Constructing a Ritual of Transition

Found In: Growing Older

By Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman | Article

In order to have an impact, a ritual needs to reflect the transition it is marking. To begin, you need to carefully examine the transition you are addressing. What are its significant features? Is there a "before" (status quo) "during" (liminality), "after" (new state)? What are the salient characteristics of each? What are the emotional components and meanings of this transition for the person experiencing it, for family members/friends, and for members of the community, if they will be included?

Second, the ritual needs to have credibility. Essential in this regard is focusing on a guiding metaphor that has emotional resonance for those involved. The metaphor will help to anchor and orient all involved, reaching from the unfamiliar in this situation toward a known and familiar realm (Myerhoff 1977). In addition, a ritual is a kind of drama, so it is helpful to focus on physical action and behavior. Doing something will make the experience visceral; excessive explanation and didactic content are best avoided. Finally, the ritual should tie in to personal and communal continuity through symbols, words, or actions.

Brainstorming is a helpful tool for the next stage of creating a ritual. Once you have analyzed the transition to be addressed, let your mind free-associate. Search your tradition, literature, or whatever body of knowledge is most meaningful to you. Look for material associated with this transition, including heroes, texts, stories, symbols, blessings, prayers, and songs. Hone in on the image or metaphor that seems most apt and let that guide you as you create a ritual. Use this metaphor to frame and define the moment for the person undergoing the transition and those present.

Now you are ready to construct a structure that includes ritual action or affect-based components for each stage of the rite. Here are some things to consider:

  • Timing/rhythm. Make sure the ritual is not too long. A relatively short ritual is often more powerful than a long, drawn-out ceremony. In addition, make sure your ritual has a beginning, middle, and end, and that there are good transitions between them.
  • Involve key people. Be aware of people in the individual's life who need to be honored or acknowledged or who can contribute to the meaning of the event.
  • Be sensitive to the community's role. Even though the ritual is primarily focused on the individual who is making a change, those who are in attendance will both affect and be affected by this experience.
  • Drama. Be alert to opportunities to make the moment magic. Think about aesthetic aspects, including setting, lighting, clothing/costume, food, and adornments, such as flowers and decorations.
  • Music. Music is an essential part of the power of many rituals. Music opens participants to the experience, touches their emotions, and provides a sense of continuity. You can include music through recorded music, performed music, and/or community singing.
  • Facilitator/leader. Think carefully about who will be conducting this ritual. Individuals who are the focus of rituals of transition want to be present to the magnitude of the moment. For this reason, it may be best if someone else takes responsibility for facilitating the ritual. The extent of this role ranges from creating the ritual to carrying out what the subject and/or others have designed.
  • Safety. Make sure that this ritual will be safe for the person on whom it is focused and all present. Do not make unexpected demands on anyone or violate boundaries by putting anyone on the spot. Make sure the person experiencing the transition knows about and is comfortable with what will happen in the ritual.
  • Evaluate. Once the ritual is completed, think about what went well and what did not go as you or others had hoped. Look at what contributed to a sense of connection and what fell flat. This reflection will prove invaluable to you for the next time you set out to shape a ritual of transition.

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