Monday, August 8, 2016

Keying in to life

Most of us celebrate with some greater degree of ‘specialness’ our 21st birthday.  Back in the day, we often celebrated it by the cutting of a cake on the shape of a key.  In this day and age of hipster cafes and multitudinous bakeries that make some incredible looking cakes, I do realise that practically no one has cakes made in the shape of keys anymore.  But in my time, it was common to mark our 21st birthdays with a cake that took this shape.  Why such a strange shape?  What was the mind behind this symbol?  Many people I have asked said that it was supposed to symbolize one’s coming of age, where the person was now given, as it were, the ‘keys’ to unlock doors that were hitherto locked before.  The unspoken message was that all doors could now be opened; all pleasures tasted, nothing was prohibited or verboten.  One could now enjoy life to the hilt. 

But we know this to not be true.  Our lives will be chaotic if not for rules and laws. The reason laws were given to the Hebrew people through Moses, was to show them Godly living and to guide them in Godly living.  Parameters were thus set and put in place so that the "game" of life could be played out well and be enjoyable at the same time. These rules or laws for life serve as life's boundary markers for the orderly and safe living out of one's life.  Beyond these markers, one inadvertently enters into the twilight zone of uncertainty, with a lot more doubt and endless anxieties- hence inviting confusion, misery and suffering.  In any game, rules are necessary in order for delight to take place while at play.  Similarly then, laws are very necessary in life to help each player in life's game to recognize where one’s  personal boundaries lie and in so doing, respect those of others as well.

I think we have never really appreciated rules in this light.  We find them hemming us in, curtailing and limiting our freedom.  Instead, we think that there should be absolute freedom.  But the truth is that in life, there are no unlimited freedoms, because living that way brings with it unspeakable chaos.  Whilst I am quite sure that a key-shaped cake is considered passé at 21st birthday celebrations now, I am quite certain that there is still a silent desire for freedom  in each teen entering their twenties. 

Too many well-meaning parents have given unrestricted freedom to their children before they have reached an age of discernment and maturity, and in so doing make the symbol of a key at 21 redundant.  Perhaps keys have been given out too freely before it was appropriate, and as a community, we suffer the consequences now.  Maybe we have only thought of keys as instruments to open doors, but aren’t they also just as necessary for locking them up too?  It is only with adequate discernment that one will know just what doors to secure tightly, and what doors should be freely left open.


  1. “Maybe we have only thought of keys as instruments to open doors, but aren’t they also just as necessary for locking them up too?”

    I like the quote above. It reminds me of what a spiritual guide at one of our Christian Meditation workshops told us - to look at a bird. He said that the bird needs to open and close its wings so as to fly................similarly we need to open and close the doors of Life’s experience if we are going to fly freely, to soar and to delve deeply within...... so as to live with greater consciousness.

    21st birthdays are celebrated with parties and much extravagances when youth steps over into maturity to start their lives as adults........ that’s what we were made to understand during our times. It’s seen in many cultures as the age when a boy grows to be a man. So a key “symbolic of ‘keys’ to unlock doors that were hitherto locked before..............the unspoken message was that all doors could now be opened; all pleasures tasted, nothing was prohibited or verboten. One could now enjoy life to the hilt.” ...........all these that you have said – are the popular belief of our times but I feel that what you have stated above (quote) is both insightful and profound – that the key is also a means to lock and close doors.

    If we but pause to listen and consider the spiritual rhythm of our life – the opening and closing, locking and unlocking of the doors each time we reach a milestone of our life and stand on a threshold, we realize that unless we make a conscious effort to close and lock a door, we cannot go forward. This creates a renewed inner awareness within us - for, as the unlocked door beckons invitingly, promising a new dimension of growth, it also means we have to leave something familiar behind, something we have grown accustomed to, but has outlived its a way of being that was helpful before but now confines our development and growth. It requires a certain maturity to resolutely close and lock up that door! Only then can we be free to embrace a new beginning.

    God bless you, Fr.


  2. The secular marketers are brilliant in this! The 21st Birthday Key is the licence to live life wildly and without supervision.

    When my parents gave me the house keys during my teens, it was an event close to a rite-of-passage ceremony. I was told about responsibility rather than freedom.

    Hence, I would like to think that the traditional view of the 21st Birthday Cake was to remind the person that he then held the key to responsibility and custodianship. And that person alone made the choice to open whichever doors. It is somewhat like the Rite of Confirmation. Is it a passage to live outside the Church, or stay and open the doors of the many treasures found within?

    Sadly, we know how the world has twisted the story - both with the cake and with Confirmation.