Turning the Wheel: Faith and Aging in Contemporary American Paganisms

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Faith and Aging. Read other perspectives here.

The Pagan movement arose as many of us were seeking meaning and connection in a rapidly modernizing, culturally diverse, and socially fragmented world. Some grew up with no religious education or identity. Others found the religions of our childhoods unsatisfying and intolerant, authoritarian and judgmental, and often constricting. Our response was to look to the religions of our ancestors.

Contemporary Pagans, especially Witches, typically honor the natural cycles—moon, sun, the seasons of the year: "everything in the world participates in this great cycle of life, aging, and death; so do we. … In this, as in everything else, we are one with the world, and we know that we will continue within these cycles even after this life. From these other cycles, we draw consolation and a sense of rightness."

The Wheel of the Year consists of eight spokes. Four are the annual solar transitions of the solstices and equinoxes; the other four are based on European agricultural cycles. The most important spoke is Samhain, the night when we remember our Beloved Dead and honor our ancestors. We go all out erecting shrines with pictures of our ancestors, flowers, candles, objects and comestibles that they liked in life. We share stories about the departed. Pagan traditions are thought of as ancestral religions: we walk in the ways of the ancestors, and we reverence them and their ways. Life—and aging in particular—is the process of becoming an ancestor. Ancestorization.

Although the Craft is not a "people of the book" (Torah, Bible, Quran, Vedas, Book of Mormon, et al.), but rather is, as scholar Steven Posch says, "people of the library," now updated to "people of the Web." The writings of many poets and thinkers inform our identity and practices.

One prominent writer whose thinking has influenced the Craft is Robert Graves, specifically The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, first published in 1948. (Though controversy surrounds Graves and his writing, with charges of historical inaccuracy and other disputes, many of his theories have found expression in contemporary American Witchcraft.) The symbol upon which most Witches agree as being emblematic of Craft is the pentacle. Graves proposes the Pentacle of Life whose points are Birth, Initiation, Consummation, Repose, and Death—the cycle of life. (There are other pentacle schemata, such as the four Elements of Life [Air, Fire, Water, Earth] and Spirit. Some of these pentacle schemata are tradition-specific. A tradition is similar to a denomination.)

Perhaps his most important contribution is that of the Triple Goddess as Muse, expressed as Maiden, Mother, Crone. These stages of women's lives are reflected in the lunar cycle of New Moon, Full Moon, and Dark Moon. These phases are meaningful to all people regardless of sex or gender; each of us has had a mother and a grandmother, if not a daughter or sister as well.

What has all this to do with aging in our society? Well, plenty, as evidenced by our reverence for the Natural Cycle. However, as what religious studies scholars term a new religious movement, we are new enough as a religious subculture within our increasingly multicultural meta-society that we are still defining ourselves. Our culture is maturing just as our population is.

In order for a community (or religion) to be sustained, it must include the full spectrum of ages, from the ancestors to the unborn. In between, babies, children, youth, young adults, parents, and elders. Scholars of Paganism have observed that in the absence of any other sort of organized governance, some Pagan communities tend to organize themselves informally as elders who know one another talk things over and come to conclusions. (This is what I've done in addressing this topic.)

Nonetheless, we all age. American Pagans seem to rely upon established secular institutions such as retirement homes to address the day-to-day needs of older people. Sometimes informal groups of friends will provide care for aging co-religionists at their homes.

In 1997, more than forty Pagans contributed to an anthology about death and dying compiled by Starhawk and myself. We did this because our population was aging and had almost no older people who'd preceded us. We experienced loss to death in our own lives, as well as facing our own mortality, so we attempted to provide a resource. Originally called Crossing Over: A Pagan Manual on Death and Dying, and ultimately published as The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over, this book contains writings about such modern dilemmas as withdrawing life support, organ donations and transplants, assisted suicide, healing from stillbirth and abortion. These are situations that didn't exist at the times when ancient religious texts containing laws and religious direction/counsel about important life decisions appeared.

11/16/2016 5:00:00 AM
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