Those Jesuits, man. They know how to do it.
On the last day of parent weekend, after dropping off our third and final child to college, the staff and administrators at Gonzaga University offered a blessing to all incoming freshmen. As families gathered in the basketball arena (yes, that basketball arena) students were asked to rise as all families then raised a hand in a gesture of blessing. With three thousand hands raised — symbolically hovering over the heads of our collective children — the woman in charge of student ministry offered the university’s blessing on all students who then processed out together to the strains of the college choir, leaving their tearful parents riffling through bags for a tissue.
If anything begs for a sacred ritual it’s the finality of child-rearing.
And it reminded me just how important our rituals are.
The symbolic behaviors we perform before, during and after meaningful events cut across cultures. Whether lighting a candle, touching a familiar object as you walk out the door, journaling, saying a prayer, regularly visiting a loved one’s grave — rituals help alleviate stress, heighten our awareness and connectivity, and reduce anxiety.
It’s not all about religion either. Rumor has it Michael Jordan wore his old UNC college shorts under his Bulls uniform in every single NBA game he played. Baseball great Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game. Beethoven purportedly doled out exactly 60 coffee beans for his daily morning beverage before he put pen to paper in composition. Rituals that become routine can spur creativity and provide a sense of calm.
But most importantly it seems to me that rituals help mark important transitions in life, adding weight and importance that is recognized by others around us which, in turn, creates community. Rituals in our sacred services, for example, are meant to enhance and deepen our understanding of our faith. Baptisms, Confirmations, Weddings, Ordinations, Funerals — all are meant to mark the place and time that something became different. Research affirms that rituals help hurting hearts heal faster.
Changing jobs? Mark the big day by opening a bottle of bubbly! Starting high school? How about a coloring book to remind them how far they’ve come? Traveling? Begin each trip by saying the same words of affirmation and prayer for safety. Birthday rituals, Christmas traditions, baby showers and bachelor parties — there are so many ways we honor the transitions in our life. If we don’t, and they pass unnoticed, then isn’t that kind of like the proverbial tree falling in the forest….? I don’t know about you but I want to HEAR that tree fall! I want to hear the crack and the whoosh as I step back in trepidation; I want to feel the blast of air push against my face as that magnificent thing falls before my very eyes. Then I want to mark the spot: “Charla was here.” Because some things just beg for our blessing and for our entire being to stand up and take notice. Thank you, my Jesuit friends at Gonzaga, for the sweet reminder that rituals matter.