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.

R.M. Ambrose

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.

7 thoughts on “A Pacifist’s Coming of Age

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 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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