I may be the last of a generation who remembers the local village vicar. As familiar a sight as the local Bobby (policeman) walking his beat, the vicar was often about, visiting parishioners, helping in schools, generally being part of the community.
Now this is a sight only for fiction – Agatha Christie dramas, ‘The Vicar of Dibley‘ and suchlike.
And yet I’ve discovered that the roaming priest is still very much needed.
This image is not a place where I have personally walked. But it is cookie-cutter similar to those I, and many others, do.
As I lock the heavy gate-door behind me and enter the prison wing, I always feel a little nervous. But it’s similar to the feeling before a public ritual, a Handfasting or even visiting a private house for a supportive chat.
Because you are ‘on’ – you are Priest, Minister, Chaplain, Celebrant… whatever you want to call me (as I often say, you can call me anything provided it’s nice!).
I minister to those who identify as Pagan – but I am often approached by others too. In the prison environment it’s first of all because I’m female, but then out of curiosity. Again, it’s similar at public events when I’m in robes. I’ve spoken of it before and I’m still glad that people are curious rather than fearful, able to approach and ask questions rather than cower or even be abusive.
I’ve discovered, too, that despite my nerves, I rather love it.
I got back to the Chaplaincy at the prison a few weeks ago, after spending quite a while on the wings, and commented on how good it was to do, how worthwhile. The Church of England Chaplain looked around and smiled. “It is, isn’t it?” he remarked. He’s often out and about, Bible in hand, huddled against the cold but always busy, out there with those who need him. The prisoners have told me of the friendly Imam as well, often there for a chat.
The Priest serves their community as they are needed and called upon. This is regardless of faith path, religious doctrine or even personal preference. We help because that is our role and our job, but also our calling as people. We want to make friends, to find that common ground, to share and connect with others.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about Ministry, biographical accounts of women fighting to become priests in the Christian Church over recent decades, but also those taking vows to join monasteries or convents. The latter may seem to be removing themselves from their communities in order to better understand and work with their spirituality, but in fact they are often the busiest, getting out into the roughest areas to help those who the ‘regular’ world believes beyond help: the sick, dying, homeless… those in need.
I read of the ‘call’, vocational summons to live life for God. This is an interesting idea from a Pagan perspective, and one that I’m not sure has really been explored yet (not that I’ve seen, at least). Many of us live our lives with honour to our Gods, but giving everything up for Him/Her…?
And yet, I realize, perhaps I am doing this already. I mediate between the spiritual and the everyday, in my writing and my ‘walking the talk’. I represent deity (as named individuals and the wider Natural world) in public ritual. I end my day exhausted but glad, having worked as a Pagan for those who ask – and those who don’t, but who welcome me anyway.
I may not even mention ‘Gods’ to those who approach me as I walk the prison paths. But I do explain what my Paganism means, find common ground (often surprisingly easily!) and simply chat, as a visitor and potential friend. I’m not out to convert anyone, but respect those who step up to ask. The other day, as I locked those same barred gates behind me, I heard a (non-Pagan) prisoner commenting to a mate of how pleasant I was. The Pagan prisoner I’d come to see was beaming – proud at last that his spirituality was recognised and valued, rather than mocked. Just by my turning up and engaging.
So the Priest is still walking the streets, still needed. In traditional ways, but also exploring new ground – online, via social media and Skype – but where there are people who need companionship, help, just someone to hear them and be there. I suspect many ‘quiet’ or solitary Pagans do the same, in their small but meaningful way.
It might not be a job for all of us. I’m still often surprised that I’ve fallen onto such a path! Or perhaps… just perhaps… I answered that call.