Personal Essay

Rites Of Passage – Part 6

By Gaia Woolf-Nightingall

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

At  Reclaiming camps a variety of experiential events always occurred, all were themed around the creation or fortifying of spiritual growth. One of the experiences that are offered by Reclaiming teachers is commonly known as a ‘path’.

Paths were week-long metaphysical courses and having read the description of all four offerings at this year’s camp, I was torn. It would not be an easy choice to make, all the Paths held a beguiling charm for me, but, in the end, I decided to take the Priestess path.

The Priestess path was being presented by Anne Marie, a teacher that I respected and admired a great deal, she was a gifted mentor, who had a wonderful way of inspiring you to reach further, and to see that your experiences were important, that you were important. She embodied the concept of Divinity within all.

Despite my choice, I was assured to be the right one. I was nonetheless eager to hear about the experiences of those who have chosen different paths, in particular the Shamanic path. I had several animated conversations with fellow campers about this course.

The concepts and ideas that resonated with me the most, were concerning their impressions around the notion of identity. They spoke about the names, and the words we used to describe ourselves. For example, I might describe myself as a daughter, a mother, a wife, an artist, or a writer. These things are descriptions of aspects of the life I had chosen to live. Parts of my physical reality or ways of being in the world, but in the end, they did not, or could not define who ‘I’ really was.

Who ‘I’ am is something perhaps, quite indefinable, beyond that of naming at all. I am the sum of many parts, but at the same time my essence, my unique inner spark, is like an empyreal radiance, too complex to be completely grasped by perception or intellectual research alone.

Naming is still, however, a valuable tool within human society, we name those things we seek to discern, those things we need to define, this is an aid, a tool that helps us to comprehend the complexities of our planet, our society, and the vast cosmos around us. Naming is a survival strategy. When we give a name to a thing or to each other, we understand its place in the environment. My name tells you, who I am in relation to my human tribe, identifies my place in society relative to another person.

When I was born my mother bestowed upon me the gift of a name, one that held great meaning for her, it was indeed a beautiful name, my mother named me Catherine. But as happens, often, with a name that is popular with one generation or another, there were other children in my peer group who were also named Catherine.

This created more than a modicum of confusion among my friends in school. And as is often the way they, in turn, they bestowed upon me a ‘nick’ name, which made reference to the manner of my appearance, although it could have just as easily have been based on my likes, dislikes, or surname. And now, far into my thirties I still carried around with me the name that my school friends had christened me with.

I sat contemplating this name, and a new thought ignited within my mind, surely it was time for a change, for a name that matched more closely with the identity I had forged throughout the years. And then, unexpectedly, as that chain of thought was ending, Gaia fell into my consciousness. It rang out like a church bell calling the congregation to mass, loud, melodic, and clear.

Initially, I could not make sense of the reason why the name Gaia was repeating in my mind. At camp, we often spoke about the stories, and legends of the Gods and Goddesses, and so, perhaps I was just tuning into the energy of a tale I had just absent-mindedly heard. Perhaps I had the Goddess Gaia on my mind. But, her name kept repeating, everywhere I went, her name kept imposing itself upon my waking thoughts until it was safe to say that I was feeling a more than little uncomfortable about it.

I decided to ask a fellow camper for her speculations as to why my mind was fixated on the name Gaia. To my surprise, she seemed to think that it was because it suited me well as a name. Was it my name? I felt the truth in her words.

She proposed that I try the name on for size, just for a few days whilst I was at camp. At first, I was a little troubled by the whole idea, even though I could not exactly say why. Perhaps it seemed too audacious of me to assume the name of the Earth Goddess herself as my own.

I believed that I ought to give myself a chance with it all the same, and over the next few days, I assumed the name of Gaia, just for my time in camp. It was like I was assuming a magical name. This was commonplace within the wider pagan community. Many folks had one name that they held as they moved through the mundane realm, and one name they held to move through the magical realm.

Over the next couple of days, I began to relax more into the feelings and sensations that the name Gaia evoked within me, and when I spoke it daily to my heart, Gaia began to sing in resonance with my core. One day, I simply awoke and I was, Gaia.

When my teachers heard the news, they informed me that in some cultures, perhaps somewhat wiser than our own, that it is frequently the custom, for a person’s name to change at a special time during life, perhaps at a rite of passage. Acknowledging the birth of a new phase of life, a period of growth and change. A person gifts to themself the name that resonates more closely with the person they feel they have become.

The last ritual of the camp was about to begin, it was a bitter-sweet moment, Reclaiming rituals were, ecstatic, always expansive, and deeply moving.

But as this was the last ritual of the camp, I was aware that in a very short period of time I would be saying good buy to old and new friends, and that I would be unlikely to see them again until the year following.

As I stood, enfolded in the comfort of sacred space, listening and swaying to the rhythm of another moving service, unexpectedly, my teachers made a procession into the center of the circle. They turned outward and faced me. Anne Marie stretched out her hand towards me and gestured for me to join her in the circle, this I did. Then, before the gathered congregation, Anne Marie reintroduced me to the community as Gaia. I was overwhelmed by the joy of the moment.

I bathed in the energy of the circle and received into my body, the waters of the world. Fresh and cool, and there they began the cleansing away of all that no longer served me. And the sacred star of source shone brightly once within me, under, the auspices of a renewed soul. I was baptized anew.

“Life really does begin at forty. Up until then, you are just doing research”. – Carl G. Jung

As a young child, I secretly listened to my mother and her friends discussing the lives they had led, in these conversations they laid bare their hopes, fears, and dreams. I heard about the sicknesses that had ravaged the bodies of their aged relatives and I sensed the fear dripping from their mouths, as the inexorable march of time, drew them closer and closer to their fortieth decade, fear began to slowly eat away at their confidence, for them this would herald the coming of the invisible years.

From the perspective of my teenage mind, these conversions seemed irrelevant to my life, I could not equate their cares with my own future life. I listened but I did not hear.

It was impossible for me at such a young age, to contemplate a time when I would be, well, actually over thirty years of age. I listened nonchalantly, with an almost callous heart, to their fears and pain. In my youthful ignorance, I imagined I would be forever young. I closed my eyes and believed that if I wished it enough it would be so.

The years advanced non the less, and deep from within in the recesses of my mind the conversations between my mother and her friends began to rise up, phoenix-like from the ashes of forgotten memory.

Today was my fortieth birthday and I looked at my face in the mirror, for the briefest of moments I felt fearful, nauseous, and looked away. I  gripped the edge of my bathroom sink with tense sweaty hands. The touch of cool porcelain cooled my fears and so once again, I was able to look at my face in the mirror.

No decaying matter, wrinkled or sour form stared back at me, I looked exactly as I had the day before my birthday. I furrowed my brow and stared more intently. I scrutinized every line, every blemish, and every freckle.

I contemplated the society in which I had lived my whole life. It was true that trepidation grew within most of us as the years advanced. No one had, as far as I knew, discovered or created the philosopher’s stone, immortality was not a part of the human condition. And even with strong faith at hand, the truth of what lay beyond the borders of Western shores, at the moment of death was still a fearful mystery.

Under the glaring and unforgiving lights of cultural mores, the value of women of maturity was cheap. Our society was overly consumed by the cult of youth.

I heard my mother’s voice rise up once more in my mind and yes, finally I understood, I felt deeply sorry that the ignorant child that I had once been, was so dismissive of her pain.

I knew now that it was time to stand in power, not fear, power for myself, for my mother, and for my mother’s mother. It was time to own the respect I, we, should have always owned. Standing as they had and now as I did on the threshold of the kingdom of the Elders.

It was time to reclaim my place as a woman of substance, to throw down the assumptions and prejudices of old, and proclaim, that I, we, were Goddess, whole and complete, always perfect, never invisible. All the pages of my life’s work would guide me, wisdom and discernment were the gifts of time.

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