It seems a common topic of conversation these days that the world is pretty chaotic. We find so many things hard to understand – from violence in the name of peaceful religion, to laws which seem to increase suffering for some in the ‘best interests’ of others, or just decisions to which we can only stammer ‘But… but… that’s just wrong!’ At heartfelt level, become intellect and rationality, we know this and are flummoxed that the other person cannot even grasp the possibility.
The craziness of ‘everyday’ life is brought home to me often, largely because of my work as a Professional Priest. This brings two worlds colliding in a very real sense. The secular, normal, nuts-and-bolts life that generally allows for the concept of spirituality but with an undercurrent of nervousness, unsure how to engage with it for fear of offending – and the spiritual, soul-deep understanding that we are actually all humans muddling through some greater journey together, albeit with a similar suspicion that the 9-5 family-and-day-job is mad in its own way. Is one more important than another? Is one more real than another?
Both worlds do acknowledge that we need help sometimes (though even asking for that can be a challenge in itself). We know that the ancients combined the roles of Support Staff – the Druid or Shaman could be a doctor, a teacher, a priest, a midwife. They were educated to do so, and saw those roles as interconnected.
So this compartmentalisation of life is perhaps helpful to organise the chaos in a general sense, but less so when trying to gauge how these parts come together within us, in fully understanding – going beyond a soundbite or simplification (including my brief descriptions here).
As I say, in my work as Priest, I see this line blurring between the Real and the Cosmic (yes, I know, both words are wildly inaccurate, but bear with me). I’ve been researching Mysticism for a while now, as well as Spiritual Crisis, and come across many tales where someone’s intense mystical experience – that is, engaging at deep level with Spirit – transforms their understanding of life to the extent that what is perhaps called madness ensues. This is a relatively new theory, whereby psychoses or neuroses are not in fact negative or harmful, but ways of processing experiences that our society does not allow for, understand, teach about or even acknowledge (except as ‘illness’).
While a new theory, it’s not a new concept. Many historic mystics suffered from physical and mental illness, and it could be argued that this affected artists and other creative folk too (Van Gogh leaps to mind, as well as Virginia Woolf, Byron, Sylvia Plath and any number of others). The Druid expression of the ‘Fire in the Head’ that affected the Bard in the grip of Awen/Inspiration also rings true here.
However, I’ve also been fortunate enough to see this from an entirely new perspective lately – in an enclosed community with its own rules and ways of life, outside of the regular everyday that most of us are used to.
Since December, I’ve been working as a Prison Chaplain. Even in this short time, the dramatic difference between the world inside the bars and that ‘on the outside’ has struck home to me, and I’ve no doubt that it will continue to do so. I am constantly learning from those I minister to and with. But one remarkable fact keeps raising its head.
Within this contained society of hard-core criminals, respect and understanding is given to the spiritual in an entirely different manner to that which I’m used to. I’m often approached by prisoners and asked what I’m doing, as a woman in a man’s world; I reply that I’m the Pagan Chaplain. I’ve noticed that this is met with an expression of wonder, more questions (as is normal) but also a far greater willingness to engage, to discuss spiritual matters and personal problems. While social masks are often still in place (for survival if nothing else), my being present as a Spiritual Professional is respected and appreciated. I’m welcomed in a refreshing manner, as virtually everyone acknowledges that my job is needed, and they’re glad that I’m there.
This does happen on the outside, but it is far rarer. It might be political correctness or simply not being sure how to ask what’s on your mind, but this is one of my main reasons for working hard to be approachable, down-to-earth and Real (as I’m often described!) – because for me, that line between the secular and the spiritual is pretty much pointless. And in the prison environment, I’m able to actually breathe more freely, because those around – without even conscious awareness – feel the same.
This week, a good friend asked about the viability of Pagan enclosed communities (almost like convents or monasteries), to more freely explore the spiritual and mystical in a safe environment without all the noise of the everyday world. This would be voluntary isolation, but I had to smile, seeing interesting parallels. Do we need to separate ourselves to really engage with our spirituality?
What works to get you through life? What do we honestly feel and believe? Why shouldn’t we talk about it, figure it out with others, share and connect? Why are we so afraid?
Perhaps it is these perceived boundaries which are the true bars, resulting in the mental illness, confusion or unhelpful isolation – because we don’t know how to process true experiences that we have within the ‘real life’ around us. Perhaps this is why the Priest is becoming even more relevant and necessary, rather than less.
The Priest might not have all the answers, but they are at least honest enough to listen and walk alongside to find the way forward through the chaos together. And so they are doctor, teacher and so much more stiill, here in this 21st century world.