A Pacifist’s Coming of Age


As a Quaker who married into a Catholic family, I often think about rituals and religious rites but never feel myself to be missing anything. Having studied anthropology, I find the idea of creating a new ritual unusual, though perhaps fitting for Quakers to entertain because of the nature of our silent worship.

I grew up attending unprogrammed meetings. I was the first child born into the Berea (Ky.) Meeting; attended Pacific Ackworth Friends School (now Pacific Friends School) in Temple City, California, when my family moved west; and attended Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena until my late teens, where my dad, Martin Ambrose, led the music before meeting for worship. I remember attending one Quaker wedding and one Quaker funeral at Orange Grove. The annual Christmas celebration ritual (What gift will you give the Baby Jesus?) is forever rooted in my holiday vision as a beautiful reflection on faith, values, and the spirit of generosity.

When I was growing up, I usually resented being treated like a child. Around the age of nine or ten, I bristled at being offered a child’s menu at a restaurant. Around 13, I began to take meditation more seriously and to stay for the full hour of worship. Soon after, I was asked to help watch the children when they were escorted out of meeting after the first 15 minutes. In a way, this marked my entry into a liminal state between childhood and adulthood. The meeting paid me, and getting a little pocket money was nice. After a while, however, I decided I preferred to stay for the full hour of meditation. I enjoyed the after‐meeting potluck and fellowship once a month, as it offered the opportunity to talk with the adult members of the meeting. I appreciated being allowed to participate in the adult world and being treated with respect.

After I graduated high school, my family moved from California to a rural Colorado community. It was the beginning of the first Iraq War in 1990. I vividly remember listening to a National Public Radio correspondent in a Baghdad hotel during the bombardment. (NPR was one of two radio stations we could pick up in our new house.)  I’d worked all day with my step‐dad building a large outbuilding on the ranch. Then the sun went down, and the world darkly collapsed to the dim light of our living room. There we sat transfixed around the radio, a war zone erupting in our imaginations, feeling like a family of a bygone generation.

I had not yet registered with the Selective Service, having turned 18 just six months before. I decided I would comply with the law. My father had enlisted in the army during the Korean War, and he became a pacifist after enlisting. He refused to carry a weapon after that, even though he was sent to the brig. He managed to fulfill his commitment well enough to receive a discharge with honorable standing, very rare in those days. I believed there was a legal route for me as a pacifist as well. I registered for the Selective Service, solicited letters from members of the Orange Grove Meeting to support my pacifist beliefs, and assembled my conscientious objector file. To me, this symbolized my commitment to my faith: I was willing to stand up and face a potential challenge to my beliefs.

Because I majored in anthropology, I’m inclined to look at the function of rituals, both the emic (insider’s explanatory) and etic (outsider’s analytical) interpretations. I see traditions as often arising out of need, or growing to fill a need. Later they may grow beyond that need, and their meaning may change. What need would an invented or adopted Quaker ritual fill today?

My participating in fellowship after meeting gave me a sense of becoming an adult and was something like a ritual with a community aspect. Both of my daughters have been baptized in the Catholic church and received First Communion. We have celebrated these rites with family, friends, and community. This solidifies our relationships and enhances the joy of the occasion, a joy I see as divine. We share God’s love in these times. Those are relationships that also form a support network when we face difficult times.

As I learned about Catholic rituals through the experience of my wife and daughters, I recognized that it is sometimes difficult to remember to fill the rituals with our own meaning and to do them deliberately instead of out of habit. Quaker worship seems more overtly deliberate to me, because it has minimal structure. If you don’t fill the practice with spirit and meaning, the emptiness is more obvious. For a long time, this gave me a misguided sense of superiority. It took me years to learn to see the beauty in the rituals of other faiths, to appreciate them when they are practiced sincerely. But the deliberate nature of Quaker practice is one of the defining characteristics I love about the faith I was born into.

The rituals of childhood that we see today arose at a time before there were the social and legal structures of contemporary industrial nations. Today most children go to school, and their progress toward adulthood is already marked by various rituals. Perhaps these are the milestones that the religious community should recognize: events such as registration with the Selective Service and establishing CO status (or choosing not to).

I have read that Unitarian Universalist teens often have a coming of age ceremony, following a year of faith education and reflection on their own beliefs. As a teen, I would have enjoyed that, perhaps with a less lengthy and formal process preceding the ceremony.

The idea of Quakers (particularly young ones and their parents) discussing and inventing traditions that they find meaningful is very attractive to me. To celebrate our youth and welcome them into the adult community is wonderfully affirming. But it should be up to the individuals to choose the time that is right for them, rather than having a ritual at a set age. Children don’t all mature at the same rate: physically, mentally, or spiritually.

The funeral is a different kind of ritual. It can be a celebration of a life, while serving to support the grieving. Though it may be a public occurrence, the elements of the ritual are private. There are other life stages when the faith community can support its participants. Sometimes there is a stigma attached to these events or circumstances, such as divorce, aging, being a victim of a crime, and many of life’s hardships. Who would coordinate and initiate a support ritual in these difficult times? What would we call these rituals? Do we name them frankly in an attempt to de‐stigmatize them, or do we name them euphemistically out of sensitivity?

Because the practice of Quaker silent worship is deliberate, I think it is fitting for Quakers to consider and choose new rituals deliberately as well. Life transitions, whether positive or negative, are stressful. Having the support of community can help make transitions smoother or more joyous. Allowing individuals to choose what to celebrate, when to celebrate, and if to celebrate strikes me as the best way to ensure they can fill the ritual with their spirit and with meaning.

Ralph (R.M.) Ambrose is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and an IT professional. Ralph has studied anthropology and linguistics, and has a first degree black belt in Aikido. He has attended Berea (Ky.) Meeting, Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, Calif., and Inland Valley Meeting in Riverside, Calif. He blogs at http://liminal.IT.

Posted in: Features, February 2015: Life Transitions

7 thoughts on “A Pacifist’s Coming of Age

  1. Conrad Muller says:

    City & State
    Juneau, AK
    Quakers began in a puritan rejection of rituals that they felt interfered with spirituality, and unprogrammed Friends still try to keep it simple. Still, we do have rituals; weddings, funerals, joining a meeting, clearness committees​.You might even include pot lucks and picnics.

    I think a rite of passage is a good idea, but I like the idea off keeping it simple but weighty. Getting a certificate at rise of meeting would seem too easy. The young person will value the ritual in proportion to the thought and time put into it by the community.

    I have three daughters who were raised in meetings, and I wish we had had some way of acknowledging their growth in the meeting as they matured.

    1. Georgia NeSmith says:

      City & State
      Verona, WI
      I have been a Quaker since 1969, although more years away from meetings than in them. Among rituals I would have appreciated: a welcoming Meeting for new members, whether singly or together with all new members, say, during a quarter or half year or whatever seems most appropriate; a welcoming of newborns/new adoptees; some way of acknowledging the transition from “First Day School” to teen and/or to adult membership, as suggested above. These could be designed by each Meeting without any requirement for any meeting having one or the other or all. The young teens/new adults could design a ritual meaningful to them. New parents could have a say in the welcoming ceremony, or choose to have none at all. Etc.

      The original Quaker rejection of rituals was due to the sense of their being more habitual than truly ritual, and being empty of meaning. However, the original rituals, when developed, were in fact meaningful to people at the time. People actually BELIEVED in transubstantiation, for instance. It wasn’t a mere ritual *metaphor*, but actuality.

      In her essay “An Expedition to the Pole,” (in Teaching a Stone to Talk), Annie Dillard writes:

      On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

      The eighteenth century Hasidic Jews had more sense, and more belief. One Hasidic slaughterer, whose work required invoking the Lord, bade a tearful farewell to his wife and children every morning before he set out for the slaughterhouse. He felt, every morning, that he would never see any of them again. For every day, as he himself stood with his knife in his hand, the words of his prayer carried him into danger. After he called on God, God might notice and destroy him before he had time to utter the rest, ‘Have mercy.’
      Another Hasid, a rabbi, refused to promise a friend to visit him the next day: ‘How can you ask me to make such a promise? This evening I must pray and recite “Hear, O Israel.” When I say these words, my soul goes out to the utmost rim of life.… Perhaps I shall not die this time either, but how can I now promise to do something at a time after the prayer?’

      The ritual of of kosher slaughter was not a mere outward exercise performed for the sake of Torah‐defined rules, but was in fact, as inwardly real as any moment in Quaker worship…and actually, more so, come to think of it.

      For a ritual to be meaningful in the way that the original rituals were, there must be some sense of firm belief in a connection between the ritual and a concrete reality. For instance, the transition to adulthood needs to be more than a ceremony to mark a moment in time. There must also be a REAL transition in the way adults imagine and respond to the change as much as there must be a REAL transition in the hearts of those for whom the ceremony is enacted. For example, I would suggest that the transition must be marked not only by ceremony but also in a change in expectations from the parental generation as well as a change in self‐expectations within the new adult generation, and these need to be established and accepted by all involved. If we are to truly acknowledge growth in our children we need also acknowledge a change in our own roles with respect to them.

      Quakers generally do not like to stick to “one size fits all” since we are very much aware of individual variations in need, ability, and desire. Still, it could be something that is worked out through interactions among those involved, with some guidelines and suggestions. And I believe there are significant problems inherent in leaving so much in life amorphous and ambiguous, particularly for the young. Ambiguity almost inevitably leads to misunderstandings, misdirections, and ultimately resentment among all persons involved.

      1. City & State
        My feeling is that we are talking about religion, community, and spirituality. I see religion as an attempt to turn community and spirituality into a hierarchical power structure. My understanding is that early friends were trying to get the religion out of their community, leaving an egalitarian community dedicated to supporting individual spiritual development.

        With the will to power being suppressed, it was important for the community to have enough shared values and rituals to hold it together. This has always been a struggle. How do you create a robust community when there is no authority? That is probably why there are so few Unprogrammed Friends in the world, we are attempting something that makes most people very uncomfortable.

        The stress caused by the high requirement for individual responsibility needs to be offset by support from the community, including rituals, as that seems to be appropriate.

      2. Stephanie says:

        City & State
        Mason, MI
        I love this comment. Child‐to‐adult transition and the attendant change in expectations is something that has been neglected in general in the modern West. What other culture has 30 year olds who claim they don’t want to grow up? That seems normal to us because we hear it so often, but if you think about it, it’s rather odd isn’t it?

    2. City & State
      Baltimore Md
      My family way back have always been Quakers, I attended Westfield Friends, Moorestown Friends and Wilmington College., Camp Dark Waters and Camp Onas When did the ritual of holding hands at the close of Meeting or at the close of Committee Meetings begin, I never knew of this and consider it to be a ritual. I do feel uncomfortable with new rituals. Some of the above mentioned, Clearness Committees I feel are Quaker process, are they all the same?

  2. City & State
    After a lifetime of services filled with words, it is an amazing relief to sit quietly in a group and be sensitive to the sounds of the world drifting into the open windows of the meeting room. I have high regard for the rituals of Jews and Catholics, but they do allow for a great deal of dissimulation and insincerity.

  3. Evan Welkin says:

    I’ve really appreciated reading these comments, especially yours Georgia and Conrad. I identify with the author’s experiences, but struggle with the same questions you bring up about making our rituals REAL, simple and ultimately change the way we and the initiate interact. Thank you all for your thoughts.

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