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Lenten Series Liminal Space

Lent is a time to listen to our lives


“The young man who cannot cry is a savage. The old man who cannot weep is a fool.”
Native Aphorism

What got me into this work of creating liminal space and understanding initiation was my observation of the state of the male of the species, clergy and laymen. We are not in good shape. We do not tend to naturally understand spirituality. In fact, I am convinced the male is naturally resistant to spirituality’s language of intimacy, surrender, patience and trust. Men like roles instead of process, dressing up instead of dressing down.

To paraphrase the Rogers and Hammerstein song, the male “has to be taught, he has to be carefully taught.” And this is why almost all ancient cultures deemed male initiation necessary for the survival of the tribe. The male must be taught “the tears of things” before you can dare invest him in power, or he will always abuse that power. Initiation is always an intentional journey into powerlessness, so the man will know how to use power well.

To quote Jesus’ initiation message to his own trainees, “You must indeed drink of the cup that I must drink and be baptized with the baptism that I have been plunged into” (Mark 10:37-39). And it is Peter, the first pope, who fights the message and forces Jesus to call him Satan (Matthew 16:22-23). The fact that Peter is the only person Jesus ever calls a devil is somehow missed by most papophiles.

Not only do we no longer have any semblance of male initiation, but we actually promote and enable the opposite. We anti-initiate, even in the church. Thus you can be ordained to priesthood or episcopacy not with motivations of descent but for purposes of ascent. It is called job security and ascribed status. Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (NCR, July 30, 1999) and the Roman office for bishops (NCR, May 28, 1999) have admitted that careerism is a major problem in the episcopacy. When they admit it publicly, you know how bad it must be.

Life is not about the job

Young Catholic men can go entirely through the Catholic school system, including Jesuit universities or a seminary, without ever being told that life is not about job, role, security, placement and advancement. We hope that a good Jesuit sermon tells them the real gospel once in a while, but surely the entire structure and expectation says the exact opposite. It is all about achievement and competition and being in control. Now tell me, how is this individual possibly prepared to understand the Sermon on the Mount or the mystery of the crucified Christ? It is literally “in-credible” to him. He will naturally use the church, sacraments, ministry roles and grace itself to advance himself. And when they don’t advance him, forget it. Or just go through the motions, which might be worse.

This pattern of ascent, as I call it (see The Wild Man’s Journey published by St. Anthony Messenger Press), is so in the hard wiring of the male of the species that cultures knew they had to teach the male at the beginning the crucial and necessary knowledge about descent. Thus it was rightly called initiation. It was too late to tell him about it after he had put even 20 years into climbing, achieving and promoting himself.

Initiation tells you that you are going to have to build your tower yes but have no doubt that you must also descend from the tower you have built. And the higher you build it, the more “defeats and humiliations” you will need. The Greeks called it “the Icarus fall.” We Christians heard it from Jesus to Peter: “When you were young, you put on your own belt ... but as you grow old, somebody else will put a belt around you” (John 21:18). There have always been two life tasks for men. We teach the first easily and understandably, but few teach the second, even in the church. Maybe because they have not been initiated and made the descent themselves. They are still putting on their own belt. We desperately need real “elders.” And when they get there, they cannot keep retiring to Florida.

Now those who are initiated early, like my father St. Francis, just don’t bother with the silly tower at all. They stay close to the bottom where things are clean and honest, simple and human. As you are now suspecting, this is about as countercultural a message today as you can imagine. Yet isn’t it interesting that this message was considered necessary for the survival of culture. It gives one a helpful paradigm for understanding the depth, urgency and danger of our problem today. Everywhere, we are building towers of Babel, “with their tops reaching to the heavens, so that we can make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4).

And to make it worse, most young women are now buying the same delusion and calling it liberation. I am afraid the new generation of women, who have every right to build their tower, will now need the same classic initiation and will have to suffer their own turn on the downside of the wheel of fortune. Persephone, in Greek mythology, had to spend at least part of the year in the darkness, “under the earth.”

There is not a single initiation rite that I have studied that is not about suffering, death and resurrection. Maybe the words are different, the symbols and rituals vary immensely, but the core message is always there: live as if you are going to die and you are going to die. We Catholics call it “the paschal mystery.” It is the theme of every Eucharist and the whole meaning of Lent. We call it the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Yet I find the vast majority of Catholics do not believe it at all. It has become a liturgical acclamation, but seldom a lifestyle, an agenda, a promise, a guarantee, the big and truthful description of reality that keeps us free.

When you see reality as honestly and truthfully as it is in the paschal mystery, you are basically indestructible. You are not surprised by failure and suffering, you do not waste time with lawsuits to redress wrongs committed against you; in fact, you do not “grieve over offenses” (1 Corinthians 3:5). Instead you are now able, like St. Ignatius, to “find God in all things,” especially in those places like humiliation, disappointment, rejection, betrayal, divorce and death. In fact, like all the saints, you actually find that “it is when you are weak that you are strong” (2 Corinthians 2:10). Afterward, and only afterward, you are able to shout Alleluia! Not joy in suffering itself, but in the new intimacy with God that this suffering has allowed you to experience. Not joy in weakness itself, but in the amazing new self that you find yourself to be. It is the joy of resurrection, the joy of being transformed.

The Spirit goes elsewhere to teach

Now when the church itself stops believing this its own gospel the Spirit teaches it quickly elsewhere. Presently, men in Alcoholics Anonymous groups, women in cancer survivor groups, and children orphaned early often believe this more than many clergy. It is still too easy for us priests to make it a mere liturgical acclamation, with appropriate organ accompaniment: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” And then I get upset when the choir does not answer it in the right key. I guess God could not have made his big message depend upon our correct proclamation of it, so God hid it in our human flesh, our human experience, our life journey itself. We can’t get away from that, and there is no privileged group that gets to hear the message ahead of another. All we need do is listen to our lives and learn from them. We all have lives and bodies. It levels the playing field, and I have slowly learned to trust that I get what I need to learn the necessary lessons.

But men in particular, it seems to me, need to be invited into liminal space. When 1 Timothy (2:15) said, “Women will be saved by childbirth,” we tended to dislike and mistrust the message, but it might be wiser than we thought. Most cultures did not feel that women needed classic initiation. Only her capacity for fertility needed to be blessed and affirmed. Once a woman has gone through the experience of a totally new body coming out of her body, she knows the biggies and the essentials. She knows something about the inherent connection between suffering and new life, she knows that it happens through her and yet also totally in spite of her, she knows something that a man simply does not know about mystery, miracle, darkness and waiting. Ideally, the woman understands transformation and therefore has a basic head start in understanding spirituality. She “knows” (if she is listening, that is), whereas he “has to be taught, he has to be carefully taught.”

I have been giving male initiation rites for six years at Ghost Ranch here in New Mexico and in Europe, but as the men keep telling me, I am “blowing into the wind.” About 1,100 English-speaking men have gone through these rites of passage, and about 400 German-speaking men. So this year I am starting to train these eligible initiated men to offer “rites of passage” for others. I think we have the essential message down, but we also know that the rituals themselves (and that is the key) will need to be different for different groups. Also we are no longer initiating boys for the most part, but adult men because we never had it as boys ourselves. The church’s sacraments of initiation, as I said in earlier articles, have been largely “protested and prettified” out of the male psychic space. It is only churchy kinds of men who relate to them, which is a rather small percentage of males.

We will be working this year with seven distinct group rituals: parish- or church-based groups of men (the hardest!), the incarcerated (the easiest!), men and boys at risk, gay men (although I am not yet sure they should be a separate group), black men, Hispanic men, and family-based initiation rites for sons, godsons, grandsons and nephews. (This is where men have done the most creative work so far. They want the next generation in their family to know what they now know.) So, pray for us. This is big stuff. This is the “anti-structure” called liminal space, which makes a lot of church “structure” actually make sense. It also shows a lot of it for the relative importance that it has, and it also reveals our amazing capacity for missing the central point.

Like all liminal and sacred space, male initiation restores an absolute center, called “God,” and that, of course, relativizes everything else. No wonder perhaps that the church itself is eager to forget it.

Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, a popular retreat master, speaker and writer, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. This article is the fifth in a series.

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002