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You Are Going to Die

Friday, May 27, 2016


You Are Going to Die
Friday, May 27, 2016

As Ernest Becker argues so compellingly in his book, The Denial of Death, the heroic projects of men are mostly overcompensations for a paralyzing fear of death, powerlessness, and diminishment. Until men move into death and live the creative tension of being both limited and limitless, he says they never find their truth or their power. As Becker shockingly puts it, we are overwhelmed that we are somehow godly and yet “gods who shit.” [1] Too often, egoism, performance, ambition, and bravado in the male proceed from a profound fear of failure, humanity, and death. The heroic project never works for long, and it finally backfires into anger, depression, and various forms of scapegoating and violence. In avoiding death, a man ironically avoids life. This central insight animated the various rites of passage in primal cultures, hoping to lead men into real life early in life.

Every initiation rite I’ve studied had some ritual, dramatic, or theatrical way to experience crossing the threshold from life to death in symbolic form. We cannot experience rebirth, being “born again,” without experiencing some real form of death first. Most “born again” churches do not seem to have recognized this. The old self always has to die before the new self can be born, which is the Passover experience we resist. In the language of John’s Gospel (12:24), “The grain of wheat must die or it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies bears much fruit.”

The initiate must be led to the edge of his normal resources, so he is forced to rupture planes and gain access to his Larger Self. Often this takes the form of solitude, silence, and suffering over an extended time, which are the only things strong enough to break our ego attachment to the false self and move us to a new level of awareness and identity.

Inside the sacred space of initiation, there were invariably ritual enactments like drowning, dipping, burying, entrance into one’s tomb, all of which come together in the Pauline notion of baptism (see Romans 6:3-11). Men lay naked on the earth in ashes, which is the one obvious remnant of ancient initiation rites still practiced inside organized Christianity (still an embarrassment to some) on Ash Wednesday.  There were sacred whippings and anointings for death and burial, which became the harmless slap (which we dropped) and anointing of Confirmation. The old Benedictines used to lie prostrate before the altar at their final vow ceremony, the funeral pall and candles placed over them, while parts of the requiem Mass were sung over their “dead” bodies.

Some ritual of death and resurrection was the centerpiece of all male initiation. It is probably why Jesus sought out and submitted to John the Baptist’s offbeat death and rebirth ritual down by the riverside, when his own temple had become more concerned with purity codes than with transformation. It is probably why Jesus kept talking to his disciples, three times in Mark’s Gospel, about the necessity of this death journey, and why three times they changed the subject (8:31-10:45). It is undoubtedly why Jesus finally stopped talking about it, and just did it, not ritually but actually. Death and resurrection, the paschal mystery, is the theme of every single Eucharist no matter what the feast or season. It takes us many seasons and even years to overcome our resistance to death.

The transformational journey of death and resurrection is the only real message. It makes you indestructible. The real life, God’s life, is running through you and in you already. But allowing it to flow freely doesn’t come easily. When you do, the spiritual journey really begins. Up to that moment it is just religion. Everything up to then is creating the container, but you have not yet found the contents; you are creating the wineskins, as Jesus says, but you are not yet drinking the intoxicating wine.

Gateway to Silence:
From death to life

[1] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (Free Press: 1973), 11 et passim.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 8, 101-103, 173; and
Beloved Sons Series: Men and Grief (CAC: 2005), CD, MP3 download.

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