The Value of Initiatory Challenge

The Value of Initiatory Challenge July 27, 2018

Life is full of initiations, both formal and informal. Recently I’ve been observing how initiations and rites of passage help us bring our natural powers to life, expanding our skills and developing our confidence.

In the Pagan world, Initiations are undertaken consciously, with as much awareness and clear intention as we can bring to them. We take them seriously, working to prepare for them, working to earn them, working to plan them, working to enact them.

UUs don’t talk much about initiations, nor sacraments, but we do talk about Rites of Passage. We encourage people to prepare for them, to plan them, to do the work needed.

From my perspective as a UU-Pagan, there’s a lot of overlap between Rites of Passage and Initiations, but they aren’t the same thing.

Each represents, celebrates, enacts, or symbolizes a change of state or condition. Each can include a public acknowledgement of a change of status or a mastered ability, though that’s not required.

Each is also, nearly always, a doorway into new experience. Some aspects of that new experience are understood in advance, but inevitably some parts will be a surprise, or even a shock.

Examples

Here are a few examples (not an exhaustive list, no matter what it looks like) of life’s natural initiations and rites of passage, which may include formal ceremonies or may not. Almost nobody does all of these, but most of us have done at least a few.

Birth
First steps or first words
Starting school
Learning to ride a bicycle or a pair of skates
Coming of Age (in the UU tradition)
Getting a driver’s license
Coming of Age (under governmental law)
Graduation
Getting a job
Starting a business
First bank account or piggy bank
Marriage
Parenthood
Divorce
Bereavement
Ordination
Long-distance travel
Getting arrested
Promotion at work
Illness
Treatment of illness
First public speaking
Learning to dance or sing
Retirement
Surgery
Entering Hospice
Death

I bet you’ve thought of several others, just reading my list.

Pagan Initiations

In most of the Pagan initiations I know about, the details of the ceremony are kept secret from the candidate, requiring a nimble response to the unexpected, as part of the challenge. Most of the work of preparation is assigned by a mentor or proctor, and is mainly done by the candidate alone over a period of months or years, thus earning the initiation.

Most of the work of planning and enacting is done by the community, often led by the same mentor who has guided the candidate’s work. Many Pagan initiation ceremonies include some sort of ordeal – sometimes a physical challenge, sometimes an emotional one – that the candidate will find uncomfortable and will have to dig deep to meet. Some Pagan initiations require the candidate to be naked, hiding nothing and defended by nothing.

UU Rites of Passage

In contrast, in most of the UU rites of passage I know about, the candidate participates in planning the ceremony, often writing the vows as well as drafting what others will say. Some of the work of preparation is assigned, but often preparation is merely assumed, or may take the form of a meeting or two for discussion of the candidate’s understanding and intentions. Most rites of passage include tasks which, while challenging, are well-understood by the candidate in advance – no surprises are intended and usually none manifest.

How does this work in practice?

In my own life, I’ve experienced each rite of passage and each initiation as a time of intense feeling as well as whatever outward task or ritual was present. Sometimes the emotional impact is memorable and lasting, other times it has faded into obscurity within weeks. This doesn’t seem to depend on how much preparation work I did, at least on a conscious level, but it may be that the most memorable have been the ones that required intense work or profound change.

Some initiations have different impacts depending on how we are placed – in society, in our families, or even in what bodies we have.

Consider that the first child in a family starts school with very little idea what to expect. In many families the first day of school will be the first time the child has ever spent time in the company of strangers without any family members present, the first time the only adult in the room is a complete unknown, in a place with unfamiliar rules.

Whereas the second child has heard all about school and watched an older sibling go off daily and return mostly unscathed, making the whole prospect much less of a surprise and allowing much more confidence.

A sexual initiation is a different experience where there is anonymous transaction than where there is love and trust. Quite apart from gender (gender socialization would fill a whole ’nother blog), inhabiting a body that might become pregnant creates a different experience of heterosexual sex than inhabiting a body that won’t – the moreso if pregnancy is feared or not desired.

Preparing to become a parent is also a different experience depending on whether you’re a pregnant expectant parent or a non-pregnant expectant parent. Either way, parenthood brings a great number of surprises, ranging from the amazing dailiness of its related tasks to the remarkably strong emotions that arise.

If we’re never seriously challenged, we don’t get a chance to test ourselves. The advantage of testing our abilities is that we get to discover our successes. We may also have to mourn the moments when we don’t meet a challenge with style and grace. Both experiences contribute to our powers as people.

Some experiences prepare us for other experiences as first grade prepares us for second.

Some experiences prepare us for useful action in the lives of others. The discovery that we can survive a disappointment, a failure, a broken relationship, or a lost job can give us greater strength to meet the next misfortune or challenge. So much the better if some of those challenges can be met with proper preparation, in the company of people who are experienced guides.

One marvelous benefit of initiatory challenge is the expanded self-trust that results from working hard to do something well and succeeding. I’m enormously proud of the people whose initiations I have witnessed – both the carefully planned ones and the ‘life happens’ ones. I’m delighted to be a UU-Pagan, immersed in two traditions that celebrate the passages of life.

May each of our lives be engaging, and engaged, challenging and interesting. And may we meet our challenges with grace and skill.

So mote it be.

—Maggie Beaumont
Nearly Lammas 2018

About Maggie Beaumont
Maggie Beaumont, MA, is a Chaplain Resident in a major metropolitan hospital, a former member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS Continental, a former Dean of Students at Cherry Hill Seminary, a First-Degree Witch in the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel and a teacher/ritualist in the Reclaiming Tradition. She has been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton (NJ) and of its affiliated Evergreen CUUPS chapter for more than 15 years, and is also a member of the Unitarian Society of Germantown (PA). She shares an apartment with one cat, three looms, and eight bookshelves full of books. You can read more about the author here.
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