From the Archives: Why Men Need Initiation by Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

As part of an effort to communicate the history and mission of Today’s American Catholic, we will be periodically sharing pieces from past issues in a series we call “From the Archives.” This month, we feature Fr. Richard Rohr’s cover story from our April 2004 issue. The first installment in our series, a 1993 interview with Franciscan Sister Jose Hobday, is available in our August/September 2020 issue—Ed.

The whole thing that got me into this work of understanding initiation was my observation of the state of the male of the species, both clergy and laymen. We are not in good shape. We do not tend to naturally understand spirituality. In fact, I am convinced that the male is naturally resistant to its essential language of intimacy, surrender, patience and trust. Men like roles instead of processes, dressing up instead of dressing down.

If the male possibly can, he will turn spirituality and religion into “sitting at the right and left hand of Jesus.” (Does this need much proof?) To paraphrase the Rodgers 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 absolutely necessary for the very survival of the tribe. To quote Jesus’s 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” (Matt. 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 also we 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 Ratzinger and the Roman office for bishops have admitted that careerism is a major problem in the episcopacy. When they admit it publicly, you know how bad it must be. 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 that the man will know how to use power well.

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? It is literally “in-credible” to him.

He will naturally use the Church, sacraments, ministry roles and grace itself to advance himself. And when it doesn’t, forget it. Or just keep going through the Church motions, which might be worse. Twenty-eight percent of general Catholic Church attendance is by males now, the lowest recorded in a recent American survey. It is much, much lower in many countries that I have visited.

This pattern of “ascent,” as I call it (see The Wild Man’s Journey from 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 descend from the very tower that 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 very 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. What I am saying is that we desperately need real “elders.” And when they get there, they cannot keep retiring to Florida.

Now those who are initiated early, such as 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 very 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” (Gen. 11:4). That is what you call clear prophecy. And to make it worse, most young women are now buying into 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, also 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 reality is described as honestly and truthfully as the paschal mystery does, 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 Cor. 13:5). Instead you are now able, as was St. Ignatius, to “find God in all things,” especially in places such as humiliation, disappointment, rejection, betrayal, divorce, and death. In fact, like all the saints, you find that “it is when you are weak that you are strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Afterwards, and only afterwards, you are able to shout “Alleluia!” Not joy in the suffering itself, but in the new intimacy with God that this suffering has allowed you to experience. Not joy in the 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.

Now when the Church itself stops believing this—its own Gospel—the Spirit teaches it quickly elsewhere. Presently, men in AA groups, women in cancer survivor groups, and early orphaned children often believe this more than many clergy. It is still too easy for us priests to make it a mere liturgical acclimation, 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 who gets to hear the message ahead of another. All we need to 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 the First Letter to Timothy (2:15) said that “women will be saved by childbirth,” we tended to dislike and mistrust the message, but it might be wiser than we thought. Almost all 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 about mystery, miracle, darkness, and waiting—that a man simply does not know. 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 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 Sacraments of Initiation, as I have said in earlier articles, have been largely “priested 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.

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.

Father Rohr, a frequent writer and lecturer, focuses on male spirituality at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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