“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
—Clarissa Pinkola Estés
It is not our doing that we find ourselves in a world devoid of elders to guide us. Elitism has robbed us of our traditions of initiation. History has not been kind to the soul of the people. The polis-mad soul-fearing pogrom has done well to spread its calcified mentality across the globe, sealing most of us in cities, cubicles, cellphones and self-righteous identities. Though our souls stir with callings to bring us back to our wholeness, such intimations are quickly compromised by the media machine and dissolved into the drive to consume rather than nourish.
Where once elders stood tall and ushered the youth through the gates of informed rites of passage, where once the old tended the new with a ruthless love for authenticity, crafting adults from children so that they too could pass on the dreaming of the people, now stand the idols of hero worship. Upon their pedestals of attention, these idols pretend to represent virtue and understanding but only deliver a passing on of their own delusional, incomplete adolescence. Without initiation, we do not make adults, much less true elders. Without true elders, we cannot sustain a healthy community.
What passes for initiation today, the circle cults that put feathers in your hair or wands in your hand, give you a color-coded robe, a place in the hierarchy and proclaim you are now on the path, is not initiation. At best, this is an act of beauty and ceremony and plays a vital role in the whole picture. At worst, cult indoctrination preys on our loss of soul and the need-filled absence of actual elders. But it is not initiation, and it cannot replace it.
Initiation is the stuff of soul-making, and as such, is a mysterious, edgy and dark art. Where our spirituality is best served through worshiping life, initiation is a worship of death and, therefore, renewal. By “worship,” I mean the old meaning of “to be worthy and honorable.” Initiation is honoring the death and renewal process and a proclamation of both the worthiness of death (as renewer) and the initiate’s worthiness to be renewed. To be an initiate is to be worthy, made worthy of life by having encountered death.
Initiation assumes many forms and provides different functions at different times to different people, but is always in some way an encounter with death. In the old ways, the initiates were taken through strange rituals that would derange, as in de-arrange, them so that the old could be shaken off and the initiate born anew. It was a deep understanding of the collaboration between the outer cycles of nature and the inner cycles of self. Initiation is always about death, and initiatory death is always about rebirth.
Initiation is always about community too. Something our obsession with the notions of self-initiation so often leaves out. Our loss of community coherency has led to our indulgences in the mental masturbation of “high” or “real” magic”k” in some subcultures, and this separation of mind and body which was begun with the bombardment of dissociative media continues with the glamour of delusional ideas of perfection and ascension. We wallow in the philosophical bypasses of self-alone equals self-empowered. All of these reflect an adolescent idea of individuation, and none fulfill the role of initiation. True initiation serves the community. When an individual finds renewal through a skillful rite of passage, they bring that renewal back with them to the people, and all are made better for it.
Yet, without our elders carrying this knowledge and guiding us to carry it forward, is all lost? I think not. Soul has a way of refusing to be ignored. In the place of our community rituals of initiation, we instead find ourselves confronted with radical life initiations. Any life experience that severs us for a time brings this de-arranging and healthy death force forward and a new opportunity for depth.
Unprepared as we are, these initiations get left incomplete. Without the preparations and tending to of the wise, those who have gone before us, we do not know how to undergo such passages and fail to find our renewal. Further, without the community to welcome us back, to say, “thank you, we see what you did for us,” we are left half-cooked by the fires of renewal and live as such only half-lives.
But we can reclaim initiation. We can craft wisdom anew and birth forth, from our trials and errors, an understanding of how to finish our incomplete life initiations, reclaim them, and reclaim our renewal. We can dream up new rituals and practices from the land upon which we nourish ourselves and from the deep roots under the world that our soul-making provides. We can learn again to hold each other in this process of soul unfolding. We can learn again to witness and thank each other for our work and, from this simple gesture, forge a new circle of understanding and belonging. Such a circle can endure and one day even outlive our manic machine push away from our nature.
To be clear, I am not suggesting we start instituting life-threatening rituals for ourselves or others. I in no way suggest nor condone such reckless behavior. I suggest that we undertake to understand this mysterious force for ourselves and our community. I want us to enter into a deep conversation on this matter, with soul and with each other, to rediscover this path together. Such arts take the patience of the gardener and a sense of time on a multi-generational, even geological scale. There is no quick-fix weekend workshop through which we can rediscover such crafts. But take heart: undertaking such a path of forbearance is itself entering into an initiation.