The Common Good
May-June 1998

A Process of Transformation

by Richard Rohr | May-June 1998

A sample North American initiation pattern

WHO: "Godfathers" and teen-age boys of almost even numbers. No observers.

WHERE: Someplace in the natural world, apart from what has become predictable. "Liminal" and sacred space must be created.

WHAT to bring: Just what is needed for survival and ritual. Sparse, stripped-down possessions. No radios, tape players, newspapers, or books to hide in. Each young man has a special journal, perhaps presented by his mother before he leaves, which he is guided to write in at least twice a day. Honest feelings, fears, desires, prayers, and experiences must be named personally and safely or the young man will not go deep inside.

HOW LONG: From a minimum of four days to whatever is workable. If work cannot be taken off or schedules changed, the message of intense significance will not be given. Create expectation long beforehand in whatever ways you can devise: meet as a group several times, pray together, give books to read, make expectations very clear that everybody will be together from start to finish.

HOW: Three stages with the young man must be ritualized, experienced, and talked about:

1. Leaving, letting go, separation

from boyhood, irresponsibility, his former status, and the seeing of women and older men as his servants. This can be done through some kind of death ritual, whereby he accepts the eternal pattern of dying as the prerequisite for all rebirth. Elders tell a bit of their story.

2. Experiencing an alternative universe now.

Normally some time of extended silence, solitude, and deprivation wherein he can learn to draw upon deeper resources than he is presently aware of. The "desert" of Jesus, the vision quest of the native peoples—secularized in boot camp and athletic training—must be made sacred again, but not "churchy." He must be alone long enough to see the patterns in all of nature.

3. Incorporating and affiliating with "sacred manhood."

This can be done in a final time of storytelling by elders, where they let the boys "in." This must be vulnerable, honest, and intimate; sharing faith and one’s own path, along with hopes and care for the new initiate. There can be a celebration ritual and symbols given, but don’t overdo anything. A stark and clear understatement is safer for the male. If he does not feel manipulated or told what to feel, he is more likely to trust his real experience.

WHEN: At a time when elders have themselves been "initiated into the mysteries" and have something to say about reality, God, suffering, community, transformation, and growth. When boys are prepared, given expectation, but also can come with genuine freedom.

If: The ritual can only be done if there is some "common wonderful," some shared goodness, some "great idea" that the elders already have between them. Unless there is a collective wisdom that the boy is being initiated into, it will not have depth or endurance. It might take a year for the elders to find what it is themselves! Then initiate the next generation.

Richard Rohr, OFM, a Sojourners contributing editor, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (www.cacradicalgrace.org) in Albuquerque, N.M.

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