It used to be that nearly every culture and society had some sort of rite of passage. An experience that would mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood. A ritual by which the boy became a man. Unfortunately, these rites of passage have all but disappeared in our Western society, leaving us with predictable results.
The period of adolescence never ends – the boy never becomes a man.
Without clearly defined markers to delineate the passage from youth to maturity, most men never arrive. It turns out that J.M. Barrie was a prophet. We live in a pseudo Neverland full of men who have become, “boys who wouldn’t grow up.”1
This, “Peter Pan Syndrome” as it has been referred to, is increasingly common in our society. Our so called, “rites of passage” have denigrated into caricatures of themselves, celebrations of vices rather than a call to maturity and virtue. We celebrate losing our virginity and getting wasted as if they are milestones on the road to adulthood. We wonder why our men don’t accept responsibility as fathers and providers. We wonder why they live with their parents well into their thirties and seem more concerned with video games than careers. It is because all too frequently our men are not men – they are boys; immature adolescents well into their twenties, thirties, and yes even forties.
This is of particular concern to me as the father of three young men. So, when my oldest son turned thirteen I decided that I would like to have him participate in a rite of passage. I wanted to come up with a way to begin the transition from childhood and set his feet firmly on the path to manhood. I scoured the internet for resources – and didn’t come up with a whole lot.
So, I began the process of cobbling together my own rite of passage by taking elements from the various traditional rites used throughout the ages. I found that there was a great diversity amongst cultures and religions when it came to becoming a man. But there were also some common themes.
Most rites of passage could probably be divided into two broad categories.
- Cultural or military rites of passage into manhood such as the Maasai warrior passage or the Spartan krypteia.
- Religious rites of initiation such as a baptism, Bar Mitzvah, or confirmation.
In spite of the great amount of diversity amongst cultures and religions, there do seem to be some common threads.
Often, the rites of passage into manhood involve experiencing emotional and physical pain so that the initiate can show courage, endurance, and the ability to control his emotions. Most religious rites involve first identification with, and ultimately incorporation into the community that is being joined. In both cases there is knowledge which is passed on to the initiate from his elders. In many cases there is a fair amount of overlap between the religious and cultural rites of passage. With all that in mind, I set out to devise my own rite of passage for my boys. As it turns out, finding an African Lion for them to hunt (armed only with a spear) wasn’t as easy as I’d anticipated…
First and foremost I wanted to make sure that my rite of passage would represent our Christian faith. Since our family is of Scottish descent, I wanted it to also reflect our cultural history and heritage, and provide an initiation rite for my sons into Clan Crawford. I also wanted to make sure and incorporate character formation and give the men in our family the chance to impart their wisdom to my sons.
When I got it all down on paper, I was looking at five pages – below is the cliff notes version. Many of these areas of development are things that I have begun to help my sons work on far prior to their rite of passage, but starting one year prior to the event things really begin to ramp up in terms of preparation and study.
- Baptism, Confession of Faith, Intentional Discipleship to Christ, Preparing for Confirmation.
- Read the Entire Bible, Memorize Psalms Chapter 1 and James Chapter 1, Study of the Catechism.
- Acts of Service – Family, Church, Those in Need, Community.
Knowledge of Clan Crawford:
- History, Crest, Motto, Significant Ancestors, etc.
The actual rite takes place over a Friday night and Saturday. I go alone with them to a spot in the woods, and spend some time reviewing all of the areas above while beginning to help them implement these principles in concrete ways. I begin to help them develop a rule for life (based on a ancient monastic practice still widely used by people from all walks of life today), and we create a plan for incorporating prayer, Scripture study, and spiritual disciplines specific to them. We discuss their strengths and weaknesses, along with strategies for helping them to achieve balance. We talk about our faith, our history, and what it means to be a man – and then I leave them alone in the woods for the night with only a sleeping bag.
I did this for the first time three years ago when my oldest son turned thirteen. Two weeks ago I repeated the process with my middle son Ethan. His cousin Justin had also turned thirteen this year so he and his dad joined us in the process – but we kept the boys separated for the night. I don’t share with my sons the details of what will take place, I simply tell them that they will be going through a rite of passage. Part of the experience is dealing with the fear of the unknown, not being able to pace yourself for the physical requirements, and having to dig deep and face whatever comes.
Here is what I discovered – it’s harder on me than it is on my sons. I immediately begin to have visions of mountain lions sneaking up on my boys as they sleep and tearing them to shreds. I can just imagine being, “that parent” on the nightly news broadcast after the horrific tragedy in the woods. I “sleep” in my vehicle, and again and again throughout the night I creep back to where my son sleeps to check on him without letting him know that I’m still in the woods.
The next morning when I come to get him at dawn, we talk about fear, being alone, and going through times of darkness. And then I reveal to him that I was watching over him throughout the night. That he slept while I kept watch. That he was never truly alone. And I remind him that God watches over us in the same way, and that he must, “Be strong and courageous…for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”2
Having made it through the night, we continue on with his tests. But first we hike up to some nearby waterfalls to enjoy the beauty of the new day. Waterfalls are beautiful and worth taking time for 🙂
For the rest of the day his cousin, brother, uncles, and grandpa will be with us as we complete his rite of passage.
We drive to a large butte in the center of town and after having the cousins run a mile I send them up the side of the butte – more running but straight up. “Keep running – don’t stop.” We drive two thirds of the way up to meet them as they cross the road and to push them on. By the time they reach this point they are utterly fatigued, gasping for breath, almost ready to puke. “Keep going – you can throw up if you need to, but don’t stop.” One of us will run behind them from this point on, encouraging them, yelling at them, physically pushing them if necessary, but not letting them stop. My oldest son Logan who had completed his rite of passage three years ago, ran with the two boys the entire way. At sixteen he is a physical specimen and can push them much harder than us old guys. At Logan’s rite of passage we were all almost puking by the time we reached the top of the butte!
One of the most important lessons you can learn in life is this:
When times are tough you don’t have to quit. You are stronger than you think. Endurance is an exercise of the will, not a function of the body. – Tweet This
With that in mind, the next stage involves swimming across a high mountain lake – and then back again. This ups the ante, because if you decide you are too tired to swim you will sink. For obvious safety reasons several of us paddle across and back in a canoe alongside them while I make the swim with the boys. Swimming is easier than running for a fat guy 😉
We have fasted with them through the night and through their testing. We grab some sandwiches and end with a ceremony discussing all the lessons the boys have learned. They share their memorized Scripture passages, and reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. The old guys share with them from our life experiences, warning them of potential familial weaknesses and sharing with them the wisdom we’ve accumulated throughout the years – such as it is.
We encourage them to contentment – seize the day, enjoy the moment, don’t always be looking to the future. We encourage them to deep and meaningful relationships with family and friends who can support them on their journey. We encourage them to be quick to admit they are wrong and to ask for forgiveness. We encourage them to stand alone if necessary to do what is right.
There are invocations, benedictions, and pledges made to God, to his family, and to himself. My son takes a new Gaelic name that holds a special significance for him. He makes his pledges and is received into our Clan. I present him with a Scottish dirk for which he pays me a penny so that the blade will know him for its owner and won’t turn on him. He bloods the blade making a shallow cut on his hand so that it will know it’s purpose. We toast his success with Scotch. When we return home my wife has prepared a celebration feast for him, and we commemorate his achievements with family. He has become a member of our Clan. He has begun to enter into manhood!
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