We recently began creating partnerships with youth centers and schools to build ongoing Rites of Passage programs for tween boys and girls. This process begat the question: what exactly IS a rite of passage?
Looking online at the fabulous Wikipedia gets me this answer: “A rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person’s transition from one status to another. The concept of rites of passage as a general theory of socialization was first formally articulated by Arnold van Gennep in his book The Rites of Passage to denote rituals marking the transitional phase between childhood and full inclusion into a tribe or social group.” This would explain why Rites of Passage groups are typically undertaken with the “tween” population, who are essentially youth transitioning to adulthood.
When we at R2B are doing Rites of Passage youth groups, we try and use rituals as a way to bring youth together under a common group activity. Ritual activities can vary from the sacred to the profane, yet when done correctly allow youth to work together as a group while also identifying important aspects of their individual self such as fear, purpose, courage, etc. Are these group rituals in themselves a rite of passage? Not exactly. We like to think of the ritual activities as a way to prepare youth to handle the real rites of passage that life will naturally bring to them.
Further investigation into the meaning of the term “rite of passage” was found when I began translating the term into Spanish. Based on the wordreference.com translation, there were three possible uses: rito de iniciación, rito de pasaje, and rito de paso. Looking at the first, it is a “rite of initiation”, or a process taking us into something new that we learn or are introduced to. The second use, or “rito de pasaje” literally means a “rite of passage” and signifies passing from one phase to another (as in transition from youth to adult). The most intriguing I found was the third use, or “rito de paso”. Literally translated this means “rite of a step, walkway, or place of crossing”. Taking this further it reminds me of the small steps we take in life, that when added together, make for the larger changes that inevitably will affect us and make us who we really are.
The term “rite of passage” may seem easy to define on paper or to translate into a different language. The real test comes from actually working with individuals to help them express their true selves in the context of group dynamic, ongoing family drama, social pressures and daily habits. As we walk through life and interact with others, aren’t we all going through some form of rite of passage?