Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ritual, Secrecy, and Relevance

There was an interesting thread in the "SigEp-Talk" mail list today. The general topic was how to study and/or refresh our understanding of the ritual. Obviously we are not going to go into details here, but I was reminded of a recent article from the Beta Theta Pi online magazine. The article discusses the use and relevance of secrecy as part of the fraternity experience. Except for the historical details, it sounded like similar discussions we have seen over the years.
American college fraternity origins rest in the fascination with early European secret societies. Freemasons, among others, selected few members for initiation who were instructed in the central teachings and philosophical wisdom of the ages. The organizations were so secret that often their members were not known, causing general public anxiety about their aims, objectives and influence on society.
By the late 1870s the role of secrecy in Beta Theta Pi was vigorously debated among members and in The Beta Theta Pi magazine. The prompt for the debate was the radical proposal by Wyllys C. Ransom, Michigan 1848, to publish a public constitution separate from the esoteric Ritual of the Fraternity to demonstrate Beta’s pure aims and relevance to universities and the world.
A March 1879 letter printed in the magazine from the Rho (Northwestern) and Psi (Bethany) chapters opposed the move stating that the issue, “strikes at the very principle in human nature out of which secret societies grow; that desire to know — to be connected with that which no one else knows or understands; to be regarded with a degree of romance by the uninitiated.” It was argued that men would rather join a secret group with the luster of old and the allure of secret aims.
The meaning and relevance of the Ritual is much more than "I've got a secret", yet there remains that aspect of exclusivity. ΒΘΠ did eventually publish their constitutions, as nearly all of the major fraternities have done now, Sig Ep included. The only real "secrets" we have are the specifics of the Ritual, the grip and word, and the esoteric motto. As the article goes on to point out, that may be a sticking point.
Newly initiated members can often recall the entire founders’ paragraph verbatim or a quotation on the “Beta Spirit” from Willis O. Robb, Ohio Wesleyan 1879, yet they cannot recite the obligations they promised to uphold. The reason may be, in part, that the newest members of the organization are not exposed to the obligations until the emotion-filled moment of initiation. Just like a nervous groom focusing on not tripping or stuttering on his vows, new members are usually consumed by the experience and rarely absorb the full meaning of revelations divulged in the initiation ceremony.
Sound familiar?

So how do we keep the teachings alive? How can we reinforce that emotion-filled moment in our daily life? Does your chapter have a process to discuss ritual in meetings? Or, like most, are the books and paraphernalia only trotted out once or twice a semester so you can welcome the new members into those "mystic bonds" - which will be promptly forgotten until the next group is ready to go?

The article concludes:
A rogue member publishing the principles and obligations on the internet would certainly be inconsistent with one of the obligations and the practices of the Fraternity. But, if someday the entire Fraternity chose to make them public, in an effort to increase knowledge and application of the Ritual, would the luster of the black enamel be forever lost? The charge for all Betas is to ask just why secrecy is important, what should remain secret and whether the Fraternity would be better off in such a future.
What do you think?

The Beta Theta Pi - Secrecy in Beta Theta Pi