Rites of Passage
We live in a world that does not celebrate adulthood, where we prefer boys over men, and to become a man is to risk scorn or isolation. So how does one enter adulthood in our culture? When does a boy get the cue that he no longer is a boy, but a man?
Even though these event are so uncommon, I recently was able to participate in such a ceremony that, if nothing else, served as a stepping stone toward adulthood, and for that I am grateful and blessed.
My oldest son plays football for a local Catholic school. The sport has been incredible for him, not so much the athletic endeavor, but the camaraderie and character building driven into him as he falls into the dirt, struggles with a tackling dummy, and grasps for breath with every wind-sprint.
He is on a 7th & 8th grade team, and every year the coach has created a rite of passage helping each boy advance into manhood.
At the beginning of the season, when new jerseys are printed, the coach calls all the players and dads to join together at the end of a practice. The coach gives each 7th grader his jersey with a short homily about integrity, endurance, and hard work. Then for the eighth graders, the leaders of the team, he calls each of their dads one by one to stand before the group.
The fathers receive the jersey in order to present it to their sons. Each boy comes forward, in front of his teammates, coaches, and the dads, to receive the jersey from his father.
Before presenting the jersey, each father, usually with tears in his eyes, recounts what his son means to him, what he sees as his son’s gifts, and what he desires for him as he becomes a man. There is not a speech delivered that is not heartfelt. Many are surprisingly eloquent, and almost all emphasize the importance of faith to the life of a true man.
Days before the event, I worked out the details of my talk, thinking through all the gifts I saw in the life of my son, all the pitfalls he tended to encounter, and the hopes for him. He has the largest number of the team, number 95, so we were the last to be chosen, and my well-crafted speech could not be read because the sun had set and the only light was dim street lamps. I grabbed at all the words I could remember, and was thankful I did not read it because I never would have made it without blubbering over the text.
On the way home, I handed my son the copy of my speech, hoping I was able to get across some portion of my thoughts. He acted touched and appreciative, but you never know what is going through the mind of a teenage boy. Days later, I walked in his room, scanning to make sure everything was clean before he left for school, and noticed, on the corkboard, where he collects his memories, my handwritten speech was tacked up along with awards and pictures of friends.
I will never know the long-term impact of that day, but I suspect not only my words but the heartfelt thoughts of every father that day touched my son and every boy in that group. They know what it means to be a man and that they have been placed on that journey by a small ceremony on a dusky football field.
We need more of these moments in our culture. Times when our children recognize that they are no longer children but adults with responsibilities and expectations and also power allowing them to shape their own journey into the person God created them to be.
Traditional cultures the world over have always contained such rites of passage, that let young girls and boys know they are children no more, but have entered the world of adulthood.
Perhaps traditional Orthodox cultures have such practices. If so, we need to bring them into our adolescensce-soaked culture, praying that our kids might stand out among their peers as leaders and examples of what it means to be adult.
Looking at the Biblical world, we see several examples when a father would offer his blessing upon his children. The blessing was more than a simple prayer hoping for God’s favor; it was a proclamation of the hope for that individual to become something greater for his community with lasting impact for future generations.
Maybe we are bereft of ceremonies and rites of passage in our Western culture, yet there are glimmers at birthdays, graduations, weddings, and even sporting events. If there is one thing I learned from this ceremony, it is that I need to seize these moments to proclaim the ideals of an Orthodox adult, and help usher my children into that reality.