by Jerry O’Neill
My rite of passage from midlife to elderhood was actually ten years in the making. There came the sudden death of my first wife Denise in 2010, then a move from Minneapolis to Whidbey Island, Washington, followed by a series of failed attempts to retire from work as a parish pastor. In 2018 I attended a Sage-ing International conference and completed a workbook based on Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s sage-ing principles. In spring 2019 I began to learn and play a new stringed instrument, turning to music and poetry to find my voice and the soul of my vocation for later life.
Preparing to go public with a collection of songs, short poems, and intentions, I found myself struggling to let go of my role as a pastor. Just as my book was about to be released I was asked again to consider serving a parish near our home in Oregon. How would I ever find the freedom and energy needed to use and further develop gifts I’d been excited about since childhood if I continued to feel roped into a job I no longer needed or found especially life-giving?
Then I read Ron Pevny’s book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging and I realized the missing piece. I needed a wide open sacred space for a public rite of passage led by a skilled facilitator in the wise company of other loving older adults. So, I signed up for a Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat , led by Ron and Dennis Stamper, at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. Postponed a couple of times due to Covid, the week-long event was finally held May 1-7, 2022. In hindsight, it couldn’t have been a better time!
On my journey to Ghost Ranch the green forests of the Pacific Northwest gave way to the wide- open high desert of northcentral New Mexico. The stunning beauty of sandstone cliffs and vast canyons provided a sacred portal to peer into the depths of deposition and seismic change that had occurred over the past seven decades on the inner landscape of my life. Surprisingly, very often as the wind blew, I heard nature’s song in my soul and felt right at home.
On a late Sunday afternoon the wind blew me like a tumbleweed into the retreat center, eager to help me plant new seed for the next chapter in my life. Circling with others in this strange arid land we faced uncertainty with blind assurance, quickly coming alive amidst the mystery of new beginnings from the Ancient of Days.
Gathered in the Agape Center we availed ourselves to Love’s way. Each of us placed on a table, which we made our altar, one or more symbols in our lives that have and continue to embody the sacred. Mine was a small tapestry with two figures of Kokopelli—one representing the stir of song and wild innocence in my youth and the other of a new and surprising playfulness of the muse now in my later life. I took off my gold and amber gemstone ring and set it between them trusting that it with, amidst the other signs of the sacred placed by the others, would encourage me to find a fulfilling balance of being and doing in my elderhood.
Intent to make a later life shift from role to soul, I danced with my shadows throughout the week, risking a bold look at my true self and the courage to step out onto a new ground of being. I corraled and tamed a nightmare with the wind of Spirit and found grace to face my fears. Time and again I experienced relief from ego stressers and found a wholesome oneness with what my soul desires.
One morning, while it was my day to hold close to my heart the Cord of Intentions representing the intentions of every elder in our group, I prayerfully walked them into the presence of the sacred deep within the Ghost Ranch labyrinth. As back out I walked, like an onion I peeled all externals away saying on everyone’s behalf, “I am now and to every end forever—Loving Awareness.”
As we entered the life review and repair leg of our journey we shared painful memories, hurts and fears giving those opportunity to be deeply heard. We encouraged each other to trust and bear fruit the truth of soul generates. At a letting go ceremony early one evening I buried a rope I had worn with clergy garb for years as a parish pastor. As I cast it into the “grave”, putting the role of pastor behind me, I heard our co-facilitator and colleague Dennis Stamper cry out, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” And as though from on high his words helped turn my tears of grief into laughter and great joy!
The following day we left the security of our circle in order for each of us to experience a twenty-four hour solo in the wilderness. Nature mirrored on my inner landscape the vast canyons caused by my first wife’s death and now the letting go of my career. As I communed with colorful sandstone cliffs the wind blew again and again enlivening me with grace and assurance.
Upon return to the circle we all pondered how we’d continue to be conscious elders back home.
I began and have since further refined ten intentions for the next seven years covering practically every known aspect of my later life. Shown a myriad of ways to grow more conscious, I am now applying what I’ve learned and experienced at Ghost Ranch. As stated in my first intention, I will practice being present in every circumstance to observe all thoughts, feelings, and relationships first and foremost in the light of my soul.
Perhaps the biggest surprise upon my return has been discovering my need for inner work to help develop a healthy and life-giving relationship between my inner elder and child. So, I am happy to announce, given the conscious elder I’ve become, that I will now take up writing songs and poems with my inner child for a book we might simply call “Child Alive!”