Rites of Passage
any ritual or ceremony wherein a participant crosses a threshold demarcating a transformation of their state of being.
This particular definition depends on a cultural awareness and preparation for such a thing we call a rite of passage.
However, there are things in our life and U.S. culture that are considered a rite of passage without such formal recognition.
That may sound a bit naive in this day and age, but it is what occurred for me back in 1967, two years after graduating high school.
I was witnessing one of the last rites of passage available at the time.
Now, even that one is gone as men are no longer required to give any time to military service. It is, for many, just another job that provides a living while looking for what they may want out of life.
It seems to me that many of the rites that I grew up with have now fairly much disappeared as we have raced to provide for our kids every conceivable experience before they reach an age at which to truly enjoy them. Coupled with that is the permissiveness that has characterized the last two generations of parents toward their children. That, of course, was occurring with my parents and escalated as I became a parent. Permissiveness is at such a level now that almost nothing is taboo for any age.
Either extreme is damaging to the spirit--too strict or too loose. It is a form of violence.
Violence is usually associated with such things as war, rape, murder, or destruction of property. Violence to the spirit, however, is perhaps the most destructive and insidious kind of violence, for it often goes undetected as it works on our inner self. Like criminal defacing of a beautiful sculpure or work of art, it is spiritual graffitti, vandalism of the soul. (source)
"The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity, but a wounded spirit who can bear?" (Pro. 18:14)
There are events that have usually been considered a rite of passage by youth, but have lost their meaning in the modern day. These acts of rebellion were a step toward breaking free of authority. When we made our break with the authorities in our life, we had only one of two ways to do that--either the path of independence or the path of rebellion--and that has made us who we are today.
A first sexual encounter is now experienced before there is any concept of mystery surrounding all the prelude to copulation.
Smoking the first cigarette is acceptable by most of the adults in a person's life.
A driver's license is about the only thing left, because it is highly regulated; and sought after as a sign of independence.
Of course, there were other rites of passage depending upon your gender and cultural awareness within geographical location.
The biggest problem, though, is that adults are no longer involved through providing specialized rites to mark the major transition to adulthood. This would accelerate the growth toward independence, rather than forcing the path of rebellion.
The lack of ritual surrounding the growth from teen to adult is worrisome for many sociologists.
For instance, one writer has stated, "In my experience, it is the lack of these rituals that has led our youth into drugs, sex, and violence. How else can they prove their strength and independence in the 90's except to experience the thrill of drug experimentation, having illicit sex, and carrying a gun? What rituals are we giving adolescents that allow them to safely separate from their parents and prove themselves ready to don the mantle of being a grown-up?"
A friend who works with inmates at a federal penitentiary cautions that there is no one thing that drives one into crime. She wrote, "The gang gives them a sense of belonging that most of us get from family. However, I don't want to give the mistaken impression that it is the lack of ritual and/or membership in a functional community that is the cause of crime. There are too many people who grow up in the worst of circumstances, with the same deprivations as criminals who do not choose crime."
Growing up Catholic, I had opportunities for certain rites of passage within my religion: my First Communion and Confirmation were available for all. There was also the chance to be an altar boy, which was merely a matter of personal choice--for boys only during my time.
Jews have the Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
Evangelicals have basically only one rite of passage for their beliefs, ie, water baptism. Some add Sanctification or Baptism in the Holy Spirit.
These rites, however, are only available to the practitioner, not to all members of the society.
As I was contemplating this article and why I should be the one to write it, I came across the graphic above. It outlines my experience with an amazing accuracy. (The graphic can be enlarged by clicking on it. I have also provided a link in the graphic to its source for those who might be interested.) As a result, I realize that what I was considering was but a shadow of the reality.
Various cultures have their particular rites surrounding the acceptance into adulthood of the one who was once a child. These rites, however, are essentially confined to our youthfulness, and are but reminders of something that is happening in the spirit. Indigenous peoples--those who live close to the earth--recognize these spiritual realities much more readily than those of us who live close to the concrete.
These cultures also include rites for other stages of life. They have recognized the cyclical nature of our existence as it harmonizes with the cyclic events of nature.
The movie, Billy Jack (1971, Tom McLaughlin) had a scene of one of these rites--the Vision Quest. For Billy Jack, it was the snake ceremony where he became "brother to the snake." He was bitten until he passed out. If he survived, he was given a vision of his life's mission.
The film, A Man Called Horse (1970, Richard Harris), showed the mystical Sioux ceremony of the Sun Vow, a rite of passage involving pain. (This particular rite has been outlawed by our government.)
My own induction into The Order of The Arrow involved deprivation and pain as part of the rite of passage.
My daughter, Julia Butterfly Hill, set out on her own and ended up following the outline of The Stages of a Rite of Passage: severance, threshold, and incorporation.
These three experiences are parallel to Moses' calling as the deliverer for the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Surely, one can see the similarities of these rites of passage in Jesus, as He fasted 40 days in the wilderness being tempted of the devil. Is this not an example for us, showing us how we, too, must face our own "demons" that would try to keep us from being all that we could be?
I am convinced that it is the lack of understanding these realities that gives rise to the hopelessness and despair that is so prevalent within our society today. Hosea scolded the Jewish leaders because God's people were being destroyed due to a lack of knowledge, and this failure to know more than just "what's happenin'" had devastating consequences. (Hos. 4:6)
Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Ticknor, criticizing the people of his day who made up the various state legislatures "... the members of which do not generally possess information enough to perceive the important truths, that knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, and that knowledge is happiness." (spelling corrections my own)
Could it be that the loss of our traditional rites of passage has led to our lack of understanding and accepting the entire life cycle? Without celebrations of demarcations (other than birthdays and anniversaries) we may have lost the concept that life is indeed a cycle of events with major transitions from one to another.
While most everyone expects it to happen, people are still put off by a man's so-called "mid-life crisis." Society is only now beginning to recognize that most women also have a similar time when all their values come under scrutiny. (consider the opening graphic)
What might happen if these were not left to deal with the unfamiliar emotions and events by themselves, but had a caring, nurturing, supportive community around them to encourage them to dance with the process?
What if it were celebrated, rather than castigated?
What would it look like if ALL our experiences were incorporated into our life and celebrated as a part of who we are?
How might we celebrate being human? How would you do that?
Links to sources and further reading:
rites of passage in adolescents
why do we need rites of passage
knowledge is power
religion and healing
Comments, questions, and criticisms are welcomed here. Please add to the discussion by giving yours. Thank you.