I want to tell you a story about my experiences with rites of passage for males. When I use the term rites of passage, I mean that there are many potential rites for males between birth and death. In our times these are often ignored. A rite can be many things to many people. To me it is people coming together with a particular intention. Mostly the purpose is a ceremony of either healing or transformation. A ritual often involves acting, performing, dancing, prayers, singing, celebrating and other creative means to communicate with Spirit. I wish to unpack these words that often get thrown around. Spirit to me is either inside us, or outside us, or both. It could be goddess, god, gods, spirits or our own unconsciousness.
The journey for males has many possible stations. From birth to seven-ish is one period. This is the time for starting school and moving one small step away from the mother. At around 13 or 14 puberty starts to physically change the boy’s body. The name ‘boy’ becomes fluid at this time. The next phase is the 17 or 18 year old. The body is stabilising, the hormones are racing now. School is coming to an end. Jobs are looming and girls, girls, girls.
There are more stages at every seven years.
Most traditional cultures around the world had ceremonies to mark the ages of 13 and 14 year olds, then 17 and 18. Some people still maintain these rites with dignity. There are now communities creating ceremony for their boys to guide their transformation into manhood. Manhood does not come easily. It is an art that needs to be learnt and practised regularly to maintain achievement. Becoming a man takes many years and many teachers. Some males will never reach the title of ‘man’. Without appropriate change it is possible to remain a boy your whole life. We all know 40 year olds still acting as children.
I am privileged to have been involved in a handful of transformation ceremonies for boys. I received these ways from an elder and I have tailored them to particular times and people. I will briefly describe a ‘rites of passage’ program for a 17 year old ‘preman’ called Dean.
I knew Dean’s parents and started by talking to them about a need I had noticed in their son. There are many signs that a boy is ready to participate in this ceremony. In different adolescents it manifests differently. It is usually the role of the ‘uncle’ to decide when the time is right. Uncle can mean any older males who can read the signs. Sometimes this is the parents or family friends, neighbours or teachers.
In the talk I wanted to know if the parents would consent for their son to participate. After that agreement I started speaking to Dean. This is difficult for two reasons. First, in our society we don’t have the vocabulary to explain why someone should participate in this ceremony or what it is. Secondly, it is unusual and maybe embarrassing to be involved with something unconventional. In this case Dean agreed after a long conversation. I had to tell a long story about my own experiences with my Bar Mitzvah, teen vandalism and arrests. Then I gave him an anthropological survey of indigenous people and their ceremonies. Finally I told him what I felt he would gain from the experience.
With the parents I then organised the date and the place to hold the ceremony. The next step was calling in the men. I asked Dean to suggest a dozen men who were important to him. His father invited them to join us for the weekend. The other men are very important for the experience. They provide guidance and offer gifts through their presence.
Joseph Campbell observed the universality in tribal society of these transformation ceremonies, and that they have three clear stages: separation, challenge and return. This is the archetypal hero’s journey. The separation, for the weekend, means that on Saturday morning we drag the boy from his theatrically wailing mother. The male has two births. One into his mother’s body and the second into the world of men. This separation is a symbol of a death and the way to birth. Dean spent Saturday and Sunday with the men. He faced challenges through the day and the night. This is also an important time for passing on the lore from the father and men to the young man. Lore is a body of tradition and information that is central to a group’s culture. Each man holds that lore in a different way and finds a loving way to communicate that to the boy. This part of the ceremony is secret and cannot be mentioned here.
An important part of the weekend is the use of the sweat lodge. The lodge is derived from a North American Indian ceremony. It is a small dome that can be made with tarpaulins and blankets. The men crawl into the lodge and very hot volcanic rocks are placed in a small pit. The door is closed and water is poured onto the rocks. This is a very intense environment with high temperature steam, no light and little air. This tradition has a history in most indigenous people around the world. The lodge is like a crucible. The boy and the men are brought into this hot, dark steamy ‘womb’ – the intensity helps shape the participants. It is very significant for the boy to ‘sit in the fire’ with men whom he holds in esteem. The feedback I have received often points to this as the most crucial moment of the ceremony.
Finally on Sunday afternoon we returned a weary and beaming Dean to his parents, family and whole community. It was critical that he have witnesses to his journey. Now there are many people close to Dean who will hold him to account from hearing his story of ceremony. I observed that we were returning the same physical body – what had changed were the relationships to the people around him, particularly to his mother and father.
The whole event was significant for all the men who attended. In our sharing with Dean and with each other, we reflect on the experiences we missed out on. The ones that we wanted and needed. About the reckless things we did to try to create our own rites. There was healing for many of the men who participated in Dean’s ceremony. Each of us received a sliver of transformation.
I have now participated or facilitated in a handful of similar ceremonies, each one being tailored to suit the people involved. I am honoured to have been witness to the change experienced by many families. Without such events relationships can become stuck in unbalanced positions.
I have started a partnership which creates ceremonies of transformation for boys and many other transitions. I am very passionate about giving boys a chance to experience the richness of true manhood. We are such juicy creatures. To create a harmonious, beautiful and safe world, we need to guide our adolescents in powerful ways.
The benefits for the boys are: feeling closer to their father; connecting with their father’s masculine spirit; gaining an appreciation for family traditions, values and beliefs; experiencing leaving boyhood and entering adolescence; discussing feelings about adolescence; beginning to develop a vision of yourself as a young man.
The benefits for the men are: gaining awareness of what a boy needs from his father; strengthening the father-son relationship; enriching the fathering role; passing on the masculine spirit; learning skills which facilitate a boy’s adolescent passage; developing strategies which positively shape a boy’s character; realising the high and deep callings of fatherhood.
The benefits for the mother are the new relationship. The change from mother-child to adult-adult is critical for both. For the young man he can now go out and have healthy, independent relationships with women. For the mother she can move on to focusing on her growth and release the young man to find his own life partner.
The benefits for the community are young men who are not trying to fight males in authority to find the boundary lines. They are able to become the warriors that we need. The Earth is calling out for courageous communicators in the interpersonal, local and global arena.
Jeremy Lee Shub is an artist living in the Yarra Valley. He creates and facilitates ceremony for people wishing to transform. He has a wife and two kids. Jeremy likes to dance in the moonlight.
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