Every newborn welcomed into the human family holds the promise of a full and joyful life.
As we make our way from childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age and retirement, every culture celebrates personal and community milestones.
What does it take to become a man in Papua New Guinea? How is coming of age marked in the Australian Outback, or in the Christian Church? Why pierce the skin in ceremony, have a Sweet Sixteen Party, or stand before your elders and read from the Jewish Torah?
Rite of passage is celebration of life events that mark a turning point. They are each based around three central themes:
Separation – an individual is no longer identified by their prior life status.
Transition – during this period an individual undergoes tests and challenges to prove that they are indeed worthy of the newer upcoming status.
Re-incorporation – having passed the necessary trials and proved their worth in the eyes of the community, the individual is reintroduced to the society with new honors and status.
As we recognize stages of human growth and development, we should also recognize attainment of spiritual milestones.
Celebration of birth
Mother and child
Every culture since time immemorial welcomes the newborn into society …
For Native Americans, the celebration of a child’s birth starts while the mother-to-be is pregnant. At the time of first moon, the clan’s grandmother prays for the successful entry of the new member. The Mother goes into the woods and collects special herbs for their spiritual leader to use in ceremony. Female relatives and the clan Grandmother assist in the birth. Only rarely are fathers allowed to attend. Thirteen days after birth the Spiritual leader introduces the new child to the tribe.
In India, Hindu ceremonies are performed during pregnancy, to facilitate and promote good health for mother and child. Among the religious orthodoxy, at the time of birth and before the umbilical cord is severed, the father will place a golden spoon or ring dipped in honey, on the babies lips. The word vak (speech) is whispered three times into the child’s right ear, and special mantras for long life are recited.
The Okuyi transit of childhood is celebrated by many Bantu ethnic groups living in Western Africa. When an infant reaches four months of age, or when a child becomes an adolescent. Mother and child are placed in the center of a group surrounded by singing and dancing Okuyi performers. Dressed in costumes resembling the spirit of past clan ancestors, the performers recount the tale of a panther taking the baby. Pointing a spear toward the child, blessings are bestowed. The Okuyi then continues the dance around mother and child.
Most Christian denominations practice Baptism. Parents present their newborn child to the community and priest. This usually takes place during the main Sunday morning service. Parents publically proclaim on behalf of their child that they believe in God and that they will bring the child up to follow Jesus.
The ceremony culminates with the child being sprinkled (poured or immersed) in water. This signifies purity, cleansing from sin, and devotion to God.
The priest will recite, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (according to Matthew 28:19).
From a spiritual standpoint, the anointing with oil on the child’s forehead – is meant to open the brow chakra to religious visions, clairvoyance, observation of auras, and precognition.
In Judaism, a newborn baby boy is presented to the community during the circumcision ceremony, called a “bris.” The Bris Milah usually completes this in about 30-seconds. The event also signifies the child’s entry into the covenant with Abraham.
Male circumcision is the surgical removal of some, or all, of the foreskin (prepuce) from the penis. This practice is not restricted to any particular religion or culture. About 1/6 to 1/3 of all males worldwide are circumcised. Depictions of circumcision have been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs.
According to the Mayo Clinic (Rochester, Minnesota, USA), circumcision may have positive health benefits, which include:
• Easier hygiene • Decreased risk of urinary tract infections • Prevention of penile problems • Decreased risk of penile cancer
• Decreased risk of sexually transmitted infections
In Islam, young women often undergo female circumcision.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes this as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.
The Islamic Hadith text indicates that circumcision is better for a woman’s health and it enhances her conjugal relation with her husband, the Prophet’s saying “do not exceed the limit” means do not totally remove the clitoris.”
According to Wikipedia …
“The procedures known as Female genital mutilation (FGM) were referred to as female circumcision until the early 1980s, when the term “female genital mutilation” came into use. The term was adopted at the third conference of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and in 1991 the WHO recommended its use to the United Nations. It has since become the dominant term within the international community and in medical literature.
FGM is typically carried out on girls from a few days old to puberty. It may take place in a hospital, but is usually performed, without anesthesia, by a traditional circumciser using a knife, razor, or scissors. According to the WHO, it is practiced in 28 countries in western, eastern, and north-eastern Africa, in parts of the Middle East, and within some immigrant communities in Europe, North America, and Australasia. The WHO estimates that 100–140 million women and girls around the world have experienced the procedure, including 92 million in Africa”
Depending on the degree of mutilation, FGM can have a number of short-term health implications:
• severe pain and shock • infection • urine retention • injury to adjacent tissues
• immediate fatal hemorrhaging
Long-term implications can entail:
• extensive damage of the external reproductive system • uterus, vaginal and pelvic infections • cysts and neuromas • increased risk of Vesico Vaginal Fistula • complications in pregnancy and child birth • psychological damage • sexual dysfunction
• difficulties in menstruation
Entry in to Manhood
The Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania prepare their young men by having them participate in the ritual Maasai Lion Hunt. Participants deliberately seek out the more robust, mature, aggressive, and active lions for pursuit. Armed only with the tribes traditional spear, the young men come face to face with this “king of beasts” to prove their fearlessness. Some never make it back home, but the overwhelming majority do.
The young men are eager to become recognized warriors. Once the Hunt is completed they can take their place in society as men, and actively participate in the security and protection of their tribe’s territory.
The Thread Ceremony (Upanayana) is widely practiced in India by members of orthodox Hindu religious groups. For young boys between the ages of six and twelve this observance is used to highlight the transition to awareness and adult religious responsibilities.
When young Burmese boys approach the age of ten, some participate in the Poy Sang Long Buddhist ceremony. Dressed up like the Buddha, they spend three days ridding around on the shoulder of grown men, imitating the Buddha’s walk toward enlightenment. Those that wish to become monks are then ordained, while the other boys return home.
In Judaism coming of age for a 13-year old boy means having your Bar Mitzvah. After reading from the Torah at a Saturday morning service and completing various requirements, they are now considered to be an adult.
Going forward the Bar Mitzvah candidate now bears their own responsibility for Jewish ritual, law, tradition, and ethics, and is able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life.
The evening is usually followed up with celebration and festivities.
From the mid 16th century all the way to the twentieth, young boys in the Western World wore gowns or dresses until the age of eight. A gown was more convenient for potty training and for covering up a fast growing child, especially when clothes were expensive. Then, in celebration, they are given their first pair of pants (breeches). After “breeching” a young boy’s father becomes more actively involved in their upbringing.
The tribe elders pierce the young man’s chest, shoulders, and back muscles with wooden splints. He is then hoisted up into the air. Additional splints are then inserted into his arms and legs. The skulls of his dead grandfather and other ancestors are then placed on the ends of the splints. Because of the skin stabbings, there is some bleeding. All the while the boy is in agony, almost delirious, but yet he is determined to bear the pain in silence. After all, this is his test of manhood as a member of the Mandan Tribe.
Teenage boys often participate in the First Holy Communion ceremony. The word “communion” is derived from the Latin “communion,” and is often interpret to mean fellowship. By taking part in this, their first Holy Eucharist Sacrament (symbolic of Christ’s last supper), they are recognized as adults, and full members of the Christian community.
Young boys of the Native American Cherokee Tribe are blind folded and led into the forest by their fathers. After finding a suitable spot, the boys sit and are left to endure the night without ever removing the blind fold. They are to remain quiet and composed. When the morning sun rises and its first rays strike the boys, they can remove the blind fold and return home as men.
Other Native American rites of passage include confronting various wild animals, hunting and fishing, cultivating combat skills to become a warrior, honoring the Earth and the Great Spirit, and a host of other ceremonies.
Participation in a Vision Quest often serves as a stepping stone toward manhood. It’s a time for wilderness solitude and personal reflection. Contact with animal spirits raises the young man’s awareness to the interconnectedness of all life.
In Australia the Aboriginal tribes send their adolescent boys out on a Walkabout. This is a test to see if they have the survival skills necessary to live on their own in the outback (desert, marsh, mountains, etc.), for a period of up to 6-months.
Entry into Womanhood
Shanghai International Debutante Ball
The Débutante Ball has long been the celebration of a young ladies entry into formal society. Although started as a French tradition by aristocratic and upper class families, this gala event is now celebrated all over the world.
Debutante (from the French débutante, “female beginner”).
On December 28, 2012, the International Débutante Ball will be held at the New York City , Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Sweet Sixteen is a coming of age party celebrating a girl’s sixteenth birthday, primarily in the United States and Canada.
In the Jewish Tradition a 12 year old girl will have a Bat Mitzvah. It is similar to the Bar Mitzvah as practiced by young men. It denotes that the young girl is now a woman, and as such gladly takes on the responsibilities of her Jewish Heritage.
It’s interesting to note that the Bat Mitzvah is a relatively new phenomenon. Traditional and Orthodox Judaism still does not recognize the participation of women in religious services. But the more liberal Reformed and Conservative branches do. Those communities started to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is growing steadily as more and more communities have accepted the practice.
Members of the Unitarian Universalism congregations celebrate Coming of Age (COA). This is for both boys and girls.
Coming of Age
Starting around 12 years old, the congregation’s youth pair up with a mentor, and attend special COA program classes.
They prepare a “faith statement,” which signifies what they believe in and the type of civic and spiritual life they would like to lead. They learn about other world religions, and what their Church’s covenant of faith affirms:
• The inherent worth and dignity of every person • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
• Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
When the class is complete the COA participants are presented at a Sunday morning service. They each read their “faith statement,” and the Unitarian Universalism congregation members pledge to stand with them, side by side, in loving support, for their journey into Adulthood.
Many Christian denominations offer the sacrament of Confirmation to their 13-14 year old, boys and girls. Confirmation is one of the seven sacraments that commemorate the life of Christians. At this service the Gift of the Holy Spirit is bestowed.
In the American Amish heartland of Pennsylvania the young folk at about age 16 enter into Rumspringa. They then have a choice before themselves; to either choose baptism within the Amish church, or instead leave the community. They have a period of time with which to make that decision.
Come what may, the vast majority choose baptism and remain in the church.
In Ancient Greece the term “dokimasia” referred to the process whereby young citizens gain the skills necessary to partake in public rights and duties.
Other milestones that signify entry into adulthood are:
• High School Graduation • The first drivers license • First legal drinking age • Gaining the right to vote
• College Fraternity Pledging
In Burma members of the Theravada Buddhism tradition may send their son’s onto the Shinbyu celebration. This gives them a chance to more closely study the teachings of the Buddha, and to follow their Dharma path. If it is right for them they can choose upasampada ordination into the rank of monk.
Other milestones that all cultures celebrate are:
At our 40th birthday we can say, “I am a free and willing, independent, self responsible human being.”
At our 80th birthday we can say “I have achieved my goals and aspirations. The present is rich, and life is beautiful.”
Death, a transition to another path.
Your Spiritual Life
The first time that you ask the question, “Who am I, what is world all about, how did I get here, and what is my purpose in life,” you have taken the first steps on the Spiritual path.
When you recognize and take note of the beauty, delicacy, strength, and wonder of life, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you stand in awe under the starry night sky and feel amazement, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you hold your newborn child and feel your heart overflowing with joy and love, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you help your neighbor bring in their groceries, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you strive to do your best on the upcoming school exam, and in whatever you do, you are on the Spiritual path
When you read a book and your mind entertains new ideas and possibilities, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you wash your clothes but it’s done with purpose and joy, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you say a prayer before eating, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you treat every day of your life as if the last, and enjoy that day as a bonus, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you care for all men, women and children, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you sit in silence, you are on the Spiritual path.
When you close your eyes to meditate, you are on the Spiritual path.
… and a million and one other ways, you are on the Spiritual path.
Our spiritual journey consists of all that we do, as movement away from identification with our individual body, mind and ego – toward expansion of universal absolute awareness and bliss.
The realization that “I am not body,” “I am not mind,” “I am eternal unbounded Being,” completes the circle of life.
When you start meditation some traditions offer an “initiation” ceremony, while others do not. Your first meditation is a rite of passage.
When you sit in Sat sang with other like minded spiritual people, that is a milestone.
When you take Shaktipat with a spiritual teacher, that is a milestone.
When you rise above the binding influence of culture and religion, that is a milestone.
When your mind transcends in meditation to finer levels of thought, that is a milestone.
When your mind is silent and bliss consciousness dawns, that is the milestone of milestones, your grand rite of passage.