Rites Of Passage

Originally published in Brigid's Fire magazine, February 2011

These are times of great change, ecologically, economically, politically and not least spiritually. If one had predicted the amazing loss of faith in the institutions of religion and government say 20 years ago there would have been nothing but howls of derision and laughter. However, here we are now in 2010 and the great edifice of public respectability is crumbling under the weight of its own corruption and failure to engage with the people of this country in any meaningful way.

I am not for a moment suggesting that Neo-Paganism is going to fill the obvious void left by the mass exodus from Roman Catholicism, but it is one of a number of spiritual paths that is on the increase and will play its part in providing an alternative for those that still feel the need for spiritual/religious input in their lives.

This is an interesting time for Paganism, here thanks to the efforts of PF Ireland legal marriage ceremonies can take place for the first time. Another recent development is Ireland’s first ecological burial ground, which caters for all denominations as well as humanists or atheists. This presents the opportunity for genuine Pagan burials to take place for the first time in well over a millennium rather than the embarrassing after- thought tacked onto the obligatory Christian burial that people of many faiths have received in the past - regardless of their wishes. For example, a good friend of mine told me, the story of how her dear friend was given a Catholic burial despite the fact that he was a life long Sikh!

Such important rites should and must not be allowed to be enacted by default or the rights and religious freedom of any faith be trampled on. After all, our constitution enshrines the right to religious freedom for all the people of Ireland; although this was written with the Catholic/Protestant divide in mind, it is equally applicable to all religions and should be applied equally.

So, perhaps now that opportunity beckons, it is time to get our house in order with respect to rites of passage? Given the multitude of beliefs and strands within Paganism it is not possible, nor should there be, standardized rites and procedures. As a former Catholic I am well acquainted with the Church’s rites from birth to death as is generally the case with anyone who has grown up in that environment. Neo-Paganism being still in its infancy the rites of passage are not so clearly defined and also vary enormously from one tradition/path to another.

In modern Christian tradition baptism is performed either at birth (in the case of illness) or after a few months. In much earlier times this was generally performed on consenting adults; the baptism of infants, which is in reality a form of initiation, was introduced to prevent their souls entering Limbo in the event of their untimely death. Interestingly there is no such rite in Islam or Buddhism that I am aware of, although the Jewish act of circumcision is performed on infant males (this barbarous act actually has some basis in penile health) and mikvah or ritual immersion is practiced as a means of purification although this is repeatable at appropriate times unlike baptism.

In pre-Christian Ireland and Wales it is recorded that Druids baptized children, in Ireland they sang the baithis geintlídhe over the child at a river or stream. I could find no reference to the age at which this was performed but if it was also a name giving this was probably performed on new borns. Speaking personally, I feel that any form of initiation performed on the newborn or those who are unable to make decisions for themselves is an act of violation and should not happen. If I were asked to dedicate/initiate an infant to a particular path or to a particular deity I would refuse to do so. I do however feel that a blessing and name giving is fair enough and provides an opportunity for a communal rite without infringing the individual’s right to self-determination. In some initiatory rites (such as described some 1800 years ago by Apuleius on his acceptance into the cult of Isis) baptism is part of the ritual, apparently common enough in religious cults of the pre-Christian era, however this was entered into by sentient individuals of their own volition.

Introducing children to religious beliefs is a difficult subject, there is a thin line between passing on traditions and indoctrination, which brings me to the next rite – Greening. As an alternative to receiving ‘Holy Communion’ some Pagans off Greening to children of the usual ages 7-8. Having not witnessed this myself I cannot say too much about it, however I can appreciate that both family and the child themselves may feel it appropriate for some act of commitment to their path, although I again would be hesitant about initiation.

I would consider late teenage a time from which it might be appropriate to offer initiation, unlike the Catholic rite of Confirmation which usually takes place at 12-13 in this country. I am aware that in some other less predominantly Catholic countries this takes place at 14-15, a step in the right direction but in my opinion still too young for most teenagers to make a definitive commitment to any spiritual path. In Wicca ‘Coming of Age’ ceremonies including ‘Dedication’ might be offered at the onset of puberty, however this does not require the same level of involvement as initiation. In many cases this is perhaps sufficient for people who do not wish to make a serious spiritual commitment and also is a sensible intermediate stage on the way to initiation for those who choose it.

From discussion with Wiccan friends and from my own experience of Druids and Shamans I am aware that there is no clear point of entry for initiates as regards age, it seems to be at the discretion of the individual priest/priestess, coven, grove or order and of course depends on the readiness/willingness on the part of the neophyte. If rites in Paganism are to be taken seriously I feel that it is important to avoid the nonchalant attitude often exhibited by Christians and sometimes in other long established faiths. ‘Going through the motions’ defeats the object of participating in religious rites and so I would consider that initiates (young or old) should be required to exhibit their sincerity before being allowed to participate in what should be a sacred moment in their life.

As regards marriage, this is now a well-established rite within Paganism; what is new here is the legal status that has been granted via the Pagan Federation. In legal terms there are only two sentences that are required, the remainder of the ceremony is at the discretion of the participants so I believe, which hopefully means that all shades of Pagan can be catered for. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds and I have high hopes that this will give Paganism a level of credibility and toleration that it has not been afforded in the past.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the opportunity for unimpeded death rites presents itself. Restrictions of the law with regard to manner of burial or cremation obviously have to be observed and so potential celebrants need to be aware of this in performing a rite of death. As far as I know it should be possible for family to perform their own rites (if any) at the new burial ground in Kill Ann (Wexford), perhaps dispensing with the need for a facilitator altogether!

This is an exciting time to be a Pagan both as an individual and also as a facilitator/priest/ celebrant etc. especially as we move ever closer to equal status with other religions. I can only hope that this will lead to greater freedom and greater religious tolerance both in Ireland and the wider world, which in both cases is sadly still beset by religious intolerance and violence.