Opening the Doors of Wonder

Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage

ARTHUR J. MAGIDA
BOB ABERNETHY
HUSTON SMITH
JULIA SWEENEY
HAROLD KUSHNER
RAM DASS
ELIE WIESEL
DEEPAK CHOPRA
ROBERT THURMAN
COLEMAN BARKS
YUSUF ISLAM(CAT STEVENS)
ROZ CHAST
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pn599
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  • Book Info
    Opening the Doors of Wonder
    Book Description:

    This bold, pioneering book explores rites of passage in America by sifting through the accounts of influential thinkers who experienced them. Arthur J. Magida explains the underlying theologies, evolution, and actual practice of Jewish bar and bat mitzvahs, Christian confirmations, Hindu sacred thread ceremonies, Muslim shahadas and Zen jukai ceremonies. In rare interviews, renowned artists and intellectuals such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, holistic guru Deepak Chopra, singer Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), actress/comedienne Julia Sweeney, cartoonist Roz Chast, interfaith maven Huston Smith, and many more talk intimately about their religious backgrounds, the rites of passage they went through, and how these events shaped who they are today. Magida compares these coming of age ceremonies' origins and evolution, considers their ultimate meaning and purpose, and gauges how their meaning changes with individuals over time. He also examines innovative rites of passage that are now being "invented" in the United States. Passionate and lyrical, this absorbing book reveals our deep, ultimate need for coming-of-age events, especially in a society as fluid as ours.Conversations with: Bob Abernethy, Huston Smith, Julia Sweeney, Roz Chast, Harold Kushner, Ram Dass, Elie Wiesel, Deepak Chopra, Robert Thurman, Coleman Barks, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), And others

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94171-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. PROLOGUE
    (pp. 1-10)

    When I was ten years old, my fifth-grade teacher used to make an announcement every week that I never quite understood. It had something to do with “catechism class.” The second word was a cinch. Even I comprehended it. But “catechism”? It seemed like another language, maybe from another planet.

    The announcement would always come around two o’clock, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday. Almost two-thirds of the class would tidy up their desks, bolt out of their seats, and just about skip out of James Madison Elementary School, a two-story brick building surrounded by a chin-high metal fence painted...

  4. INTRODUCTION: SOMETIMES, THE MAGIC WORKS
    (pp. 11-18)

    Catholics don’t remember their baptism. Muslims don’t remember their baby welcoming. Jewish men don’t remember their circumcision. Water is sprinkled, a relative says a few words about the newborn, a foreskin is cut. These are all donetobabies, who have no say about any of this and no idea what’s going on. A decade or so later, after several years of religious education and many visits to a church, mosque, or temple, children may know what they’re doing and evenwhy. They are conscious and they are awake and that, along with so many other reasons, is why rites...

  5. PART ONE CHRISTIANITY:: Soldiers for Christ
    • 1 THE DESCENT OF THE SPIRIT
      (pp. 21-47)

      Sarah Fisher was a happy fifteen year old. The week before, she’d rejected a friend who’d offered her marijuana. It’s tough: when you’re in high school these days, pot is everywhere—people are smoking and dealing and whispering about what’s better, the stuff from Mexico or the stuff that someone’s cousin grew in his basement. This is the currency of hip youth, yet all Sarah wanted to do was say “no.” She wanted to say “never.” She wanted to say “not me, not you, not anyone.” But that’s so uncool, so dorky. Geeks say that. Moms say that. Narcs say...

    • 2 Bob Abernethy: NO FUNDAMENTAL, LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE
      (pp. 48-54)

      Perhaps the most distinguished connection that my grandfather’s church had with power—temporal power—was that, while president, Warren Harding was a member. And he could be seen occasionally raising his eyes to the balcony, where his mistress sat.

      Another influential member was Charles Evans Hughes, then the chief justice of the Supreme Court. He sat in the pew right in front of ours. Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, I would watch my grandfather preach, looking past the full, white, very well-trimmed beard of “the Chief.”

      But other than that, Calvary Baptist was a large, middle-class, really thriving congregation—an...

    • 3 Chinua Achebe: WHAT MAKES SOMEONE GIVE UP THEIR RELIGION?
      (pp. 55-63)

      My sons had what I didn’t. When they were about twelve and fourteen they were initiated into the secret Masquerade Society on the same day in our village in Nigeria. I had sent them to the elders in my family. I didn’t want to be present because this was not my initiation. That was the way I wanted it to be.

      This was in the early 1980s. Children should be given an opportunity to feel that they are owners of their culture, and my sons had reached the age to be able to handle this in amanlyway. It’s...

    • 4 Huston Smith: RELIGION SATURATED THE HOUSE
      (pp. 64-70)

      I was born in 1919 in a Chinese village—Changshu, about seventy miles northwest of Shanghai. Maybe fifty thousand people lived here. There was a wall around the city, maybe a mile in diameter. Throughout the city, there were lanes that were so narrow you could spread out your arms and reach the buildings on both sides. About 80 percent of the people were illiterate and practiced folk religions. The rest practiced Confucianism and Taoism and Buddhism—the religions of the literati.

      The folk religions were mainly directed to warding off evil spirits. Over the doors of their houses, which...

    • 5 Julia Sweeney: THAT SOLDIER-OF-CHRIST, SLAP-ACROSS-THE-FACE STUFF IS SICK
      (pp. 71-80)

      In 1967 when I was seven, I had a first confession so my soul would be clean for first communion. Parents were supposed to take their kids to St. Augustine’s, our church, on a Saturday between one and three in the afternoon. And there, you had two options. In a confessional on one side of the church was Father McRand, this young, good-looking, easygoing guy; in a confessional on the other side was Monsignor Buckley, this old, angry guy.

      I got there early in the afternoon. All my classmates were lining up on either side, and I got in line...

    • 6 Jim Zogby: THE WAL-MART-IZATION OF THE CHURCH
      (pp. 81-88)

      I took the normal route for a Catholic kid. I got baptized—I don’t remember it. I had my first communion—I don’t remember it. I had my confirmation—I don’t remember it.

      For me, these were not transformative experiences. They all just sort of happened, and they happened when I was so young that they were more like the air you breathe or the water you swim in. I was barely two months old when I was baptized: too young to remember anything. I was seven when I had my first confession and communion. I have a photo of...

  6. PART TWO JUDAISM:: Would Anne Frank Sing Karaoke?
    • 7 WHAT, REALLY, IS A MAN?
      (pp. 91-103)

      It’s odd that when Christians talk about rites of passage, one particular ritual often comes up, one that has set a certain standard for rites of passage in the United States; one that makes some people wince and others envious; one that’s much maligned, much ridiculed, much respected—and much misunderstood: the bar mitzvah.

      In the United States, bar mitzvahs (for boys) and bat mitzvahs (for girls) get more attention than first communions, baptisms, or confirmationscombined, even though Christians outnumber Jews 590 to 1. Bar mitzvahs get all the headlines. They’re the summit, the zenith, the tops when it...

    • 8 Leon Botstein: I’M TONE-DEAF TO BELIEF
      (pp. 104-111)

      I’m rigorously agnostic and have a dubious view of religion. I’m not an atheist, mind you. Atheism is another religion. I’m fascinated by theological belief, but I’m tone-deaf to the actual belief. I’m an old-time rationalist. I believe in the Enlightenment project and I take my lead from Jefferson and Adams. I am a real believer in the secular and in secular democracy; I am not a believer in religion as the source of moral values. The only route out of moral hypocrisy is emancipation from religion. I’m an old-time rationalist.

      And yet, we came to this country from Switzerland...

    • 9 Roz Chast: I WAS LIKE A SPY. LIKE A CLOSET JEW
      (pp. 112-119)

      My school was mostly Jewish, but I was not invited to any bar or bat mitzvahs of the kids who went there. Instead, I went toonebar mitzvah—my cousin’s. The part where he said his Torah recitation was amazing, but I didn’t understand so much of the ceremony; it was so boring. No one had prepared me for it in any way.

      I had a very isolated childhood in many, many,manyways. At 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, the Jewish kids would get out of class for religious instruction. This went on from about first or second grade...

    • 10 Rabbi Harold Kushner: I WANTED TO MAKE MY PARENTS PROUD
      (pp. 120-128)

      A bar mitzvah is more for the parents than for the child. When I was a regular pulpit rabbi and would talk to the kids, trying to get to know them, asking, “How do you feel about this?” the answer that came through, 100 percent of the time, was, “It’s important that my parents be proud of me.”

      But what does a bar or bat mitzvah mean for the parents? What makesthemproud? That they have raised this child and successfully brought him close to independence—from now on, he will more active in choosing his own friends, in...

    • 11 Letty and Abigail Pogrebin, Mother and Daughter: “YOU ARE A WOMAN” MEANT “YOU DO THE DISHES”
      (pp. 129-144)

      My first bat mitzvah was a sham, though it was a highlight of my childhood. There was no such thing as being empowered back then. It was nice that they said that I was a “daughter of the commandment” [the translation of “bat mitzvah”]. But it didn’t mean anything because, as we can see, I didn’t count. In those days, when you became bat mitzvah, you stuck it on the shelf like a diploma you could never use.

      That bat mitzvah occurred when I was slightly more than twelve and a half years old. I turned thirteen in June, but...

    • 12 Ram Dass: MUSHROOMS GAVE ME WHAT I COULD HAVE HAD AT MY BAR MITZVAH
      (pp. 145-151)

      The Torah meant nothing to me. It was just words. Just this scroll that you read these Hebrew words out of. I can’t even remember the Torah portion that I read at my bar mitzvah. That’s how significant it was. And I can barely remember how to read Hebrew. All I remember are the letters of the alphabet, and I can’t remember most of them.

      What I mostly remember about my bar mitzvah was that it was an empty ritual. It was flat. Absolutely flat. There was a disappointing hollowness to the moment. There was nothing, nothing, nothing in it...

    • 13 Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin: ISRAEL AND I CAME OF AGE TOGETHER
      (pp. 152-159)

      My parents were fairly apathetic about my having a bar mitzvah. My father grew up in a home where there was essentially lip service to Judaism, and my mother’s family was antireligious. Judaism wasn’t really part of their script, although I have fond memories of Passover Seder with my extended family and of going to synagogue with my father on the High Holy Days. But I lacked the standardBubbeandZeyde[grandmother and grandfather] who would have given me warm Jewish memories, even of Yiddish being spoken around the house. They were sort of distant people.

      In some ways,...

    • 14 Elie Wiesel: I AM NOT GOD’S POLICEMAN
      (pp. 160-168)

      In 1964, exactly twenty years after I left, I returned to Sighet for the first time. I wanted to see whether the house was still there, whether the people were there, whether I am there. Nothing had changed in the city. The houses were the same, the sky was the same, the gates were the same, my house was the same, the well was the same. Because it was all the same, I thought, “It’s not my city.” I was seized with terror being there, as though caught in a whirlwind of hallucinations. I waited for a window to open...

  7. PART THREE HINDUISM:: Coming to Brahma, Knowing Nirvana
    • 15 THE THREAD OF LIFE
      (pp. 171-182)

      “I bugged my father a long time for this,” Ajay Kumar told me a few weeks after his sacred thread ceremony. “I thought it would be cool.”¹

      Cool, indeed. So cool it was probably the most exotic rite of passage that anyone who attended Ajay’s middle school in Gaithersburg, Maryland, had ever seen. And so exotic that the only way he could remotely get people to understand what he was doing was to say that it “was sort of like a bar mitzvah”—everyone knew what that was. The comparison wasn’t exact: a bar mitzvah culminates years of training, while...

    • 16 Deepak and Gotham Chopra, Father and Son: RELIGION IS FREQUENTLY IDIOTIC
      (pp. 183-194)

      I have always felt that religion is quarrelsome and frequently idiotic and kind of a cover-up for insecurity, full of sexism and ethnocentrism and racism and what people would perceive as idolatry. If you look at the world right now, it’s a total mess. We have war, terrorism, racism, bigotry, hatred, prejudice. Most of it is in the name of God. Why is that? If we are so religious, why is this the outcome of religion? And if one is very honest about it, very forthright about seeking global harmony and peace, Hindus have to stop thinking “I’m a Hindu”...

  8. PART FOUR BUDDHISM:: Original Perfection versus Original Sin
    • 17 WAKING UP
      (pp. 197-201)

      A few years ago, a student at a Zen monastery went crying to her roshi. She was scheduled forjukaithe next day—a Buddhist initiation ceremony—and the whole thing, she sobbed, was a big mistake. She wasn’t worthy, she wailed. She wasn’t a good Buddhist. She wasn’t even a good person. “You don’t know me,” she said through her tears. “I can be so awful.”

      “We can all be so ‘awful,’” the roshi, or Zen teacher, told her. “That’s why the precepts you’re about to take are so important.”¹

      Everyone gets the jitters before a coming-of-age ceremony. But...

    • 18 Roshi John Daido Loori: BORN A BUDDHA. DIE A BUDDHA
      (pp. 202-211)

      My firstjukai, when I “officially” became a Buddhist, wasn’t even a ceremony. My teacher, Eido Roshi, just announced to the sangha [a Buddhist community] at dinner, “John has a new name. His name is Daido, [which means ‘The Great Way’].” That was my initiation. It took place in 1971 at Dai Bosatsu, a Zen center in upstate New York. He told me to make myself arakusu, which I never did. In 1975 my second teacher—a Japanese master in Los Angeles—actuallydidthe ceremony. And he gave me arakusu.

      That firstjukaiaffected me, to a...

    • 19 Robert Thurman: I LOOKED LIKE HENRY MILLER IN DRAG
      (pp. 212-220)

      When I became a Buddhist monk, my mother said she should’ve known something like this would happen because I had kicked over the baptismal font as a baby, drenched the priest, and barely got baptized. The priest was very annoyed and wrung out his cassock on my feet. Being a Buddhist now, can I say that this was symbolic of anything? Who knows? Looking back from my current sense of life (or of lives), I think I felt this was a kind of barbarian, faraway Western country, that I was born in an outpost faraway from the bastions of civilization...

  9. PART FIVE ISLAM:: Seven Essential Words
    • 20 ALLAH IS ONE
      (pp. 223-229)

      You’d think that every world religion would have a major event to initiate people into the faith—a baptism, a reading from a holy text, or a public pledging that you’ll follow a certain path. All these events, in one way or another, tell youngsters that they are ready to move on to a new phase in their lives or that they are old enough to seriously begin their religious schooling. These events signal that kids are ready for new responsibilities: whether a girl reads from the Torah at her bat mitzvah or the Holy Spirit descends upon a Catholic...

    • 21 Coleman Barks: JUST BEING SENTIENT IS CAUSE FOR RAPTURE
      (pp. 230-238)

      I’m one of those unaffiliated mystics. I honor the traditions of all the inwardnesses that I have shared and those I have not. This seems to be what religion is trying to do—get us to a place where we share our inwardness in an almost wordless way. I do love that. Sufis call itsema—the deep listening to text and music and movement. Maybe the Dalai Lama would call it simplicity or kindness. A Zen master like Rinzai might call it desolation or silence. [The Rinzai school of Zen emphasizes sudden enlightenment and uses tools such as koans,...

    • 22 Dr. Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens): FLOATING ON A CLOUD OF MERCY
      (pp. 239-245)

      When my brother came back to the United Kingdom following a visit to Jerusalem in 1976, a festival of Islam was taking place in London, and suddenly there were books and exhibitions about Islamic culture in bookshops and museums. He saw the Qur’an in a bookshop window and thought to himself, “That’s the Bible of the Muslims.” He decided to buy it and give it to me as a gift.

      It was astounding to me that I hadn’t discovered Islam before. But in those days, there was little news about it. It was almost a secret. There were only some...

    • 23 Michael Wolfe: I FEEL LIKE A MONOTHEIST WITH EXTRA CREDENTIALS
      (pp. 246-256)

      In 1982 I was in an auto accident in California. I escaped the worst, but my back was badly injured. About a year later, when I could move around easily again, I walked into a bookstore one day and found a $3 paperback of the Muslim prayers. It was printed in Meerut, which is north of Delhi in India, and had little photos depicting the various postures, and the accompanying prayers were written out in Arabic and English. There was also a transliteration in English of the Arabic sounds. Using a rubber band to hold it open, I set the...

  10. EPILOGUE: WOULD ANYONE RIDING BY ON A HORSE EVEN NOTICE?
    (pp. 257-270)

    This book began on a personal note. It will end on a personal note: I have three daughters. Not one of them had a bat mitzvah. That has more to do with me than with them. Early in my career as a father, I reasoned that, since my own bar mitzvah was such a dud, my children should not be subjected to such a dull, unsatisfying, enervating experience. What benefits could possibly accrue? If the only wisdom that would be imparted from such an event was that religion was boring, insufferable, and irrelevant, then certainly there were better ways for...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 271-290)
  12. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 291-294)