Earth Elder Initiation
by Randy Morris with Frost Freeman
The time is ripe for elders to reclaim their rightful role of speaking for Earth and future generations.
— Fred Lanphear
A revolution of elders is taking place. Older people are accepting the responsibility to gather together in council and community to consider new visions for the role of elder in our culture. As conscious elders, some are choosing to step into this role by preparing themselves psychologically and spiritually through a rite of passage ceremony into elderhood. Of course, in past ages, elder initiation ceremonies were woven into the fabric of the culture, but in our current mainstream culture, we have lost the thread of these ceremonies. How can we revive the tradition of elder initiation in a culture that has forgotten its roots?
In past ages, new elders were chosen by initiated elders to undergo a rite of passage. But in a culture with few initiated elders, how does one get chosen? According to the principles of conscious eldering, a person of a certain age must choose to “heed the call” to eldership. This call is archetypal in nature; it springs from the instinctual, animal body of a human being who is in touch with themselves and with a “sacred other.” It can be discerned in dreams, visions, strong emotions of grief and joy, synchronicities, epiphanies, and other manifestations of the unconscious, what the great ecotheologian Thomas Berry called the “spontaneities” of the earth. To be able to perceive this call and respond to it requires that one be conscious of the very possibility of a “sacred other” and attentive to the voices of the more-than-human world. To be conscious in this way is to be spiritual, because it requires the ability to perceive, through heart-based capacities of intuition and feeling, the will of “unseen powers” at work both within the human psyche and the earth itself. This is one reason that conscious aging encourages encounters with the natural world where silence, solitude, and reflection open one’s soul to the voices of the earth. In principle, the ability to perceive the call to elderhood is the birthright of every human being who is consciously engaging the life cycle with integrity and meaning.
To become a conscious elder requires that one experience a calling. But then what? How does one answer the call? Here is where the importance of modern elder initiation ceremonies becomes apparent. Initiation ceremonies are transformative rituals that have the power to reorient the individual will around a new set of values. While there are many different sets of values around which any elder initiation may be organized, an Earth Elder initiation espouses three specific values.
First, an Earth Elder recognizes that we are living in the time of a “Great Turning” when the future of the planet is in peril and human beings are called to serve the life-affirming powers of the earth. As Thomas Berry said, “The glory of the human has become the desolation of the earth; the desolation of the earth has become the destiny of the human.” An Earth Elder is able to recognize the role that his or her own destiny is to play in the larger destiny of the human species.
Second, Earth Elders are aware of the “Universe Story” that tells of a new cosmological origin myth, beginning with the great “flaring forth” and evolving through the eons of life on earth to produce the unique gift of human consciousness. One implication of this new story is that human beings are now cocreators in the ongoing development of life on this planet. Without the cooperation of human beings, the trajectory of life on this planet will be tragically altered.
A third value of Earth Elders is a profound awareness of the “partnership of generations” that exists among the spirits of ancestors who have come before us, human beings who are alive in the present and the spirits of those generations yet to be born, generations who are counting on those of us who are alive today to make their lives possible. The capacity to experience the yearning of future generations requires a sensitivity to what the Gaian teacher Joanna Macy calls “deep time.” These three values — the Great Turning, the Universe Story, and the Partnership of Generations — provide the core images around which an Earth Elder initiation is organized.
So what does an Earth Elder initiation look like? I am reminded of a principle of ritual spoken to me many years ago by another mentor, Stan Crow. He said, “ We’re going to do this ritual the same way they’ve been doing it for ten thousand years: We’re going to make it up as we go along!” Of course, there are certain principles of ritual design that exist in every ceremony. There is the moment of separation in which we depart from the everyday world and step into another world characterized by imagination and longing. In this liminal space, various ritual gestures are made to assist the initiate in their encounter with sacred powers. And then the initiate returns to the everyday world with an elixir or gift to share with their community, thus encouraging the community to embrace new life. Having witnessed several Earth Elder initiations, and in the interests of encouraging many, many more, I would like to describe one such initiation ritual that took place recently in my community.
An Earth Elder Initiation
Separation — Frost is a 65-year-old woman who has lived a rich life of service in her community. Among her many activities, she serves as an elder for youth participants who return from a vision quest. She listens attentively to their stories and mirrors to them the rich messages contained in their experience. Last year she experienced a “call” to undergo an Earth Elder initiation. At first, she resisted this call. It was just too much attention to call to herself. Who was she to declare herself an Earth Elder? In this early stage of her initiatory process, she experienced a great deal of “ritual tension,” a sure sign that she was on the right path. She writes in her journal:
Mid-June: For 12 hours I’ve been looking out at the bay and where it meets the inlet, sitting in a driftwood-and-old-curtain sun shelter. I could say I am preparing for my coming elderhood initiation/ celebration, but I could also say I don’t know what I’m doing. I brought things to write and draw, and a couple fruit jars of water. I thought I’d do a lot of uninterrupted thinking and writing. It’s been more like uninterrupted not-thinking. I’m amazed I can not-think for so long, and hope it’s a positive sign. I was here at first light, watched the shadows turn, as if I’m sitting in a sundial, and now the sun and the western mountains are getting closer together. Suddenly the shelter falls apart around me. Well, I guess that’s a sign! I pack up and go home. Next day I am full of energy.
Late June: Fear, fear, fear, fear, fear. I keep alternating my gladness and excitement about this coming event with dread and anxiety. Fear seems to have a full closet of guises. These are the two that keep coming up so hard. My heart beats harder, my eyes close with dread. Will this be too “out there”? Will some old friends never ... Should I be doing this in front of virtually everybody I know and love? Sometimes it doubles me over. Later, another aspect surfaces: I am dying to who I have been, and am becoming not someone else, but another version of my true self. Oddly enough, knowing that leaves me calmer than the other fears. Still, the ego who rents out part of my mind is freaking out about it, “reasoning” with me while fanning the flames of the dread and anxiety. Back and forth, back and forth...
But after a deep conversation with a friend who reminded her that she was not doing this ceremony for herself alone, but for the sake of her whole community and the earth, she felt encouraged. Just after that talk, she took a walk in a nearby city park during which she encountered two owls in a cedar tree in the middle of the day, a very rare natural event that made her feel that her calling to become an Earth Elder was being blessed by the more-than-human world. She called together a group of friends to form a “wisdom circle” to help her design her ceremony, and she committed to a date in August for her Earth Elder Initiation. She writes:
Late July: I have been going through every photograph I own, and there are thousands. Some are for the 20-minute slide presentation of the path my life has gone; the rest will be for displaying in a special place for the celebration: other lifetime photos, ancestor pictures, teachers who have been important to me. Velda has offered to make me a garment to wear for it. I don’t know what it will be like. The circle of friends who are putting their time and hearts into bringing all this about let me know that I’m not in charge of it now, and that I will not know everything that’s going to happen. Randy and I have lunch and spend a lot of time talking about all this: fears, practicalities, being between two worlds, what being an elder might mean, how this event will affect other people besides myself... We walk in the park and find two owls, in full daylight, sitting about 6 feet above us. They spend quite a long time with us. You can only feel grateful for that, and things that go beyond words.
Early August: My “wisdom circle” meets. They give me tasks to do for the coming day. One is to be able to state my intentions for the rest of my life; in a few words, not goals, but guiding intentions. Second, to decide on three things that I would be willing to let go of once I cross the threshold of elderhood, and to make some artistic representation of each one that can then be burnt, buried, torn, etc. and to recognize what could emerge in their stead. Third, once I have crossed the threshold and been accepted into the elder circle, to have some words to say — wisdom that I’d like to share from my new place. It feels good to have some direction.
Day Before, August 24: I have everything ready. When I look out the window in the 6 a.m. fog, a coyote scents the air. Oh man! What does this mean? It turns and goes the way it has come and slips into the woods. Several of us are at the Garden Club early, to start decorating. Sara and Zhalee work long, hard, and sincerely, and Roseanna helps with the baby and more ideas. I am again so touched by what all are putting into this. Velda brings my dress. It’s beautiful! Full of greens, silk and cotton, with hand-beaded neck and moonstones sewn along a crocheted cord “path” in front. My son arrives from Minnesota, bringing his cousins from Seattle, Raksha and Sarah. Raksha draws out a henna design she has made for me, onto my arms and hands. I love having them overnight.
Morning of: The youngers go to help decorate some more, and will stay there. I am alone. Suddenly all the fear comes up again in a slightly different guise; the dread has been mostly gone for a couple weeks; this is sheer physical fear, fizzy bloodstream, dizzy legs, breathing not matching heartbeat any more. I do what I can. Velda returns, and helps. We go.
Initiation — Frost’s initiation ceremony took place in a beautiful rustic setting: a garden club meeting room that had been decorated with flowers and filled with pictures and artifacts of her life. She invited about 40 friends and family members, most of whom had no idea what an elder initiation was. The “wisdom circle” that helped Frost design the ceremony made sure that there was an element of surprise in the ritual. Frost knew that the program would begin with an invocation of the spirits of the seven directions and various blessings by her community members. She knew she would tell her life story in a 20-minute slide show, describing how the key turning points in her life could be re-mythologized as preparation for her elderhood. And she knew that after a closing song, she and all of the guests would retire outside, while the wisdom circle members
would rearrange the room for the heart of the initiation ceremony. Frost was asked to prepare in advance three ritual gestures. First, she was asked to be able to state in concise terms her intentions for becoming an elder. Second, she was asked to create symbols for three things she was prepared to lay down and sacrifice before she entered the elder circle. Furthermore, she was asked to be able to name the new gift she would be able to pick up in the vacuum created by her sacrifice. And third, she was asked to prepare an “elder speech” that she would address to her community upon her recognition as an Earth Elder. The rest of the ceremony was meant to be a mystery to her, so that the spontaneities of her mythic consciousness could be invoked.
When members of the community were called back to the room, it had been arranged as a spiral leading to an archway. On the other side of the arch were six chairs for six elders — three women and three men. Each member of the community was asked to write down the date of their first encounter with Frost and to arrange themselves in chronological order along the spiral. Once this spiral was complete, the ritual began with the six elders speaking out loud amongst themselves, wondering who they would need to call from the spirit world to assist in the initiation of this Earth Elder. They decided that they would need Crone, the third member of the sacred manifestation of the Great Mother — Maiden, Mother, and Crone. And so they called for Crone to enter, and there she was, dressed in diaphanous blue robes, ready to be of service. The elders consulted themselves again and agreed that they would need to call on the spirit of Death itself to be present, since the awareness of death is so integral to the wisdom of an Earth Elder. So they called on Death, and out of an adjoining room swept a dark figure in black robes, rhythmically swaying and ready to join the ritual. With the scene set, the elders called out to Frost, and through the windows we could see her striding up to the door, resplendent in her ritual clothes and ready to enter the room. In Frost’s own words:
Zhalee comes outside to conduct me to the doorway. This is what I see. Heavy rope forms a spiral path to the center, where a threshold stands, on the other side of which are seated six elders. The room is dim, lit by candles and twilight. All guests are seated along this path, in the order in which they met me in my life. The Crone meets me at the door, and by this time, I’m not thinking, remembering, or relating. Death is crouched on the other side of the door. They say things. We are all in Someplace Else now, a place between two worlds. If I answer, or move, it’s from a much older or more timeless aspect of me. My day-to-day self is not there. I am asked my intentions, and speak them:
aliveness; to increase my skills of mind, heart, and spirit; to make myself more visible as a mentor, teacher, counselor; and to invest in my curiosity. I have a basket and am invited to move along the spiral path toward the threshold of elderhood. As I go past my loved ones, they put into the basket notes of encouragement, thanks, blessing. Finally, at the threshold, I am asked what three things I am willing to leave behind.
For the past few months, ever since she was given this assignment by her wisdom circle, Frost had been thinking about what three things she would lay down, and what she would pick up. For each sacrifice, she created a handmade artistic representation. Here is what she said:
I let go of leftover SELF CRITICISM, even to condemnation. I know ways to do this, and as I do, the container that held the destructive is transformed to a container that holds the constructive: a power, a medicine bag that I now have the right to wear, for a lighter, more effective energy.
I let go of the belief that visible is vulnerable, INVISIBLE is invulnerable. This notion works well as a tool in the bag, but not as a way of being. I’m willing to be visible more often, and in contact with the world.
I let go of too much ALONENESS. I can offer great friendship and still maintain healthy boundaries, uncover seeds of new growth.
Once she lay down these three encumbrances and picked up their medicine, Death stepped forward and blessed them. Death was then asked to take her rightful place among the order of things. She went to the other side of the elders, opposite the threshold, and sat in an honored chair. Frost approached the edge of the threshold. Crone invited her, of her own free will, to step across. Frost paused, considered, and stepped across. She was greeted by Crone and gifted with Crone’s own shawl. At that point, three women elders came forward and gifted her with a “universe story” necklace that they had made for her. Each bead and shell represented some aspect of the universe story, something that could inspire Frost, and draw her into balance and wisdom. Then the male elders stepped forward to present Frost with a decorated “beaver-hewed” wooden staff that had been blessed with waters from the healing springs of Lourdes, France. She was then invited to sit in a sacred chair, and the whole community of guests and elders gathered around her, touching her shoulders, head, arms, and knees. Those who could not reach her were invited to touch someone who was touching her until a web of interlocking hands and hearts were formed. Together, they chanted four long OM’s as the elder blessings of her community were spiritually transmitted into Frost’s soul. When it was over, Frost stood up as an initiated elder, and spoke to us from that place. In a firm voice, she said:
I encourage you to do two things: honor your own life, and value happiness. I didn’t say indulge your ego; think about all it took to come together and bring you here, now. How do you mean to spend that? How much time do you think you have? Make it good!
And cultivate happiness. For centuries, we’ve been taught to put it last. Yet if you cultivate real happiness, you’re healthier, with stronger immunities, more contentment and gratitude, true friends, you work better, and get led into finer adventures.
But what about all the world problems? You’ll be far stronger if you have what I just described. The world will never be saved by fear and starvation of the heart and soul. Honor your own life. And cultivate happiness.
With this climactic elder speech, the ceremony was nearly complete. Another elder led the group in a sound of joy, the directions were released, and instructions were given to prepare the potluck that was to follow. The ceremony was done.
Return — One of the most difficult aspects of any earth-centered ritual is the reincorporation phase. Without an intact culture to mirror the transformations that individuals undergo, it is hard to maintain the changes, and many initiates are tempted to regress into old patterns. Fortunately, Frost’s wisdom circle was so energized by the work of preparing her ceremony, they wanted to keep meeting on a regular basis to consider further aspects of elder initiations and to serve as a support for other elders in the community. This was a good reminder that we don’t consciously choose to be an Earth Elder for ourselves alone. The whole community benefits as the ties that bind are strengthened through heartfelt and intentional communal actions.
Two weeks after the initiation, Frost writes:
The first day I only rested, alone. The next day I was moved to speak to a friend about a concern I had, and spoke AS an Earth Elder — a surprise to me, since I wasn’t used to thinking in that term. I felt confident, and also aware that what I was saying wasn’t “done” yet. I needed to get to a more useful place with my feelings and thoughts. Other days: I rest a lot! I try to think through what I’d like, and get stuck. What’s up?? We (the circle) have a meeting scheduled to debrief, talk about how it was for us all. I find myself saying I seem to get stuck in what I want to “get done,” and am no longer sure what I WANT to do. There is a difference between the two, and I’m becoming aware of it. What a mystery! Something is trying to arise in me that’s in line with my intentions and shared wisdom of that day: it has to do with curiosity, aliveness, cultivating happiness, etc. and, I have a feeling, doing things without knowing entirely why I’m doing them. “If you build it, they will come.” That covers a lot deeper and wider ground than setting goals. Meanwhile, the rest of the circle has been so deep into the whole process that when it’s suggested that we might keep meeting as a wisdom circle for each other, there’s a lot of agreement. The Youngers wonder whether it would be an elder circle they wouldn’t be part of, but we quickly decide that we want these Youngers in it. It will help keep the elders with “fresh water” coming in to our thinking, and it will help “raise” the Youngers as they become elders.
Frost finally came to understand the significance of consciously choosing the role of Earth Elder:
This was intended to be more far-reaching than one person’s celebration of life. We hoped to make clear to people that they had choices about how they lived and aged, many more choices than they realized. It has even gone beyond that, and we’re truly on a continuing journey now!
We know that an initiation ceremony does not automatically transform the initiate into the full wisdom of an Earth Elder. There are many stages of learning yet to come. But it does serve to orient the initiate in their lifespan and set them on a path to wisdom that is recognized and blessed by their community. By all accounts, Frost’s Earth Elder initiation ceremony was a great success. Of course, it was only one way of designing it. As we experiment with a revival of elder recognition ceremonies in a diverse and pluralistic culture, there is no single “right way.” Much of the joy of the revival is in the design process itself, as the initiate and their beloved community talk and plan and play together. In this way, meaning is generated within the community itself and radiates out from there. If you were to call together your “wisdom circle” and plan your own Earth Elder initiation ceremony, how would you do it? As we pave the way for a “Revolution of Earth Elders,” it is good to remember Fred Lanphear’s call: “ The time is ripe for elders to reclaim their rightful role of speaking for Earth and future generations.”