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Center for Action and Contemplation


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Primal and Indigenous Spirituality

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Life and grace seem to move us along, often without our notice, toward greater maturity, inclusivity, and nondual wisdom. But at certain points along the way, humans are prone to getting stuck unless we have some kind of initiatory experience, healing rites of passage, and the aid of some guides or elders. When our familiar way of living is disrupted or challenged by any new wisdom, great love, or suffering, we are unlikely to let go of our past certitudes because the unknown and the lack of control are just too scary.

Much of modern American and European cultures have unfortunately lost the universal tradition of initiation, and there are now few true elders to lead us onward. Instead of rites that encourage us to let go and begin anew, we are urged—both by the Church and by Western society—to perform better, to do the “right” thing, and to be even more successful. We gun our already existing engines. I believe that without some inner experience of powerlessness, and the wisdom that potentially comes with it, most individuals will misunderstand and abuse power. This is “the folly of the cross” that the Apostle Paul describes (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Most indigenous traditions worldwide have various forms of initiation rites for both men and women. For women, these are usually fertility or puberty rites, as with the Navajo people—the Diné—whose Kinaalda ceremony ushers adolescent girls into womanhood. Young Native American males may be sent on vision quests. The initiate does not return to the village until he has faced death, drawn upon great inner and spiritual resources, and knows his name and calling. Perhaps this pattern of self-discovery of one’s true name in God is the heart of initiation (see Revelation 2:17). After all, life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had.

We are not just spiritually named; historically, many people were marked on their body too, like Jacob being wounded on his hip by the angel (Genesis 32:26) or St. Francis bearing the stigmata (wounds of Christ). Being wounded and surviving helps us understand the pattern of life-death-resurrection. We are no longer simply victims but empowered and wise healers. No wonder the image of the Risen Christ is still wounded. I wonder if the prevalence of hazing, tattoos, and body piercings is a secular substitution for what young men once sought by fasting, circumcision, scarification, shaving of heads, and knocking out of teeth. True initiation marks you indelibly and gives you your sacred name, but only when it is accompanied by an interior sacred wounding that reminds you that life is hard and that you are, indeed, wounded and powerless before the Mystery of Full Life.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 42-43, 49-50.

Image Credit: National Powwow Grass Dancers (detail), 2007, Smithsonian Institute creator, photographer Cynthia Frankenburg, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Looking for beauty all around us is a contemplative practice, an exercise in opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to the divine image. In indigenous traditions, such opening practices often take the form of dance, drumming, song, and trance, embodied forms that Western, and particularly Euro-centric, Christianity has neglected. —Richard Rohr
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