Many ancient civilisations held ceremonies and rites of passage, such as the Aztecs, Mayans, Native American Indians, Celtic druids, and Aborigines, amongst others. Indeed, many current cultures and nations still practice rites of passage, such as the Pagans, the tribes of Palau and the Amazon, and even many of the tribes in South Africa.
Imagine the stages of the rites of passage as a tree. Each one of us is in a particular stage of development, somewhere on this tree -
CONCEPTION: The seed is planted, the soil is fertile; the seed dies for the new life to be born.
BIRTH: Even as its roots stay well within the darkness of the Earth, the tiny plant knows which way to grow. It peeks up through the Earth and always moves towards the light.
CHILDHOOD: Its roots grow stronger and deeper, or wider and shallower. The little sapling bends with the wind as it grows stronger. As it adjusts to its environment and receives the nourishment it needs, its leaves and branches appear.
ADOLESCENCE: The tree is vibrant, full of life and potential, its essence bursting; flower buds appear and begin to open.
ADULTHOOD: Fragrance wafts through the air, and pollen is carried by bees and the wind to fertilize and impregnate new life. The blossoms begin to develop into fruit.
ELDER: The fruit has ripened. There is now an abundance of food to nourish and nurture new life.
DEATH: It has lived its life. What is left returns to the Earth in honour of all she has given. This in turn replenishes the soil with nutrients. Death gives new life.
We all go through the process of maturation, transitioning from one life stage to the next in our journey from conception to death. Regardless of our chronological age during these times, it is the child within us that experiences the significant, and sometimes traumatic, internal shifts -- physiologically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and sexually.
Rites of Passage are the ceremonies and rituals that not only celebrate the individual and honour their growth, but also provide the essential context and energetic "boost" from one phase of life to the next.
These transitional stages occur whether we acknowledge them or not. It is vital that we embrace and celebrate these times in our lives so that our maturation reflects life lived fully with health, hope, happiness, harmony, and humour.
In performing rites of passage, we honour the sacredness of our children, for they are the future, and ensure that nothing shall be done to harm them. We must recognize that it is also our duty to make the rites of passage accessible and recreate them with consciousness. Perhaps the old ways need to be altered to reflect the needs and texture of the current generations. Change is inevitable, and collectively, we are at a crossroads. It is not common in our culture for schools, social clubs and families to encourage us to become unique free-thinking individuals. And yet the world today requires of us more than ever the survival ability to know how to be in the world and yet be independent. One of the keys at any level of rites of passage, including and beyond adolescence, is knowing the difference between freedom and license. Freedom means to make life choices and to be responsible, to have the ability to be response-able for your actions. License means doing it at the expense of others, regardless of the consequences. An integral part of the rites of passage is the understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. When our children are cared for, they become creative and responsible adults, able and willing to give back to their family and community. And so, what we give to ourselves in terms of freedom, living dreams, knowing and respecting our uniqueness and our beauty, so too do we give to all of life. A newborn child in the care and nurturing of its parents and other image makers is like a block of stone or wood in the hands of a sculptor. A great sculptor will not impose his will upon the wood or stone nor does he predetermine the form he is going to sculpt. He simply communicates with it, sees the spirit of what truly exists, and then cuts away everything that is hiding that spirit to reveal its aliveness.
In comparison, a rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person's progress from one status to another, whereas a ceremony can be said to be an event of ritual significance, performed on a special occasion. The three stages of sacred ceremony are separation, transformation, and incorporation. It's not necessary for each of these to be part of every ceremony, and you'll find that some ceremonies will emphasize one over the other. In a ceremony for someone who's dying, separation is underscored; in puberty rites of passage, the transformation stage is at the forefront; whereas baptismal ceremonies highlight the incorporation stage. Rites often incorporate a ceremony, and vice versa.
Types of rites and ceremonies given today include parenthood ceremonies (to celebrate becoming parents); blessing and protection ceremonies for businesses, new houses, new cars and, of course, babies and children (my favourite); as well as coming of age ceremonies/rites of passage for boys and girls reaching puberty; rites of initiation; commitment ceremonies (in place of the usual wedding that has become customary); renewal of vows; baby naming; the merging of two families; sweat lodge purification ceremony, divorce ceremony, rites of passage on becoming an elder, and death rites.