The Common Good
May-June 1998

Boys To Men

by Richard Rohr | May-June 1998

Rediscovering rites of passage for our time

In these times of rapid change and global transformation, many in our culture are grasping for a spirituality that is both relevant to our new ways of living and powerful in a world geared for materialism. While many women have learned the value of connection and support of other women through this quest, many men find themselves wrestling with questions of identity, morality, and power—difficulties which, if not resolved in healthy ways, can cause profound damage to individual men, their loved ones, and others around them.

In this article, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who has been leading men’s retreats around the world for many years, offers his thoughts on how the church’s rediscovery of rites of passage and initiation could provide a process that helps the boys in our culture grow into spiritually mature men. Rohr’s reflections show that men’s need for such a process may return them—and all of us—to the heart and root of our faith. —The Editors

I have been reading and inquiring in different cultures for the last five years about the process of "growing up" boys. It seems that it is only the recent West that has deemed it unnecessary to "initiate" young men. Otherwise, culture after culture felt that if the young man were not introduced to "the mysteries," he would not know what to do with his pain and would almost always abuse his power. It looks like they were right.

Contemporary phenomena such as the Million Man March, Promise Keepers, and the secular men’s movement are in their own way trying to address this vacuum. Of all the topics I speak on, the subject of masculine spirituality, the male journey, and men’s rites of passage are the most responded to and the most requested. Our churches have their revivals and their sacraments of initiation, but one recent study revealed that 80 percent of active church members are women.

Men do not appear to be at home in the world of spirituality, or at least spirituality as we have defined it in Western churches. Without trying to be unfair, many of the men who are involved in "white man’s religion" are considered by others to be either soft, guilt-ridden, not-so-smart, hanging onto mother’s apron strings, or paying their fire insurance bills to a distant god. This is not an attractive, meaningful, or world-changing story line. The engaged God that transformed Moses, Paul, and Martin Luther King Jr. has to be bigger than this. Initiation introduces the young man to a larger and male-challenging God. They might run from such a God, but at a deeper level they know that this God is also running with them and for them.

Initiation only works when there is a collective spiritual wisdom into which the boy can be introduced and which is agreed upon as rich and valuable by the vast majority of a people. In a deconstructing culture, there is nothing to initiate a young man into except perhaps his private male sensibility. This is fine and even necessary, but it does not create a coherent culture or a safe and sane civilization. For rites of passage, we’ve moved toward the only collective-agreed-upons we have: sports, education, work, Boy Scouts, and war. Coaches and drill sergeants, smoking and driving, money and merit badges, graduation and girlfriends have become our only mentors and rites of passage. They all have something to teach us, but no one is there to say "you must hear God in this," or "your soul is at stake here." That is the power of the "liminal" and transformative space called initiation.

Life will eventually initiate you anyway, but it might be too late or you might not comprehend the sacred significance of things while they are happening. Without initiation it is a disenchanted universe. All we can do is calculate and control because no one else is in control, at least no one we have met or can trust. An uninitiated man lives in an isolated body and a disconnected world. He must take personal responsibility for creating all the patterns and making all the connections—if there are any. It is an unwhole, incoherent, and finally unsafe world. No wonder the typical young man in our non-mythic culture spends so much time posturing, climbing, and overcompensating. In his heart he knows it is all not true—and therefore not sacred.

A truly initiated man, however, lives inside a sacred universe of meaning. Even the seemingly absurd, even the pain has meaning. Perhaps no world religion deals so directly and effectively with the issue of human suffering as healthy Christianity. The crucified and raised-up Jesus is an ultimate transformation-initiation symbol. The sacraments of initiation that were fittingly celebrated throughout Lent and the Easter Triduum were the liminal space that initiated new Christians and "re-initiated" the old into the sacred mysteries. Now, when I speak of the mysteries, some Christians seem not to know that there were any. This is the tragic result not only of centuries of non-initiated Christians, but of the lust for certitude and predictability that has characterized the Western church.

In general, initiation is much more about weaving a sacred cosmology of meaning than it is about specific moral principles. Ritual, it seems, speaks more to the unconscious and prepares us to receive conscious experiences. Thus, rites of passage as opposed to mere lectures on correct behavior; the assumption being that ritual holds together meaning, reconciles opposites, speaks to the unconscious, and finally transforms more than mere sermons or mandates. This is going to be a hard lesson for the Western mind, especially for much of Protestant Christianity.

For the man who has descended into the drowning waters and come up on the other side, for the initiate who has been in the belly of the whale and spit up on the shore, there is an ultimate new shape to the universe. It is re-enchanted, it now works in a way other than he expected, someone else is on his side, he is not alone, and the young man knows in his very bones that "my life is not about me." The initiate henceforth knows that something always has to die, and until you have lived through that dying, there is something essential that you do not know. It is always the false self that has to die, so that the Godself can be born. This is major surgery for the private and imperial ego, a surgery we all avoid if we can.

The best the initiate can do is discover and honor the patterns that are already there. They were there before him and will be there after he is gone. He is blessed not by reason of his private worthiness but because he is connected to what is. But the connection is nothing he can prove, which leaves him "as a pilgrim and stranger" in this world, and is probably why we use that strange word "faith." Normally, he spends much of the rest of his life trying to connect—in any way he can.

Secular Initiations

War served as a partial kind of initiation for generations of men, teaching them self-discipline for the sake of the common good, self-sacrifice for something larger than themselves, awe before flags and anthems, well-nigh worship of country and ideology. And we must admit that this secular initiation did serve to relativize the imperial ego for the sake of a larger self.

We have found nothing to replace the larger than life meaning that men find in belonging to something larger than themselves. It takes away their roving anxiety and like a fig leaf, covers their primal shame. Death and resurrection are now glorified in war monuments instead of the self-effacing Paschal Mystery, and posthumous medals of honor are discussed with more tears than the lives of the Christian martyrs. Sports and celebrities are often the closest we can get to mythic status. In a culture that has lost a definition or expectation of heroes, we are satisfied with being well-known.

Initiation is about defining true and culturally significant heroism. It tells the young man what is worth suffering for and what is truly glorious to die for. War only serves as an effective initiation rite if the majority of a culture agrees that it is indeed "wonderful," which has more or less been the pattern in all of human history and why even religion could not stand against it.

However, it all fell apart for the Germans after World War II and for the Americans in Vietnam. Now there is nothing that we can get mythic about! What we have in post-Vietnam America is an entire country of older men falsely initiated into militarism and materialism, middle-aged men who were swindled of their only shot at significance, and many sad young men who do not believe that there are any sacred mysteries to be initiated into! No wonder we are deconstructing. We do not know what to do with our pain, and we know that most of our power is pseudo and worthless.

Can We Rebuild?

Is there anything to initiate young men into? Is there any agreed upon "wonderful"? These are the questions I am still asking, and I am only coming to partial conclusions. I offer these guidelines for rediscovery of some initiatory patterns that might work in our time and culture:

1. Private discovery of meaning is not enough. There has to be some collectively agreed upon "sacred." Institutional religion is not communicating this very well right now.

2. There must be a community that shares this meaning and that initiates with conviction and ongoing intent. It cannot just be a weekend high. I can see why we continue to return to some form of "church."

3. Initiation must be into something good and positive, not an ideology—against, in fear of, angry at, or needing to win over anybody else. It is movement into contemplative space where ongoing transformation can continue, not competitive space where I must continue to define and prove myself.

4. Ideally, there should be a somewhat long preparation and expectation for the young man. He must be prepared for this for at least a year by godfathers (a role that needs to be rediscovered), fathers, uncles, grandfathers, significant others.

5. What makes rituals powerful and effective is that they have been done by our ancestors and can be tied up with our archetypal imagery of The Great, The Good, The Holy. For most Westerners this is going to mean a very clear and comfortable ownership of their Judeo-Christian symbols of transformation. These can and should be complemented by some local, natural rituals that can be created by the godfathers and initiators. Great archetypal symbols cannot be created anew on a weeklong outing.

6. The ideal age is somewhere between 13 and 16, hopefully contiguous with church confirmation, bar mitzvah, or tribal circumcision; knowing that while much might go over their heads, the transition and cosmology will stick and has a chance of becoming their mythic universe of meaning. When the real wounding happens in the middle of life, he will have been forewarned, "vaccinated" with the cross.

7. During the ritual days, it is central that an intimate connection happens between the boys and the older men—from which mutual love and respect can emerge, plus new status and responsibility in the community. Rights only follow from these relationships and responsibilities! They will know that your mythic universe is not serious if rights are cheaply given without accountability.

8. Neither the father and mother, nor any of the initiators, ask the boy’s permission if he "wants" to do this. The ideal attitude is that it is expected and to be desired, which must start some years before and eventually exist as a tradition within the family. This lack of "a tradition of expectation" is much of our problem today, but we have to stick together long enough to create a history for ourselves.

9. All initiation rites have a character of secretiveness, both to create necessary anxiety and interest beforehand, and to free from the impossibility of explaining everything afterward. Except in general terms of time and place, don’t tell them a lot beforehand, except what they need to bring and who will be there. Afterward, as Heinrich Zimmer says, "the best things cannot be talked about."

10. Finally, you can only give away what you have. If the fathers have not gone through significant spiritual passages themselves, they really have nothing to say to the young men. It will descend into mere parody, nervous male humor, or strained symbolization. The boys might even like it, but it will not announce an alternative universe. When my generation arrogantly asserted that we would not trust anybody over 30, we were only half wrong. Our attitude was harsh, but our recognition was correct—most men formed in the first half of this century in America were not a part of an alternative universe. They bought the system as it was—and went to church somewhere on the side.

So What About Us?

You should now be asking the right questions: How do I get initiated myself? What are the essential "mysteries" that must be communicated?

Initiation is always about transforming: holding out for win-win, both-and, turning pain into power. Very few of us are well taught in this area, even the clergy who often see themselves as problem solvers instead of agents of transformation, as careerists instead of prophets of an alternative consciousness.

I think it is into this vacuum that the modern men’s movements have come. Whether you agree with their message or style is not the important first question. Men are looking for spiritual experience, they are trying to submit themselves to "godfathers" in a country with very few of them. They are at least recognizing the need and the problem, and we do little good for them by simply dismissing and debunking them without offering a positive alternative for them. The steps to maturity are necessarily immature and the wise ones are always willing to wait.

Maybe your task is to read, study, pray, and suffer for a while. Remember, God and life will initiate you anyway. You just have to be expectant and ready. Maybe this little article is enough to get you on the path.

As for the essential messages, I have gleaned these from my crosscultural observations. Somehow, male initiation must communicate the following to the young man:

Life Is Hard

If you can be convinced of this early in life and not waste time trying to avoid it or making it easy for yourself, you will ironically have much less useless suffering in the long run. Because we avoid the legitimate pain of being human, we bring upon ourselves much longer, meaningless, and desperate pain.

You Are Going to Die

The certainty and reality of one’s own death must be made very real. The young man must live as one who has already died "the first death" and is not protecting himself from the second. This is seen in the traditional Christian baptismal teaching: "Do you not know that you who were baptized were baptized into the dying of Christ?" (Romans 6:3). One’s death must be ritualized through trials, facing loss and one’s fear of loss, and symbolic drowning of the baptized. Now we are unpracticed and unprepared for loss of any kind. "Suffering," the Buddha says, "is part of the deal."

You Are Not That Important

Cosmic and personal humility is of central importance for truth and happiness in this world. The initiate must be rightly situated in a world that demands respect from him, or he will have an inflated-deflated sense of himself that will need continual reassurance. This is almost the complete contrary of the post-modern "I am special" button. Littleness is nothing to be denied or disguised, but gives a basis for all community, family, and service.

You Are Not in Control

The illusion of control must be surrendered by a deep experience of one’s own powerlessness. Usually only suffering accomplishes this task, especially unjust suffering and things that one cannot change. Reality and God are in control, and we will normally not accept this until led to the limits of our own resources.

Your Life Is Not About You

This is the essential and summary experience. You must know that you are a part of something and somebody much bigger than yourself. Your life is not about you, it is about God. Henceforward, the entire human experience takes on a dramatically different character. We call it holiness.

IF THESE SEEM rather negative or even wrong to you, it might be a statement of how deeply we have been formed in the soft and individualistic ethos of the recent West. For all of its advances in technology and human rights, it has not found a way to integrate the private individual into a larger and healthy society. That larger and healthy society is precisely the work of initiation—without sacrificing the importance and dignity of the individual person.

The goal of initiation rites, and healthy religion, is to situate and align the individual correctly in the universe. Such alignment is the foundation for a deep and enduring human dignity, a dignity that the young man can now see in everything and everybody else, because it is not his own. It is ours.

Religious people might describe that as belonging to God. Jesus might have described it "as the peace that the world cannot give" (John 14:27) and the "joy that no one can take from you" (John 16:22). It cannot be taken from you or even given to you, because it is no longer based on you. It just is. And it is good.

RICHARD ROHR, OFM, a Sojourners contributing editor, is founder of the Center for Action & Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which sponsors rites-of-passage retreats for men and for women. The seeds of this material can be found in his books The Wild Man’s Journey (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1992) and The Quest for the Grail (Crossroad, 1994). He is working on a book on the patterns of male initiation.

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