Modern Rites of Passage: Reclaiming the Soul*

By Ed Munter
from the March/April issue of Awareness Magazine

Where have all the heroes gone? What has happened to the models of manhood that stood as guiding symbols to our young men growing up? There was once a time when fathers represented leadership in a young man’s early development and heroes represented as models. Our heroes were sports figures expressing a sense of excellence, brave soldiers fighting for freedom and men of courage battling against evil as depicted in fiction.

Today our sports figures are often mentioned in reports involving drug abuse, scandal or crime. Our soldiers are part of misguided war effort. The press misleads us and our political leaders twist the truth. The modern fictional protagonist is often a conflicted bystander among shades of gray that reflect our chaotic contemporary world. Young men today lack these clearly defined models representing fundamental qualities of manhood such as honesty, integrity, compassion and a commitment to purpose.

In a world where moral ambiguity wrestles with self-righteous fundamentalism, young men of today have little to believe in and yearn for a sense of belonging. Inner city youth turn to urban gangs for guidance and leadership. Young men from a more privileged background perceive status and acquisitions as the measure of manhood. Young men of all races, ethic background, nationality and social class are entering into a troubled world with little preparation, little guidance and little hope.

In an early time of our ancestors, various cultures and tribes would initiate young men into manhood through a rite of passage. Often this passage would involve some kind of challenge facilitated by the elders of the tribe acting as guides to create a ceremony ritualizing the young man’s journey into maturity.

One tribe of indigenous people developed a rite of passage that held deep spiritual meaning for the boys of the tribe as they moved into manhood. When a boy of this particular tribe reached the age that the elders of the tribe considered to be the beginning of manhood, the boy would be introduced to manhood through a rite of passage.

The mother of the boy would take him from the village, out to the middle of the surrounding jungle and leave him there. The boy would be instructed to find his way through the jungle, back to the village. His journey home would be his personal rite of passage and when the boy arrived home, he would be a man.

The boy was told the jungle was filled with wild animals and potential dangers. The boy was told he must find shelter and food along the journey home. The boy was told the elders before him had all made the journey successfully. The boy was told no one could take his journey for him.

That was all the boy was told before his mother left him in the dark heart of the jungle. The important piece of information he was not told was that he was not alone. The father of the boy would be tracking him, just out of sight, following as he made his way back to the village. All along the boy’s journey, the father would be watching every step the boy would take, making sure nothing would harm him.

The father would allow the boy to get lost and eventually find his way back home, gathering lessons of manhood along the way. The boy would face danger, find food, seek shelter and maybe even battle against attacking animals, all under the watchful eye and the compassionate love of his father.

This rite of passage has been passed on through the oral tradition over time to become a contemporary spiritual metaphor for the journey of life. We are reminded the universe is a safe place and that life is an adventure.

The metaphor offers comfort in knowing that we are never alone. Regardless of what name we give it, there seems to be a loving presence in the universe, just out of sight, watching over us as we follow the unfolding adventures of our lives.

What if there was a modern rites of passage ritual experience in today’s culture that offered deep spiritual wisdom and guidance into manhood? What if there were opportunities in our contemporary society for men to get in touch with their authentic selves in a context of unconditional Love and acceptance? What if young men were encouraged to explore the inner pathway into the soul that reveals a life of purpose?

These were the questions that Dr. Stephen Johnson had been pondering when he created the first Call to Adventure Rites of Passage Retreat for boys and men 20 years ago. Dr. Stephen J. Johnson is the founder and Director of the Men’s Center of Los Angeles, which was formed in 1988. A licensed Psychotherapist in private practice since 1972 and a published author, Dr. Johnson stands in the forefront of the developing field of Male Psychology.

Two decades ago, Dr. Johnson began creating Men’s Retreats based on his mission of bringing good men together and bringing out the best in them.

“I created the Sacred Path Retreat so that good men could gather to make a positive difference in their own lives. I believed that once that occurred, those men would choose to make a positive difference in the lives of others and that is what we have found to be true,” Dr. Johnson says.

These Retreats, that now occur twice a year in the Malibu Mountains, have become a kind of “boot camp for spiritual warriors”. Out of these spiritual Retreats, came the Call to Adventure rites of passage for men and boys, fathers and sons, mentors and youth. This Retreat is a four-day vision quest into the heart of the soul that includes discussions, stories, processes, meditation, sacred ceremony and a variety of opportunities to discover the authentic self.

Dr. Johnson discovered that this deep work of spiritual selfdiscovery was not limited to boys growing into manhood. In a modern culture in which man has become a stranger to his spiritual core, this Retreat is a rite of passage back to the soul. As the poet, T.S. Elliot wrote; “We will not cease from exploration and the at the end of all our exploring, we will arrive at the place where we began and know it for the first time.”

As we open to the teachings of the sacred rites of passage, we embody the awareness of a safe universe and the adventure of life. We come to realize that the journey of life is revealing the true self in each of us. We begin to welcome the change that the homecoming of the soul has to offer.

We are each traveling a sacred path along the adventure of a lifetime. We are each like the boy, taken from the tribe, who has set his intention to make it through the jungle and to reach the village. His goal is to arrive home and along the way, he encounters adventures many lessons and receives many gifts. Life is not a destination but rather a journey.

As we each discover who we are and why we are here, we pass on to others what we have learned. We travel together through the mystery of life and the wonder of the unfolding perfection. It is fitting that Dr. Stephen Johnson opens each Call to Adventure Retreat with a personal greeting to the soul, ”Welcome home.”

Over the course of the four day Retreat, each man awakens to the essence of his soul. In the personal awakening of the soul, boys grow into manhood, men become the heroes of their own lives and a deep sense of brotherhood emerges. Perhaps the healing of the world happens in simple and profound ways as this.