I used to feel that proms were an American rite of passage unsuited to British culture. The idea that sixteen-year-olds needed a huge ball to celebrate leaving school struck me, an introvert who hates dancing, as futile, expensive and unnecessary.
The form of proms may leave us uncomfortable (and the expense can be ridiculous, which is why the ‘Prom Perfect’ scheme pioneered by Alison Sykes of the Salvation Army and the Dearne Area team whereby outfits and accessories donated by people can be hired at a fraction of the cost is a brilliant idea), but the notion of ‘rites of passage’ is crucial to our ongoing development. I still find the terminology of many of these events (‘graduation’ from nursery to school, for example) irritating, but the sentiment of formally acknowledging transition and change is hugely important.
Richard Rohr calls these transitions ‘releasing the loyal soldier’, referring to a Japanese ceremony at the end of the Second World War whereby all soldiers were honourably discharged from the army back into communities to be ‘men, fathers, hushands first and foremost’, rather than soldiers. There will inevitably be ‘rites of passage’ in our lives: the birth of a child acknowledged in a dedication ceremony, the transition of a child to school, baptisms, marriages, funerals and so on. But sometimes the transitions are less welcome: divorce, the painful loss of bereavement, illness. At each significant stage or hurdle of our lives, we need acknowledgment and maybe even some formal ‘event’ to help us to let go and to move forward. We need markers, like the stones collected from the River Jordan to mark God’s miraculous parting of the river to enable the Israelites to enter the Promised Land after 40 years in the wilderness.
Altars were the Biblical sign of remembrance, of marking God’s significant actions in our everyday lives, and were helpful ways of acknowledging what had happened and choosing to remember God’s intervention in our personal situations.
However we choose to mark these significant milestones in our lives, we need to be moving forward in God, which will, at times, involve a painful letting go of the past in order to embrace all God has for us now. Only as we are prepared to let something ‘die’ will we be able to experience the flourishing of new life and growth.