Mantastic! – Men’s Rites of Passage

(The Furrow, February 2010, pp.118-120)


Why do men struggle with the spiritual? Why do men so often reject the inner journey, mistaking it for being soft or weak? These are key spiritual questions for men today.

There appears to be a need for authentic spirituality that speaks to a man’s soul and provides opportunities to live an authentic masculine life with wisdom and vision. The challenge is how to make it happen. Men are made, it seems, not born.

Seventy three men seeking this spirituality gathered at Slí an Chroí, in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, in June 2009, for a five-day Men’s Rites of Passage. They came from Ireland, Britain, Canada, the United States, France, Norway, Gibraltar and Australia. They were young, old and in between, urban and rural, married and single, and from many walks of life.

The Rites of Passage were developed over time by an American Franciscan, Richard Rohr, in conjunction with his Centre for Action and Contemplation, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has written about them, especially in Adam’s Return: the Five Promises of Male Initiation. They are rites of passage, not lectures of passage.

The focus is on participation and experience. Rites of initiation, like life itself, are for participants, not spectators. You do the rites, they are not done to you or for you. The best approach is simply to go with the process, and not stand back analysing or critiquing. A man is encouraged to come with a beginner’s mind, open and receptive to deeper questions.

Like the sacraments, the rites are a process of initiation. Initiation into what, one might ask. Initiation into one’s manhood, one’s humanity. They are a journey of self-discovery undertaken by each participant, learning about his false self and his true self. They involve a process of suffering, dying and rising, in a way that is metaphorical but real.

The themes of the five days were, firstly, an introduction to the process, then separation, grief, initiation, and communion. These help a man to bring to the surface un-addressed or suppressed issues and questions in his life, and, with fellow pilgrims, to begin a process of moving forward and deeper. A powerful sense of solidarity develops as men realize, perhaps for the first time, that we are walking wounded, that no one is exempt from brokenness. Indeed, a sense of failure is a common denominator to all human beings.

The rites are not easy; they are not meant to be, and no attempt is made to make them so. They make substantial personal demands, especially at the emotional level. They involve facing what we would rather avoid. They require a clear break with the ordinary routine of life, and a significant degree of self-discipline. Among the activities was a day of solitude, when each man went into the woods alone for a “desert” experience, creating a sacred space and reflecting on five tough counter-cultural themes. God’s voice may be heard when a man is alone in the “desert,” without noise and trappings; profound truths may be received.

What struck me particularly was the powerful sense of solidarity that developed so quickly. It was like Lough Derg or Croagh Patrick in that respect, only it was more intense. Conversation was not the usual game of one-upmanship or chatter about sport or politics. It was a road less travelled by men, of emotions and the experience of grief and loss. I think that for some men the experience may have been the first time they opened up in a deep and honest way to another human being, perhaps even to themselves. To be listened to with respect, in silence, without advice, comments, or solutions, was for many a new and soul-connecting experience. It was tough love at work.

Each evening there was a campfire with drumming, stories, and singing. The experience of conviviality was heart-warming and memorable. On the last day there was an agapé, not a sacramental eucharist, but a common prayer of praise and thanksgiving, sharing bread and wine in the Lord’s name. It was informal yet reverent, prepared yet fresh. It was a ritual of belonging, communion, and re-incorporation with the Divine, the self and fellow men, celebrated in the open under a majestic oak tree – being present to the Presence.

Throughout the rites, I was struck repeatedly by the abundance of talent, and the willingness to share it, among ordinary men. They responded magnificently to what they felt was real and authentic, replacing the head with heart and soul. I believe that, for many of the participants, the rites of passage were a life-changing event. Thirty-seven came to a follow-up weekend in October.

At the beginning of a new day a Cherokee warrior would say to his son, ‘It’s a good day to do great things.’ The rites were indeed days of doing great things. They were not mainly a time for information and explanation, but for an experience of manhood. Men supported each other with care, sharing tears, hurts and anger, journeying deep inside themselves, sharing life experiences, and enriching each other.

T.S. Eliot said that, ‘Initiation starts with an ending and ends with a beginning.’ The Rites of Passage are a beginning, a step on the spiritual journey. After the rites there are follow-up events, practices and activities for continuing spiritual growth, transformation and service to others. These are intended to encourage and empower men to reawaken to their masculinity and spirituality, to connect to their true self, and to discover how to live an authentic life with more depth, energy, focus and courage.