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Center for Action and Contemplation

Passing from Death to Life Now

Sunday, May 22, 2016


Passing from Death to Life Now
Sunday, May 22, 2016

How do we explain the larger-than-life, spiritually powerful individuals who seem to move events and history forward? One explanation is that they have somehow been “initiated”—initiated into their True Self, the flow of reality, the great pattern, or into the life of God. Initiation experiences took specific ritual forms in every age and every continent for most of human history. They were considered central to the survival of most cultures and to the spiritual survival of males in particular.

Many cultures and religions saw the male, left to himself, as a dangerous and even destructive element in society. Rather than naturally supporting the common good, the male often sought his own security and advancement. The same could probably be said of many modern Western women, but historically, women were “initiated” by their subjugated position in patriarchal societies, by the “humiliations of blood” (menstruation, labor, and menopause), by the ego-decentralizing role of child-rearing, and by their greater investment in relationships.

For many years I have been studying, creating, and promoting men’s rites of passage focusing mainly on destabilizing the ego. [1] As I am a man and have not studied women’s journeys in particular, most of my comments this week will be focused on male initiation. Female readers, please use your best discretion to apply (or not) these principles to your own experience. I also want to emphasize that before you can let go of your ego, you first have to have one! The ego has an important place and role; it is simply not the whole story of who you are.

In the larger-than-life people I have met, I always find one common denominator: in some sense, they have all died before they died—and thus they are larger than death too! Please think about that. At some point they were led to the edge of their private resources, and that breakdown, which surely felt like dying, led them into a larger life. They went through a death of their various false selves and came out on the other side knowing that death could no longer hurt them. They fell into the Big Love and the Big Freedom—which many call God.

Throughout most of history, the journey through death into life was taught in sacred space and ritual form, which clarified, distilled, and shortened the process. In sacred space you can do things that would never work in secular space (e.g., male circumcision being the most common example). Since rites of passage have fallen out of favor in our consumer cultures, many people don’t learn how to move past their fear of diminishment, even when it stares them down or gently invites them. I think this lack of preparation for the “passover,” our lack of training in grief work and letting go, and our failure to entrust ourselves to a bigger life, is the basis and core of our culture’s spiritual crisis.

All great spirituality is about letting go. Instead we have made it to be about taking in, attaining, performing, winning, and succeeding. True spirituality mirrors the paradox of life itself. It trains us in both detachment and attachment: detachment from the passing so we can attach to the substantial. But if we do not acquire good training in detachment, we may attach to the wrong things, especially our own self-image and its desire for security. Initiation is one’s initial training in an essential letting go, in order to allow oneself to be reconstructed on a new foundation.

Reality is God’s greatest ally; full Reality always relativizes us in a most essential way. Such an initiation into death, and therefore into life, rightly “saves” a person. Catholics call it the paschal mystery or the passion of the Christ. The word passion (patior) means to “allow” or “suffer reality.” It is not a doing, but a being done unto.

Union with God, union with what is—that is to say, union with everything—has always been the final goal of any initiatory experience. One taste of the Real had to be given early in life to keep the initiate hungry, harmonious, and holy—so he could never be satisfied with anything less than what he once knew for sure!

Gateway to Silence:
From death to life

[1] The organization Illuman is now continuing the work I began with Men as Learners and Elders (M.A.L.Es), offering programs to support men in their inner work through ritual, teaching, and sharing. Learn more at

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 1-5, 7-9, 29-30;
Beloved Sons Series: Men and Grief (CAC: 2005), CD, MP3 download; and
Beloved Sons Series: How Men Change (CAC: 2009), CD, MP3 download, DVD.

Image Credit: Men’s Rites of Passage (MROP). CAC archives.
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