Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ritual and Meaning

Yesterday was opening convocation here at Gettysburg. A ceremony that is designed to mark the opening of the academic year and to bring the incoming class of first year students (we do NOT call them freshmen, by "we" I mean administrators) into the college community. To make the ceremony more ceremonial, to bring greater relief to the delineation between being outside of and inside of the institution, every year a new tradition is added, a twist designed to make the ritual more ritualistic.

The problem is that trying to create a meaningful ritual is like trying to throw a great party. The epic parties are unpredictable, they just happen. The more you try to control the factors and create the vibe, the more contrived it feels and the less likely the authentic spirit needed will arise. And so it is with ritual.

So, what is it that makes a ritual meaningful? Is it history? There is certainly something that is amazing every year when Jews gather at passover to do the same thing that ancestors have done for thousands of years. Like looking over a temporal version of the Grand Canyon, that you can see so far back from your vantage point is inspiring in certain ways. But new rituals can't have that.

Is it that the symbolism is particularly poignant, that the act is so strikingly representative of some value? But the symbolism has to walk a fine line between representation and being too literal.

Is it that it gives a sense of something greater than the individual? When you do something with many people who are also doing the same exact thing, it can give you a sense of transcendence, of moving beyond the self. But everyone needs to be doing it with a certain spirit, a certain authenticity and earnestness.

Are there other factors? What can be done to create new rituals that are meaningful and not contrived?