Although the term “Rites of Passage” has only been around since 1909 when Arnold van Gennep coined the phrase in his book Les Rites de Passage, these forms of initiation have been around for more than forty thousand years across the globe.
Indigenous cultures understood the importance of marking the moment between big transitions in life, especially the transitional moment from adolescence to adulthood. They understood that in order for youth to transition successfully into adulthood and have the ability to share their gifts with the community, the community first had to help them create an initiatory experience and then welcome them back as the adult that they had now become.
The lack of intentional initiation for our youth in western culture has led to harmful self-initiation practices by young people. We see this in the form of joining gangs, hazing, bullying, crime, mass shootings, drug and alcohol experimentation, self-harm, and so many other unhealthy manifestations. We are also a culture full of uninitiated adults who are unable to operate with maturity, wisdom, and an ethic of service towards others and the Earth.
So what is Rites of Passage?
I love Darcy Ottey’s definition of Rites of Passage in her recently published book Rites and Responsibilities: A Guide to Growing Up. Ottey defines it as “an intentional, meaningful marker of transition from one state of being to another.”
Another useful definition of the term comes from M. Dane Zahorsky who states that, A Rite of Passage is the ceremonially recognized passing of an individual from one state to another. Other rites of passage include transitioning from childhood through puberty to adolescence, from young adulthood to middle age, from late middle age to eldership, and from eldership to death. In so doing the individual’s societal role is changed and transformed. This change is often reflected in their title. They step into a new role with new privileges and responsibilities recognized and celebrated by their community.”
David Blumengrantz argues that modern day rites of passage require both the parents and the community to come together to create initiatory experiences that feel transformative for young people and also offer increased status in the community.
There are many models of Rites of Passage, but one common model, introduced by Arnold van Gennep and carried on in the teachings of Steven Foster, and Meredith Little at the School of Lost Borders and many others, includes three main phases: separation, transition, and incorporation. First, separation or severance is all about leaving everything known and familiar behind and also includes preparation for the journey ahead. Next, transition or threshold is the adventure or ordeal in which the initiate is tested and must rely on their own inner resources to persevere through. Lastly, the final phase of incorporation is when the initiate returns to the community in their new role. They are welcomed back and celebrated, and they are witnessed as they tell the story of their journey. They then re-enter their lives and learn how to integrate their newfound wisdom and understanding into this next chapter.
Why is Rites of Passage so important?
In her article titled “Rites of Passage: A Necessary Step Toward Wholeness,” Christina Grof notes that “…our culture is one of the few in history that does not incorporate rites of passage, and…this has severe consequences.”
We see these consequences expressed every day in our culture that has become disconnected from the importance of community, our relationship with the Earth, and our relationships with ourselves. We try to find meaning through consumerism, technology, and quick fixes instead of heartfelt connection, purpose, and soulfulness. When we are disconnected from ourselves and our purpose, it can be very difficult to find meaning in our lives. This is all the more true these days when our youth are faced with the devastating effects of climate change, a global pandemic, school shootings, a faltering economy, and political divisiveness. Anxiety, depression, and teen suicides are at an all-time high. Providing opportunities for mentorship, community support, and rites of passage are essential, but they are severely lacking for the youth in our country.
Youth Passageways, a youth rites of passage networking organization, puts it best when they say “Rites of passage matter because of what they can do: in the lives of young people, in our own lives, and in our communities. They have the power to reach deeply into the hearts of human beings and to help people thrive, rather than just survive. Bottom line: rites of passage matter because young people matter, our communities matter, and the future matters.”
The more that parents and communities come together to create meaningful and transformative experiences for our youth and show them that they are integral members of the community and that their voices and gifts matter, the more they will be able to step towards wholeness and step into their roles as adults and community members who have the tools to navigate the challenges they will face and be able to offer their gifts to the world.
Written by: Jasmyne Chandler Nov 29, 2022
Founder and Lead Guide of Guided Passages, LLC.
· Arnold van Gannep, The Rites of Passage, 1909
· Darcy Ottey, Rites and Responsibilities: A Guide to Growing up, 2022
· Steven Foster and Meredith Little, The Roaring of the Sacred River: The Wilderness Quest for Vision and Self-Healing, 1997
· Christina Grof, “Rites of Passage: A Necessary Step Toward Wholeness” from the book Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, 1996
· Dane M. Zahorsky, “Mentoring the Future Community Group and Youth Organization Curriculum” 2022
· Youth Passageways: https://www.youthpassageways.org/