"The words and images of a rite of passage guide parents and children from one plateau to another: children venture further into the world, where they'll have many adventures and make many mistakes, and parents try to cling less to their sons and daughters, knowing that their 'career' as parents is being reshaped. With grace and ease and, hopefully, little disruption, these rites ease families from one role to another, from one phase to another: parents become elders; children are on their way to becoming adults, eventually becoming parents themselves. As the world changes, it stays remarkably the same.

"Life is full of rites of passage. Mastering a challenge, coming to terms with ourselves or with someone else, learning a new skill — a new language, a new swimming stroke, a new whatever — all fit under a fairly porous, generous definition of 'rite of passage.' But in this book, we focus only on the really powerful ones — those that provide connections and links and opportunities to sense that our wisdom and knowledge and place in the world are broader and deeper and more timeless than we would otherwise suspect. The rites of passage in this book traverse the ordinary. Many experiences deliver us to a new and unanticipated realm, to a place that only rumors and fictions for us. But just as Melville in Moby-Dick speaks of 'reality outracing apprehension' — apprehension in the sense not of fear or disquiet but of understanding — a profound rite of passage can be our threshold to a land with illimitable borders, to a territory that define even as it defies definition, sometimes even as it defies words themselves.

"Common to all the lessons that can be extracted from these events is that they make us more comfortable in the world and extend out horizons. A woman I know in North Carolina never had one of these ceremonies. Raised a Christian but as unaffiliated as could be, she was never baptized or confirmed and always sensed that something was missing, that other people possessed a moment, a certainty, an understanding that she didn't. Now a teacher in high school, she has never missed a graduation at the end of the school year. This is her students' rite of passage as well as her own. Watching her grinning students, in their caps and gowns, diplomas in hand, reminds her why she teaches; indeed, this moment teaches her that she has a mission and that every June she watches it reach fruition. In a sense, there's a certain timelessness at stake, just as with a religious rite of passage: she's connected to the future, to those marching before her out of the commencement auditorium on their way to college or their first job. But compared with a more traditional rite of passage, the sort she missed as a youngster, what she experiences is fundamentally one-sided: the future may spread before her, but the past doesn't recede, other than maybe the past four years of the students who are graduating. She is connected in one direction, bereft and adrift in the other.

"The timing of a traditional coming-of-age ceremony has two main influences. One is historical. For centuries, children were essential to the livelihood of their family. They worked in the fields, in the kitchen, at looms, in barns and, in their early teens, they took on even more work. At around eleven or twelve, childhood, which was no great lark anyway, was essentially over. In addition to having more chores and responsibilities, children were now considered capable of making religious commitments affecting the rest of their lives, maybe even their eternal lives. If their young bodies were reasonably mature, went the reasoning, then so, too, were their souls.

"The other reason for the timing of a traditional coming-of-age ritual is biological. In our early teens, weird things happen to our bodies. Hair appears where there wasn't any. Voices deepen. Breasts develop. Girls menstruate. Boys ejaculate. This isn't the body we were born into, and we're scared, excited, thrilled. If bodies can change, then everything can change. Nothing is fixed. Panic, curiosity, bewilderment set in. Just as it seems that everything is coming undone, we participate in a rite, an initiation, that honors who we've been, recognizes what we are, and tells us who we just might be.

"The elaborate theater of a rite of passage constructs a spiritual shelter, a refuge to protect us in bad times and bless us in good. But we can't be too sure about this. As the Indian grandfather says in Little Big Man, 'Sometimes the magic works; sometimes it doesn't.' When it works, it grabs us by the lapels, forcing us to pay attention. Then we have an urge, a curiosity to see the invisible, to touch the untouchable: to know that there is more to 'us' than us. One of Jean Cocteau's nieces had this same instinct. When asked if she wanted to see the new brother an angel had just delivered, she said, 'No! I want to see the angel.'

"When we do see the angel — when an initiation really works — it can unsettle us even as it reassures us. As we separate from one role, we move along to another, stepping into a new and, for us, unexplored terrain. We learn — possibly even understand — arcane, esoteric stuff: the secret names of ancestors or deities or the mythical history of our tribe or barely pronounceable incantations and hardly understood creeds.

"And when it doesn't work, we get peeved and we can't figure out why. This is working for everyone else, we might think, so why not for us? A Baptist woman, years after her minister asked, 'Do you love Jesus and want to follow him?' realized that 'They might just as well have asked me if I loved Panky [her stuffed panda]. It would have meant the same thing to me.' If they're going to ask you deep theological questions — well, 'deep' for a twelve year old — then they had darn well better explain them to you beforehand.

"There's a reason that every culture and faith has these ceremonies: we demand pauses and breathers along the arc of our lives. Without them, life would be a blur, a shapeless, endless stream of time and energy. These ceremonies provide the lulls, the repose, the time out, if you will, to consider where we're going and why; and where we've come from and why; and what the rhythm of life is and why. As the hurdy-gurdy of life accelerates in our ever more 'modern' age, it's a relief to be thrown back — at least momentarily — on the steadier rock where time slows down to a sweet, lovely crawl and we are almost palpably certain that we are not alone, that countess generations before us have said the same prayers and been blessed in the same way, as will countless generations after us. The brilliance of these ceremonies is how well they connect us to an almost infinite DNA of time and space. They are our antennae outward, inward, and God-ward.

"It's tempting to mistake these coming-of-age events for transformations, instant at otherwise. They're not. They can teach us and they can inspire us. (They can also bore the hell out of us.) What really matters is not how they instantaneously transfigure us — a specious claim, anyway — but what they're asking: 'Who are you?' 'Where are you?' These questions, says the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, are 'the beginning of the way. . . . We can let God in only where we really stand, where we live, where we live a true life. If we maintain holy discourse with the little world entrusted to us, . . . then we are establishing, in this our place, the Divine Presence.'

"Without a way — a Muslim way, a Christian way, a Jewish way, a Hindu way, a Buddhist way — there's a chance that we will lose our way. These rituals are the maps to ourselves: they are an atlas of our soul. They introduce us to a Presence, and they introduce us to our self."