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Rituals Enhance Learning  
Lisa Calderone-Stewart  

"It's a family tradition!" How often have you heard that? Families cling to traditions for no reason other than "It's tradition!" Why are traditions so . . . traditional?

Rituals and traditions are significant because they repeat and signify deeper meaning. The following are rituals from my family and circle of friends:

• Family touch football on Thanksgiving Day

• Eating pizza on the floor while watching a family video

• Who sits where at the family table

• Special prayer on New Year's Day.

We immediately smell, see, hear, and feel memories with certain songs, foods, and even articles of clothing. That's the power of ritual. We know that the concrete stands for what is harder to describe and more difficult to quantify.

Long ago, when I first attended a funeral, it felt as if people I didn't know were taking away the one I loved. We stood by helplessly and watched. I could direct my anger at the strangers who put the casket in the ground. We dropped roses, but they dumped dirt. They seemed unfeeling.

Then I attended a graveside service with an invitation for each person to take a shovel and pour some dirt into the grave. No longer the passive observer, I was the one dumping dirt! They weren't unfeeling, and neither was I. This act of closure returned the body to the earth, said goodbye, sealed our prayer with a final gesture. We sensed the finality of earthly life, and the everlasting nature of heavenly life.

Now, when I attend a service without shoveling, I walk away feeling that the service is unfinished. I long to repeat that ritual action—because of what it does inside me. But naturally, everyone has different ideas for what traditions are proper, expected, comforting, and . . . traditional.

Especially with youth, we need to continue rituals we started, start some where there are none, and break open the meaning of the ones we have—new and old.

Continue the rituals we started. Be faithful to actions our tradition has to offer. Light Advent wreath candles at December events. Have ashes during Lent. Bless with water. Make the Sign of the Cross. Don't miss an opportunity to bring the seasonal focus from the liturgy to other programs. I remember a church that always had breadmaking going in the hall on "Bread of Life" Sunday. The aroma was overwhelming. Attendance at programs that Sunday was always high. Why? It was a tradition! As soon as a tradition is skipped, it becomes optional and loses power. Poor rituals need to be eliminated because they don't transmit appropriate meaning. Parish festivals, with beer tents creating an army of drunk drivers, are a good example of a tradition that should be replaced.

Start new rituals where you can. This can be tricky. "We're starting a new tradition this year" often brings groans and rolled eyes. Don't announce it; just do it. When something is done well, it is welcomed in the future. Once it happens twice, it's a tradition. Slowly change unhealthy or inconsistent rituals to make them authentic and comfortable. Find rituals for your parish feast day or patron saint. Look for ways to weave service and prayer into parish events. Bridge the images and stories of each Sunday's readings to the rest of parish life.

Break open the meaning of rituals. Educators encourage us to talk about the ritual first, so when it's experienced, the meaning is clear. Liturgists encourage us to talk about the ritual second, so the experience speaks for itself. Wisdom lies in both camps.

No one explains to a child how to blow out the candles on the birthday cake. Families don't practice the "Happy Birthday" song. They just do it, and it becomes part of their bones. It's easier to learn rituals that occur often. Making the Sign of the Cross is a good example.

Yet, we need to explain to the family ahead of time that the white cloth put on the casket at a funeral Mass recalls the baptismal garment. They might miss it, even though it's happening right before their eyes. They might be crying at the time, and might not even look up. Those doing it might be on auto pilot, following instructions and not considering why. They might not hear the words of the prayer. Knowing what is coming keeps people alert, and helps the rituals bring comfort. Once the ritual is understood and experienced, the meaning returns at every funeral.

Youth are experiential. They enjoy doing what represents deeper meaning—like school traditions and sports rituals. Engage them in the tasks of teaching younger students. Middle-school youth admire high school youth, and grade school students look up to middle-school students. Teaching something is always the best way to learn it, so make that a youth tradition!

Lisa Calderone-Stewart, EdD,
is director of youth leadership at House of Peace, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her book series, In Touch with the Word (St. Mary's Press), is a guide through lectio divina.
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