By: Bernard Starr, PhD

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Thursday, July 19, 2007 at 12:12am

Rite of passage: Turn-on or turn-off?

Column: Spiritual Psychology
There's a story about a rabbi who arrives at the synagogue where he is the newly appointed leader of the congregation. The shamus (caretaker) takes the rabbi on a tour of the building to familiarize him with the facilities. In the basement the rabbi notices a number of rats scurrying about. He immediately insists that elimination of the rats must be the first order of business. The shamus pleads that he has tried everything, including the most advanced extermination techniques, and that he has consulted many expensive experts to no avail — "the rats keep coming back." The rabbi then confidently proclaims, "No problem. I have a solution that is guaranteed to work: We'll put a yarmulke (skull cap) on the rats, give them a bar mitzvah and you'll never see them again."

Most cultures and religions have coming-of-age rituals and other rites of passage: Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, baptisms, confirmations, Zen Buddhist initiations (Jukai), Hindu Sacred Thread ceremonies (Upanayanam), and the Muslim Hajj are some of the most common ones. These rituals are expected to inspire and strengthen commitment to a religious life. Do they? Or does the humorous tale above reflect the real story? How do these rituals actually play out or influence later life?

That's the nagging question that prompted. Arthur Magida to write his book "Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage" (University of California Press, 2006), based on his interviews with renowned artists, intellectuals, as well as religious and spiritual leaders. The list includes: inspirational spiritual writer and lecturer Deepak Chopra, singer Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), actress-comedian Julia Sweeney, Buddhist teacher Robert Thurman, interfaith and religion scholar Huston Smith, conductor and college president Leon Botstein — and the illustrious names go on.

I asked Arthur if he found any single thread or pattern that reveals the impact of rites of passage:

"The prime overriding assumption I had, going into this project, was that these ceremonies somehow change us, that those people who really know what they're doing and study hard and pray hard and open their souls and their hearts on this day of days experience some kind of quasi-mystical, semi-magical transformation. I assumed that they were irrevocably changed. ... Does this happen? Not very often. ... "

Is there any way of predicting an outcome — a sign or a marker, I asked?

"There is no direct corollary between having one of these events and later being especially devout or spiritual. As I say on Page 265, having a rite of passage does not guarantee that you'll like your faith, stay in your faith or have any faith"

Yet rituals often do have impact and lasting value — sometimes not the way we expect.

Does "staying power" of a ritual have anything to do with how passionate the initiate is about the event? Here too the results are mixed and sometimes counter-intuitive, as Magida illustrates:

"Julia Sweeney was a very devoted Catholic while growing up — loved her confirmation, loved the nuns in her parochial school. Was even thinking about joining them when she grew up. Now she is an outspoken atheist. And Jim Zogby, who heads the Arab-American Institute in Washington, was an altar boy as a youth and raised in a very devout household. He has never strayed from the church, and yet he does not remember his confirmation." As Jim Zogby put it in Magida's interview: "I took the normal route for a Catholic kid. I got baptized — I don't remember it. I had my first communion — I don't remember it. I had my confirmation — I don't remember it. They all sort of just happened. ... They were more like the air you breathe or the water you swim in."

Then there is Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who loved her rite of passage — a Bat Mitzvah — but later left Judaism "because she wasn't included in the minyan (prayer service) after her mother's death and thus could not say the mourner's prayer, the Kaddish. Letty returned to Judaism about 15 years later; the Bat Mitzvah and the intense preparation for it had indelibly impressed itself upon her."

Others, though, dismiss their rites of passage, leave their religions of birth, but go on to pursue other forms of religion and spirituality. "Ram Dass (originally Richard Alpert) was so unaffected by his Bar Mitzvah, so disappointed by its essential hollowness, that during college, he seriously explored Quakerism, pioneered psychedelics with Tim Leary at Harvard and is now considered one of the great-granddaddies of modern spirituality in the U.S."

Robert Thurman grew up in an upscale, sophisticated Upper East Side of Manhattan family. Magida writes: "While growing up, Isadora Duncan's brother conducted weekly dramatic readings in the Thurmans' living room, with Robert reading parts alongside Laurence Olivier." But the sophisticated New York crowd barely skimmed religion: '[W]e went to a brick church around eighty-ninth and Park. But we didn't go often. Usually on holidays and family events.' His education at Exeter and Harvard didn't bring him any closer to his Christian roots. But early on he was drawn to the religion of Tibet. At age 24 he became the first Western Tibetan Buddhist monk. His mother wasn't surprised because 'I kicked over the baptismal font as a baby, drenched the priest, and barely got baptized. The priest was very annoyed and wrung out his cassock on my feet.' Thurman left his monk's garb after two years, but today, as professor of an endowed chair in Buddhist studies at Columbia University, he is America's leading Buddhist teacher; he also heads Tibet House in lower Manhattan."

Still others interviewed by Magida put down their rites of passage and become apostates because their early experiences lacked meaning or genuine spirituality. Then there are those like Deepak Chopra, who didn't miss having rites of passage. His father was Sikh, his mother a Hindu, and he attended an Irish Christian missionary school in India. He doesn't identify with any of those faiths: "As soon as you label yourself, you confine yourself." He also insists: "Religion is quarrelsome and frequently idiotic. All rituals, even a Hindu or Sikh rite of passage, would have just been a form of conditioning. They trap energy and information into a particular pattern. ... These rites condition someone to a particular belief system. And whenever you make something exclusive, it influences you into thinking that other beliefs and religions are not that great. ... " Chopra's two children are in their 30s and have not had rites of passage — and don't see the need for any. Yet Deepak Chopra is one of the most influential spiritual leaders on the planet — his children are highly spiritual as well. Nonetheless, it's clear that Deepak Chopra was raised in an eclectically rich and tolerant spiritual environment that has shaped his Universalist, inclusive and humanitarian spiritual perspective.

Huston Smith grew up in China, where his parents were Christian missionaries. His rites of passage were no big "wows." But they did not dampen his enthusiasm for religion. "My confirmation at 12 was very simple. ... I was asked some questions about believing in God and accepting Jesus Christ as my savior. I also pledged to read the Bible and adhere to its directives. ... I was a little disappointed. I don't know what I really expected. Maybe that the heavens would open and I would feel the Holy Spirit descending on me. ... I really didn't feel any different." Despite that, Smith was content with Christianity until his 20s, when he was blown away by the spirituality in the Vedanta teachings of Hinduism. He perfunctorily continued to attend a Methodist church while his spiritual center was with a Hindu group until he discovered the same truths in Christianity. Today he says, " Christianity has always been my main meal, but I'm a very strong believer in 'vitamin supplements.'" Is he down on rituals? Not at all: "I'm so sad that in our secular society, we've lost so much of these rites that would make an impact on people's character."

Can we make any sense of all these crosscurrents of information and experiences? If rites of passage have no predictable outcome or clear impact on the spiritual and religious life, should we even bother with them? I wondered what conclusions Arthur Magida reached.

"As someone who had a complete dud of a Bar Mitzvah, I essentially wrote this book to see who isn't disappointed with their rites of passage, who is changed, how they're changed, why they're changed. I wanted to see if this stuff worked. ... I foolishly believed that these coming-of-age events provide a transformation, instant or otherwise. They rarely do. They can teach us, and they can inspire us, and they can show us the possibility of even greater possibilities. They can also bore the heck out of us. What really matters is not whether they transfigure us. What really matters is what they're asking: 'Who are you? Where are you?' Whether or not we believe in rites of passage, any rite of passage, they deserve to be taken seriously: They are a testimony to our possibilities. They are our betwixt and our between, the moment when we traverse moments, when we leap from one peak to another, bravely, courageously. For our quest in life, it always helps to summon a certain awe and a certain hope. Both will point us toward William Blake's most shining and most rudimentary of proclamations: Everything that lives is holy."

Arthur's rite of passage may represent a good example of the value of rituals, even when they are limp experiences. His "dud" Bar Mitzvah has blossomed into an expansive exploration that has given us an abundance of food for thought.

Check out his website for more information and insights.

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Bernard Starr, Ph.D., formerly professor of developmental and educational psychology at the City University of New York, now teaches psychology and leads the Spiritual Forum at Marymount Manhattan College. In addition to his work in radio, he is a longtime contributor of commentary and opinion articles to numerous major publications. He is also the main United Nations representative for the Institute of Global Education that founded the Mucherla Global School in Mucherla, India. His book "Escape Your Own Prison: Why We Need Spirituality and Psychology to be Truly Free" will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in October 2007. His email address is {email}{/email}. © copyright 2007 by Bernard Starr.