Life Is Hard
Monday, May 23, 2016
In my cross-cultural research on initiation rites, I have observed five consistent lessons communicated to the initiate. These lessons are meant to separate initiates from their thoughts about themselves and reattach them to who they really are. These messages are essential for a man to know experientially if he is to be rightly aligned with reality (and perhaps also for a woman, though in some cases women need to be taught the reverse first).
- Life is hard.
- You are not that important.
- Your life is not about you.
- You are not in control.
- You are going to die.
I’ll explore each of these in depth over the next several days, beginning with the first, “Life is hard.”
Within each initiation rite I’ve studied, a major portion of the experience is grief work. The natural survival instinct for the male is to block suffering and pain. Somehow the young male has to be taught how to receive wounding and scarring (which was often done through circumcision) and to empathically connect with the pain of the world. In our archetypal psyche and memory, blood flowing from a man’s body symbolizes death, which of course we’re eager to avoid. When blood flows out of a woman’s body, it points toward life, the ability to conceive and carry new life. Maybe this is part of the reason why women are not as afraid of pain as we men tend to be.
All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. So the first lesson of initiation is to teach the young man not to try to get rid of his pain until he has first learned whatever it has to teach him. By trying to handle all suffering through willpower, denial, medication, or even therapy, we have forgotten something that should be obvious: we do not handle suffering; suffering handles us in deep and mysterious ways that ironically become the very matrix of life. Suffering—and sometimes awe—has the most power to lead us into genuinely new experiences.
As Simone Weil said, “Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”  When life is hard we are primed to learn something absolutely central. Our wounds are God’s hiding place and hold our greatest gifts. It is no surprise that a dramatically wounded man became the central transformative symbol of Christianity. Once the killing of God becomes the redemption of the world, then forevermore the very worst things have the power to become the very best things. Henceforth, nothing can be a dead end; everything is capable of new meaning. We are indeed saved by gazing upon the wounded one—and loving there our own woundedness and everyone else’s too (John 3:14, 12:32, 19:37). We can dare to be mutually vulnerable instead of trying to protect ourselves and impress each other. This is the core meaning of the Christian doctrine of Trinity; the very character of God is mutual deference, recognition, and love, not self-assertion, much less domination or manipulation of the other.
The heart is normally opened through a necessary hole in the soul, what I call a “sacred wound.” We see this enacted at Jesus’ death: “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a lance, and out flowed blood and water” (John 19:34), which I would interpret as archetypal symbols of humanity and divinity. Our wound is the only way, it seems, for us to get out of ourselves and for grace to get in. As Leonard Cohen put it in his song, “Anthem,” “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Our wounds are the only things humbling enough to break our attachment to our false self and make us yearn for our True Self.
Followers of the Crucified One will pray for the grace to do what he did: hold the pain until it transformed him into the Risen Christ. If you do not transform your pain, you will almost certainly transmit your pain to others through anger, blame, projection, hatred, or scapegoating.
Gateway to Silence:
From death to life
 Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (Routledge: 2002), 10.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 32-33, 37-38, 46-47; and
Beloved Sons Series: Men and Grief (CAC: 2005), CD, MP3 download.