Seeking Transformation in Wilderness Rites

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Rites of Passage. Read other perspectives here.

Rites of passage offer travelers trail markers, left there by those who have walked the road already. Depending on where we are in life's journey, they help us intentionally mark distinct phases:

Leaving a set of responsibilities and privileges that no longer define one's place in the cosmos — one's social role, relationships, and identity within a community (e.g., graduation);

Dwelling in a no-where or in-between place (e.g., pregnancy); and

Taking on new responsibilities and privileges within the culture (e.g., entering elderhood).

Some passages occur with age or gender cohorts, others alone. Rites of initiation particularly focus on movement into adulthood. The more significant the passage, often the longer the process, and the more ritual needed to negotiate the transformation.

Passages occurring specifically in the wilderness strongly empower a transformation. Nature mirrors without distortion, but not in a romanticized way. Rather, God's self-revelation through Nature reaches humans in a deep place, where we can perceive with less distraction.

While experiencing God through a wilderness rite, people discover and explore personal skills and sensibilities. They begin to heal whatever keeps those gifts hidden and unclaimed. These rites empower people to befriend their hidden shadows, the parts they reject and do not love, as well as to engage their unclaimed shadows, the gifts they resist enacting and do not live.

The heart of a wilderness passage involves participants' experiences as part of Nature — taking a long, loving look at their real identity as part of God's beloved creation. It enables people to discover their inner world, which mirrors the life-death-decay-new life cycle of Nature. This awareness helps them release the lie that humans are separate from Nature.

In his 2010 book, Eaarth, leading environmentalist Bill McKibben describes our current ecological situation and proposes resiliency-generating responses. He says it calls for the repair and maintenance of a system in decline, instead of the endless march of growth that catapulted our planet into the imbalances of carbon dioxide concentration, ocean acidification, and topsoil loss. Depicting rampant decline of our systems, McKibben narrates the way his childhood experiences of Nature inoculated him against deep fear of that decline.

This kind of inoculation against fear is a crucial benefit of wilderness rites of passage. They expose us to the natural cycles of death and decay as inherently interconnected with the mysterious cycles of regeneration and emergence. Contemplative wilderness practices aim to immerse people in the holy presence of the Mystery, who transforms the fear of decline into acceptance and even embrace by pointing to the emergence of new life. Given the magnitude of global system decline, we need increasing numbers of people — particularly the largest generation of young adults in human history — to be fear-free and to experience a rite of passage that helps them midwife decline into regenerative and emergent new life.

In Owning Your Own Shadow, Jungian analyst and author, Robert Johnson, describes the integrity of choosing to face decline head on, both internally and communally.

To refuse the dark side of one's nature is to store up the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents. We are presently dealing with the accumulation of a whole society that has worshipped its light side and refused the dark, and this residue appears as war, economic chaos, strikes, and racial intolerance . . . . [Our] choice is whether we will incorporate the shadow consciously with some dignity or do it through some neurotic behavior. George Bernard Shaw said that the only alternative to torture is art. This means we will engage in our creativity (in the ceremonial or symbolic world) or have to face its alternative, brutality. (pp. 26-27)

Through Nature, rites of passage engage the ceremonial world to incorporate the shadow consciously, transforming it from terrifying to empowering, and facilitating humble service.

Simultaneously, a rite of passage helps people discover their particular gifts from God for the next leg of the journey. This vocational exploration facilitates natural overflow into service. Writer and spiritual leader Parker Palmer, describes how this way of life sows a culture of generosity. In his Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, he writes, citing Frederick Buechner, "Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood . . . . As we do, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks — we will also find our path of authentic service in the world." Essentially, rites help us respond to God's call to wholeness: personal, social, and global.

Wilderness rites of passage offer a journey into Nature. They intentionally mark the movements of our lives by discerning the movements of the Spirit, as we grow toward living with regenerative, resilient love of ourselves, our neighbors, and our God.