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Initiation into Paradox and Mystery

Friday, July 10, 2015

Native and Celtic Spirituality

Friday, July 10, 2015

Life and grace seem to move us along, often without our notice, toward greater maturity, inclusivity, and non-dual wisdom. But at certain points along the way, we are prone to getting stuck unless we have 1) some kind of initiatory experience, 2) some healing rites of passage, and 3) almost always the aid of some guides or elders. When our familiar way of living is challenged by any new wisdom, any great love or great suffering, we are unlikely to let go of our past certitudes because the unknown and the lack of control are just too scary. Our culture has unfortunately lost the rather 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 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. Paul would call this “the folly of the cross.”

Native religions emphasize harmony, balance, and wholeness as the goals that follow from authentic initiation, instead of merely providing people with a list of do’s and don’ts. A religion of mere moral requirements, in my experience, just leaves people in a continuous seesaw of deflation and inflation, with a strong undercurrent of denial and delusion. The search for balance and harmony—darkness and light, winter and spring, angels and demons—was the more primitive way of keeping us safely inside the always-truthful paschal mystery of Jesus.

It takes a contemplative mind to be content with such paradox and mystery. The daily calculating mind works in a binary way. Either-or thinking gives one a false sense of control. The small mind works by comparison and judgment; the great mind works by synthesizing and suffering with alternative truths. The ego cannot stand this suffering, and that is exactly why it is so hard for many religious people to grow up. Initiation based religion is not moralistic, but mystical and contemplative, and eventually unitive. It unveils the Great Spirit in all things, and in us, and then we are able to live with all the seeming contradictions in between, with no primal need to eliminate them until we learn what they have to teach us.

Most “primitive” traditions worldwide have initiation rites for both men and women, in various forms. For women these are usually fertility or puberty rites, as with the Navajo people—the Diné—whose Kinaalda ceremony ushers adolescent girls into womanhood. In the Celtic tradition, some people chose voluntary exile from Ireland, a permanent pilgrimage to an unknown destination, placing themselves entirely in God’s hands. In Native American vision quests, the initiate cannot return to the village until he knows his sacred name and has met the Great Spirit. 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, people were usually marked on their body too, like Jacob being wounded on his hip by the angel. The remaining wound tells us that we have gone the distance and completed the necessary cycle. “I can take it, and I am not a victim, but renewed” is the message.  No wonder the image of the Risen Christ is still wounded. I wonder if the prevalence of hazing, tattoos, and body piercings is not the 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 both that life is hard and that you are indeed wounded and powerless before the Mystery of Full Life. [1]

Initiation teaches you that both dark and light, joy and grief, good and evil are part of the journey. No part can be excluded without breaking the whole, which is always a benevolent universe. This is the non-dual reality of our human evolution and existence. Native and Celtic religions depended much more on an initiatory experience that changed your consciousness than on a list of do’s and don’ts that were supposed to enlighten you by supposed moral behavior. I have yet to see mere moral behavior enlighten anyone; it does, however, usually make them much easier to live with.

Gateway to Silence:
One world, all sacred


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

Dervishes (photo detail) performing at Ruhaniyat Purana, Qila, 2011, by Ajaiberwarl. Wikimedia Commons.
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