This is the second major theme offered by American Franciscan Richard Rohr in Christchurch last October. Here he puts the spotlight on how Christians grow up, and notes it is much more problematic for men than for women
Two factors have emerged in modern times which challenge the way in which the human male develops.
(1) The emergence of feminist spirituality, which has upset the predominance of the patriarchal system. The patriarchal code was a spirituality ‘from above, from outside’. Feminist spirituality at its best emphasises interiority: the passionate search for the God within.
(2) The phenomenon of ‘absent fathers’. In the modern West many young men yearn for their absent fathers, who are either actually or emotionally missing from home. There is no male role model present to help shape the young male and help him through adolescence.
Some years ago Robert Bly wrote the often mocked but significant book called Iron Man which described classical Indian rites of passage for young males. Bly also noted the absence of adult male role models in contemporary society. He was writing from a secular perspective; but he acknowledges that a process of initiation in the absence of ‘god’ was doomed to fail. He saw initiation as basically a religious process.
Today, we see even heads of states, leading clerics and business tycoons behaving in an infantile manner. They are seeking always to win, win. They are driven by the desire for power, and remain deaf to a nobler ideal such as the Gospel of Jesus, which is a call to the humble service of others.
The male of the species does not naturally grow up. He has always had to be taught, sometimes brutally, otherwise he will never develop to be a mature man. This was the function of the rites of initiation universally found among primitive cultures.
Immaturity can even affect radical male activists, who at base are found to be little more than power-hungry liberals. In the West we have largely failed to provide a healthy male ideal.In the US this ideal currently is the businessman; in Switzerland it is the banker; in Germany the policeman; in Australia the bronzed athlete. In such a world view women are demeaned as the powerless sex: motherhood implies loss of power. Yet it is the young males who remain emotionally infantile.
All this poses society with a huge psychological and spiritual challenge: how do adult males get in touch with their real selves? For the American Indian, male initiation was done out in the midst of nature. Young men were sent out for an extended time in all weathers. Their task was to discover their own names and to find God. Their encounter was with transcendence and this was their road to transformation into adults. The boys were often made to roll naked in ashes to remind them that they were not greater than the earth they came from. That is the wisdom of all the primitive races on this planet. How did we come to lose it?
Young males who are never taught such wisdom become toxic. They are full of uncontrolled testosterone. They must never be given power until they have earned it. In the patriarchal culture males will tend to seek power and will easily abuse it.
The Initiation of Adults
For women, childbearing offers a natural path of maturity into adulthood. For nine months they experience mystery and growth. They suffer pain: you cannot have gain without some loss. But males never undergo such pain by nature. Culture has to provide it, and at present for the most part it doesn’t. It is incumbent on males too to undergo a paschal transformation, travelling through darkness into light, through winter into summer.
An initiation process must offer the male an alternative world view. Jesus proposes the kingdom. He offers a big frame, quite different from the restricted horizon of the self-preoccupied hedonist. Initiation into the kingdom of God demands ritual rather than talk – and not the ritual of frilly lace surplices!
This initiation must somehow enlarge a young man’s vision. And it needs to happen between the age of 13 and 17. If this doesn’t occur the male can become violent and cynical. Hence the ‘angry young men’. For most young Christians, sadly, Confirmation is a non-event as a rite of passage.
Adult initiation in the early church was a ‘drowning’ rite, not a blessing rite. Baptism was by total immersion and was the climax of a long period of initiation. The new converts were confronted with their own mortality, head on! They had to face death before they were ready to face mature adult life. In today’s church we have to ask ourselves: are we truly a transformed people – or are we just a cosy club? Making Baptism into a childhood blessing rite has robbed us of the experience of becoming transformed by the Death and Resurrection of Christ.
Physical rites symbolise a spiritual transformation. Religion has to move beyond belief systems into inner experience. It is only when we move into the unconscious and the mystical that we encounter the shadow within our personality and truly begin to live.
Jesus taught us to “love our enemies”. This command includes the need to meet our own inner ‘enemies’, the wounds of the soul which need healing. To achieve this we have to go out into the desert. We must go there without books – but we should take a journal. In the desert we will encounter mystery. We will discover inner meaning.
This is the second birth, and unless we undergo it we will never understand the true meaning of life. How can we, who are constantly confronted by images of the suffering Christ, fail to understand that unless our egos are crucified we can never be our true selves? Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (Jn 12,24).
• The primary heresy of Western Christianity has been to dilute the Gospel message. Catholics have been seduced by aestheticism; Protestants have been intoxicated by moralism. Religion has degenerated into religiosity – reduced to being respectable and ‘nice’. For that reason, in many countries adult males never go to church. What sort of transformative faith is it that eliminates half the human race?
• Grace always entails some humiliation of the ego. Perhaps that is why more religious brothers have become saints than priests and bishops! In our world this lesson need applies to girls as well as boys, because today’s young female is possessed of the same ego-drive that was once the prerogative of the male.
• For Christian educators: a good way to initiate our young people would be to take them out of their normal ego-centred environment and get them working for others, especially for the disadvantaged. As it is, religious schools often mimic the worst aspects of the competitive, capitalist Western culture, making the achievement of personal excellence into a god.
All transformation takes place in ‘liminal space’. It is necessary for us to leave behind ‘business-as-usual’ and go out into the desert. We need a spiritual guide to lead us into this liminal space and to facilitate change.
Early Christian art often depicted the predicament of the soul as Jonah in the belly of the whale. The Jonah story was a symbol of the resurrection of the just after death. But it was also a paradigm of Christian initiation.
The whale’s belly is a graphic image of liminal space – a place where we have no control and very few of us want to stay long. We either want to hurry back (conservative) or rush forward (liberal). The sign of Jonah was all Jesus was prepared to give those who demanded a sign. He is offering them not a ‘miracle’ but a place of suffering.
Yet that liminal space is where growth occurs and change happens, if we stay there long enough. Growth ceases if we cling to security. Spiritual energy is nurtured in solitude, loneliness, boredom, suffering and fear.
(At Richard Rohr’s New Mexico Centre, retreatants are taken to a desert area to dwell for a couple of weeks amid Mexican poverty. There are no lectures. They just live there in a place where there are no evident answers, where there appears to be no resolution or closure.)
There is another thing men need to learn – how to grieve and shed tears. The grieving mode is opposite to the ‘fixing’ mode, the controlling mode, the explaining mode – where the male ego usually likes to stay. Jesus said: Blessed are those who weep! If men don’t learn to grieve, they can become very angry human beings.
And it isn’t enough for males just to hear this: it has to be experienced and felt. Sermons don’t convert people. It is woundedness which really teaches us. Jacob was struck in the thigh when he wrestled with the angel, and limped for the rest of his life (Gen.32:22-32). That is a classic example of an initiation rite for a male.
Modern secularism, says Richard Rohr, is the child of Christianity. How so? It is the Incarnation that moves us to take this world seriously. Our rituals are there to point us beyond the cosiness of religion into the secular world. That is where 85 percent of people – the unchurched – are waiting to have the gospel revealed to them.
To go out into the market place and share that message is the task of churches today. (But if you spend your energy fighting a paranoid bishop, you end up being as paranoid as the bishop. Just take no notice!)
Insofar as secularism excludes the spiritual, it is a philosophy of death. It does not feed the soul. That is one reason for the high suicide rate in modern Western society. The happiest people are those with some sort of faith-based life.
Nevertheless we do come across ‘non-believers’ who are embarked on a spiritual quest. Their lives are a search for meaning. They may be closer to God than many of us who believe. Jesus’ message was not I’m okay; you’re okay! It was I’m not okay; you’re not okay – and that’s okay!!
What needs to be rediscovered in the modern world is the Indwelling Spirit. The Spirit is the ‘midwife’ within us seeking to bring to consciousness what is already there in the unconscious. In the Old Covenant it was sufficient to know the right formula and the right answers. The Gospel takes us a stage further. The New Covenant, as anticipated by Jeremiah (Jer 31,33), is to recognise the Spirit alive in one’s heart. It is a spirit of freedom and creativity and it moves us into transformation.
Life is not about me – it is about God. It is about God’s spirit dwelling in me. That is why the essential Christian prayer is one of gratitude. I am going to die, and an essential part of every initiation rite is to prepare me for my eventual death.
Those who have had near death experiences agree on certain features, which they have in common with the mystics. For instance, they have no great interest any more in shopping! (When Jesus cleansed the Temple he was infuriated by the ‘buying and selling’ in his Father’s House, because retail therapy makes religious experience almost impossible.) They have an increased taste for solitude and silence: they aren’t afraid to be alone any more. They may even lose their fear of death.
The last of the demons to die in us is the desire to control our own lives. It is the ego’s last stand. Marriage and having children is one of the best natural antidotes to this form of self-worship. An effective initiation rite puts a boy into a situation where he discovers he has no answers, so he begins to yearn for the guidance of those who had already walked the journey – the ‘elders’.
It is when we are wounded or fallen we really start to ‘see’ God. Jesus didn’t start his ministry until he was 30 – when he entered middle life. True spiritual growth will start for us when, in mid-life, we too meet failure and pain. But if we continue striving to get rich, being obsessed with finding total security, still trying to be winners, then we will simply remain forever a spiritual adolescent.
Richard Rohr is founder and director of the Centre for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, New Mexico