Wednesday, 29 April 2009


Beltaine seems a good time to consider the Pagan hospital chaplains approach to not ignoring sex.

Needless to say, sexuality in hospitals is outlawed and at the same time absolutely everywhere. An entire genre of pornography is devoted to hospitals; male professionals are chaperoned so that they can’t perpetrate or be accused of impropriety; touching and altering the physical body is what general hospitals are all about; abusive responses to gender, sexual preference and sexuality bring many people into a psychiatric unit. People who enter hospitals are sexual beings whatever their diagnosis, prognosis or job description. Sex, like the Mysteries, is hidden in plain view, and because there is so much filth and abuse associated with sex, gender and sexuality no one dare say a word about it and all non-clinical touch is taboo.

Which is a very miserable and cowardly state of affairs with far-reaching effects.

The World Health Organization defines sexuality as a central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy, and reproduction. (18) Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles, and relationships. Although sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed. Sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, and religious and spiritual factors.

In the literature, it is described as a dynamic process that has a psychosocial element. (5,11) Hospital admission may affect an individual's concept of his or her sexuality as it impinges on the individual's self-concept, self-esteem, and social relationships . . . Furthermore, it is clear from the literature that addressing clients' sexuality requires a multidisciplinary approach and is not the responsibility of a single professional, (4,13) yet the health care professions are ambiguous about the issue of addressing client sexuality.

Subhajit Sengupta, Dikaios Sakellariou

So how do Pagan chaplains address, without fear or bravura, the sexual nature of Pagan patients and our own? I’d suggest that we have at least two aims: to simply acknowledge that sexuality is part of wholeness, and not to make a fuss about it.

As part of the Imbolc ritual patients and I share includes some of Z Budapest’s inspiration. We dip two fingers in a bowl of milk and then touch our own forehead saying, “Lady, you bless my thoughts.” Then our lips, saying “Lady, you bless my speech.” Then our hearts, saying “Lady, you bless my feelings.” Then our genitals, saying “Lady, you bless my desires.” Then the ground, saying “Lady, you bless my life.” Our sex is as important as our speech or our feelings.

At Beltaine a drop of fragrant oil is massaged into the palm of the person next to us saying, “You are Goddess” to a woman and “You are God” to a man. The sensuality - the scent, the tactile experience, what we hear, what we say - of this small act can be profound and moving and we don’t talk about it it’s just something to think about, just as making eye contact, saying “May you never thirst,” and being passed a chalice of water is something to think about.

My way of dealing with it is to not initiate a conversation about it which is a fairly natural way of being, and to treat it as entirely unremarkable when someone else wants to talk about it, to remain grounded and to make the speaker the focus of attention rather than saying anything about myself or my views. So far, these conversations have been rare as hens’ teeth, partly a testing of what my response will be, partly a self-testing of their own response, to see if they can even allude to sexuality without something out of control occurring.

The great unspoken is rape and abuse. I’ll leave other, better-qualified people to discuss the incidence of rape and abuse and their effects, but there it is, shrieking and convulsing in the room with far too many people, men and women. It’s such a monster and requires such specialist attention that I never, ever even allude to it in a non-mythological manner. But I’ve found the myth of Persephone to have some potential.

Myths speak to and interact with our deep unconscious. There are so many layers of understanding in this myth that our unconscious can engage with, some of them potentially disturbing: if Hades is a God in charge of such a huge kingdom and has such power, and if Persephone seems eventually content to remain half the year with him, with her own power and dominion, then . . .

But to hear an archetypal story, perhaps to begin to feel less isolated, to see that rape occurs even to Goddesses, this is the very beginning, a potential foundation for positive growth. Is it any use to men? I don’t know. Men, being better placed than women to know what myths are healing for them, will know better than I.

Beltaine is here, everything is in blossom, we’re wearing fewer clothes and bearing some skin to the blessed Sun, wandering off from the confines of hearth and home. It affects us all no matter how ill or even disembodied we are: communication with the Otherworld is particularly possible now. We bring Beltaine with us, trailing the scent of hawthorn and the song of the blackbird into the ward along with our good, solid, sensual bodies. Simply by thinking about the Shadow of Beltaine, in naming some demons, we diminish some of their power and in doing so, we clear the path of the Goddess and the God so that they can perform their Mysteries with even greater joy and love.

Sengupta, S. Sakellariou, D. Sexuality and health care: are we training physical therapy professionals to address their clients' sexuality needs? Physical Therapy: Jan 2009

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Theoretical Model vs. Dogma

A theoretical model is a way of making order from chaos. Observations of related stuff are made, whether that’s people or economic markets or the properties of nuclei. When enough information is gathered various patterns are noted, conclusions drawn about those patterns, and that’s a model.

Psychotherapeutic models, that is, different ways of approaching the emotional problems that people experience, are based on the ways in which the authors of those models understood human nature. The Freudian way of understanding people is very different from the Rogerian approach. Freud was contentedly pessimistic, Rogers much more optimistic about human nature. Perhaps what caused these almost diametrically different perceptions were the personal experiences of Freud and Rogers: one was born in Old Europe and was personally threatened by Nazism; the other grew up and worked in middle class America.

Psychotherapy research has shown quite clearly that it doesn’t matter which model a therapist works in, what matters is the relationship between client and counsellor. Research now focuses on what makes a good therapeutic relationship, but models remain fundamental to training and functioning of therapists. Without a model of understanding, we can’t understand at all.

Too many Pagans bang on about the heresy of dogma to the point where it has become dogma itself. We fail to discuss what dogma may actually be. Simply, it is an authoritative organizational belief that is not to be diverged from. Dogmatic relgions still manage to contain wildly divergent practices, what dogma offers is a model in which to understand the world and make decisions. That say, Judaism, contains everything from ultra-Orthodoxy to Reform Liberal practice suggests that individuals still manage to make individual choices.

Different groups of Pagans certainly have ideas of what their principals may be: the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids talks about Wisdom, Creativity and Love.

and in ‘Being of value to others” suggests environmental work and personal development.

Emma Restall Orr of the Druid Network writes

As a spiritual tradition based on reverence for and connection with the powers of nature, more than anything else Druidry teaches us to honour life… Druid ethics are built upon the release of ignorance and the respectful creation of deep and sacred relationships.

Reclaiming have useful Principals of Unity that include:

Our tradition honors the wild, and calls for service to the earth and the community. We value peace and practice non-violence, in keeping with the Rede, "Harm none, and do what you will." We work for all forms of justice: environmental, social, political, racial, gender and economic. Our feminism includes a radical analysis of power, seeing all systems of oppression as interrelated, rooted in structures of domination and control.

So, within varied mainstream Pagan groups there is some consensus. The examples above demonstrate that there are models of ethical intention within influential and high membership Pagan groups. These models have developed from historical understandings and the personal experiences of the leaders within those groups. They have absolutely not been derived from purposeful consultation or even intentional discussion with membership, and the membership doesn’t seem to mind. Which demonstrates that we can, in fact, happily agree on some general principals without anyone bursting. Phew!


Within Paganism there’s an underlying general practice that people who fall ill, become frail and increasingly, are not wealthy, are marginalized. A movement is judged on how it treats its least powerful members. Paganism doesn’t do terribly well at that in general. Individual Pagans do individual things for each other but not really much more than any friend might do. In our own circles we will know of people who are having obvious problems with their children or elderly parents, with their own emotional or physical health. Our principals suggest we help them. In practice we do not, and neither do we support, as a matter of principal, the individuals who do.

If we think we might ask for help or offer it there are no guidelines within Paganism to suggest what help might be. Pagans share a model of how we should be but as yet find it impossible to work with that model in practice.


‘Supervision’ is a word to set most Pagans teeth on edge. This is what the British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP) has to say about it which doesn’t do much to dispel the problem:

Supervision is a formal arrangement for counsellors to discuss their work regularly with someone who is experienced in counselling and supervision. The task is to work together to ensure and develop the efficacy of the counsellor/client relationship. The agenda will be the counselling work and feeling about that work, together with the supervisor’s reactions, comments and confrontations. Thus supervision is a process to maintain adequate standards of counselling and a method of consultancy to widen the horizons of an experienced practitioner.

My first supervisor was not a very nice person and we didn’t work within the same model of psychotherapy, a fairly toxic combination. She understood supervision to be me giving a phrase-by-phrase description of what the client had to say and her prescribing what I should say in response.

My current supervisor, apart from being highly experienced within the person-centered model has a less authoritarian take on it. She works with the Tony Merry understanding of supervision, that it is a ‘collaborative enquiry’ into the relationship between client and counsellor. Our meetings are held in the same tone as a therapy session would be – respectful, trusting, giving me time to explore my work and find my own answers – and the aim of supervision is to improve my reflective practice for the benefit of the client.

Here’s another therapy-based definition of supervision:

The supervisee comes into supervision in order to ensure that he or she is able to function effectively as a counsellor. Supervision offers the opportunity to acknowledge difficulties and weaknesses and to celebrate and value strengths and achievements. It is a place in which the supervisee can honestly and openly ask questions of his or her practice and abilities and process what emerges, or has emerged, into awareness.
Bryant Jefferies 2005 p7

And another from nursing

. . . self development, self realization, professional enhancement and advancement, and high quality client care. Over time, the ultimate goals of such supervisory practice are twofold: (i) to improve the overall health of the nation and (ii) to promote the progression of the nursing profession. The authors found that a facilitative approach to clinical supervision is therapeutic and self-propelling for both supervisor and supervisee.
M. Chambers 1995

Whatever the case, supervision is a natural and vital part of working effectively – that is, less about box ticking and targets and more to do with working ethically, keeping fresh, knowing your limitations and growing as a person and as a practioner.

There is no supervision available to Pagan chaplains. In my own practice I know this to be a problem. It means I can breeze in and out of a relationship with patients without really considering what I’m doing. It means that pressures can build up tremendously and that there’s no one I can discuss them with not only because of respecting confidentiality, but partly because I’m an old fashioned witch and also because there’s no one available who shares my background as a Pagan chaplain.

A friend who is also a very experienced psychodynamic therapist and supervisor as well as a sensible, grounded Pagan listened to my professional concerns and was certainly very supportive. But because she didn’t know about the way that hospitals or chaplaincies work, and because we worked with different psychological models, and probably because we couldn’t meet face to face, we weren’t able to reach the depth of mutuality that’s required for good supervision to take place. There’s no fault here just a matter of fact situation.

So what are we to do, working in what is by anyone’s standards a bizarre situation, with people who’re very vulnerable and without a unifying theology to guide us? Where do we get our grounded, trustworthy collaborative support? Working backwards from the problem – there being no meaningful support for Pagan chaplains – and using a professional psychotherapeutic model as a guide I believe there may be a theoretical way through this problem. Theory is one thing, practice quite another.

Bryant-Jefferies, R. (2005) Person-Centered Counselling Supervision: Personal and Professional (Living Therapy Series) Radcliffe Publishing Ltd.
Chambers, M. (1995) Supportive clinical supervision: a crucible for personal and professional change. Blackwell Science Ltd

Monday, 13 April 2009

Definition of an authentic, connected, therapeutic relationship.

Peggy Natiello is a psychotherapist who worked with Carl Rogers and who continues to work with and teach the Person Centred Approach. Although the word ‘therapist’ is used here, I believe the nature of the relationship she describes to be entirely appropriate to chaplaincy work.

Incidentally, Natiello’s chapter on ‘Collaborative Power and Social Change’ could be straight out of Truth or Dare.

There is considerable difference between the practice of psychotherapy that is based on authenticity as well as deep connection between client and therapist, and one that depends on the expertise and authority of the therapist. For the purposes of this paper, an authentic, connected, therapeutic relationship is characterised by realness, openness, respect, empathic understanding and cooperation in striving for a common goal, and the uncompromised authority of the client. The common goal is always the growth and healing of the client although the effort tends to increase the satisfaction and personal effectiveness of the therapist as well, by generating increased energy, empowerment and creativity for both.

Such a relationship is continuously being co-created. As each interaction between client and therapist unfolds, both persons adjust, respond accordingly and thus reconstruct the relationship. There is no room for technique here. This is a relationship between two real people and it evolves as a conversation or a dialogue evolves.

Therapist understanding, acceptance and respect for the client must be absolutely genuine from the outset of therapy. As the therapeutic process matures the interactions between clients and therapist sometimes precipitate encounter within their relationship. Sometimes those encounters include conflict or friction. Facing conflict that is dealt with openly is not only crucial to the growth of client and the relationship, but also to the authenticity of the therapist. On those occasions of personal encounter the connectedness between client and therapist becomes more real and thus more trustworthy.

Carl Rogers often spoke about the realness of the therapist. In 1959 he said

It is expected that the relationship with the therapist is the meeting of two live, real human beings, with the therapist fully present to his client. This situation is at the furthest pole from the therapist as an expert, analyzing the patient as object. It is a living together in communication that breaks the isolation of the patient.

Rogers, C. (1959) The Way To Do Is To Be. American Psychologist, 4, 197.

Natiello, P (2001) The Person-Centred Approach: A passionate presence. UK: PCCS Books.p.26 – 27


There’s always been a debate about how vulnerable people should be treated but really what it comes down to is this:

How do we meet each other?

Beyond the individual and idiosyncratic names of our deities, beyond what qualities we attribute to a cardinal point, whether we use cardinal points at all, is a need that yearns to be met, and that need is to be seen, respected and taken seriously.

Martin Buber was a genius communicator. Google ‘Communicator’ and a long list of corporate sites comes up, including, within the first 3, one that promises to ‘Make your existing offline network more efficient.’ Like frogs being slowly and contentedly boiled to death we are close to dystopia and as a society don’t have any real concept of what a relationship might be other than, ‘If it makes me feel happy it must be good.’ We are drowning in Soma.

For those of us who find ourselves in a position of service we more than ever need to seek sanity in philosophy, simply to have some idea of what is real. For people who wish to share their lives and to have others share their lives with them - the basis motivation of chaplains, priestesses, and shamans – Martin Buber is an excellent person from whom to gain wisdom.

Buber divides relationships into two kinds, ‘I-It’ and ‘I-Thou’. ‘I-It’ relationships are those in which we meet the Other as separate from us. ‘I-Thou’ relationships are those in which we meet the Other as we would meet ourselves, or Deity. This kind of meeting isn’t limited to people and gods but is a way to be in relationship with all existence. I’ve found it reassuring to know that Buber spoke of moments of I-Thou meeting rather than expecting a sustained intensity of openness.

The relation to the Thou is immediate.

Between I and Thou there is no purpose, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself changes, since it plunges from dream into appearance.

All means are impediment. Only where all means fall to pieces, encounter happens.
(p.86 1965)

I try to bear this in mind and in heart when I meet with patients. It’s easy to enter into the paradigm of the institution, where I am important to the institution – they can say they’re fulfilling their policy of meeting patients spiritual needs; of the special status within religion as a Pagan and as a chaplain; of the desires and needs that the patient may have for us – having successfully and often to their own surprise manifested a specialist they can (quite properly) assert their difference. But beyond all this is a person who desperately needs to meet in a satisfying way with another person. (Both chaplain and patient, by the way, rather than just the patient.) The quality of meeting is vital.

When the dialogue is fulfilled in its being between partners who have turned to one another in truth, who are themselves without reserve and are free of semblance, there is brought into being a memorable fruitfulness. At such times the word rises in a substantial way between men who have been seized in their elemental togetherness. The interhuman opens out what otherwise remains unopened.
(p.86 1971)

Buber offers a way into a manner of being that many Pagans say they long for, of oneness, both with humans and the non-human. The meeting can be achieved in a momentary glance between strangers or in simply being engrossed by a mineral.

On a gloomy morning I walked upon the highway, saw a piece of mica lying, lifted it up and looked at it for a long time; the day was no longer gloomy, so much light was caught in the stone. And suddenly, as I raised my eyes from it, I realized that while I looked I had not been conscious of ‘object’ and ‘subject’; in my looking I had tasted unity.
(p.119 1971)

Confusion, anxiety, fear, wanting to dominate and please at the same time, get in the way of meeting. So do sympathy, empathy, technique of any kind, feelings of expertise and wisdom. Paradoxically, the desire for a certain quality of meeting can also get in the way of being aware of the Other in a truthful, open manner and it is this openness that heals us when we meet it, offer it, receive it. We have to be open to the idea of being seen by the patient, a far greater challenge than offering to help them. If we talk in terms of the soul then we can be open to the concept of moments of soul meeting, beyond individual personality and history. Here I am, there you are, we are here, now. Particularly at times of crisis just being willing to offer that (in a genuine, grounded, non-psychobabble or pseudo-spritual manner) can be enough.

Buber M (1965) The Knowledge of Man. New York: Harper and Row

Buber M (1971) I and Thou. UK: Simon & Schuster; 1st Touchstone Edition

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

End of Life Issues

Spiritual, religious and belief matters aside, here's a good link for the necessary and often challenging things we need to do when we face our own or someone elses death.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Pagan Theology

This morning I browsed some Pagan hospital and prison chaplaincy websites and very good and informative they are too. But from reading them I’m not sure what differences there may be between Pagans and Christians. Do we simply substitute the word ‘Gods’ for ‘God’ and have a different way of celebrating that nevertheless has the same outcome in mind? I feel a great resonance with my Christian peers and, much though I’d really like to be able to be a Christian just for their sense of community and their practical work, I find myself unable to be anything but Pagan. Yet there’s limited common philosophy between my way of being a chaplain and what I’ve read on other sites. Not one that I’ve seen describes any foundational philosophy for the manner in which they work.

This has caused some problems, particularly in the US where religion is taken very much more seriously than in the UK and where prisoners have a particularly hard time of it. A Pagan prisoner believed that sweat lodges were a foundational practice of “Wiccans, Druids, or other European-based pagan religions....” but since they are not, the authorities were able to take away what had become an important practice for this person, causing him suffering.

A Catholic decided he was also a Pagan – something that many Pagans are totally content with – but his Catholic chaplain couldn’t reconcile the two and the inmate suffered. Is the Catholic priest spitefully withholding a service and denying basic human rights? Or has Paganism offered something that in fact isn’t possible and based on no good premise?

Websites say things along the line that

Our faith should be one of harmony and balance, where (regardless of path followed) we should aim live in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings.

Where does this fit in with Paganisms stance on lack of dogma? How does it respond to our Pagan Ancestors, most of whom lived totally out of balance with their environment, clearing forests for argriculture and construction, manipulating animals and plants for a greater yeild? If it is true why is it true? If it’s true, why has no Pagan organisation very seriously discussed limiting ourselves to one child, maximum, as the single most effective act we can make towards living in harmony with the world as it is now? Just how strongly do we believe our beliefs? And where do those beliefs come from?

The concept of Pagan chaplaincy is established. Now we need some good solid foundations to work from, other than ‘It’s a human right’ and ‘It’s good to have official recognition.’ Many services come into being from these oppositional basis’ and there’s no harm in that. Now we need to start afresh with what we believe and why, mainly for ourselves. I still don’t really know why I should visit people who have behaved in ways that are in direct opposition to my theology, which is, admittedly, shared by a decreasing number of Pagans. It's one reason I don't ask what patients have experienced to be in hospital.

I believe in a Goddess, not as a symbol or idea but as a matter of fact Deity and thus I understand sexual crimes to be particularly heinous. I understand the natural world to be an expression of the Goddess and so I’m more than happy to spend time with people who find themselves incarcerated for getting in the way of bulldozers. Having some understanding of the use and abuse of power I take the abuse of power very seriously, so anyone who’s harmed someone who is weaker than them isn’t going to get much sympathy from me let alone empathy. I simply don’t understand the current Pagan chaplaincy standpoint that someone who has pulled the fingernails from a toddler or tortured his wheelchair-bound father must be served. It’s very patronising.

My belief is that, even if they are desperately ill, my fellow human is an equal. They’ve not temporarily wandered from some path or other and need to be treated like a lost lamb; their soul is their own and doesn’t require me to ‘save’ it, that’s their own job. Too often, I’m hearing old-fashioned Christian theology being expressed as Paganism, and it bothers me. I’m not sure when the idea that Pagan chaplains exist to ‘save’ anyone at all came into being and I’m uncomfortable with it. Pagans are responsible for our own souls, aren’t we? What are we saving each other from? Soul Death? Or what? It seems to me that this impulse is based in a need to save people from having to admit what they’ve done, that is, to struggle with their demons.
There are some things that are unforgivable in the human world, for good reason. If everything a Pagan does is ultimately fine then who cares what anyone gets up to? I don’t know the mind of the Goddess and so don’t know what she feels on the matter of forgiveness, but the natural world is very unforgiving indeed.

Complexity runs throughout all these debates and ultimately we’ll find a way of being a Pagan chaplain that suits our particular personality, just as every religious person does. But unless our chaplaincy encompasses more than ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was nice, because it’s my right’ we’re not really thinking very hard.