Words, words, words

Charles Cowling

Following my post about the ineptitude and ineffectiveness of words, I stumbled on this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s actually about citizenship ceremonies, but you’d never guess it from the way I’ve plucked the extracts:

Traditionally, ritual, including rites of passage, is embedded in our religious culture. And it is true that religion seems to have a competitive advantage when it comes to this stuff. Religions have been practising their liturgy for a long time. The godly are very good at all of the non-verbal aspects of ritual from bells and smells to crazy cozies to speaking in tongues. Great ceremony is about an absence of speeches and many faiths get this.

Moreover, the godly have the advantage that they feel that they are consecrating their rites in the presence of their transcendent God. That ineluctably gives an ineffable power to the ceremony. The godless will obviously struggle to match that attribute of faith. And we need to get better at the non-verbal stuff. We atheists can talk the leg off a chair but we can’t sing or chant or dance the leg off an amputee.

Now a real rite of passage doesn’t just rejoice in change. It is the change. A ceremony which merely celebrates but doesn’t cause the change is not strictly a rite of passage. Graduation ceremonies from university are rites of passage because you don’t get the damned piece of paper without enduring the ceremony. On this definition, school graduations strictly aren’t rites of passage because the exam marks after the ceremony are the life-changing event, not the school graduation or valedictory service. So funerals aren’t strictly rites of passage because unless you’re a time traveller, your funeral won’t end your life, just celebrate it.

We, of the secular world, often fail to employ those non-verbal rituals that make a ceremony. You can easily cock up even the most moving event by speeches. During my days of municipal service, these ceremonies meandered between inspirational and pedestrian. The pedestrian bits were inevitably the speeches. The best bits were non-verbal – the Mayoral handshake, the familial hugging, the singing of the national anthem, the presentation of the symbolic wattle and the giving of certificate. All of these had no words merely music or actions.

Religions don’t have a monopoly on rites of passage but they do them better than us. The secular world needs to learn more about celebrating without speeches. We need to have rituals we perform together and not passively watch. I think we are still a century or so away from really learning these skills.

At the heart of great ceremony is performance that is not normal. Normal is pedestrian. Words are dull. We need transforming ceremony and that requires anything but speeches.

Read the whole article here.

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