the dangerous intersections of the human life course. Having skipped over a major passage without being devastated by a major upset, we may prematurely congratulate ourselves on passing through unscathed. In the long haul, however, people often regret their failure to contemplate a birth, celebrate a marriage, mark the arrival of maturity, or enter into the experience of a death. The primary work of rite of passage is to ensure that we attend to events fully, which is to say, spiritually, psychologically, and socially. Unattended, a major passage can become a yawning abyss, draining off psychic energy, engendering social confusion, and twisting the course of the life that follows it. Unattended passages become spiritual sinkholes around which hungry ghosts, those greedy personifications of unfinished business, hover.
The notion of a rite of passage depends on three key ideas: the human life course, the phases of passage, and the experience of ritual transformation. Life-cycle theorists suggest that human lives follow a relatively uniform path. A life proceeds according to a scenario, a stock plot, with enough flexibility to allow for improvisation. The path of human development is intersected by a series of turning points that divide it into predictable phases. Each turning point is both a crisis and an opportunity.
Rites used for negotiating these turns proceed through three phases; separation from the community, transition into an especially formative time and space, and re incorporation back into the community. The effect of rite of passage is to transform both the individuals who undergo them and the communities that design and perpetuate them. Rites of passage change single people into mates, children into adults, childless individuals into parents, living people into ancestors. Rites of passage are stylized and condensed actions intended to acknowledge or effect a transformation. A transformation is not just any sort of change but a momentous metamorphosis, a moment after which one is never again the same.
Classical rites-of passage theory, formulated by Arnold Van Gennep, based on his field research among indigenous people and cultures on the continent of Africa, invokes spatial metaphors to explain how rites work.. According to this theory, a rite of passage is like a domestic threshold or a frontier between two nations. Such places are "neither here nor there" but rather "between and betwixt."
Just as a person moving from outside to inside a living room is met with ritualized gestures (handshakes, greeting, or hugging), so one who crosses a national boundary is subjected to passport checking and zones and customs, the required ceremonial gestures. Since the threshold zone is a no-man's-land, it is dangerous, full of symbolic meaning, and guarded. A rite of passage is a set of symbol-laden actions by means of which one passes through a dangerous zone, negotiating it safely and memorably.
Ritual knowledge is rendered unforgettable only if it makes serious demands on individuals and communities, only if it is etched deeply into the marrow of soul and society. A rite of passage is more than a mere moment which participants get carried away emotionally, only to be returned to their original condition afterward. Witnessing a moving play like Fela, attending weekly worship, or participating in an "in-the-woods" experience can transport us into reverie, but a few days later our commitment needs rekindling. Ritual practices such as daily meditation and weekly worship are responses to recurring needs. These rites move but do not transform. By contrast, when effective rites of passage are enacted, they carry us from here to there in such a way that we are unable to return to square one... To enact any kind of rite is to perform, but to enact a rite of passage is to transform.
Effective ritual experiences and knowledge lodges in the bone, in the very marrow.
Ritual is not really something that dwells in a literal somewhere. Rites are choreographed actions; they exist in the moments of their enactment and then disappear. When effective, their traces remain—in the heart, in the memory, in the mind, in texts, in photographs, in journals, in descriptions, in social values, and in the marrow, the source of our lifeblood.
Paul Hill, Jr's, service to community has been accomplished as an educator and community activist. He is founder of The National Rites of Passage Institute (NROPI). In 1992 he wrote the book, "Coming of Age" which focuses on how the black community can institutionalize rites of passage as part of the child-rearing process. His activism and practice are culture driven and nature based. Hill's Rites of Passage experience into adulthood was emulated for his children, and children and youth of the community. He has been a pioneer in the Rites of Passage movement for over 30 years; he is one of the premier researchers, writers, and practitioners of Rites of Passage in the Western Hemisphere.
Besides his phenomenal community service, for 45 years, Hill has been a devoted husband, a proud father of seven children, grandfather of seven and a mentor to countless people throughout the United States and the World.