Coming of Age Rituals

By July 1, 2024

By Peter Searby

A vital part of an education for boys is guiding them along the arduous road to manhood. In every culture throughout the history of mankind the older generation has tried to build gateways from boyhood. They vary based on the vision that the culture has of what it means to be a man. The Massai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania send forth their young boys to kill a lion at what they deem an appropriate age, so that these younglings can prove their manhood. The Hebrew people celebrate the Bar Mitzvah for their sons when they turn twelve or thirteen. Bar Mitzvah means son of the law. It is a grand celebration that welcomes the boy into the ranks of manhood, and reminds him that he is now responsible for his actions.  From great parties to lion hunts, every culture tries to find a way to direct the restless spirit of boys towards the common good of civilization. 

The warrior spirit of men is a dangerous thing, and has led to horrible wars throughout the history of mankind. And so if we do not direct it towards good and noble things, it can become a rebel spirit, repressed and angry at the lack of a mission. Some boys for sure feel this warrior spirit more than others, but all men innately are protectors by nature. Whether they are biological fathers, spiritual fathers, leaders of organizations, coaches, army generals, they are called to lead others with strength and prudence, dying to their more selfish wandering nature and dedicating their heart towards something greater than themselves. 

The greatest coming of age rituals ought to help them see this with more clarity, but it is not necessary that all rituals have this as their only goal. Why? Because there are many qualities of a good and well rounded man, and not every ritual is meant to introduce the boy to all of them. There are many worthy activities we men can set up to help these young boys grow, but of these which are coming of age rituals and which are just fun and restful ways to spend time together? Consider activities like: 

  • Fishing days 

  • Local outing to a park or museum

  • Shooting and Archery Days 

  • Hiking

  • Music nights (rock band, irish ballad night, songs around the fire) 

  • Service days 

These are all admirable activities, and can lead to not only a deeper friendship between a father and son, but also introduce the boy to interests that will last a lifetime. However, can any of these be called coming of age rituals? Ritual is a very meaningful word. The word expresses how physical gestures, actions, words, and objects can relate deep truths about this life, and about what it means to be human. 

We grow from boys and girls, into men and women. We leave behind the realm of youth, and enter the world of responsible adulthood. However, this does not always have the romance and meaning it ought to have. In fact, for many youth in this country, growing up means leaving behind the fun of boyhood, the brotherhood we form on sports teams, or fraternities in college, and enter the meaningless masses of the corporate workforce, where no brotherhood, ritual, or communion truly exists. Rather, most enter random offices with lots of paperwork, and a host of disenchanted men who long for noble activities that challenge them in ways that test their mettle, bring them into deeper, more meaningful brotherhood, and help them come to see their true calling. Why would any boy want to grow up in a culture such as this? 

So what, then, do I suggest? The community helps boys see what becoming man means in the context of a greater vision of the polis, or the common good. In order to do this well, men must bind together as a brotherhood, or tribe, and display to these young boys not only what it means to be a man in the context of adult society, but that it actually is a thing to desire.The structures of society that usually are the avenues by which men can help boys enter into manhood, are broken or weakened to such an extent that we need to rethink our communities, and how we are binding together to help these boys grow. Boys Scouts used to be a very strong organization that helped men form a brotherhood wherein boys could join, learn, grow, and in turn become leaders. Fraternal organizations at churches were once a very popular thing for men, but now are inhabited by mainly elderly men, and are not gaining new members quickly. What I see is a fading of old orders that once were the bulwark of manly culture.

 What I recommend is that men bind together through either their particular interests, or through larger scale fraternal clubs that focus on adult male friendship first. It will be very difficult to create coming of age rituals unless groups of men organize themselves into purposeful communities that are not only intent on creating good activities, but changing culture for the good. 

We men at Riverside must admit that our boys are under attack by a spirit in the culture that promotes softness, narcissism, selfish bachelor living, digital addiction, mistreatment of women, and a warped understanding of masculinity. The popular culture often conflates the sexes to such an extent that many men can’t even describe what it means to be a man. Some look to their churches, local communities, or schools to see if there are clubs or activities that make up for this lack, but they are few and far between unfortunately. And I must admit that creating a fellowship like this is not easy because it’s not just about common interests but about finding real friendship as well. 

What I propose at least for Riverside is the creation of a fellowship of men who dedicate themselves to finding ways to help their sons come of age through a variety of activities and rituals. Having a location is vital in my opinion, like a lodge of sorts. I have noticed that without a location with personality and atmosphere a club can flounder. The idea of always having to find new places to meet, where you cannot control the culture or atmosphere, results in a sense of aimlessness or temporariness. This fellowship, or club, should consider the various things boys should learn about the art of manhood. The potential will be there to launch a new movement of true manliness, and thus naturally coming of age rituals will result from these fellowships. 

There are ways, for example, to turn the ideas listed earlier into more ritualistic activities. Fathers and sons could go:

  • on a fly fishing trip in Montana 

  • on a long Father/Son road trip, to a destination of your son’s choosing

  • on a survivalist campout

  • to see a legendary musician live

  • on a long pilgrimage hike on El Camino de Santiago in Spain 

  • on a mission trip to a foreign country

  • on a camping trip on the Appalachian trail 

  • on a hunting trip

  • on a canoe trip down a river

  • to a Bardic Dinner (delicious feast mixed with epic poetry and storytelling) 

The above thoughts are an ideation exercise of sorts, and so much can come of more conversation. But the main point is that we need to build new fellowships dedicated to the art of manhood and creating coming of age rituals for our boys. There is a difference between fun activities for boys, and experiences that in and of themselves are so ritualistic and meaningful, that after experiencing them, these young lads will sense that somehow they have been initiated into a new realm. 

I hope Riverside can continue to help these boys become young men of adventurous spirit and imagination, for it is the imagination that reveals the story, and an adventurous spirit that helps one live it. This fellowship I am proposing for Riverside is also a general recommendation for anyone out there interested in renewing a culture of manhood, and helping boys live an imaginative and adventurous boyhood. It is time for men all over the country to start these fellowships. 

Too often in our country we begin thinking too big, too quickly. I think that is in part because the country is so massive, and so to start something automatically makes one feel like a small fish in a gigantic pond. But small is beautiful, as some very wise economists and philosophers have said. It just takes an idea in someone’s mind to connect with a perceived problem in society, and from that idea can sprout a great tree and then a forest.

Monta Hernon

Author Monta Hernon

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