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Outline of Adam's Return by Richard Rohr  

This is a cleaned-up version of this outline of the book Adam's Return: The Five Promises Of Male Initiation by Richard Rohr, (2004).

John Mark Ministries — Thinking maturely about the Christian faith

Adam's Return: The Five Promises Of Male Initiation (Richard Rohr, 2004)

By Rowland Croucher and others — August 19, 2005

ADAM'S RETURN: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (Richard Rohr, 2004)

Richard Rohr is, by some estimates (including mine), the English-speaking world's #1 Christian prophet. He describes himself as a non-scholar, a "white middle-class American, who is secure, overeducated, ordained, unmarried and male." Writing/speaking about men and male spirituality, he is resisting many of the perspectives "of a culture, and a church, that usually tries to interpret men from the top-down and from the outside in". ("Truth is more likely to be found at the bottom and the edges of things than at the top or center").

He has a "constant sadness and disappointment over the lack of an inner life in so many men I meet." True "wisdom seeing" allows us to "be happily alone — comfortable with mystery and paradox, and largely immune to mass consciousness and its false promises."

We are "approximately one-third nature, one-third nurture, and one-third free choice. (And) we all become the God we worship."

Contents of the Book

  ... A Word from Richard
1 ... Initiated into What?
2 ... Why We Need Initiation in Modern Cultures
3 ... The Two Births
4 ... The Big Patterns Are Always True
5 ... Life is Hard
6 ... You Are Not Important
7 ... Your Life Is Not About You
8 ... You Are Not in Control
9 ... You Are Going to Die
10 ... What is the Shape of the Male Soul?
11 ... The Four Initiations
12 ... All Transformation Takes Place in Liminal Space
13 ... So How Do We Do It?
14 ... Jesus's Five Messages / The Common Wonderful
Appendix: A Sample Rite
About the Author

The book is available for sale here:

from Amazon

from the author


Larger-than-life people have been baptized ("initiated") into the path of spiritual maturity. They "have all died before they died". They broke through in what felt like breaking down.

An uninitiated ego becomes rigid about words and rituals, because it lacks any real inner experience. (Most people don't learn how to move past their fear of diminishment).

Most cultures and religions view the male, left to himself, as a dangerous and even destructive element in society — rather than building up the common good, invariably seeking his own security and advancement. Egotism, performance, ambition and bravado emanate from a fear of failure, humanity, death. (Exceptions: handicapped, poor, minority peoples).

Which is why the biblical tradition teaches that the "little ones" have a big head start in the ways of wisdom and spiritual initiation.

An excerpt of this chapter is available here


A TV documentary showed young bull elephants in Africa acting out of character — they were antisocial and violent. Reason? Park rangers found there were no older bull elephants in that area. When there are no kings, young warriors become brutal, magicians behave as charlatans and lovers are soon addicts.

In this "society without fathers" (Mitscherlich) most men are over-mothered and under-fathered — now even more in the age of single parents. ("When I was a jail chaplain for 14 years the only thing almost all prisoners had in common was that none of them had good fathers").

"The general assumption underlying all initiatory rites is that unless a young male is shown real power through a community of wise elders, he will always seek false power and will likely spend much of his life seeking prestige, perks, and possessions. The lack of personal and social exposure to real depth and breadth makes most young people vulnerable to cheap religion, cults, and crowds as a substitute for largeness, hoping for salvation from their jobs or companies, selling their souls for fame and fundamentalism."

An excerpt of this chapter is available here


Being truly "born again" leads to ego dispossession rather than tribalism and glib answers. Notice in the John 3 story Nicodemas only asks questions.

We all carry a tragic flaw from "the collective". Some call it original sin. Sin is not about imputing blame. It's all about healing — but first recognizing that the problem is there.

So "baptism and all initiation is a preemptive strike at evil. 'I' am bigger than my tragic flaws, it says."

So the body wound or scar that a boy always carried after initiation was his indelible reminder of this tragic flaw at the heart of everything.


"Given the similarity of structure, sequence and motive in the rites of passage among disparate and geographically separate cultures, one would have thought their ceremonies ordained by some central committee" (James Hollis).

So many cultures had no word for religion: it was the same as life.

Initiation was always a teaching about loss and renewal, darkness and light, the four seasons, death and resurrection. "I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self/ And the wounds to the soul take a long long time,/ Only time can help" (D H Lawrence).

The universal pattern:

1. Separation from business as usual, old roles, feminine affirmation etc.

2. This moves the initiate, hopefully, into a "threshold space"

3. Here a numinous encounter is possible, desired and required

4. Now the initiate returns to his community with a new identity and a gift for the community, although his primary gift is the man he has become.

Around the world the typical term for this new self is some kind of son of God or quite simply and finally a man!

The five essential messages of initiation: 1. Life is hard; 2. You are not that important; 3. Your life is not about you; 4. You are not in control; 5. You are going to die.

The bottom line of initiation: wisdom instead of money, success, and power.


Initiation is less about being a warrior than about being conscious, awake, alert. It helps us face the issues (as AA does) and deal with our pain (rather than blame others for it). If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it in some form — in one or more of the following ways:

1. We will become inflexible, blaming and petty as we grow older.

2. We will need other people to hate in order to expel our inner negativity.

3. We will play the victim in some form as a means of false power.

4. We will spend much of our life seeking security and status as a cover-up for lack of a substantial sense of self.

5. We will pass on our deadness to our family, children and friends.

Human beings will do everything under the sun to avoid the problems of me, now, and here.

Only suffering and certain kinds of awe lead us into genuinely new experiences. All the rest is merely the confirmation of old experience.

Suffering: initiates are often circumcised, and wound themselves; they do not wound or abuse others as the uninitiated always do.

Then, again, there's paradox and mystery: the contemplative mind is content here; the daily calculating mind works in a binary way; either-or thinking gives one a sense of control.

True Self False Self. Deconstruction of the false self tends to begin in midlife — returning to where we started and knowing it for the first time (T S Eliot).

The Sacred Wounding. "Where we stumble and fall is where we find pure gold" (Jung). "There's a crack in everything, and that's how the light gets in" (Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"). "I could not find a single example where a young man was not symbolically and actually wounded and scarred in initiation rites" (Rohr).

Naming and Marking. Note the change of names in the Bible — Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Saul to Paul, Simon to Peter. (At the initiation rite I attended in Arizona, May 2005, we each stood bare chested, and declared a proud "I am [full name] and I am a beloved son of God."

Note that Jacob was "marked" in his hip. Is the modern fad of body piercings a secular substitute for what was previously experienced in fasting, circumcision, scarification, shaving of heads, and knocking out of teeth?


Transformed people tend to transform people (hurt people hurt people).

Rites of passage are communal affairs, led by elders and father figures (not low-risk stuff like sermons or a series of questions and answers). "I suspect that the basic reason that initiation died out is because there were not enough masters around. We had to settle for institutionalized priests and ministers, roles of authority instead of people of authority."

Jesus (a layman) knew he needed to destabilize a person's false self before they could understand they had a true self, but this is always a hard sell ("What does it profit if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?").

True masters are both prophets and pastors: they deconstruct and reconstruct, so that we can "receive the kingdom like a little child" (rather than parroting answers, passing tests and getting grades).

The basic idea: getting out of our own way, and we can't do that without help.


Here's a Copernican revolution of the mind — equivalent to that for earthbound humans when they discovered that our planet was not the centre of the universe.

Catholics have made Jesus into a scholastic philosopher, Protestants have made him into a moralist: so when we can't get a clear moral code or dogma out of Jesus' teaching we simply abandoned it in any meaningful sense (so the Sermon on the Mount — the essence of Jesus' teaching — is the least quoted in official Church documents — though there were always people like Francis, Simone Weil, Menno Simons, George Fox, Catherine of Genoa, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day who made it their life map).


The essence of modern self-help: "Take control of your life!" (but the Twelve-Step program teaches that you must admit you are powerless before you can find your true power.

The virtues in the first half of life are about self-control; in the second half about giving up control. "This is how we grow:/ By being deciseively defeated by ever greater forces" (Rilke).

"If you are willing to serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter" (Therese of Lisieux).

Learning that your life is not about you means reeducating the intellect; learning you are not in control means reeducating the will. (Predictability might be good for science, but it is not helpful for the soul).

Equality might be marvelous political theory, but no one believes it: there is clearly a hierarchy of the wise. The alternative: dumbing down, boring blandness, "sibling society" (Robert Bly); "don't trust anyone over thirty" (hippies). (Only the humble duck can walk, swim and fly, so the Native peoples said it's God's favorite).

Ken Wilbur: "Actualization hierarchies are parents in relationship to children, bodies in relationship to cells, hosts in relationship to parasites — Hierarchy and wholeness are two words for the same thing." (Jesus would call it servant leadership).

Initiation believes that nobility could be taught and greatness could be passed on. Self-initiation is a sell-out to materialism and militarism. (The real religion of America is America itself — pro Deo et Patria, religion and country) — So there's a reaction — "Shooby dooby doo" gives way to "The Sound of Silence".

Liberals have rejected authority in favour of a specious equality; neoconservatives, longing for some sort of stabilizing order, are on bended knee before presidents, popes and principles. "The whole country (U.S.) is filled with gangs, and not just street gangs, but AT&T gangs, Enron gangs, Pentagon gangs, Capital gangs, Bishop gangs?" (the late Ronald Johnson, who worked with black boys at risk in California).

Male Love Needs to be Earned. In later years, men largely recall and remember their tough teachers and demanding coaches, those who pushed them to their best and to their limits. A male knows that his other teachers did not take him seriously — and he did not take them seriously either. Love does not work for the male when it is given away too cheaply, too quickly, or too easily. It turns him into a lazy manipulator instead of a strong man. (Cheap grace is not grace at all). "The healthiest people I know had a combination of both conditional and unconditional love from their two parents." Personal discipline and internalized values were never assumed in the young man historically. In fact they were assumed not to be there until they were taught, demanded, practiced and tested.

The single greatest weakness of most New Age systems and liberal churches is that there is no accountability system for what one says and believes.

Father Hunger. Men crave male attention at all ages but cannot openly ask for it. So they hang around other men at sports events, in bars, in Lions Clubs, at military academies, in wars, and at work sites, and hope that it will rub off somehow.

The father wound is in every culture — especially in those where the father is macho, distant, addicted, or emotionally unavailable. Boys need to know their father really wants to to give them his attention and affection, without their asking. They love it when he takes the initiative, even though they won't always let on. For a child to have to enter the larger world unsupported and unguided by his father is a life-long and gnawing sadness.

William Butler Yeats captured the moment when he felt himself coming into mature manhood:

"My fiftieth year had come and gone, / I sat a solitary man, / In a crowded London shop, / An open book and empty cup / On the marble table top.

"While on the shop and street I gazed / My body of a sudden blazed; / And twenty minutes more or less / It seemed so great my happiness, / That I was blessed and could bless."


Two classic male patterns overcoming death: looking backwards (a search for "firstness") and some kind of heroic project (and which is part of the conservative/radical tension). Authentic initiation gives the man a connection with ancestors: if there is no foundational sacred experience he is basically adrift and eccentric.

But healthy religion finds God more in the present than in the past. Educated people may prefer aesthetic substitutes (art, fine words, bells and smells religion) and the uneducated tend to prefer sentimentality and the certitudes of popular religion (religion as spectacle and reassurance).

But men look forward, wanting to become famous, strong, significant, remembered, smart (and superreligious). The heroic instinct, according to Becker (The Denial of Death) is man's attempt to live forever. But it is what Becker calls a "vital lie" — a lie that gives man energy, vitality and direction, but only for a while, and eventually his heroics will and must fail him.

In the first half of life, the big truth is always elsewhere and out there. We have to leave before we can come back (the only group larger than Roman Catholics in America is former Roman Catholics).

Rituals of Death. "Initiation evokes the sacred and is the primary means of making us human and giving death a positive value." The grain of wheat must first die (John 12:24).

Sometimes the initiate went away from the tribe for an extended period — a form of psychic death. His comfortable self-image as mother's boy has to be stripped from him. He may bury some symbol of his boyhood in the forest and walks away from it. This all comes together in Paul's notion of baptism (Romans 6:3-11). The Benedictines prostrate themselves before in their final vow ceremony — a symbol of death. In every case, some ritual of death/resurrection was the centerpiece of all male initiation.

But we deny all this: — the Catholics go to Mass repeatedly (Jesus did it only once) because we are slow learners; Protestants argue about the Bible, doctrines and moralisms instead of following Jesus into a new and risky place (propositions feed the mind but not the soul; Moses breaks the tablets of the law at the foot of the mountain; Puritans and reformers can't laugh); the new parachurches love religious entertainment instead of loving peace or justice.


The four key archetypes or ruling images: king, warrior, lover, magician/wise man. Others: the divine child, the rebel, the holy fool, wanderer (though these may be viewed as stages, variations or negative aspects of he big four).

Jesus, for example, was a warrior: note his aggressive stand against human suffering. As wise man, note that he only directly answers three of the 183 questions that are asked of him. As lover, he produces 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of a party, and he was all four Greek words for love — eros, philia, storge, and agape — in one person at different times. His big kingdom gets in the way of our little tribal kingdoms.

Male stories always need villains and bad guys and violence. Religion is not only about healing, helping and hoping: the biblical revelation is filled with stories of wars, massacres, adulteries, betrayals, rapes, injustice and dishonesty. We must live with the wound and learn from the wound, until it becomes our sacred wound. The Mass and AA meetings start with our being sinners: "Lord have mercy!"


The Warrior. The West understood the appropriate initiation of the Christian knight until the idea was brutalized by the Crusades, the internecine European wars and the Inquisitions. Most male initiation rites had the boy roll in ashes, cover himself with mud, dance aggressively, expose himself to the elements and to pain, mutilate his penis or other body parts, put dung in his hair etc.

The Wise Man. The truly wise are wise for others, instead of storehouses of information. The uninitiated warrior is not disciplined with knowledge; the uninitiated lover can't "taste" it or integrate it with the big picture (king). So you find pettiness, envy, and ambition in universities and among clergy, as well as in the business world. It's all a balancing act between knowing and not knowing, between intelligence and not needing to be intelligent, between darkness and light. "Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment instead!" (Victor Frankl).

The Lover. Mystics of all religions know God-as-lover. Christianity is the only one that dares to believe that God became flesh. The Baptists and Catholics for whom the hot sins are sins of the flesh do not have an adequate theology of incarnation. (Moralisms keep us making lists for God instead of making love to God). "Sex is far too important to eliminate entirely, and it is far too important to do lightly. The only alternative is to somehow 'consecrate' it" (Dom Bede Griffiths).

The King/Father. A few "kings" use power for the common good (Louis IX of France, King Edward of England, Stephen of Hungary, Thomas More, Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, some UN secretaries-general, Nelson Mandela). But there are "dark kings" — Saul, Herod, Pilate, Stalin, Hitler. "True kings" include and transform enemies (like Mandela inviting his jailers to his inauguration; Abraham Lincoln's "malice toward none and charity toward all").


Liminal space (a concept refined by Victor Turner in his classic study on initiation and ritual; Latin "limen" = "threshold") is the ultimate/only teachable space.

Only there can suffering and humility and openness make one attentive and awake and produce the "beginner's mind" in which initiation can happen.

The alternative — "Liminoid" space, offered by "the systems of this world" where nothing new happens, only a confirmation of the old.

Thirteen: SO HOW DO WE DO IT?

Good ritual is about love and death, so the symbols, for men, have to be graphic, brutal, hard, archetypal (like those in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings): so you will not find an initiation rite that does not include blood, real physical contact, nakedness, physical endurance, earth/mud, apparent brutality (cutting/scarring), sweat, saliva and even semen. (Circumcision was not considered the mutilation of the penis but the sacralization of it. )

Unfortunately church rituals appeal much more to the feminine psyche than the masculine (for Protestants — sentimental art, music and jargon). Presently only 28% of attendees at Catholic services in the U.S. are men ("and in my experience they are largely a passive 28% at that").

"The awesome mysteries about which it is forbidden to speak, this awesome rite of initiation, the spine chilling and holy rites of initiation" (St. John Chrysostom, describing a baptism in the 4th century).

Notice that Jesus operated mainly outside official sacred space (encouraging Jewish boys to "drink blood" — check out Leviticus 17:10-12!). Jesus' language was not formal/academic but vernacular/dialect, with folksy metaphors about regular life, farmers, fishermen, housewives, and daily occurrences. Interesting that Catholics and Protestants worship a man who never asked to be worshipped, but only followed!


1. It is true that life is hard but: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28). (If your religion has no deep joy, no inherent contentment about it, then it is not the real thing)

2. It is true that you are not that important, but: "Do you not know that your name is written in heaven?" (Luke 10:20). (If we know our original blessing, we can handle our original sin). The soul needs meaning as much as the body needs food, but we live in an addictive society which that constantly ups the ante of need and desire because the last ones have never satisfied.

3. It is true that your life is not about you, but: "I live not my own life, but the life of Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). (All the great ones are characterized by "radical humility"). The most courageous thing you will ever do is accept that you are just yourself. "Original sin is humanity's endless capacity for self-rejection" (Henri Nouwen). Note Jesus' story about a wedding banquet to which nobody wants to come! "Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his,/ To the Father through the features of men's faces" (Gerard Manley Hopkins).

4. It is true that you are not in control, but: "Can any of you for all your worrying, add a single moment to your span of life?" (Luke 12:26). Westerners are high-maintenance people: when you set yourselves up to think you deserve, expect, or need something to happen, you are setting yourself up for constant unhappiness. Practise giving up control early in life. Surrender is a willingness to trust that you are really a beloved son, which allows God to be your Father. It really is that simple.

5. It is true that you are going to die, but: "Neither death nor life / can come between us and the love of God" (Romans 8:38-39). Yes, we are going to die, but death is not final — and it takes the form of love. We cannot make God love us any more, and we cannot make God love us less. So "it is heaven all the way to heaven" (Catherine of Siena). "Life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die" (Auden).


Context: long periods of silence, required clothing, punctuality, rustic accommodations, food, uniformity/conformity, not calling home, being cut off from outside stimulation, going to bed on time, a certain strictness, no nonsense.

I. Separation from the calculative mind: calling forth the contemplative mind

II. Day of Death

III. Day of Grief

IV. Day of Initiation

V. Day of Reincorporation or Communion

"So much holiness is lost to the church because men refuse to share the secrets of their hearts with one another" (John Henry Newman).

Before and After:

1. A community that the initiate can be sent from and return to.

2. Liminal space — usually in nature and apart.

3. Separation from business as usual.

4. Some kind of symbolic death.

5. New birth, new life.

6. A change of status that is definitive.

7. One's new spiritual status is recognized and honored by the community.

8. Coup de grace: initiation is something given not earned; there is no way the small self can make it happen by willpower or technique.

Resources for Creating Rites are listed (p. 175). Then 25 pages of notes, bibliography and index.

Copies available from Ridley College Bookshop —

* Shalom! Rowland Croucher * * * (15500+ articles, 3200 clean jokes/stories)

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