Corinthians 13:11 reads: “When I became a man, I put aside my childish ways.”
Last week, my son returned from a six-week college trip to Gambia, West Africa, the birthplace of Kunta Kinte and Alex Haley’s “Roots.” He had the privilege of attending a male initiation ceremony of the Jola Tribe, where he stood among thousands to witness the return of a hundred boys from their rites of passage, initiated into manhood.
If we trace our roots back far enough, each of us would reach a time in our own histories when great intention was given to helping boys become the men the community needed. Women were understood to experience initiation through the natural changes of their bodies, capable of childbirth and honored as givers of life. The men, however, had to be taught.
Is the lack of intentional male initiation in our culture part of a larger problem today? Violent crime, sexual misconduct and greedy behavior are far more common among males of our species. Our prison systems and correctional facilities are filled with young men, arguably boys, either unable or who haven’t yet been shown how to grow up.
Our Judeo-Christian scriptures provide examples of men who seem lost, or selfish, or at their very core, terribly insecure and immature. Think Pharaoh, King Saul or Herod. But heroes of the faith, too, have had their problems. Moses was a murderer, David an adulterer and Paul an extremist. The difference is that these latter men experienced initiations that radically changed them.
Franciscan priest the Rev. Richard Rohr says, “If men are not lead on journeys of powerlessness, they will always abuse power.”
I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul who was brought to his knees on the road to Damascus. Blinded, his sight was restored three days later in a vision for new life that he honored from then on. Initiation is a way to teach humility, discover hidden potentials, and direct our energies toward a common and greater good.
Rohr has researched and led modern rites of passage for men worldwide for more than 20 years, discovering that similar things are always taught. These lessons, consistent with Jesus’ and other prophets’ teaching, have at their core the message that all men are beloved sons of God — just as women are beloved daughters.
In September, a Men’s Rites of Passage will be offered in our community. It’s open to any male 21 years of age and older. The intent is not to instill a particular ideology, but to open men to a cosmology; a wide perspective that honors (and makes) elders, prepares us to mentor subsequent generations, and seeks to create a better world.
Reclaiming rites of passage for our communities today is a daunting, but worthwhile task. The hope is that within five generations meaningful rites will be commonplace again, and our sons wont have to go as far away as Africa to see it happen.