Posts Tagged priest

Labels and Stories

I stare at the blank screen.

So much is going on in the world. What right do I have to ask your time to read my words? But the words want to be spoken.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved words and their power. Sounds, shapes, feel in the mind… so amazing.

And then I remember learning to Shut Up. That my opinion was stupid, laughable or just not worth hearing. People whose opinion I cared about deliberately turned away.

So I learned to stay quiet, to keep the words hidden in notebooks and boxes. To hide my tears, frustration and anger as it seemed others were allowed to speak – but not me.

Now, years later, I write for a living (sort of). I place these words with care, knowing that they might be helpful, interesting or inspiring for some, boring, difficult or annoying for others. That’s ok. I can’t control how my words are understood.

But I can control what I say. Tone, phrasing… and the ultimate point of Why I am Writing This.

Recently, the world has gone up a stage in madness. I believe it was inevitable – we really are in a Change Is Needed place right now, and such times are fuelled with passions. I understand (insofar as I can) and agree.

But our little individual lives go on. We try to help in our own ways, standing with our communities and hopefully acting honourably and with truth. Which is kind of what brings me here today.

I’ve often spoken about labels. How they’re more useful for the viewer than than labelled themselves; ‘Druid’ means something entirely different, for example, to me and then to a random stranger happening upon my work.

I’m seeing labels being used as weapons, as pigeonholes to box folk in, as titles to escape. Negative associations can be tough to remove. I see ‘protestor’, ‘looter’, ‘revolutionary’ being bandied about in the news, but each of those has an individual name – and a unique story.

Sometimes it’s easier to label someone and move on. If you’re not really interested, that’s your choice. But this casual laziness (and disrespect) means that you lose the chance to engage with something more than just a word.

It’s Pride Month right now, and I’m seeing so many different debates about relevance, meaning, identity and so forth. I’m glad people are still talking, sharing those stories and exploring their identities.

I hear them often, my rainbow friends. I see the slight nervousness as they speak sometimes, as if expecting a blow, or at least verbal abuse. The sadness, and then the joy as I continue to listen. Such a simple act, and yet so powerful – and I am honoured to be part of their tales.

Recently, though, it’s not been so much ‘they’ – as in, another person or group. I’ve been feeling more and more that it’s ‘we.’ That this is something I’m absolutely part of.

Years ago, I remember an elderly family member almost spitting at the television, they were so angry. Stephen Fry was speaking, and I wanted to listen. But to my relative… ‘Ooh, it’s that queer again, isn’t it.’

I stared. I quietly asked ‘What?’ He poured some more vitriol on The Gays and the channel was changed for the sake of peace. I felt sick.

I don’t understand that attitude. I want to know the person before I react to an amorphous group. And for this, I am myself a negative: a ‘wishy-washy liberal’. I’ve had similar bile thrown my way for standing up for friends who are somehow the wrong gender, colour, sexuality, nationality.

So many of us are standing up right now to protest this treatment. I can’t believe it still happens, but it is and we must. WE. Including me.

Difficult discussions are being had. Words have their meanings subtly changed and reclaimed. Understandings are being challenged. Normative thinking… may actually be a myth. And for those invested in it, that hurts.

I do sincerely hope that we learn from what’s happening in these times. I hope that positive change is crafted. I do my best, from my own positive of (white, educated) privilege.

I want to raise my voice. I am afraid of the brickbats that may rain down in response… but that’s actually always been something lurking beneath everything I write. ‘Who does she think she is?’ ‘Crazy woman, nutter, New Ager…’

And the worst, the laziest, most contemptible, gaslighting and negating insult: ‘She’s just doing it for the attention.’

I write and speak my truth as best I can. I try to use the labels that are given to me, as well as intentionally claiming some. I prefer Priest, because even as a child, I knew I was more than an ‘-ess’ stuck like an afterthought onto a man’s word.

I am both Priest and Priestess. Author and authoress. But I’m aspiring for the one that needs no ‘-ess’ to be strong and still female: Queen.

I will keep exploring. I will do my best to stand, to listen to all the stories regardless of teller. I will work to maintain safe space for those who need it.

And I’m taking on a new label for myself that I feel is overdue. Sod The Fear of reactions.

This Pagan, Druid, white woman is also Queer. Actively standing.

Let’s all work to make our stories good ones, moving forward.

Much love, my friends.

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A Sudden Sense of Liberty

A while ago, I was seeking an image, for a deity who had been poking me. Nothing seemed to ‘click’, until…

I cannot draw well, but this was a start.

Fast-forward to yesterday. Through lots of upheaval and a near-cancellation, I sat to have the final version tattooed onto my wrist, by Saz from Human Canvas.

As I sat down, I heard the overhead music, and said deity singing along gently as they watched us, as the ink was drilled into me with a feeling like burning…

And I’ve been reminded of some fun with Photoshop that happened a while ago:

We discussed synchronicity as I was inked. This has absolutely been a journey of listening and moving forward. And I know that I’m not done yet.

Sharing just as much as I want to right now. But this is how my process works – inspiration, awareness and action.

Step, step, step.

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Speaking as a Woman

Today is International Women’s Day. This always gets me thinking. Much like Mother/Father/Secretary/Dog’s days, aren’t those every day?

Well, of course. But it’s worth taking a specific day out to think about that particular group.

(Yes, there is an International Men’s Day. That’s not what I’m looking at today).

From an early age, I learned that there were more male role models than female. In the late ’70s/early ’80s, Wonder Woman was my idol. The only superheroes I saw back then were on TV, so while I loved the lonely strength of the Hulk and the corny fun of Adam West’s Batman (where Catwoman always seemed to win, somehow), there wasn’t much else to choose from that I could relate to.

As any so-called minority knows, it’s tough when you don’t see yourself in the world around. You seek out something that reflects You, and hold on to it fiercely when you find it.

It seemed that a certain social group of straight, white men was the norm, the ‘default’. I ended up being somehow tomboy-ish, because the specified female roles weren’t in the least interesting to me. Then that one female leader, Margaret Thatcher… well, no. No, thank you.

I remember adult ladies around me making jokes about the bra-less, freedom-fighting women of Greenham Common and Newbury. Third-wave feminism seemed a long way away from me, and not at all aspirational.

I saw many female teachers, but led by a Head Master. I saw male bosses and female secretaries. Of course, in later life, I became a PA, and understood how deeply true it is that while men stand up to run things, they couldn’t do it without the strong women behind them, hiding their wits and brains behind their battle-armour of Wonderbra, heels and fierce makeup.

It’s often true that women have had to fight twice as hard to gain as much recognition as men do ‘normally’. Which is why on days like this, it’s both fun and necessary to catch ourselves in perpetuating those default norms. Feminism is about equality, for all. This is not about women above men, but asking for equal respect. Be we gay or straight, trans or cis, our stories are just as valid as anyone else’s. No matter our ancestry or current social role or job, we can find commonality, hear each other and stand up together. Our relationships, and the gendered language we use, is still evolving and maturing as it is required to represent new things.Pagans have a great deal of respect for women, given that it is a very female-led spirituality – but again, we still have room to grow. We stand with our brothers, fathers and sons, together in our power, unique and connected. This is the revolutionary act that we can demonstrate, each and every day, in ritual and regular life.We say that we see women as sacred – yet many are still taken advantage of, used or disparaged. In recent years, I’ve got into (rather pointless) arguments about how I call myself a Priest, not a Priestess. While I know that the suffix ‘ess‘ simply denotes the female of the word, once again, the default is male. That always annoyed me, as it seemed so arbitrary. Actress but not directress (or directrix). Many people have called me a Priestess, which I don’t mind at all, but it’s interesting to note that a Priestess is treated as if the title is an honorific, not derogatory (even if you need to be a High Priestess to carry any clout *grin*). That word appears to have been reclaimed, and I’m glad of this. Priest and Priestess, standing together as God and Goddess. And I am deeply grateful to those men who stand at our side.
Today and all days, I call on my lady-friends, women in body and/or spirit, to stand in who they are. Sometimes that’s the biggest battle of all, but know that there are so many others who have your back and love you for that honesty, integrity and bravery. Whether our weapon is a sword, pen, wand or knitting needle, know that we are all Wonder Women at heart.Wonder Woman

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24/7 Priest

I saw an interesting story this morning. A lovely depiction of women, armed raised to the sky, dresses and hair flowing, entitled ‘A Gathering of Priestesses’. It relates to online classes and talks being held soon.

Lovely, I thought. I wish I was as glamorous as them!

Then I stopped. I looked at the recent pictures of myself at work that folk have posted to my Facebook – as I officiate at weddings, namings and public ritual. Good grief… I am doing this! Aren’t I?

I often find myself pausing to consider the terminology we use to describe our ‘work’ – ie the tasks we do for others to support ourselves and our community. I call myself Priest, and have been both honoured and berated for it… despite the fact that I only took it on after enough people had referred to me as such, and I’d been working as one for long enough that I felt it to be an accurate title and descriptor. I don’t tend to use ‘Priestess’, not because I’m ‘denying my femininity’ (yes, really) but because I don’t see gender as part of the role, not really. I’ve often said that people can call me what they want, so long as it’s civil or polite!

But what does it really mean, to ‘Priest?’ Do we turn it on or off, like a 9-5 job? Is it reliant on certain clothing, place or attitude? Of course not. I’ve been reading a lot of work lately by priests of other faiths, and see the same thoughts again and again. A Priest is something you are, not something you do. It’s a role you take on, yes, but as a result of vocation, calling to service. Duty comes into it, but I find myself working almost anytime, anyplace. I have joked that my motto is the same as the 1970s British comedy show, ‘The Goodies’ – We Do Anything, Anytime, Anywhere!

Ultimately, I do what I’m called upon to do. Great. Priesting for others is identifiable. What about other times, then? In private, at home, out shopping, with family?

Nimue Brown wrote a thought-provoking piece that’s been in my head relating to this topic this week, on Gods. As with the title of Priest, being a Priest of [Insert Deity Here] can be used as a bludgeon almost, to give the title-wearer power, bolster their ego, increase their standing in the community… or it can mean what it truly means. 

If you take on the title – and subsequent responsibility – as a Priest of a Deity, then you are that all of the time. As a vicar might serve their community, a Priest of a God serves their Lord or Lady as needed, throughout their lives. Not just when it’s convenient. You don’t shut the door to the Powers that Be. So public Pagan Priests discover that they might be called upon all of the time, even when it might not be convenient to them.

And this includes all those in-between times as well. Which is what occurred to me today.

I made the decision to work from home today. I’ve dressed, sorted out the animal household residents, pinned my hair up and considered what needs doing. No makeup, no jewellery, no glamorous presentation! This idea popped into my head. It wanted out. I’m typing from my sofa, with a cup of tea at hand. That’s how writing works sometimes. So here I am.

Through the writing, I’m discovering thoughts, ideas, challenging myself. Am I a Priest when tapping away here? Or washing up, doing the laundry, walking the dogs? How about when I’m hidden under a blanket, crying my eyes out, having been overcome with emotion on those darkest days? 

Yes, I am. The truth seemed quite simple, as I pondered it. The stories tell us so, and from them – those myths that I return to for guidance – comes confirmation.

Demeter’s dark days are called ‘Winter’. Ereshkigal turned hers into determination. Odin suffered to find his truth. Athena (Wisdom) was born from Zeus’s headache!

Whether we see deity as literally existant or not, our ancestors went through the same life dilemmas as we do now, and retold the journeys in story. From peasant to King, they pondered, explored, screamed and wept. Others were there to help – public, accessible Priests – but part of the journey is questing inside, for that ‘Aha’ moment (yes, which Druids call Awen) of realization. Discernment, through piles of crap or huge social noise, to find your truth. 

Priests do this for others, but also for themselves. We all do, to some degree. While I suspect that the reason that Priests gained so much power is that others wanted to rely on someone else to sort their problems out for them, a good Priest will inspire, guide and encourage, not provide a quick fix (I never quite understood how absolution worked, but repenting a mistake instead of regretting it seemed clear). As spirituality is a life-choice, not just for convenient ‘holy’ days, so we live it. All of the time, good and bad, light and dark. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

We take responsibility. We stand as Priests, guided by those we serve as much as we guide them. My Gods are patient, but give kicks when needed – as do I! Sometimes it is just a matter of allowing space for the realization. 

Priesting myself is no bad thing. Boundaries to allow for that are as necessary as in public ritual. Stories guide along the way. Moments of realization allow for internal ‘facepalms’, of ‘How did I not see that before?!’ – because only now am I ready, in a place to properly see.

I’ve been given many labels over the years, but ultimately, I regularly recommit to those that fit best – and so I move forward. This idea or identity is not finalised in this little blog post; it will evolve as I do, as I discover more on my journey. And so my own story unfolds.
Occasionally, I even dress to match.

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Support

So… this has happened. I now have a Patreon page.

It’s come up a lot on social media over the years. How dare I ask for money to perform the work I do! Well… I need to live. Our ancestors supported their communities, from butcher and baker – to Druid or Priest. I’ve said it often: if I wasn’t able to make my way doing this work, I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m grateful daily that I’m needed and valued in this way, both monetarily and in the thanks of the many kinds that I’ve received over the years!

Now, things are moving forward. I’m testing the water, to see if this is possible – to have a base for that work, rather than taking over my own kitchen table with laptop and papers. I had it once before, at the lovely White Rose Healing Rooms, and people would come to visit, to learn, to just find a comfy chair, a cup of tea and some sanctuary. This is needed again.

What I get on Patreon will be supplemented from my own earnings, of course. But the more I’m backed, the more I can do – and I will. I’ve often been told that I undervalue myself, but it’s more that I’m aware nobody has much in the way of spare finances these days. Ultimately, I’m there for those in need, and those don’t tend to be the affluent.

But if you can, know that your help is so very much appreciated. Updates will be regular, and surprise gifts are being planned! As always, I do try my best.

I’m hopeful that this will aid my writing and my work with others, as the next stage on this mad journey…

Onwards.

With love and thanks, as always xxx

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I Have Confidence…?

When I was little, one of the main background soundtracks to my life was ‘The Sound of Music’.

Don’t laugh. Bear with me, there is a point to this.

My Mum loves that film. Every holiday it was on (in the times before any form of recording device), and the songs played in the car as I learned the words and sang along. The ending was difficult to watch, but I loved the first half, of Maria the Nun bringing happiness to a rather repressed family unit.

As I grew up, this story fell by the wayside. Whereas once ’16, going on 17′ had seemed a world away, now it seems a world ago. But one of the songs has been looping in my head lately.

When Maria leaves her convent to go out into the world – after we, the audience, have been informed what a klutz she is – she sings of her hope for what’s ahead:

‘I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain, I have confidence that Spring will come again – besides which you see I have confidence in me!’

But towards the end of the song, she falters. ‘I have confidence in confidence alone… oh help.’

She stops. Those last two words aren’t sung, but spoken, whispered. The mask of joy falls. She prays for help, for strength – for that same confidence to step up to the task she has been set. She knows how hapless she is, and how large a job she has ahead. Singing a happy song might not be enough.

This is the truth and pleasure I find in well-done musicals, by the way. That they are so absurdly happy one minute, but reflecting the deeper worries of life the next. If they’re done right, musicals don’t do half measures – they’re all or nothing, but still with the nuances of reality that we all know. Cunningly masked behind a veneer of merry song.

A lot of my time recently has been in that moment that Maria shows, that pause, that ‘oh help’. I’m stepping up to the next level in my work, it seems, both personally and professionally. I’ve always had confidence that my gods will present challenges that might seem insurmountable, but are always within my grasp – if I push myself. That’s the point.

I’m reading a lot of books that I never thought I would, discussing new topics, exploring deeply. Ministry, theology, even religious texts of other faiths (to the shock of one kind Imam!). I’m investigating new – and old – worlds, and it’s amazing. I know that it’s a gift that I even can. As a woman and a Pagan, those previously repressed ‘minorities’, I am now free to act publicly as Priest. That’s no small thing, and one that I hope I never take for granted.

This morning, I’m reading a book on Chaplaincy – specific Priesting within certain spheres of society, rather than to a geographical community (as I am now doing in prison). I’m almost in tears as I read of those Chaplains caring for the soldiers in Afghanistan. I recently finished a tale of nuns who work for women’s shelters in New York. This is faith on the ‘shop floor’ – and yet, apparently a lot of the ‘proper’ Churches view Chaplains as not ‘proper’ Priests.

Paganism has the opposite approach, I’m finding. Because our current methods of public Ministry are still very much finding their way, it’s still seen as miraculous that we can be included in the multifaith community, as professional Chaplains at all. We’re still a ‘fringe’ spirituality, but which is being recognised more and more, and respected accordingly.

Our Western society, by and large, is pretty secular, but I hardly ever receive sneers or derisive comments about my role. Most people are amazed and curious, bombarding me with questions and enthusiasm. Individually, people still feel a spiritual ‘pull’, the need for someone to chat to about what’s on their mind as a companion, but also to support them in tough times. The Priest in the community might have a wider remit than the Chaplain in their ‘bubble’ (army base, hospital, prison) but both are absolutely invaluable. We are appreciated, and that is glorious.

But I am so very aware that we are still finding our way. I love that I can speak to my fellow Chaplains about this – their churches have been doing it for longer, after all, so their experiences are inspiring to hear. Ultimately, though, I can easily feel like Maria sitting there, with the support of her church behind her, but very much alone in that moment. 

How on earth can I do this? God, what are you asking of me?

I’m finding that stories about prayer are also pulling me lately. Another area which Pagans are only now starting to intellectually explore, what do we do when we are alone and needing help? Is this not a huge aspect of the Paganism that I convey to those I Minister to? How do you express the inexpressible in your heart, to and of beings that are beyond words…

Once, it helped hugely to know that I was part of a wider community, through the groups I volunteered for. This week, I resigned as Trustee of The Druid Network, and am stepping down as District Coordinator for The Pagan Federation. I’ll still be volunteering for both, but on a much smaller level.

I need to take the time to sit alone, in that ‘oh help’ moment. To speak with my Gods, to discern what’s next, as well as what I’m doing now. What am I doing? That old question, ever relevant.

I step on alone in one sense, therefore, but in actuality just with less titles. I know that I have a wonderful community behind and beside me, and that counts for so much. I’m listening for the tug that pulls me in the right direction, and know that I’ll be treading new paths. It’s bloody scary.

I’m not sure I have confidence; in fact, often I know I don’t. But I step forward, as promised. I do my best.

Onward, as always.

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Spring – Madness and Stillness

The sun is rising on the Spring Equinox. The Supermoon is high above, to become visible soon as we witness an Eclipse. We stand at a time of balance, between the winter past and the warmer days that are almost here…

Some say that it’s been a hard winter. I hear that every year, but it’s at this time that we take stock, consider those dark months receding and what lessons we learned.

I’m very aware that for a good part of 2015 thus far, I’ve been pretty ill. In one way or another, it’s been hard to function, to get things done, and I feel that my work has suffered as a result. My own little internal Jiminy Cricket seems to delight in pointing this out to me, which doesn’t exactly help.

And there’s the external voices too, of course. Why haven’t you done this particular task? From the impossible – are you planning to run a marathon (after a tough run, where I struggled to reach a mile) – to the possible but difficult: when’s your next book out? And of course, the everyday: You haven’t answered my email, did you get it, is everything ok? (it was sent two hours ago). 

We all get this, I’m sure. Everyone sees only their connection, not realizing how much is going on as well. I don’t mind, actually (well, most of the time), as it’s nice to be wanted and have folk who care to reach out. But it can be difficult, especially when they only add to my own interior monologue of worry about What I Haven’t Done Yet. That cosmic To Do list might reach to the Supermoon by now.

But a few things this week have brought ideas together, creating this blog post to put my conclusions into words on the new Spring day.

Yesterday, a friendly journalist called to ask if I would speak this morning on radio about the events of today. She couldn’t reach me at home or on mobile, so asked my partner if she could call me at work. I’m utterly incommunicado while undertaking my Chaplaincy commitments, but she didn’t understand this: ‘Oh, its ok, I’ll call her at work to chat.’ No, no you won’t. This caused confusion. When I eventually spoke to her, she didn’t seem to quite understand that the Spring Equinox isn’t about High Festival, but smaller celebration, personal time to reconnect with our surroundings – or at least, it is for me. I got the impression that I wasn’t saying what she wanted, or expected.

This brought home to me how easy it is to get stuck in our own little worlds, our personal universe of expectations, and how easy it is to be brought up short when others don’t (or won’t) fit into them. I remember being like this, by the way – I worked in media, and in fast-paced London environments where things have to be done now or the world will end! Everything else is unimportant, except that immediate demand that you must fulfil. I do get it, and I do try to help her fulfil her requirement. Albeit with a small smile, as expectations meet reality.

Potentially, this is where my worrying voice comes from. Like a Microsoft ‘helpful’ application, why haven’t I done this, that and the other? Because things happen. External priorities come up. Personal ability makes it impossible. And it is really so important, or can it legitimately wait until later, when a proper job can be done? But we get caught up in ourselves, forgetting what’s outside the bubble of worry.

Everything is so fast-paced these days, I’m sure you all have versions of these thoughts and experiences. I’m sure you know the frustration too – ‘Why doesn’t this person understand how urgent it is?’ Impossible to even entertain the idea that the person understands… and doesn’t acknowledge that urgency. Because it’s not as important to them; if it’s even actually real. Tomorrow, it’ll be equally urgent, but something entirely different. 

Of course, there’s priorities; I’ve written of this before. But sometimes the pause is needed, to assess and consider. I love how the Pagan festivals allow this. I don’t really care if they’re a recent invention – we now have a day to celebrate Spring itself. How wonderful! The constant cycle, the movement, the time to look both back and forward. It’s not about Getting Stuff Done, or How We Celebrate. It’s about where we are, right now. Here.

I’ve been asked to present a talk later in the year, and am considering a look at Vocation, in a Pagan sense. That’s what’s on my mind at the moment. And it seems to be a good idea, because everything is coming together to add to it, to make it grow and develop. What am I doing as a Pagan Priest? How do I balance my duty to my Gods, my ‘flock’ (I have no idea what the collective term is for a Pagan Community, but I’m sure there’s many comedy options)… and to myself? What use am I if I don’t honour myself? How can I function for others if I don’t have the time, strength or energy to even walk down the road – as is required by my doggie family members every day? 

We feel the sap rising with Spring, the longer days, the joyful birdsong, the bright flowers… and we want to be Doing. But rather than zooming off and running into the floor – or causing inadvertent chaos for others in the process with our demands – perhaps today is a good time to pause. To celebrate, yes, to feel that warmth in our hearts as well as on our skin. But also to take stock, at this time of balance. 

Once we know which direction is best, we can step forward. Honouring ourselves and those around.

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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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A Modern Druid

Last Monday, I greeted the dawn with my partner, as we called the Awen from within the circle at Stonehenge.

The sun was more of a rosy glow than a dramatic flaming sphere, but the atmosphere was tangible. Damp grass beneath us, the indescribable age and weight of the stones around. Dawn chorus loud in our ears, sheep and cows calling to each other from nearby fields. Security guards keeping watch, smiling, and tourists eagerly snapping away with their cameras. And the two people that we were ministering to, dressed so beautifully, nervously waiting to join hands and step forward.

It struck me later in the day that we ticked so many of the perceived ‘Druid’ boxes in that brief moment – Stonehenge, robes, Awen, sunrise, chanting… performance.

It was the last in a long month of travel, performing ritual for many, many people across the land, and while being honoured to do so, becoming aware of how very tired we now were.

But life doesn’t stop. My partner still has his day-job, and I have my own work. Self-employed means, I’ve found, working far longer hours than I ever did in an office, and for less pay. The perks are there, of course, but the life of a writer – as many others have remarked upon – can be a lonely one.

This is the balance which we are currently living: walking the line between the powerful energy of public ritual, and the private needs of two people. Bills still have to be paid, pets walked, housework done. But also articles written, talks booked, deadlines met… and of course the endless emails!

Please don’t think I’m complaining, by the way. This is the life I have carved out, so different from what I expected years ago when asked that awful question: ‘So, where do you see yourself in 5/10/20 years?’ Nobody can answer that, not really. Life is seldom that straightforward.

However, from the initial problems that I faced when starting out on this path – the combining of ‘real’ everyday life and my spirituality, finding time for ritual, questioning my ethics and challenging the integrity of my practice – I’ve come to realize that very little has actually changed. Although I now call myself ‘Druid’ publicly, those issues remain; they’ve just grown larger.

It’s less of an issue of finding time for ritual, more about finding time for personal work, private time. My way of life is constantly challenged, as now I often represent more than just myself, especially when standing up for The Pagan Federation or The Druid Network. As I told those who attended a recent talk, when you begin to identify publicly as a Pagan (Druid/Witch/etc), when you give yourself that label, people expect certain things – or they’ll be watching curiously, to see what that label really means. You’ll become that wee bit more accountable.

I’ve been challenged in person a lot recently as well. That tired old question, asked in terribly self-righteous tones, of ‘How can you call yourself a Druid?’ How dare you do what you do?

I feel as if I’ve answered this so many times. No doubt I’ll have to again. Sometimes the manner of the questioning hurts, deeply. But as my patience wears thin with lazy questions, backed up by ill-informed arguments, I’ve felt my pride in my work step up to answer.

See those stereotypes at the beginning of this post? Stonehenge, Druids, all that? I did that, yep. I will again. And not for me – for those who asked. My own practice was not at all a factor in that ritual, as it is not in any that I perform for other people. As Priest, I represent my path, my homeland, the Powers that Be as they are perceived… by and for those for whom the ritual is being conducted. I stand there in service to their need. My experience tailored to assist in the duty which I perform. If all you can see is the theatre, the robe and staff, then you need to look deeper.

I work bloody hard, every day, in service. My email box is full of questions, requests for help, tasks to fulfil. And so I am working – yes, in terms of hours of labour – for my Community, as a Druid. Because that’s what they want of me.

By this, I do actually feel the appropriateness of the word, as it ties to our ancestors. Of course we don’t know what the ancient Druids did, not in any detail. But we know that throughout human history, people have lived, loved, been born and died. Rites of passage have been crafted to mark important events. Support has been needed in times of crisis. Our ancestors did this, and so do I.

This world in which I live is so far removed from that of those ancestors that I doubt they’d recognise it – from the construction of my home to the food that I eat. The Britons have moved forward, after all: in our learning, our technology, our philosophy, our way of life (and our named identity). The specific acts of the ancient Druids would likely be irrelevant now, if they were transplanted wholesale into modern life. Modern Druids don’t forget, but we must remain relevant.

My work as Druid, as Priest, has to reflect my tribe, those who call upon me. I love history and archaeology, but I can’t be worrying about the precise ‘authenticity’ of ritual, for example (which we can’t know anyway). My concern is acting with honour and integrity for those who do ask – whether it’s for practical, tangible help, or just information and teaching. My relationship with my community is not theoretical, with dogmatic dictates or Company Policies – it’s real! Each person, each situation, each ritual request is unique. I treat them as such.

Incidentally, this is not romantic or glamorous, idealised, all flowery language and floaty robes. It’s the ultimate in practical. My robes have to survive all conditions, but so do my mind and body. Weddings are beautiful, but they’re also times of enormous stress for those involved. As are funerals and births – rites of passage which we will experience in all their bloody glory. Those times of terrible crisis where spirituality is so very necessary but which cannot provide easy answers. I’ll still be there, when called. And I think that’s the line at which modern ‘clergy’ will rise or fall.

I stepped up to this task, forced by circumstance and not entirely sure how well I was going to succeed. I was aware (and have since been reminded!) that by standing up publicly, I would be exposing myself to all those slings and arrows of others, those who disagree, who hate, who have no wish to engage or understand. And so I do.

My work is like that of any other person, when undertaken willingly and conscientiously. It can be difficult and tiring, with long days (and nights), challenges and doubts. On other days, it might be full of laughter, utterly fulfilling, glorious and awe-inspiring. My ‘everyday’ life has merged with my ‘spiritual’ life – it’s up to me to maintain that, to keep my own integrity of practice so that I might share that within my work. If I become complacent, blase, egotistical, then it will show – and I’ll fall on my face. Then have to pick myself up and carry on. My Gods constantly challenge me, whether in the form of energetic overload and burnout, or through a grilling from a well-informed journalist!

My resolve always was to do my best. I mean that; it’s the cornerstone of what I do. The difficulty right now is doing my best for myself and my immediate family, as well as those who are calling on me – keeping that balance steady so that one side does not tip the other into chaos.

Those of you who’ve spoken with me know that I value honesty, realistic spirituality (no, not at all an oxymoron!) and truly living your own life. I do my best – that is my promise.

I want to respond to those who challenge me in turn. I love what I do, I’m honoured and proud to do it. Can you say the same? Are you trying to help, by your questions, to encourage and explore? Or just raise yourself up by bringing others down?

I try to help, to bring joy or resolution, to inspire and inform. So…

What is your work doing?

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Blood Sacrifice

I’ve been a little lax in my posting of late. This isn’t for lack of ideas. I think it’s purely that winter is now beginning to bite: the blink-and-you’ve-missed-it short days, the extra layers of clothing, the need to stockpile kindling and food in case of snow… and the urge to hibernate.

Life, of course, goes on. I’ve been out and about, less than usual perhaps, but still doing. A little Druidry here today, and a little slice of life, if I may.

Last week, a talk at Sheffield University Pagan Society; yesterday, a guest speaker to a Sociology lecture at the University of Derby. One informal, one formal, but both requiring me to get out there, put my professional hat on (metaphorically, before you ask) and tell my tale again…

Each time, it’s different. A different audience, a different flavour to my words. New challenges, new questions, new faces. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and will ever do – and yet, I love it. Connection, sharing, inspiration. And bearing all.

Because one of the questions that always seems to come up in some form or another is that of Sacrifice. I’ve spoken of it before on here, but while winter is the time of fire festivals, burning the old to make way for the new, it’s not really the time to get out in public and get naked (again metaphorically, but physically too!). You don’t want to bear your soul to total strangers. Stand up and say ‘listen to me, I’m interesting?’ Nope.

So… perhaps that is my sacrifice to this season? While crawling out from a cosy bed/home/sofa to work is something that we all have to do just to pay the bills, my work is so intrinsically tied up with my own personal story, my soul-truth, that to walk this path at all during this season is the most challenging thing. It’d be much easier to take the easy route, that of the toddler whining ‘but I don’t want to!’ Tough. Wrap up warm on the way out, it’s nippy.

Sacrifice is giving up something that is valuable to you. At this point, that’s very much my Self. My time, my energy (not in abundant supply), even my smile some days. The black dog bites and holds on, and I’ve had panic attacks in the middle of crowded places. So standing up in front of crowds… you can probably imagine how nervous I get. Even answering emails is tricky right now. Writing this has involved a LOT of deletion and rewriting to get the tone precisely correct (and I’m still not sure I’ve quite managed it).

But it’s not all about my fear – that’s a constant, burning away in the background, to be overcome daily. My sacrifice is also giving up that sense of self, the very act of bearing all… but in a manner that can be understood. The balance of listening to what is asked of me, as a Priest, a teacher, a representative of my spirituality, and truly hearing. Going beyond the words of the question to see the eyes of the querent, what they want to know, what they can’t quite put into simple language but strain, hope, need me to understand.

I’ve promised, over and over again, to do my best, to walk my truth, to tell my story as honestly as I can, and to help for as long as I’m needed. I presume that if nobody were listening, then this blog wouldn’t get any hits, my inbox would just contact requests for money from overseas diplomats, and I could say what I liked because nobody would be listening… but currently, this isn’t the case. More and more people are asking. I’m amazed and awed that so many fellow Pagans, of any path, are rising to meet this growing group of seekers. I have no doubt that come Spring, my every weekend will be busy again. This is why I keep talking, writing, doing.

But in the meantime, sometimes it’s a battle day-to-day. I sacrifice and I survive.

A while ago, I told a good friend that I tried to do something creative every day. Even a tiny thing, but something, so that the day hadn’t been wasted. This is still true. Writing is best (when I haven’t written anything for a while, I think I’m unbearable to be around), but knitting, baking, some form of random creativity… all good.

This week, as well as the talks, I had more colour added to my right arm sleeve tattoo. Now this isn’t a very active creativity on my part – essentially, I lie there and let an artist draw on me with needles, paying him for the privilege of several hours of pain – but that ink will stay with me for the rest of my life.

 

Tattoo Equipment

(The preparation table. All of these colours went into one small area of skin, with those needles…)

 

I’ve had a lot of positive comments on my tattoos over the years. When I was younger, I never dreamt I’d ever have so much of myself covered – but every single one has meaning. And much of it is to do with my Druidry.

My first tattoo was a triskele, in the safe, quiet, hidden base of my back. My second: surrounding it with silver birch leaves, hand-drawn by one of my oldest friends. The statement of my learning, my stepping into the woods, joining with the trees, indelibly feeling my own connection to the wild world.

Since then, I’ve an Awen hand-tapped into the top of my back (after dreaming that Bobcat was doing it – I think her hand was more drilling it into my head), and both arms covered with leaves, flowers, seeds… the old joke being that sooner or later, if you push me over in a field, you’ll lose me.

Although the tattooist chats happily as he works, with conversation a good distraction, the flow of endorphins, adrenaline and sheer physical reaction to the needle creates an interesting effect. I’ve not undergone ceremonial or ritual tattooing as such, but every single sitting could be considered to be that. Your inner self reacts to the battering that your skin is taking, and there is an inevitable effect.

The tattoo is a statement, certainly. But it could also be considered a sacrifice. The blood, the pain, the wearing of an image with a deep meaning behind it, honouring your own body through the act of pain for the goal of adornment. To me, it’s far more than vanity.

Every tattoo on my body (except the triskele, my initial ‘baby-step’) has been paid for with money earned from my Druidry. I used to be able to pay the bills with my day-job, thus allowing me and my partner to permanently mark the relationship between our public rites and ourselves with ink. Now, that money is needed for those bills – so this work was even more of a luxury… and a statement.

Reading this post back, my black dog friend is telling me that this post is full of whining, self-righteous, indulgent justification for my work, my decisions, my irresponsible frivolity of ink. Perhaps.

To me, my life is currently filled with sacrifice. The sheer standing up each day to live my life, my spirituality, my job, with integrity and responsibility. Overcoming the ‘oh Gods, you can’t do this, why are you even trying’ voices. The sense that I’m not as strong as I think I am. Yet the beauty of my path is there, indelibly marked into my body. Present in the messages of thanks from those who hear my words.

I stood before my Gods in a crowded classroom and called to them, sincerely – and they listened. I honour them in my actions, my decisions, even my cock-ups (provided I learn from them). I honour them in my moving forward, not giving up, even when the black dog urges me to take that ultimate step and just give up, stop. My life is my sacrifice at this time, my giving up of self when I really do not feel able.

Things will calm down, of course. The season will turn, the light will start to join us more frequently, and I’m certain that I’ll be reminded regularly that I’m actually doing ok. I walk this path because I’m called to, and that’s by real people as well as spiritual entities – both of whom keep me moving in the right direction, kicking me if I stray or stay still too long.

So. My challenge again. What am I doing?

Moving forward. Slowly, in the dark, sometimes painfully, but moving.

Tattoo Nov 2012

All art here was inscribed by the founder and creative genius that is Andy Bowler of Monkido Tattoo Studio, in Belper, Derbyshire.

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