The good mentor is virtually inseparable from the phenomenon of initiation that has always been understood as a crucial part of the rite of passage between one condition in life to another, a new and deeper community. In an age where mentors and rites of passage are being neglected, we should not forget the fundamental need for ritual in the formation of communities.

This week in the Humanities class that my wife and I teach the seniors, we had occasion to think about a man named Sam Fathers in William Faulkner’s novel, Go Down, Moses. I used to think that Sam was old, but now it turns out that he’s my age (and, just by the way, a similar phenomenon seems to be occurring with Nestor in the Iliad and Odyssey). Sam Fathers is part-Chickasaw, part-black, part-white, a man who lives on the McCaslin plantation, but whose real authority over every hunter, black or white, comes in the Big Woods, the virgin wilderness of the Tallahatchie River bottom in the Mississippi Delta.

The first part of the novel is set in the 1870s and 1880s, when Sam serves as the mentor to Isaac McCaslin, the heir of the McCaslin land and its tragic entanglements. Sam teaches Ike how to hunt, but more importantly, how to bear himself towards the animals he kills and the Wilderness he enters. When Ike kills his first buck at the age of twelve, Sam marks him with the blood that Ike has now worthily shed. The marking is part of Ike’s ritual passage out of childhood into an almost sacramental order where the borders between the spiritual and the natural, the living and the dead, are mysteriously porous.

Sam Fathers has me thinking about mentors and initiation. In the Odyssey, when Telemachus goes in search of his long-missing father, the goddess Athena takes on the appearance of Mentor, an older Ithakan, and accompanies the young man on his journey to Pylos, where he will meet the formidable Nestor. Mentor explains to Telemachus how he should approach the old man, how he should pray at the sacrifices, and how he should handle other matters that require example and instruction. Telemachus needs this instruction—divine tutelage, though he does not know it at first—in order to present himself as a man worthy of respect in the larger world outside his own household and its unruly guests.

Indeed, every young person needs this kind of mentor, not just for mathematics, say, or poetry, but for those passages (of which the young may not even be aware) across subtle boundaries in the encounter with strangers and even with their friends and peers. Table manners come to mind, or eye contact, or forthright, courteous speech. Lucky is the young man or woman who finds a trustworthy mentor in this regard, as Ike finds Sam Fathers to lead him deep into the mysteries of the Wilderness.

The good mentor is virtually inseparable from the phenomenon of initiation that has always been understood as a crucial part of the rite of passage between one condition in life to another, a new and deeper community. In recent years, these rites or ceremonies have tended to be colored in the popular imagination by abuses, whether by college fraternities or religious cults, but such bad publicity should not distract us from the fundamental need for ritual in the formation of communities. What would Ike be if he had simply killed the buck and his mentor had not been present to recognize his deed and mark him with the blood?

I have thought many times in recent years about the relation of ritual to what St. Thomas Aquinas says about the objects of hope: that it must be good, in the future, possible to attain, and difficult. To leave out real difficulty is to omit the very thing that constitutes membership in the truly worthy community. Overcoming difficulty increases hope. I think of the twenty-one-day backpacking expedition that initiates our freshman into life at Wyoming Catholic College. Dr. Tom Zimmer, Director of COR Expeditions, was saying just last week that something profoundly maturing happens over the course of those three weeks. The expedition is a rare contemporary rite of passage. When our freshmen come into the classroom, they come in as initiates, not as raw newcomers.

These students have already found mentors—sometimes older students, sometimes WCC alumni—who begin as guides and then become lifelong friends. Mentorship does not stop there. We are also fortunate to have at Wyoming Catholic College faculty members—most of them considerably younger than Sam Fathers, by the way—who routinely invite students into their homes. Through these generous mentors, many things that cannot be shown in the classroom, and perhaps not even in their own homes, also become part of their education by example and participation.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College (April 2019).

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Athena Revealing Ithaca to Ulysses” by Giuseppe Bottani (1717-1784), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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