To quote Richard Rohr. 'It seems that it is only the recent West that has deemed it unnecessary to "initiate" young men. Otherwise, culture after culture felt that if the young man were not introduced to "the mysteries," he would not know what to do with his pain and would almost always abuse his power. It looks like they were right.'
Our ancestors and the indigenous people around the world thought it was important for us to mark and recognise the transition from a boy to a man. It was an event warranting support and encouragement from the whole of the community. The coming of age of the next generation marked a step into hope and the future unknown, and it was worthy of celebrating.
The complexity and nature of the event reflected the character of the society. The rites of passage contained lessons which needed to be learnt and skills needing to be mastered. If a boy was being 'birthed' into a hunter gathering culture, then the rite reflected this, and they were taught about bravery, weapon skills, hunting, the observation of nature, and other useful lessons.
In some sense the skills taught created the man. A young boy would struggle to learn all such skills on his own. By teaching them, the older men speeded up the learning process. The boy recognised he needed to be taught how to become a man, and the process was valued.
The coming of the industrial age still perpetuated the rite of passage for boys. The undertaking of an apprenticeship in the industry of choice served these same functions, taught the necessary skills, enabled the boys to become men by being taught by older men. The generations continued assisting each other, were seen as having mutual value, imparting skills and perpetuating the society.
Over the last three generations our connection to rites have all but disappeared. Boys nowadays have to become men on their own, they are not 'taught' by older men, they receive very little guidance or assistance. Instead they are often subjected to 'peer initiation', which can cause damage. Despite our lack of interest, they still seek initiation and rites. Often our adolescent boys are seeking to prove their masculinity to each other through driving too fast, taking drugs, getting drunk, having fights, an assortment of destructive behaviours.
As a society we throw our hands up in despair at such activities, and yet we have actually created the circumstances in which such behaviour is almost inevitable. As the older 'wiser' generations we have abandoned our young men and expect them to 'grow up' without help. In that sense, modern peer rites perfectly reflect our society. Full of men, disconnected from their elders, who don't know what to do with their pain and who are abusing their power.
There are alternatives, the move to University can often be a rite of passage, joining the armed forces is deliberately linked to rites, for many the taking a 'gap year' can often serves as a rite into manhood and adventure. Otherwise it can be part of work still. I was told of an engineering company who would assign a group of apprentices a huge lorry. Their task was to get to know how it ran and learn to repair it intimately and with imagination, and they were taught by older men. They then loaded up the truck with essential goods and food and the boys were given the task of driving the truck all the way to Africa. Delivering aid to the poorest communities, whilst at the same time being the adventure of a lifetime, transforming the boys lives.
The practice of rites is too important for it to be forgotten completely, and in recent years many groups and individuals have started the process of reclaiming teenage or adolescent rites, and up-dating them so they become relevant to todays' society. A band of brothers,
Journeyman and many other good groups are out there trying to help at this vital time in young men's lives.
If you are doing this work, or interested in such concepts and rites then do please contact me, as I am keen to support those doing the work, and want to learn about it myself.