Matt’s Rite Of Passage

Honoring the transition from boy to man

One of the articles in Art And Ceremony In Sustainable Culture (IC#5)
Originally published in Spring 1984 on page 55
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

The importance of rites of passage, especially for adolescents, keeps coming up. (I think by now it has been mentioned in just about every issue of IN CONTEXT.) Thus it was a real delight to get this article describing a new rite of passage that someone had actually done! Although it is frustratingly incomplete on some of the details, it has stimulated me to move ahead with plans for my own about-to-be-adolescent son. If you know about any other examples of new rites of passage, I would love to hear about them.

Paul Kraska is a computer programmer who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

MY SON MATT was about to turn 14, and was already beginning to change in subtle ways. His two sisters, older by three and four years, were now young women, yet somehow I’d not recognized their transition out of childhood until the contrast was staring me in the face. Now it was Matt’s turn, and I didn’t want to let this important time slip by unnoticed again. To me, it was an event that clearly called for acknowledgement, celebration, and the creation of a gate/bridge to the paths awaiting him on the other side.

Yet I didn’t want to impose anything on him. Since the time my children and I were separated through their mom’s and my divorce seven years ago, I had taken my own journeys into non-ordinary places and ways. Meditation, vegetarian eating, exploring the possible human, etc. – these are enough to make any kid from an upwardly mobile suburb suspect. But to Matt, nothing was so odd as my devotion to ritual long- dancing and pilgrimages for equinoxes, solstices, and quarter-points, and to bringing new ritual into my daily and personal life. My friends talked about things, and in ways that appeared a lot different from the things other adults were into. And yet, he’d been asking questions about God and the context of life. Would he like to have a "rite of passage" trial, ritual, and celebration?

When he asked, "What’s that, Dad?", I had no words or explanation that would lead him out of the dark. Finally I said, "It’s like a bar mitzvah, but different." His eyes lit up as he said, "Sure! Wonderful!"

Now I was stuck. What is a rite of passage, anyway? I’d done some exploring about adolescence and Native American rites, but not enough to tell me what to do for Matt.

Yet I did get an inspiration for how to start: I’d ask five men to form a Men’s Council for Matt and his passage. Jon, Mark, and Avram had known Matt since he was seven. Tim and Michael plus Avram have been celebrating with me in our New Song Medicine Circle here. Together we formed a special council for Matt.

At our first meeting, we sat in a circle around a single candle on my large carpet. We passed the talking staff, as is our way, and asked for each man to speak from the heart on the question asked. We did this three times. The first question was: "Who are you and how do you make life?" Until then, I was the only connection some had with each other.

Secondly we were asked, "What is a rite of passage"? Six different answers were told, yet they were all the same on another level.

The third question was, "Why do you want to be on this council and what in this experience will be for you?" We each, in our own way, agreed to make this a personal transition.

The staff was placed in the center next to the candle. I served tea and cakes while we sat in council talking of the forms a ritual such as this might have. We ended with a silent circle. All our meetings, from this first one in January, followed this form. We agreed to meet once a month, the next time with Matt, until May, and then end with a ritual and celebration in June.

At Matt’s first meeting (in February), we asked, "What is your experience of being a boy?" and "What is being a man?" We spoke of boy’s questions and knowings, curiosities, adventures; and the same things of men. We spoke of life (the giving and taking), sex, relationships, place, and being. At the end, I gave each member a copy of an interview with Robert Bly about "The Wild Man" from Grimm’s "Iron Hans" fairy tale (New Age Magazine, May 1982).

At our March meeting we talked, from our own experiences, about the "wild man" energy in men (animus) that Bly discusses. We agreed that the article was not complete, and that we wanted the whole fairy tale to be read at our April meeting.

The story, in condensed form, is about a young boy who releases Eisenhans (Iron Hans) from his cage in the castle yard and, fearing consequences from his father upon his return, is carried off on the wild man’s shoulders into the dark forest. There he is cared for by Eisenhans, but alas, he must leave and travel into the world on his own. Eisenhans offers, however, to be of service to the boy anytime he is needed. The boy should come to the edge of the dark woods and call him. The boy makes his life – first as a kitchen ash sweeper and then as a gardener’s apprentice in another kingdom. The boy wears a cap to hide his golden hair, an integral part of the story. Issues about his hair lead to circumstances for him to call on Eisenhans, as he matures to be a young man. He becomes a hero of the kingdom, marries the princess, releases Eisenhans from a spell, and is reunited with his parents.

It is a rich story, full of paradox and symbolism: the key to the cage kept under his mother’s pillow; the golden hair; the mysterious wild man; the wild man energy and its relationship to excellence. In our discussion, we each remembered the story from our own experiences. Matt spoke of some of the ways he deals with fearful or challenging situations: lateral moves; willing to be outrageous, creative.

We met a second time in April, since I was going to be out-of-town in May. The question of "What are the male archetypes?" came up. After we each spoke on this, I again borrowed from Bly and told the others about four that Bly discusses in his work on "The Great Father." They are: the statesman and the fool, who are on opposite poles on the vertical, and the shaman and the hunter-craftsman – poles on the horizontal. We had fun chewing on this over our potluck dinner.

While I was out-of-town, the council met once with Matt, and once without him. At the latter, plans were made about the tests to which Matt and I (to my surprise) would be put. We would camp out on the banks of Kinnickinnic River in Wisconsin on a Friday to Sunday morning in June. Sunday afternoon would be a public celebration – ceremony and feast – to acknowledge Matt’s success in making this passage. I wrote an invitation letter to the celebration, but Matt thought it sounded a bit formal so we rewrote it together.

If I could give you an experience of the tasks Matt was given at the camp, I would tell all, but it’s Matt’s story, and you’ll have to ask him. What I can tell you is this: the men’s council devised a task, as metaphor, for each of the four male (animus) archetypes. Matt took each to heart, one-by-one, and showed us his metal on reason and innocence, vision and skill. On Sunday morning we smoked our ceremonial pipe with Matt. In that council, he was welcomed into the community of men.

Present at the celebration were family, friends, and school chums. Elaine, a storyteller friend, told us all the Eisenhans story. We, on the council, publicly acknowledged Matt on his passage to his first paths of manhood. Matt completed his last task by giving each of the men in his council a gift which he designed and made that would be representative of who we were, as individuals. His gift to me was the Tai Chi symbol, which was wood-burned onto a maple branch segment end. I was not aware he even knew of this famous symbol, let alone the many meanings it has for me. We ended the ceremony with a wine toast to Matt, and a feast.

Now it’s about six months later, and Matt has grown in many ways. I would not recognize him as the same person he was a year ago – and yet the boy is still present, as he always will be. Erik, our fourth child, will be 14 in August. I’ll be looking for men for his council soon and Matt will be one of the men I’ll ask.

A final note on a related resource: Steven and Meredith Foster, who wrote The Book Of The Vision Quest (reviewed in the Summer 1983 issue of IN CONTEXT), are about to publish a book called The Vision Quest: Passing From Childhood To Adulthood, A Course Book For Graduating [High School] Seniors. I have seen the introduction, which is excellent. It will be published by Rites of Passage, 857 DeLong Ave, Novato, CA 94947.

The more I think about this subject, the more I feel that in our culture adolescents need two rites of passage: one at puberty to acknowledge and help with those changes and another between 18 and 21 to mark the transition into adulthood. The single- gender council that Paul describes feels right for the puberty passage, but I would expect a mixed gender council would be better for the passage to adulthood. And then, of course, there are all the adult transitions to acknowledge. We have much to explore.

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