By: Caroline Newman | University Communications
There are rituals for birth, death, coming-of-age and marriage; rituals to mark the harvest or new year; rituals to inaugurate a president or to salute the fallen. Contrary to popular belief, many – maybe most – of these rituals are not set in stone.
Though many rituals, both religious and civil, are repeated again and again, they evolve to accommodate changing needs and social mores. Today’s ritual repertoire, for example, has become more inclusive of women and, in some communities, marks events in the lives of the LGBTQ community. New rituals also embrace technology: people make virtual “pilgrimages” or pray together with others, using technology to transcend distance.
University of Virginia religious studies professor Vanessa Ochs has built a career studying and writing about rituals, both old and new. She was also a regular consultant on PBS’ “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” which concluded its almost 20-year run last month.
According to Ochs, we rely heavily on rituals in part because they “offer ways for emotion to be contained and channeled” – helping us negotiate the fraught emotions that come with parenthood, for example.
“New parents are often anxious about being a parent and caring for someone so vulnerable,” she said. “The ritual of blessing the baby provides comfort and offers a set, communally wise path for parents to negotiate the rawness of those feelings.”
Other rituals, such as marriage ceremonies, coming-of-age rituals and funerals, bring structure to the complicated emotions and dramatic social changes attending those moments of profound transition.
Rituals also offer a sense of belonging.
“Rituals connect us to groups, they connect us to the divine, they suggest a deeper world of meaning beyond the mundane habits of the everyday,” Ochs said. “They can transcend time, connecting us to our ancestors and to those who will come after us.”
The University, for example, has a slate of well-known ceremonies and celebrations that are rituals of belonging. They range from formal ceremonies, like convocation to Intermediate Honors and Final Exercises, to less formal traditions, such as fans wearing blue and orange and cheering “Wahoowa!” at sporting events. These rituals, Ochs said, welcome students and “affirm the identity of the individual within the community.”