A few years ago, I applied for some public funding for a program based on rite of passage principles. The funder told me that they were looking for more “youth development” programs that would have young people leading young people in various ways. They didn’t understand our emphasis on “guiding,” or creating challenges and opportunities for youth within a ceremonial format, led by initiated adults. This kind of elder mentoring, common in traditional societies, seems rare in our own.
In our work at Rites of Passage, we hold a meeting called an “Elders’ Council” after everyone returns from the Vision Quest solo. The purpose of this meeting, in which the guides take on the role of elders, is to listen to the stories, reflect their power and meaning, and confirm the changes that have taken place. Without this meeting, people might return home without fully recognizing what’s taken place, and with no elders to welcome them back, it could just seem like a dream.
We recently spent time with the Mohawk community and learned more about their ways of initiation. I was deeply touched by the living presence of a tradition of elders providing love and support to young people on their path to adulthood. This tender bond between generations is something that isn’t easily found in Western cultures today. When the young Mohawk men fasted, the “uncles” stayed awake all night by the fire, keeping watch for them, praying for them. And out at their solo sites, the young men were sending out their own prayers, asking to be made worthy, to be strong, to love their people, to make it through the long night. At the feast after their return, they were asked take their food last, after the guests, children, and women, as a symbol of the new status they were taking on, one that called for sacrifice in service of the whole community.
And where are the elders in our contemporary society? Who will help initiate the young men and women? What do you think?