The Elder: Initiation into Wisdom; Fourth Station of the Goddess
When does someone become an elder? When you become a grandparent? When you retire from work? When you find that you need help in some tasks? Such things are life’s pointers. A grandparent automatically slips into a new phase of existence – whatever their age. In the past when people (mainly men) had regular life-time jobs retirement certainly marked a big transition. And although maintaining the physical is an overriding focus today, even the fittest fade a little.
We fear the coming of ‘old age’ often associating it with the threat of near abandonment into aged care. We are given an alternative message to cover that fear: it’s time now to cast off your responsibilities and burdens; have fun, live the life you’ve always wanted to live.
There’s a magazine ad for a retirement home that to me sums up a kind of denial. A fit looking senior man and woman in short shorts ride a jet ski – the white-bearded man leans forward like a racer; the woman’s head is thrust back, mouth open in unheard shouts of delight. Look, nothing stops us; we are still up there with the youngsters.
Nothing wrong with oldies being adventurous. I think it’s the association with jet skis and young riders notorious for their dangerous insensitivity towards swimmers, boats, and dolphins. Every summer in the coastal town where I once lived, spoilers like this dominated the waves. Not a good association when older folk are meant to be wise.
Elder wisdom doesn’t just happen. There’s a background of personal discovery and integration that takes place throughout the long prior stage of consummation. During those years someone may achieve much, even become a matriarch, spiritual leader, teacher or counsellor. But an Elder? Only the rarest soul achieves a state of full initiation into wisdom before the return journey begins.
What is this return journey and when does it take place - spiritually?
If we look at the archetypal life-rhythm of 7 X 10 years, it forms a large arc, with the mid-point at 35 when typically, our soul is fully settled in our being. The journey of learning and growth continues until the arc returns to mirror our birth year. So we come to the age of seventy. Once this was seen as the natural and archetypal lifespan, even though many lived longer and many more died before this. Yet seventy does signify completion for our soul. After this age the soul wants to turn inward, to increasingly attune to the timelessness of spirit. This is the metaphysical realm we left when at birth we entered the world of time and space. We are beginning our return home.
A soul departing life before this age may achieve wisdom as it turns towards spirit, and how old one has to be before 'eldership' is not a hard and fast rule. Generally, though, the life rite of the Elder will take place somewhere around the 70-year archetype – if an individual has done the preparation in previous years.
Turning towards the spiritual world again is a potent opportunity. Yet the shape of these later years depends on what the soul still needs. Perhaps there remains much dross and negativity to be eliminated. Perhaps there will be a new lesson about acceptance, about letting go worldly power, seeing that the material world is not all there is, that physical changes are inevitable, or even about endurance through suffering. There are many important lessons that will preface a soul’s initiation as an Elder.
Life rites are initiations, initiatory processes. And this fourth station of the Elder is likely to be marked by a powerful shift when at first everything seems lost, when all that was part of you falls away and life seems to lose its meaning, and darkness descends upon the soul.
To willingly enter that place is part of initiation. This is where one meets the neglected aspects of self that must be embraced – and transformed. How this takes place depends on our soul nature. Some souls have been undertaking their personal growth through hands-on enactment in the world. Others, the mystics, have undergone inner transformative crises that may barely be noticed in the external world. This new stage may involve painful outer events and/or inner drama, until the soul is brought to a totally new awakening.
Meanwhile Wisdom, the mighty goddess of boundless blessing has been with you calling gently through the dark night.
What is wisdom; or more rightly who is she? Wisdom is like twin sisters, one the queen of the spiritual worlds, and the other the wisdom guiding nature. She is everywhere. She always has been.
Wisdom is known by many names in diverse cultures. The ancient Egyptians had a good understanding of the Wisdom goddess. She was known as Maat and her wisdom permeated creation. She was pictured on a pedestal, signifying that she was the foundation of balance, order, righteousness, integrity and justice in the cosmos and on earth.
Maat weighed the hearts of the deceased against a feather to ascertain the worth of their deeds while they lived – for an Egyptian’s place in the afterlife depended on their alignment with the goddess’s attributes also known as ‘maat’. Striving to achieve maat through good deeds was the primary obligation of every person in all areas of life from the personal to economics and the arts. Even legal justice was based on maat and aimed to maintain the goddess’s balance and harmony by weighing the correctness of deeds rather than looking for guilt or blame. In a real sense this ‘weighing’ is akin to what takes place as we pass through the station of the Elder.
Wisdom is known as Hokhmah by Jews. In the Book of Proverbs, the young man is taught that ‘her ways are the ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is the tree of life to those who take hold of her.’ (Proverbs 3:17-18) The student is advised to listen well to her:
‘Hear for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth …’ (from Proverbs 8).
Wisdom is a goddess and a quality. Likewise in Greek philosophy where she is known as Sophia. For first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria her speech is true and harmonious because of her union with the divine Word, known as logos.
My teacher Mario Schoenmaker spoke to us about wisdom as an acquisition given by the Holy Ones acquired down the ages through much pain and tears, in previous incarnations as well as the present one. With wisdom, he said, you stand on a firm foundation, you see reality as it is and speak, act and judge accordingly. Yet acquiring wisdom does not mean you sit back, rather the getting of wisdom opens the way to becoming wiser still, interested, enquiring, embracing both joy or sadness and knowing wisdom as the ever-unfolding core of your being.
And there’s more. Wisdom also means to live with a grateful heart, open togiving and receiving love. That is, the wise Elder will be imbued with love – a special quality of love known as agape. This Greek word describes the highest love, a universal divine impulse of love. Agape comes about as an outcome of inner soul work, of sacrifice, acceptance and selfless giving. It is the highest of gifts and it often will not find expression until the later years of life when much urgent busyness is over. Some people live on to a great age because their ability to give of self is so abundant their cup of love has not been emptied. In the presence of these wondrous Elders, we are filled with peace.
The picture is of my mother. She lived to 104 and although she was the extended family’s matriarch and nurturer, and she grasped life with eager hands, I watched her become the Elder gradually as she opened her big heart to receive love.