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Contemporary Wilderness Rites of Passage

“We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them: we do not leave them in order to have nothing more to do with them, but to find out the way to do them the most good.”

                                                     – Thomas Merton


Throughout the human story, people have made use of wilderness and the ‘mirror of nature’ as a means of gaining clarity in life or to mark significant life transitions. Individuals have crossed the threshold into wild places to attend more closely to the movement of soul, to remember what is at one’s core, what is most important. Such transitions in a person’s life were traditionally marked through initiatory events or passage rites as a means of reinforcing both to the initiate and the community the new orientation or phase in a person’s life. Essentially, the passage rite ceremony is held as an opportunity to gain clarity and honour the gift of one’s life.


On the edges of modern culture, even in these times such ceremonial work still exists, because the soul’s hunger for knowing itself still persists. Such contemporary explorations of these pan-cultural ways of marking life-transitions have been given recognition by organizations such as The School of Lost Borders and Animas Valley Institute  My own training, apprenticeship and guiding was in the ‘bare bones’ tradition of The School of Lost Borders over several years, sitting in ceremony season after season until the ceremony slowly finds its way into one’s bones.


Passage rites typically comprise three stages: the preparation or severance phase, the liminal or threshold experience, and then the integration or incorporation stage. In the tradition I work through, we offer a four day and night vision fast ceremony as the liminal experience of the passage rite ceremony, with a number of days beforehand to complete the severance or preparation, and a number of days afterwards that serve as the beginning of the integration stage.

Although a rite of passage is a personal undertaking, this work has always been held by community, people coming together collectively to participate in and witness such transitional moments. The wider ecological community has likewise been central in the vision fast ceremony, respected as a necessary partner in such initiatory journeys. The land offers itself as mirror, as ally, as fertile container in which to draw close to the roots of our life, to what is important and what so easily can be forgotten in the busyness of contemporary life. The land and its many non-human relatives also offer a reminder of our belonging to a wider family of life.

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