Friday evening, Separation. It is late spring, somewhere in the woods in Northern California within sight of Mount Shasta, where fifty men have set up their tents and had an early dinner. There is much to do. They enter a sacred area that has been bounded by beautiful fabrics hanging from cords. At one end of the space is an altar to the ancestors; in the center is a fire pit; at the front is a tall gate wrapped with greenery. This piece of land has been bought expressly and used repeatedly for the purpose of making beauty through art and ritual.
The men drum and sing the Navajo chant “In Beauty It’s Begun” as four women arrive with four boys aged 13-15 years. Fifty men have committed to spending an entire weekend supporting these adolescents as they undergo the hardships of an initiation ritual.
Then the men chant “We All Come From the Mother” as their leader tells the women, “You have brought us four boys; on Sunday we will give you four men.” The boys remove their shirts and don new ones of the same color, as well as ritual necklaces. They give floral bouquets to their mothers, who hug them one last time and leave. Many in the crowd are weeping.
Then the boys enter into the sacred space, processing around the circle of men, making eye contact with each man. The men include the local men’s group who have organized the event; fathers, older brothers and uncles of the boys; a “bridge group” of older teenagers who have already experienced this initiation; and other men who have been drawn from long distances to the possibility of being present at the revival of authentic initiation ritual. An invocation of the ancestors and the four directions closes the circle; the ritual has begun.
An older man (not the father) now introduces one of the boys, followed by another man and another boy. Each man seems to be trying to exceed the others with praise. The boys put on a brief display of warrior discipline with their Aikido jo-sticks.
Then the bridge group blindfolds the boys and leads them a considerable distance uphill from the main camp. There, they will establish their own “night camp” and begin to work on a series of introspective tasks. They must consider what they must let go of in order to leave boyhood and become men, and they must compose individual and group codes of honor. They will not appear among the greater community until Saturday.
The boys have already been through “wisdom school,” where their ritual elder has taught them a Native American tradition that speaks of four realms of inner work: heart, mind, spirit and body. He has told them that when one’s life is functioning smoothly and ethically in each realm, then one becomes a “person of power,” who can act purposefully and successfully in the world.
To support this process, the community of adult men splits into four clans, each of which is devoted to one of these four realms. Each clan of 10-12 men includes the father of one of the initiate boys, one uncle, one member of the organizing men’s group and one member of the bridge group. The men receive necklaces to identify their clan.
The clans separate to get to know each other and ponder these questions: Who is blessing whom? Are we blessing the boys or are they blessing us? And, since it is now obvious that each man is considering his own initiatory transitions, What is the condition of the horse you rode in on? The evening ends with drumming and poetry.
Saturday. After breakfast, the four clans sing and drum together. Then the bridge groups take the boys (who have come down to eat) on blindfolded trust walks back uphill, followed by the entire community. All arrive at the uphill fire circle, where the men sing an African welcoming song to the boys, who then speak at great length about those boyish characteristics they wish to let go of. All don fabrics to indicate that one stage of the initiation has been completed.
Then the men leave the boys to further tasks and head back downhill to separate again into their clans and focus specifically on the needs of the boys’ fathers, who must also let go of something – a certain identity as pure parental authority figure. The leaders announce each new event with drumming, chanting and/or poetry. Later, the uncles head back uphill, fetch the boys and bring them down to another clan discussion, this one on the topic of addiction.
After lunch, we ritually welcome two women – a “maiden” of about 25 years, and a “crone” in her sixties – and escort them uphill to speak at great length with the boys about the feminine. They will instruct them from the perspectives of actual women as well as in the voice of the Great Mother. Meanwhile, the men consider questions to ask the women later in the large group.
Hours later, the boys and the women process downhill, where the women answer the men’s questions. Again, all don new cloths to memorialize another completed phase of the transition. After exchanging gifts with the men, the women leave amidst great fanfare.
Saturday night, Ordeal: The initiator tells a “dilemma story” to the group and asks the initiates to answer it. Such stories have no single answer; they are meant to plunge the listeners into deeper modes of thinking, and in this case to prepare the boys for the next – and greatest – task. They must figure out a way to take coals from the sacred fire, carry them uphill, use them to start their own fire at their camp, stay awake, keep that fire going all night while they work on their codes of honor and return with their own coals to re-light the community’s sacred fire. They will need much help from the older men – many of whom will trek uphill at all hours of the (very cold) night to check up on, surprise, encourage, inspire, sing to, teach and invigorate them.
Once the initiates and their bridge group have left, the community rises in wild drumming and dancing. Every few moments, the drumming stops and one of the men hurls a short poem at the crowd. Then the drummers begin again, until another man is ready to recite another poem. This goes on for a long time. When the drumming ends, the poetry, stories and guitar music continue long into the night. Every now and then, men rise from sleep, warm themselves briefly by the fire (until it eventually goes out) and then head uphill toward the initiates’ fire.
Sunday morning: After more drumming, chanting and poetry, the community breaks camp and marches uphill once again to meet the initiates, who have survived their ordeal and kept the sacred fire alive – a fire that symbolizes their own unique gifts, their passion and the renewal of life that they offer to the community and the world. They have passed the initiation!
All process (as Michael Meade says, “It’s better to pro-cess than to pro-cess”) to a secret space that the boys themselves have prepared, where they recite their individual codes of honor and then read together the group code of honor to the men, all of whom are either grinning or weeping:
As responsible men, we will contribute positively to our community by reaching out to others when there is a need to step up.
As respectful men, we will show our appreciation for nature and the environment, for the women in our lives, for our elders and their teachings and ceremonies.
As compassionate men, we will accept people for who they are or who they might be become. We will accept ourselves for who we are or who we might become. We will respect their boundaries as we will expect them to respect ours.
As grateful men, we will recognize the many opportunities our communities will present us with, and we will show gratitude to the people who have taken their time to support our growth as men.
As men who understand the right use of personal power, we will keep our emotions, thoughts, actions and spirit in balance. By doing this, we will be able to be fully present to the community when called upon.
As loving and joyous men, we will share our happiness with you and we will join you in the celebration of life.
The men speak in unison after each initiate finishes: “We hear you. We see you. We support you!”
But we are not done. A blue, masked figure – Coyote – appears out of the woods, lasciviously cutting a bunch of bananas that hangs from his crotch to great, if nervous, laughter. He unmasks (revealing himself as one of the not-so-younger men who long ago underwent this same initiation ritual) and begins a lengthy, full-community conversation on condom etiquette and the difference between simple sex and real lovemaking. The fifty men are all involved in speaking and modeling for the initiates.
The clans meet for the last time to contribute their thought on what they will take away from this weekend. Fathers give more necklaces to their sons, who gather coals from their fire to re-light the community fire at the main camp.
Chanting, all process downhill for the third and most critical stage of the initiation, the Reunion.
The chanting stops and the men walk in silence, until they hear, faintly at first, then louder: a large group of weeping mothers, relatives, friends and assorted members of the local community are chanting a new welcome song to bless the initiatory group. The initiates, exhausted but proud, re-light the sacred fire and, once again, recite their codes of honor, but this time to the broader community. The ritual elder presents them back to their mothers and families, but this time as men – men who will bear responsibility, joy and the weight of the world for all to see. It has been a good weekend. It is a good life. In Beauty it has begun.