The Common Good
May-June 1998

Wrongs and Rites of Passage

by Ed Spivey Jr. | May-June 1998

Our cover feature points out the importance of rituals that young men need to prepare
them for responsible adulthood, not including the time your mother made you wear a bow tie
for ...

Our cover feature points out the importance of rituals that young men need to prepare them for responsible adulthood, not including the time your mother made you wear a bow tie for Dress-Up Day at school. Of course, we aren’t talking about the common, everyday rituals

that all of us have, such as turning around in a circle exactly nine times before brushing your teeth, or carefully folding your napkin in an inward-facing triangle that slightly overlaps the left edge of your plate. Normal as these practices are, they are not the transformative moments of a young man’s life. (They’re more in the category of minor compulsions that I freely admit to. I could stop them anytime I wanted if my therapist would just stop harping about it!)

No, the rituals to which our author refers are the rites of passage, the moments of testing and preparation that, unfortunately, have been lost in our society because of the high level of fluoride in our drinking water.

A number of us first heard Richard Rohr share these ideas (except the part about the fluoride...that was mine) in a weekend retreat last year, and we were deeply moved by his presentation. I was especially touched when, sensing that I had a more intuitive understanding than the other participants, he took me aside and said, "Don’t you dare make fun of this."

It must be said that Richard Rohr is a quiet, soft-spoken Franciscan priest who doesn’t usually press his face up so close that you can feel the imprint of his rosary on your chest. But for me he made an exception, and as I cowered before him I realized how foolish I must have appeared. It doesn’t look good to be intimidated by a Franciscan. Jesuits are a little scary, of course, and who could blame you for crossing the street to avoid a bunch of Capuchins hanging out on the corner. But nobody’s supposed to get pushed around by a Franciscan. (Although, in fairness to me, this particular priest was wearing a pair of "Born-to-Raise-Hell" sandals. And I had heard that he occasionally gets testy during the liturgy and says stuff like "What’s this ‘and also with you’ business? I’m talkin’ here! Do you want a piece of me? Do I amuse you?!")

Alas, this episode was just another reminder of my own pitifully inadequate rites of passage when I was young. I remember them all.

There was the annual Christmas Pageant at my church, where, year after year, I was ritually passed over for the part of Joseph. This rejection taught me at an early age to accept failure and lowered expectations. It also showed me how to be a shepherd, in case I ever got a job doing that. (Actually, it’s not so hard, since you basically just stand next to the pulpit wearing your father’s bathrobe and a dish towel around your head.)

There was also my baptism in the Southern Baptist church where I emerged from the water of life free from sin, but with really bad hair. (This moment was made even more awkward as I dripped and spluttered in the baptistery and gazed out at my young friends in the pews who were desperately clamping their hands over their mouths so as not to vocalize their "expressions of enormous respect," as my mother later explained.)

Or the day my shop teacher replied to a timid inquiry from me: "There are no stupid questions, Mr. Spivey. Just stupid people." (This rebuke was especially hard to take since we were in awe of this man. He was the only teacher who taught us anything we could actually use in later life; specifically, how to make an ashtray and how to not punch a hole in your hand with a drill press.)

To be truthful, there were times when I was clearly being called out of my youth and into the tentative first steps of manhood. I’ll never forget the thrill of recognition one Sunday when the preacher called me aside—much like a Catholic priest confers with the altar boy before Mass—and gave me the important task of telling the deacons they should "put out their blasted cigarettes and get back inside, for crying out loud" since it was almost time for church. (Baptists of the 1950s believed that people were better prepared for worship if they first passed through the sacred "Cloud of Veranda Smoke" that was dutifully prepared for them by the men of the church.)

And I just knew I had arrived at adulthood the first time a hardware store employee laughed at me and made fun of my poor choice of tools. "You see this, fella. This here’s a crescent wrench. You don’t need a crescent wrench to change that little light bulb in your refrigerator!" He wouldn’t have talked like that to a boy. No way.

DESPITE these impressive milestones, however, I can never overcome my biggest failure as a young man. A failure that forced me to watch as countless of my peers rose to the rank of Eagle Scout without me because I refused to memorize the all-important tool of the prepared American male: Morse code. (I figured, when am I ever going to need this?)

I still have nightmares about being trapped in an old telegraph office surrounded by a band of taunting outlaws. They ride their horses back and forth laughing loudly and waving their cellphones in the air as my frightened family crouches in a corner, watching me, waiting for me to call for help using the only device on hand: an ancient telegraph.

But I can’t. I can only curse a Boy Scout career that resulted in just one accomplishment: a merit badge in cooking. With no one to blame but myself, I tap out what I vaguely remember is the universal distress signal: SO4...No, that’s not right. SUS...Darn! How about S2O? But it sounds like gibberish to the operator in a nearby town, and he eventually dismisses it as just another teen-age Morse code prank.

CLEARLY, rites of passage are important, and if I had a son I would look forward to the moment in his life when I would take him into the woods where he would stay alone for 24 hours. Using only his wits and a small penknife, his task would be to open a shrink-wrapped compact disc. He has to know how to do this to be a man.

And when he has learned, maybe he can teach me.

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