Rescuing Our Ritual

Dedication marker in spring snow

By Travis Galloway (Washington)

Something really set me me off the other day. While researching for this article, I made the mistake of entering “fraternity ritual” in the Google search bar. I was expecting to find a convenient Wikipedia page with a general history of fraternity rituals, their inspiration and evolution; how naïve that turned out to be. While a few of the top results pointed to brief histories of specific fraternities’ rituals, those are not what caught my eye. Rather, I was bombarded by headlines like “College Hazing Stories,” “Horrible College Hazing Rituals,” and “Deadly Frat Rituals are Banned Thanks to Technology.” And that’s just on the first page of results.

Is this what we have done to ourselves, our fraternities? Is this the price of maintaining a secret ritual? Are we known only for what we have done to bastardize our rituals? These are just a couple of the questions that surged into my mind. I hope you are as upset as I am.

As fraternity men and sorority women, we have a tendency to think of our rituals as archaic books of secrets. Inspired by men and women who have long since passed, we bring them out of hiding only a few times each semester. And usually, we don’t do it because we want to; we do it because we feel compelled. To many of us have a tendency to dust off The Ritual for the Candidate and Initiation Ceremonies, and perhaps for chapter meetings and the occasional Affirmation of Knighthood Ceremony. But the ceremony ends, The Ritual goes right back into hiding, and we don’t think about it again until the next ceremony. Robes, candles, ribbons, badges, perhaps blindfolds, and a lot of talking by a few officers: this is what most of us remember.

DSC_1044If we expect to be taken seriously as an organization that seeks “to develop ethical leaders,” then we need to do a better job of acting like it. If we are going to keep complaining that Greek-letter organizations get too much bad press, we need to stop simply talking about how we encourage great development opportunities, ethical leadership training, and adherence to a core set of values; we need to start doing it. If you are as frustrated as I am by the headlines I mentioned earlier, then you need to help me reclaim our Ritual.

Toward the end of the Initiation Ceremony, our Ritual challenges each Knight to “strive to live and die in Honor…that in life and death men may truly say of him: ‘He ever bore, without abuse, the grand old name of gentleman.’” That last part is inspired by a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, written while Tennyson was mourning the loss of a very close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. To paraphrase, Hallam was an excellent man, above the “churls” and “charlatans” who claimed the “name of gentleman” but did not deserve the distinction of such a title. So, what are you doing to live up to your commitment to live and die in honor? Do you deserve to bear the “grand old name of gentleman”?

I’m not going to try to define “gentleman.” Plenty have tried, but I believe that the word has a certain “it” factor, as in “you know it when you see it.” Here is one way to help you “see it”: over the next few weeks, pay attention to your behavior and the behavior of those around you. Each time that you notice yourself or one of your brothers or candidates do something gentlemanly, take note of it. Each time you hold the door open for somebody; each time you help someone pick up something they’ve dropped; each time you help an elderly lady across the street, add a note in your phone or on a piece of paper. Make a conscious effort to be a better man, and you’ll feel good about it. Challenge your brothers to be more considerate of others, to try to make someone’s day, every day. Keep track of gentlemanly behavior, and recognize brothers who excel at your chapter meetings. During National Ritual Celebration Week, use the hashtag #NRCW to acknowledge excellent brothers who live according to our Ritual.

We are all too accustomed to calling each other out for our shortcomings, but we need to do a better job of encouraging excellent behavior rather than chastising our flaws. By making a conscious effort to acknowledge our brothers who “excel with honor,” we will encourage the development of transformational habits. These habits, in some small way, will help us rise above the tide of mediocrity, selfishness, and conceit that have diminished the credibility of our Ritual, and by proxy, our organization. Brothers, join me in rescuing the reputation of fraternity and sorority rituals everywhere by living up to the aspirations of ours so “that in life and death men may truly say of [us]:

[We] ever bore without abuse the grand old name of gentleman.’”

Sigma Nu Leadership conference

2 thoughts on “Rescuing Our Ritual

  1. bgibson27 says:

    Br. Galloway, I like where you are headed and I am confused about the final message. How does ignoring the negative and giving pats on the back for small, albeit honorable, actions help improve anything? I met a Sigma Nu at the 2007 College of Chapters who told me that because his chapter had etiquette training and showed proper manners and respect towards women that he could sleep with his date and three of her friends in the same night and none of them could be mad because he was a gentlemen and treated them well. It seems like what you offer here would condone his behavior; as long as we do enough little things that are good, we can ignore the bad as long as it isn’t REALLY bad. I doubt you feel that way, but I can’t help to conclude this from what you wrote. I feel like, to truly honor The Ritual and especially the part you cited, we should be boldly, aggressively, and loudly confronting the negative elements of our fraternity. The Ritual is at risk of being irrelevant because it is turning into a suggestion. The Ritual is the engine of the fraternity. From it, all of our expectations are derived, and any worthy progress can directly be associated with it. In the same way, all forms of negative behavior are addressed in The Ritual and the expectations are clear. If a lack of clarity in The Ritual can be blamed for poor behavior, the Risk Reduction Policy plainly covers the rest. Would you wager $1000 that more than 10% of our chapters make a serious commitment to uphold The Ritual AND ALSO adhere, completely, to the Risk Reduction Policy? If you would, you’re lying, if you wouldn’t, then wouldn’t you agree that now is not the time to ignore the negative, but instead be aggressively standing up for The Ritual? You cited one of the most powerful phrases in The Ritual, it deserves more than what we are offering. Another is the fifth object: to govern each act by a high sense of honor. Our brothers who are truly honorable do not seek recognition for mundane acts of kindness, please use your platform to inspire those honorable brothers to have the courage to defend The Ritual. Until those members have the knowledge and support to do what is honorable in their own chapter rooms, The Ritual will continue to be more of a suggestion and a chore. It will continue to become more irrelevant.

  2. Rob McCleary says:

    Brother Galloway,
    Thank you for giving this subject some needed attention. After the post-graduation cycle of raising children and establishing a career, I was able to attend a candidate ceremony and initiation at the Epsilon Sigma Chapter at Rhodes College. Every word of The Ritual was so good to hear and filled with such rich and inspirational words. I wish every alumni brother could hear it again too.
    Yes, there are some that do not take it as serious as they should, but it is well worth the effort to devote this attention to it. Thank you again.
    With Love, Honor, and Truth.

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