Coming of age

Published October 30, 2004 12:12 am
Senior pagans say their religions make it easy to grow old
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Judy Harrow, a self-described witch, remembers dancing in the woods of New Jersey with a circle of young pagans back in 1979. That group still meets, and this year members with stiff joints called ahead to reserve the lower bunks.

Pagans - those who practice a variety of nature-based religions that gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s - are growing older, and have the aches, pains and fears of maturity to prove it. But senior pagans say issues of aging and even death don't haunt them as they could, because they have found comfort and meaning in the philosophy and coming-of-age rituals of their belief system.

''There's a lot about growing old that's not easy in any tradition,'' says Starhawk, an author whose popular overview of paganism, The Spiral Path, marks 25 years in print this month. ''Maybe besides organizing rituals and organizing political actions, we need to start thinking about organizing retirement homes.''

Nationally, there are between 20,000 and 40,000 people older than 50 who identify as pagans, according to a census conducted by professor Helen Berger of West Chester University in West Chester, Pa. Some, but not all, consider themselves Wiccans or witches.

They all have advantages, says Margot Adler, a National Public Radio correspondent from New York City and author of the 1979 book Drawing Down the Moon.

''The images of aging that the pagan movement is putting forward are so much healthier than the ones you get in society in general,'' Adler says.

One of those images is a traditional ritual known as a ''croning'' or ''saging,'' which celebrates the day that an adult officially leaves the life stage of parenthood and becomes an elder (''crone'' for women, ''sage'' for men). It's similar to the way that other cultures might celebrate the day a boy or girl becomes an adult.

''I had a very unique croning ritual,'' says Harrow, who has been a pagan since 1976. Since she did not have children, she chose to celebrate her retirement from the civil service as her rite of passage into ''cronehood.'' She made an alarm clock a central part of the ceremony, and at a key moment, ''I took a big old hammer and I smashed it,'' says Harrow.

A woman who calls herself Grey Cat thinks she may have been the first to consider herself a crone in the mid-1980s when she became a grandmother and a pagan. ''I never saw witches as ugly,'' she says. ''I never saw being a crone as a terrible thought.''

In 1986, she began to publish The Crone Papers out of her home in Tennessee, a newsletter devoted to the unique issues of aging in the pagan community. ''Their focus isn't on their children. When your last child leaves high school there's a very sharp break,'' says Grey Cat. ''It's when you can pledge your time to your community,''

Though she was the oldest member of most pagan groups when she started, today she reports that there are crones of all ages and traditions in paganism - though Grey Cat does not approve of women who think of themselves as crones before their time.

''Nothing replaces piling one day on top of another,'' she says.

The Rev. Selena Fox runs one of the country's oldest continuous pagan gatherings, the Circle Sanctuary outside Mount Horeb, Wis. Located on 200 acres of forest and prairie lands, the community celebrates its 30th anniversary during Samhain, the festival of the Celtic New Year in late October that many say is the model for modern Halloween.

Fox has officiated at more than two dozen croning ceremonies. They are especially popular during this season, with its costume balls and bonfires, she says. The Samhain festival is also traditionally linked to the image of the crone, which may be why witches and Halloween go hand in hand.

''Regardless of your religion in America, you need some way of honoring aging besides retirement,'' says Fox. ''Just because you retire from one career doesn't mean you're retiring from life. It doesn't mean you're moving into a rocking-chair existence. That's only the halfway point.''

And croning has begun to catch on beyond the caldron set.

''Other traditions are looking at the aging ceremonies in paganism because there's a real hunger for it,'' says Fox.

The Rev. Nancy Webb, an education minister at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, where Bill Clinton attended services, wrote articles about croning in the Methodist journal Wellsprings.

Although she admits that the article met mixed reactions, she found the ceremonies very beautiful and consistent with her faith. ''We made it within the Christian context. We used scripture and hymns,'' says Webb.

Most pagans see their later years as a time to pass on traditions that they contend have been lost or suppressed for centuries. Joe Zuchowski, who has been a pagan for almost 30 years, estimates that he has been a teacher to more than 400 students of paganism in New York City.

''The community doesn't owe me anything. I owe it, in the sense that the people who trained me expected me to carry it on,'' he says.

Still, Zuchowski contends that the older generation can outdance the newcomers. ''The only bottom bunk you're going to reserve for me is the one six feet under,'' he says.

The pagan community is also coming to more consensus about death in its circles. ''When I was first involved, almost everybody was quite young, and no one had died. Those issues just weren't on the table,'' says Adler. ''Now you have to deal with all the pastoral issues of a church, like death and dying.''

A pagan burial was once rare enough to cause a flurry of phone calls in the community looking for the proper prayers and rituals. ''Our parents were dying and our colleagues were dying,'' says author Macha Nightmare. ''We got tired of faxing prayers around.''

The result was a collaboration between Nightmare and Starhawk on The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, which contains writings from 36 pagan authors. The book grapples with death among pagans, including modern issues like withdrawing life support and donating organs.

''The overall theme is the wheel of life, the wheel of seasons,'' says Nightmare. ''Everything dies in its time. You can see it now - the leaves are dying, it looks like a dead time, but underneath it the trees are alive.''



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