Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Rite of Passage?

       Among the aborigines in Australia, there was a traditional quest called the walkabout. This quest was the trial that would turn boys into men and make them into full-fledged members of their tribes. An adolescent boy on a walkabout would wander alone aimlessly through the desert. He would live in a state of communion with nature. He connected with spirits of his ancestors, who would guide him back home.1 

       In modern Thailand they have a different tradition. In a parade called the Poy Sang Long, young boys in colorful robes, headdresses, and makeup, are shown off before the people. The boys don't enjoy this celebrity treatment for long, however. After the parade they are dressed in the simple robes of a Buddhist monk and enter a monastery, where they will live as Buddhist monks for at least a week before officially coming of age. Through their service they hope to bring good fortune upon their families, who wait for their return.2

       In Myanmar it is traditional for young men to enter a monastery for three months. The age of ordination for a Therevada monk is twenty years old, and these young monks enter into religious service not only for its spiritual benefits, but for the cultural benefits, as well. Burmese girls are much more likely to marry a returned monk, and the time in the monastery is seen as a chance for the young men to learn and mature before taking on the responsibilities of adulthood.3 

       Each of these rituals, while they come from different cultures, all fall under the same category: rites of passage. A rite of passage is a ritual in which a person transitions from one stage of life to the next. Rites of passage are everywhere, ranging from Jewish Bar Mitzvahs to Native American vision quests. Most rites of passages are designed to help boys become men. They turn dependent children into capable warriors or eligible bachelors. 

       When trying to think of a uniquely Mormon rite of passage, the one that immediately comes to mind is a full-time mission. How often have you heard it said that missions "turn boys into men"? How many young women do you know who vow only to marry a returned missionary? The full-time mission has become the Mormon boy's walkabout. It's the point when he is initiated as a full-fledged member of Mormon society. 

       But is that what a mission is meant to be? Are missions just another rite of passage - a chance for Mormon boys to prove their manliness and spirituality? One prominent Church leader would disagree. In a missionary preparation training video he made as President of the Church, President Gordon B. Hinckley said, "I remind you that missionary work is not a rite of passage in the Church. It is a call extended by the President of the Church to those who are worthy and able to accomplish it."4

       Why would the prophet make this statement? First of all, as President Hinckley points out, making a mission into a rite of passage distorts the true nature of the call. While most of us see a mission call as the young man's prerogative, it is really a call from the Lord. In the February 1971 New Era, President Hinckley said "In the first place, a young man does not initiate his missionary call. In light of this, it is not his prerogative to choose or not to choose to go on a mission...The call comes from the President of the Church, and the young man may then accept it or reject it."The Lord is the one who extends missionary calls, doing so through his ordained servants. A young man doesn't decide to step up and serve so he can prove his strength. Rather, it is the Lord who calls the "weak and simple" to proclaim his word (Doctrine and Covenants 1:23) and it is He who makes "weak things become strong unto them" (Ether 12:27). 

       Ideally, the decision to apply for missionary service should come from a young man's personal desire to serve the Lord. But when missions are made into rites of passage, the decision to serve can become motivated more by cultural pressure than spiritual conviction. Missions have become the most celebrated affairs in the Church. There are farewells and homecomings, parties and open houses, and contests on social media to guess where a prospective missionary will be sent. These celebrations are fun for friends and neighbors, but they put massive social pressure on LDS youth to serve, and turns a sacred call to serve the Lord into just another cultural tradition. It was for this reason the Church formally discontinued the practice of having elaborate missionary farewells, open houses, and receptions. "No one else in the Church has a farewell when entering a particular service," said President Hinckley. "We never have a special farewell-type meeting for a newly called bishop, for a stake president, for a Relief Society president, for a General Authority, or anyone else of whom I can think. Why should we have missionary farewells? ...Missionary service is such a wonderful experience that it brings with it its own generous reward."6 

       The decision to apply to become a missionary is also deeply personal, and it should be between the boy and God alone. When Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, he had a grueling choice to make. He loved his son, yet he had been commanded of the Lord to give him up. Ultimately Abraham made the decision to do as he was commanded and he was blessed. He passed a critical test and discovered just how committed he was to keep the commandments. No one around him enticed him to make the right choice. There was no party waiting for him at home if he chose to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham made the decision himself, and reaped the spiritual rewards. So it is with missionaries. The sacrifice of two years is a big commitment, and while we should always encourage youth to make the right decisions, social pressure shines an undue spotlight what is supposed to be a very personal decision. If a mission becomes a rite of passage, then the boy doesn't have much choice. Every kid in the tribe goes through the ritual, and so he must decide to go if he wants to be one of them. Although every young man ought to obey the prophet's call to serve, when missions are thrust onto young men, then those boys are robbed of special blessings that can only come by choosing to obey regardless of the opinions of others. 

       You know something else about rites of passage? They're finite. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Once you complete the quest, you're done. Is this the case with missions? Don't we RMs sometimes feel that we're somehow exempt from the whole "every member a missionary" thing? After all, we've put in two years of full-time service! Add in our home teaching hours plus that time when we had the missionaries over for dinner and we should be good for at least two years, three months right? Of course not. Prophets have told us over and over to make missionary work a lifetime pursuit. President Monson said "The challenge is to be more profitable servants in the Lord’s vineyard. This applies to all of us, whatever our age, and not alone to those who are preparing to serve as full-time missionaries, for to each of us comes the mandate to share the gospel of Christ."And as Elder Ballard said " 'RM' doesn't mean 'retired Mormon'!"But if a mission is a rite of passage, then there's inevitably a sense of finality about coming home. Continuous missionary work seems like a rehash - old news. But if we want to truly follow God's command, we all have to focus less on full-time missionary service and focus more on lifetime missionary service (the latter being an even greater commitment than the first).

       Another thing about rites of passage is that not all initiates finish equally. In ancient Aztec culture, a boy achieved a higher rank in society based on the number of enemies he killed (moral of the story: don't mess with Aztecs).It sounds unfair, but aren't missions the same way sometimes? Mormon culture has constructed a kind of mission hierarchy where the most exotic missions are placed on top. The missionary who comes home from a far-off country speaking a new language is treated like Marco Polo. His ward members listen in awe as he bears his testimony in a foreign language (even though they can't understand a word of it), they're dazzled by stories of his adventures, and they pepper him with questions about the customs of the people he served. Compare this to the experience of a Church service missionary who serves at a local bishop's storehouse. No one listens in awe to his testimony (although they can actually understand his), they don't care about his latest adventures in food production, and they ask him no questions about his service. 

       Don't get me wrong. I love that full-time missionaries learn about other languages and cultures. It helps educate them and they pass on this knowledge to others. But we have to be careful not to think one mission is better than another simply because of the exotic "wow" factor. Jesus served a mission close to his home. He didn't speak another language and he didn't tell stories of his adventures. Yet his was the greatest mission ever served. When we're tempted to evaluate a mission based on whether or not the missionary served abroad or if he "just served stateside," we should remember that God doesn't see missions in terms of locale, but in the love and commitment of the missionary.

       Is a mission a rite of passage? I sure hope not. I hope missions are much more than that. A mission should be more meaningful than any vision quest and more profound than any walkabout. Missions should carry a reward greater than any cultural celebration or initiation. Rites of passage are nice, but they cannot measure up to a sacred call to serve. Whether it is for two years or two days, whether it takes place in the jungles of Ecuador or the streets of Idaho, whether the missionary is serving full-time as an Elder or a lifetime as a member, missions are greater than any ritual. Missionaries (that includes all of us) don't become warriors. They become Saints. What could be a more rewarding quest than that?

1. Lee, LH, and Demand Media. "Aboriginal Culture & Maori Culture." USA Today.
2. Sim, David. "Thailand's Poy Sang Long Festival: Shaven-headed Boys in Make-up Become Buddhist Novices." International Business Times, April 1, 2015. Accessed April 30, 2015.
3. "Theravada Buddhism." - New World Encyclopedia. Accessed April 30, 2015.
4. First Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting. United States: LDS Church, 2003. Film.
5. Hinckley, Gordon B. "Q&A: Questions and Answers." New Era, February 1971.
6. Hinckley, Gordon B. "To Men of the Priesthood." Liahona, November 2002.
7. Monson, Thomas S. "Come, All Ye Sons of God." Ensign, May 2013.
8. Ballard, M. Russell. "The Greatest Generation of Young Adults." Ensign, May 2015.
9. Moreno, Manuel. "Warfare." In Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, 102. New York, New York: Facts on File, 2006.

1 comment:

  1. I have many LDS cousins in the US - of some standing and ethical lives - I am not unacquainted with the history nor the outlines of the belief system - so was interested to read this blog. But right from the start I was put off by the nonsense with which this begins - a fantasy description of Indigenous Australians and "the walkabout"! I get the general idea that some metaphorical progression leads into the journey of the missionary life and so forth - but make the examples honest and truthful, please - otherwise this becomes a kind of mythical version - not unlike the musical - "The Book of Mormon"!

    The walkabout - a racist trivialisation of the ritual and seasonal journey through "the country" of the linguistic First Nations group (keeping in mind that were somewhere between 250 and 500 such "countries" within the boundaries of what one now knows as Australia) - visiting significant sites - both for ceremony and for hunting/harvest purposes. There was nothing aimless or purposeless or without objective in this ritually defined journey. I feel embarrassed to have to write this - and can only hope that the writer of this otherwise moving record/reflection will undertake some further study of Indigenous Australia! Honestly! My e-mail is I am quite happy to discuss LDS cousins, by the way, descendants of Truman Osborne ANGELL...