Saturday, 17 January 2009

Gritting your teeth.

People are unreasonable, illogical and self centred; a lot of them anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives, do good anyway. If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies, succeed anyway. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow, do good anyway. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable, be frank and honest anyway. The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be cut down by the smallest people with the smallest minds, think big anyway. People say we are underdogs but follow top dogs, fight for the underdog anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight, go ahead and build it anyway. People often need help but will attack you if you help them, help people anyway. Give the world the best you've got, you could end up getting kicked in the teeth but you go ahead and give the world the best you've got anyway.

Julius Irving.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


A decade ago, in a field in Wiltshire, three of us sat listening to a friend. She had made an appointment for an abortion in a couple of days time and was working through her doubts and feelings witnessed by three other women. I’ve no strong feelings about abortion other than women bear enough responsibility for the existence of children in the world and so can generally manage the responsibility for stopping a child coming into the world. I’m pro-choice and pro-responsibility. What mattered here was the conscious preparation of this woman for the intentional killing of her child.

I’ve not spoken to pro-choice Pagans (there are a few anti-choice Pagans) who seem able to get to grips with this though I dare say there are some out there. Pagans talk a lot about the cyclical nature of this and that, and we say we have a loving respect for the Dark Goddess, She Who eats Her own children, but there seem very few of us who don’t need to smother the dark and difficult in the sparkles from unicorns hooves. There is nothing nice about abortion. Its purpose is to cause death, to exert power over something that is entirely vulnerable. That’s what women have to contend with, that’s exactly where the Dark Goddess steps in.

So it’s not a matter of “There, there, you poor thing, there is nothing else that you can do, you have no other choice,” because of course there is another choice. This situation calls for unswerving honesty, loyalty and clear sightedness. When you can look into the void and endure the horrendousness of what looks back at you you have stepped into your own power. Be careful you remain a decent human.

The evening before she went to hospital the four of us met in the wellbeing bender. The burner was chugging out heat, we had a guardian, a man who made sure no one walked in by mistake, and we’d all come personally prepared. Our intent was to prepare the pregnant woman for her abortion; to acknowledge the enormity of what she was going to do; to attempt to prepare the mystery that is a foetus for her death. We gently stripped the pregnant woman and lay her on cushions and sheepskins, covering her with blankets. One of us was at her head, one at her feet and another doing the physical acts of the magic. The pregnant woman shivered and cried a little and we all altered our consciousness so that we were able to say what needed to be said without recourse to paper, allowing words to come through our mouths from who knows where.

A calla lily was placed in a white shallow ceramic dish and we made it the focus of our attention as the bowl was balanced over the pregnant woman’s womb. We’d collected some menstrual blood throughout the day and when the time was right we poured the blood onto the white lily, staining it and spilling red into the white of the dish. It was surprisingly dramatic, speaking to that unconscious place which responds to symbol and meaning. The pregnant woman gasped in shock, sobbed and was moved to speak to her foetus and the Goddess which took however long it took. In the end, she was able to be impassive with the stained and bloodied image of wrecked purity.

A small stream flows close to the site and a large bottle had been filled with its water. As she remained held, we moved the lily and the bowl from her belly to a patch of earth from which we’d folded back the groundsheet and carpets and poured this water over the lily into the bowl, which overflowed so that the blood washed away into the Land. The bowl was again placed over her womb and first one woman and then the next drank from it, with the lily still in it, knowing that invisible traces of blood remained. Finally the pregnant woman drank from it. Her purity would not be the same as it had been but it remained intact.

In time we clothed her and led her back to her bed, tucking her in to dream, purposefully not grounding or making a formal end, allowing her unconscious to speak and be heard clearly. The three of us returned to the bender, tidied up and didn’t say much; it felt deep, powerful and fine.

Perhaps the central aspect of this work was equality. We knew each other very well, which is not to say we spent massive amounts of time together or even that we are close friends. But we had shared years of experience and possess the individual ability to work in a way that allows others to function as true equals. When one steps forward it doesn’t mean that others must stand back. That fundamental equality allowed us each to serve and be served with no covert power-focused intent.

This kind of ritual isn’t absolution or justification, something to be done routinely or lightly. We didn’t cast circles or invoke the elements because what are we trying to contain, to erect barriers against? We were 4 women working on behalf of a woman who had chosen to kill her child, on behalf of a child that was going to be killed and, I hope, in service of the Dark Goddess. With that clear at the front of our minds we also knew we were taking a risk in drinking from a vessel that held the mixed menstrual blood of a number of women, whether it be HIVAids or other blood-borne problems. I don’t recommend it and I don’t not recommend it. You’ll make your own choices over the kind of things you want to do, but be clear that if you want to do things properly and well you won’t always be able to perform a health and safety assessment.


It seems to be an aspect of human nature that our perceptions are most often in terms of black and white. We’re aware that shades of grey exist but it’s usually considered too unproductive to consider them. We may have to sit back, listen to different arguments, hear other, often diametrically opposed opinions and then attempt to find our own place in them. Listening to any talk radio and reading almost any newspaper demonstrates that we’re not very good at nuance and that whilst we may appreciate a moments reflection what our debate usually comes down to is: Somebody Should Do Something.

In Paganism we’ve learned to avoid linear thinking in magical terms. We know that time doesn’t simply move through the present via the past towards the future. We know that in a world that is interconnected nothing can remain static, which is the very basis for magic: if we tweak something here then something over there will change. This is most often described as the Web or the Spiral Dance.

When I began training as a psychotherapist I had a vision of a related but different model of the movement of energies, the lemniscate. In the Ryder Waite tarot 4 cards show the lemniscates, the magician, strength, the world and the two of pentacles. My understanding of the symbol in these contexts is that they demonstrate flow, everlasting change, and particularly the balance between opposites: they exemplify paradox. If I had the faintest idea how to create a computer image of one it would be in the form of a ribbon, thickest towards the ends and thinnest where they cross, made of flowing colours that never quite merge, maintaining their integrity. The most interesting place on the lemniscate is at the centre, the closest point of encounter, the place where opposites meet but do not merge to become one. This is the point of paradox, of greatest friction and energy, the place in other words, where the greatest magic can be done and the most learned. Simply, the Goddess can hold two utterly contradictory views at once.

The broad curves of the poles are easily understood; they’re the absolutes, night vs. day, joy vs. sorrow, life vs. death. Here, the flow of energy is steady and easy to negotiate: “I am for this and against this.” When we move closer towards the narrow centre pressure increases just as water under pressure becomes more difficult to handle. When we reach the centre we have to remember the poles we started from in case we lose the ability to determine our starting points, to know what it is that we hold dear in order to be able to recognise it in what can be a maelstrom of conflicting and often apparently very similar points of view and action. But we also have to attend to what is here, now.

In the meeting place of the lemniscates, opposites look very similar but they’re actually diametrically opposed.

So, life is complex and humans have a tendency to want simplicity.

Being a Chaplain, like any other person who’s interested in being of genuine service, is to enter into a struggle with contradictions. The impulse to become a nurse or therapist or any kind of carer is often our own unmet need for care. That’s a world of trouble if we remain unaware of it or refuse to deal with it. We’re also very interested in other peoples business. We want to get involved and do it better. Just as the best poitician is the person who least wants the job, I’d say the same is largely true for people who’re attracted to caring for others. We have to be profoundly aware of the complexities and paradoxes in our own natures.

Hospitals exemplify these problems: they’re places where it’s quite legal and proper to cut people open, to use drugs and radiation to kill, to make people do things that they really do not want to do, like get up and walk about soon after surgery, or eliminate somewhere other than a toilet, or stay when they’re deeply afraid of staying. I don’t believe there’s a nurse or doctor who can honestly say that they’ve never abused their power, never made someone less powerful than themselves do something simply to make their own life easier. That’s life, the impulse is in-built, and it’s built into us as Chaplains too. We will make shocking mistakes as well as doing no harm, as well as occasionally doing some good.

Patients have a different kind of power. They’re vulnerable but not always weak. They can do and say all kinds of things because they’re unwell which can affect our work, anything from complaining about us to falling in love with us – another paradox when these two things occur together! There can often be a tangible fear of patients, especially with the oft-invoked Magical Word of Fear and Command: Litigation!

All hospitals make policy about never being alone with a patient. I tend to ignore it because I’ve found that patients are rather more like people than they are a ticking bomb and prefer to be treated that way. Me too, I’m not comfortable with the idea that I have paedophile or rapist tendencies. I find that intimacy is the bedrock of healing and being authentic with one individual almost impossible with an audience.

You will make your own choices about how you are with individual patients and these choices will change with time, as will mine. Chaplains enter liminal space, we set foot on the lemniscate knowing that it will sweep our feet from under us, that we will be squeezed and buffeted as we reach the centre where things that can seem identical are in fact diametrically opposed. Life is complex and meaning is what we make it. It’s good to know that at times, there is no meaning to be made. We need do nothing other than Be With this person in the best way we can, unmystical, inexpert, and always, always remembering that at the end of our meeting we can leave but they will stay.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Beginning To Talk About Suicide

It’s accepted that patients aren’t entitled to confidentiality from their chaplains even though we often tell them and their carers that they are. Chaplains aren’t alone in this; psychotherapists, doctors and other health care workers are in the same position. We place a huge emphasis on confidentiality but when a patient says that they’re suicidal all that high-mindedness suddenly flies out of the window. We feel we’re somehow legally and morally obliged to tell others so that they can exert their power over someone who is already demonstrably distressed. That’s about the long and short of it, even though this approach has a Judeo-Christian rather than Pagan basis.

The debate around suicide and assisted suicide is going to heat up in the coming years as our elderly population increases, becomes more politically active and our economies change. Whilst other religions have some kind of foundation for their beliefs and actions Paganism hasn’t yet got to grips with this fundamental issue of personal choice vs. doing no harm. I have some particular answers but don't believe they're final. But I firmly believe we need to face this subject clearly, without sentimentality, without recourse to cliché or fear. How, otherwise, can we offer an honest service?

Suicide is self-killing so perhaps it’s worth identifying what the self is in relation to philosophy, society, the law, Paganism and other religions.


The greatest minds in history have been unable to agree on what the Self is. Some philosophers suggest that the soul is the true Self, some that consciousness defines it, some that the Self is only knowable through its relationship with the Other. The debate continues but immediately, the concept of what self-killing is becomes difficult.

State and Society: ‘good’ and ‘bad’ suicide

The State has differing responses to our body dependent on how well we conform to what society demands. If we function outside of acceptable rules - most countries outlaw suicide - we can be incarcerated: if we are seen to be mentally ill we can be imprisoned with no set time for our release. Volunteering to go to war is perceived as self-sacrifice rather than suicide, the intent being to save others rather than to purposefully kill oneself.

The Law

To whom do you belong? Slaves bodies are owned and used, quite legally, all over the world. In countries where prostitution is legal someone other than the person selling their body owns the bodies of prostitutes for a period of time. We are legally required to be present at a certain place for a period of time at many stages of our lives. Cells, organs and other body parts from living and dead people are used for various purposes, legally, without the consent of the living person or the next of kin of a dead person, in all modern western hospitals, often for financial profit. We believe our bodies and our lives belong to us: legally, they do not.


All of the mainstream religions are clear that lives belong, not to us, but to their god.

All other major religions perceive suicide as martyrdom when it is done as a protest against oppression; otherwise it’s an act of personal will in defiance of the will of their gods.

Although non-Pagan religions have some official doctrine there are many different theologies within each. Paganism has some ways of being from which we can draw some general conclusions.

Paganism can legitimately be perceived as a reaction against institutional and personal abuse of power as well as a divinely inspired religion. Like the Dharmic religions, Paganism tends to view human incarnation as a part of the cycle of incarnation in general. Theoretically, a blade of grass has the same value as the life of a human child. Similarly many Pagans perceive human existence as a process of the soul gaining experience. However, within Paganism in general there is no modern theology of judgement. Being born disabled is not seen as punishment or an opportunity to learn something in which we are deficient. That said, I have encountered Pagan dismay that a person who has committed suicide must now ‘Start all over again.’

Paganism in general affirms personal choice and personal freedom, but this becomes difficult when suicide has an impact on children, partners, family and friends. What responsibilities do Pagans have in relationships with others? “Do as you will, as long as it harms none,” can be interpreted as a prohibition against suicide for people who have economic, emotional or physical responsibilities for others: overwhelming responsibility can be a factor in suicide.

If only theoretically, Paganism functions within the concept of community. In practice this means that Pagans who fall outside of community through physical or emotional illness or other isolating factors can experience a profound isolation from friends, spirituality and religion, from religious experience and support: what responsibilities do Pagan communities have in these situations, bearing in mind that isolation is an important factor in suicide?

A way forward

The oldest extant European code of conduct are the Brehon laws - a number of sets over a long period of time - and this may be a place for serious scholars to look for clues about how our cultural ancestors may have felt about suicide (see Szabo, N.). Another source of information are Pagan histories: Boudicca killed herself rather than be taken prisoner. Accounts of dying of grief in many myths have a resonance with suicide: Anglo-Saxon and Norse Sagas and Eddas, Irish, Scots and Brythonic legends may offer some guidance.

Pagans look to the natural world for inspiration and it’s dubious that animals intentionally kill themselves. (Dinely,. J. Dunlop, C. Legros G) there are any number of companion animals who’ve ‘pined to death’ refusing to eat or drink after the death of someone they loved, alongside some bereaved wild animals, but they do not seem to purposefully seek death. However, suicide is a greater cause of death worldwide than war or murder. (World Health Organisation) and Pagans do kill themselves.

We can address this in a number of ways the most straightforward being to apply ourselves to the problem of community. We live in an atomised world. To my knowledge, there is no Pagan community that exists to serve people in distress. There are temporary communities, groups of Pagans who come together from time to time most often to celebrate the festivals and sometimes in order to support an individual who has become unwell or who is dying. Several attempts have been made in the UK, US and in mainland Europe to create a dedicated group who will care for the dying and the dead, but each has failed to exist in the way that Chevra Kadisha do in Judaism, or to create routines that help the individual, family and community to deal with death that every other religion possesses. This will come in time, but right now there is an urgent need for a specifically Pagan resource - one based in the day-to-day lives of every one of us rather than a book or two on a minority of Pagans shelves - for the isolated, disenfranchised, overwhelmed and suffering Pagan.


Dinely,. J (2008) Do Dolphins Commit Suicide in Captivity?
Dunlop,. C. Do Octopuses commit suicide?
King, E. Boudicca Revolts (2007) Digging Up The Romans. Museum of London
Legros., G Martin-Eauclaire., C. M. F Cattaert D (1998) The myth of scorpion suicide: are scorpions insensitive to their own venom? Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol 201, Issue 18 2625-2636.
Szabo N
World Health Organisation