Initiation, Mystery, and Etymology

I saw an old friend today. We talked about initiation, mystery, and how we can understand things by understanding their etymology: the origin of the words.

What is initiation? First, looking at the word we see the word “initiate”. That means to start something. Initiation is when we start anew in a profound way. In fact, we’re starting something so new that we ourselves become a new person on a fundamental level. Initiation involves deeply challenging and meaningful experiences that enable this change and growth.

The most common initiation is that of a child into adulthood. Maybe you’re thinking that you know a lot of people who did NOT really change when they grew from children into adults! On that note, here’s a quote from famous historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade: 

It has often been said that one of the characteristics of the modern world is the disappearance of any meaningful rites of initiation. Of primary importance in traditional societies, in the modern Western world significant initiation is practically nonexistent.

No wonder we have a bunch of adults who act like children! (And of course, initiation is now absent from many parts of the world beyond the “modern Western world”.) They haven’t been initiated into adulthood.  Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. Often, we have impromptu, unofficial initiations in our challenging, modern world. But I’ll get into that in another post.

The Mircea Eliade quote above comes from his book Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. There’s a lot in that title. Let’s first look at the etymology of the word “mystery” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

mystery (n.1) Look up mystery at Dictionary.comearly 14c., in a theological sense, “religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth,” from Anglo-French *misterie, Old French mistere “secret, mystery, hidden meaning” (Modern French mystère), from Latin mysterium “secret rite, secret worship; a secret thing,” from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) “secret rite or doctrine,” from mystes“one who has been initiated,” from myein “to close, shut” (see mute (adj.)); perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites).

Notice that mystery ultimately comes from the ancient Greek word “mystes”: “one who has been initiated”. Mystery and initiation are anciently intertwined concepts. Part of the reason is that the rites, the rituals and trials, of initiation were kept secret from anyone who was not an initiate.

My old friend Justine also pointed out that we can never really understand an initiatory experience on an intellectual level. We don’t have control over the information. During initiation we have to take steps forward, even when what we’ll find is a mystery to us. There are many steps or “leaps of faith” involved.

(Now, I want to go back to another word in that book title: “rebirth”. I imagine both “rebirth” and “leap of faith” will cause many people to think of Christianity or maybe other religions. The idea of being “born again” has been around much longer than Christianity. These are near universal ways of thinking that illuminate profound truths. I worry people will dismiss words or ideas because of negative associations they have with religious people who most commonly use certain terms in our society. Actually, Justine said she often tries to talk to people about things around initiation and has found the terms she uses are too religious for some people’s tastes. But she thinks “initiation” is a word that people will be more open to universally.)

Let’s get back to rebirth (which is what rebirth is all about). Again, rebirth is when we become a totally new person. The other thing to keep in mind is that rebirth comes after death. Actually, that’s exactly what the priest said at the only Catholic Sunday mass I’ve ever been to. My mom was raised Catholic but left the religion and didn’t raise us kids Catholic for many reasons. Still, the sermon was beautiful and profound. The priest said:

When someone is having a hard time we often tell them to “hang in there”. Actually, we should tell them, “Fall to the earth and die.” That’s what seeds do in order to grow into plants. And that’s what we need to do.

Now, the seed has to stop being a seed in order to grow into a plant. Of course, the seed has mixed feelings about this! And we have mixed feelings about true initiation, true growth, true adulthood. In order to truly grow in a profound way we have to let go of some parts of ourselves: part of us must die. That’s scary. It’s much less scary to create an image of change, rather than to truly change.

And in traditional societies they knew their surroundings, they knew the people of the community, and there was support for the type of change needed. For the last few thousand and couple hundred years things have been changing exponentially. The support isn’t there, partially because no one has a clue what we’re facing.

So let’s have some compassion for ourselves as we struggle and try to run away from our struggles. This is all very new, for us as individuals, as communities, as a species! And let’s reach out to others we see struggling and try to have compassion and support each other.



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