Posts Tagged chaplain

Vocation

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.

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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.

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Really Real

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.

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Practical Druidry

Today has been busy. I’ve been working on the events surrounding my forthcoming book, updating handfasting ceremonies, planning tomorrow’s workshop, pondering Book 2…

Then I sat down to have a much-needed tea-break, and found this waiting to be watched: ¬†‘Chaplains: Angels of Mersey‘.

There really isn’t much about religion of any sort on television these days. With the need for equality, the media seems fairly nervous of even mentioning faith issues, for fear of offending somebody – which leaves very little in the way of information about any spiritual path (or the need for spirituality at all).

The stories of these chaplains, practical Priests in their communities, were absolutely inspiring.

I love hearing the tales of working priests. I’ve been almost assaulted in the past by lady vicars wanting to make friends, curious monks, confused academics – all with a story to tell, and eager to hear mine in turn. It’s a listening profession, after all, but with so much give and take, generosity and real heart, I feel quite privileged to be a subject of interest, and am fascinated by them in turn.

A lot of the stories are familiar. In these programmes, I’ve seen an Anglican vicar trying to engage students at a Freshers Fair; a hospital chaplaincy helping in a time of crisis; street pastors busy with Saturday night drunks.

I’ve got my own stories, of course. I’m sure they’d be of great interest to documentary-makers, but I’m only interested in media insofar as it allows me to show the wider public that Pagan Priests exist at all – that we’re there to help if needed. Certainly not to garner ‘fame’ (or notoriety) or pander to egos.

This makes me realize, every time, that my constant question is still there for me as well.

What Am I Doing?

Ultimately, I’m one person, sitting here, tapping away with a sleeping dog beside me, on the afternoon of Good Friday. A relatively quiet day. Yet busy with the list of tasks above, and more besides. Life is certainly interesting right now!

Please note: this is not (and never has been) about publicising myself. It actually occurred that I would probably be happy to give my book away for free to those who expressed interest – although my publisher would scalp me, and probably my bank manager too.

It’s about living as I promised. I’m out there, living my faith in my community (physical and virtual) in order to help others, whether Pagan, Christian, atheist, whatever. ¬†That was my choice, and I stand by it.

However, I’ve noticed that Paganism generally seems to have become a very insular spirituality. While folk do seek others of like mind to meet up and chat, in pubs or at Camps, generally their practise is kept private, at home or in quiet places outside, alone. This may be due to fear of ridicule, actual need for secrecy because of misunderstanding, or just a preference for a solitary mode of worship; I’ve no problem with that at all. Ultimately, any conversation that you have with deity is just the two of you.

But is that doing us, as a faith-based community, a disservice? Is our self-imposed isolation stifling our spirituality, rather than allowing it to flourish in the real world?

I’m not suggesting we get out on the streets with leaflets, or knock on doors with copies of ‘Pagan Dawn.’ I’m asking how you express your faith outside of the safety of your own home/room/head-space. My Druidry lives in the places of darkness and difficulty as well as love and light.

For the last few months, I’ve been asking members of The Druid Network to send stories of any community projects they may be involved in. I’ve had very few replies.

I’ve asked local Pagan Federation members for ideas on meet-ups and events, to help our regional community. Again, virtual silence.

Yet my inbox has messages every day from people asking for information, meetings, events, a need for connection with others. It seems that everyone wants something provided for them as Pagans (Wiccans/Druids/Heathens/etc)… but nobody wants to be the instigator. Nobody is willing to stand up and live their faith publicly, to help others, or even just to inspire by their work or creativity. Apathy is easier than hard work.

Except, of course, for myself and the others who do. Some of whom slowly slide into the background again after a time, fed up of the politics of the wider Pagan world, with its egos and challenges; others who have been called ‘media tarts’ simply for standing up to represent their Paganism.

I have also noticed that those who shout others down, be it with anger or mockery, rarely stand up themselves to do the hard work. It’s easy to put on the appropriate garb and join in at a large gathering, or get vocal behind the veil of an internet group, but when a Priest is called upon to teach, minister a service or provide chaplaincy during a life crisis, those loud voices suddenly go quiet.

I know it’s difficult. Trust me, I know. Public Priesting is not at all for everyone.

But it’s not so difficult to get out and honour yourself and your Gods by quiet actions in the world. An allotment or orchard project to bring pleasure to others and food to your family. Litter-picking as you take the dog for a walk, or the kids to school. Even volunteering to help your local space, be it Neighbourhood Watch, local environmental groups or charity work. Consider how best to connect your faith to your life, and do it. Take responsibility, rise to a self-imposed challenge. Be adventurous, explore – find your own quest!

Both The Druid Network and The Pagan Federation exist because of and for their members. Neither is about hierarchical religion or dogmatic dictat; they’re simply there to help. There are local equivalents – get in touch, make contact, grow that community. If you don’t like it, tell why, instigate change, add your voice to the song.

Paganism is incredibly diverse – that’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to it. I may not understand everyone’s point of view, but I do my best to respect it, and not be afraid to ask to find out more. We all make up a kaleidoscopic picture, each working in their own way to represent themselves and their spirituality. How are you a part of that? How are you moving it forward – and how is it moving you forward?

I love to hear stories of these journeys too.

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