The Purpose of Ritual

Are your chapter’s Ritual ceremonies a mindless recitation of arbitrary words or a meaningful reaffirmation of Sigma Nu’s founding purpose?

From Language in Thought in Action, by S.I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa:

Sermons, political caucuses, conventions, pep rallies, and other ceremonial gatherings illustrate the fact that all groups–religious, political, patriotic, scientific, and occupational–like to gather together at intervals for the purpose of sharing certain accustomed activities.

Among these ritual activities is always included a number of speeches, either traditionally worded or specifically composed for the occasion, whose principal function is not to give the audience new information, not to create new ways of feeling, but something else altogether.

The authors expand on this thought using the great American tradition of college pep rallies:

The members of “our team” are “introduced” to a crowd that already knows them.  Called upon to make speeches, the players mutter a few incoherent and often ungrammatical remarks, which are received with wild applause.  The leaders of the rally make fantastic promises about the mayhem to be performed on the opposing team the next day.  The crowd utters “cheers,” which normally consist of animalistic noises arranged in extremely primitive rhythms.  No one comes out any wiser or better informed than before.

…we cannot help observing that, whatever the words used in ritual utterance may signifiy, we often do not think very much about their signification during the course of the ritual.

We cannot regard such utterances as meaningless, because they have a genuine effect upon us.

What is the good that is done us in ritual utterances?  It is the reaffirmation of social cohesion.  Societies are held together by such bonds of common reactions to sets of linguistic stimuli.

Ritualistic utterances, therefore, whether made up of words that had symbolic significance at other times, of words in foreign or obsolete tongues, or of other meaningless syllables, may be regarded as consisting in large part of presymbolic uses of languages: that is, accustomed sets of noises which convey no information, but to which feelings (in this case, group feelings) are attached.  Such utterances rarely make sense to anyone not a member of the group.  The abracadabra of a lodge meeting is absurd to anyone not a member of the lodge.  When language becomes ritual, its effect becomes, to a considerable extent, independent of whatever significance the words possessed.

These observations, while insightful, do not describe the fraternity ritual.  The authors may describe the ritual as it is currently used by some chapters but certainly not as it should be used.

The authors do, however, help us acknowledge the reality that when many organizations perform ritual ceremonies they are merely ‘going through the motions’ rather than communicating meaningful ideas–in our case a reminder of Sigma Nu’s founding purpose.  In his timeless essay The Secret Thoughts of a Ritual, Edward M. King explains the purpose of fraternity ritual much more eloquently:

After being up almost all day and all night for a week, I am taken to a dimly lighted room where a number of people are gathered. There I am presented with much feeling and serious drama. It is obviously a moment of great climax for some of the people, for they are seeing and hearing me for the very first time. Shortly after the ceremony, I am brought back to the dark room and placed in the locked file drawer and I am not seen or heard of until the end of the next semester. In this case, as a ritual, what am I? Well, as I see it, I am a perfunctory service that must be performed in order to get new members into an organization. Once the initiation is over, I’m pretty much pigeonholed until the next class is to be initiated.

However, in some fraternity houses I exist in quite a different fashion. Shortly after the initiation the brothers come in one by one, get me out of the drawer and look me over carefully. Some just like to read me, others try to memorize me. Whatever the case, I like it when they use me. Sometimes they even argue over me, and this gets exciting because you see that’s what I’m about. I’m meant to be read carefully, discussed and even argued about. Yes, in fact, I can even be changed. I’m really a very human document, one that was written down some time ago after a great deal of thought of one or two men and I have been reworded, rephrased and re-evaluated many, many times.

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