Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan spiritual writer, says an initiation rite for adolescent men is crucial to their proper maturation. Examining the research on various cultures, Rohr has concluded that if there is no initiation rite, men in that culture tend to abuse power later in life. They become domineering and prone to self-inflation. For whatever reason, the same affliction does not appear to afflict women who have not gone through an initiation.
But men, well, adolescence seems to be a time when we need to come in close contact with the mystery at the core of all being. We need to experience what the medieval mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck called "the wild darkness of God." Experiencing this mystery will give us some humility, a sense that the world does not revolve around me and my plans and schemes.
As I noted in an earlier article, right after Moses had his mystical experience of the burning bush, he began to work for justice and liberation. He had been linked to something greater than his own fears and his own ego. Far from making him think he was God, Moses' mystical experience led him to realize he was a servant of God and his people.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that Christian initiation is incomplete until one has received the sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation, to be sure, was not seen by the early church as a rite of passage for adolescent males. In fact, it was virtually inseparable from Baptism. Right after being immersed in the waters, the new Christian received the laying on of hands.
Early Christians distinguished the two rites, but the three sacraments of initiation -- Baptism, Confirmation and first Eucharist -- were always celebrated together. Later history separated them and led to the process of Christian initiation being stretched out over many years in the Western church.
The Eastern tradition, however, has been to have the local priest administer the three sacraments at the same time. The Catechism says that the Eastern practice has emphasized the unity of the three sacraments while the Western more clearly expresses the communion of the confirmed person with the bishop (no. 1292) -- a feature next week's article will examine.
Either way, Confirmation can be seen as the sacrament of Christian maturity. Spiritual maturity, it should be noted, is not the same as physical maturity. In naming St. Therese of Lisieux, who died at age 24, a doctor of the church in October, Pope John Paul paid tribute to her spiritual maturity. Perhaps we can cite others who reached great spiritual awareness early in life.
Often that spiritual maturity is linked with having experienced much suffering, as it was for St. Therese. A person can allow suffering to crush them. Or, it can be a transforming experience which leads one into "the wild darkness of God."
Confirmation is another way of grace. It is understood as a time when we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit -- wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence and holy fear of the Lord. These are gifts which do not come from living life on a materialistic, natural level. They come from entering into the wild darkness. They are gifts that come when the lion is transformed into the lamb.
When Rohr spoke in Edmonton, he noted that the incidence of depression among American males doubled in the brief period between 1991 and 1996. Something in our culture has come off the rails. We've lost our perspective. We're even losing our ability to smile.
Confirmation is not a cure-all for what ails our culture, men in particular. But there is a deep wisdom in that sacrament precisely because it is the sacrament of Christian maturity. We need to be mature. We need to move beyond our puny selves, which we are prone to think are so fabulous and important, and be connected to something greater than ourselves. If our lives are not connected to the wild darkness, to the great chain of being, to the Body of Christ, to the Almighty and Mysterious One, we will be prone to control and manipulate.
Our church's teaching says that Baptism, but not Confirmation, is necessary for salvation. It also says that if death is near, the unconfirmed baptized person should be confirmed. There is great grace in that sacrament, grace that will deepen and strengthen our experience of eternal life. Being confirmed will help to make us whole.
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