Sunday 14 December 2008

Some Thoughts On Visiting.

It’s most likely that you’ll come into the hospital one of two ways, either by invitation from a particular patient or via the chaplaincy office when they discover a Pagan patient is asking for specific spiritual help. In either case it’s wise to make your first visit to the hospital via an appointment with the Chaplaincy office, for several reasons.

You will discover who the lead Chaplain is and she will discover who you are.
She can introduce you, the ward and other staff to each other which will facilitate your work no end.
You and she can discuss your work so that she finds out more about Paganism and you have someone to pass questions by.
If you don’t already have one she can advise you about getting a Criminal Records Bureau check (CRB)
which you will need if you’re going to do more than one
or two visits.

Here’re some pointers to consider.

1. Spend some time thinking about the purpose of your visit. Talk with a trusted friend or group of friends about it, people who’re up to more vigorous discussion than “Oh you’ll be great, you’re such a good person!” Get your intent really clear.

2. It’s important to hear, from the patient, what they think the purpose of your visit is.

3. Consider how you’re going to present yourself. Please don’t wear ritual clothing and kilos of Pagan jewellery. Personally, I’ve never felt the need to even wear a pentagram to draw attention to the fact that I Am A Pagan Chaplain. You’re there to quietly and unobtrusively be of service to a vulnerable person; drawing attention to them in a ward of strangers is not being of service to them. Also, don’t wear perfume, which can make ill people feel more ill.

4. Always phone the ward office first to let them know you’re coming and to negotiate a good time for you, the patient and the ward.

5. When you arrive on the ward, always go to the ward office first to let them know you’re there and to make sure that it’s still all right to visit. You don’t want to embarrass a patient who may be in the middle of something intimate. Never ever walk through closed doors or pulled curtains before checking and re-checking with the nurses.

6. You’re a guest of the patient. Be grounded, sensitive, polite and unpatronising to them and to other patients around them. Make gentle eye contact.

7. Think about where and how you place yourself. It’s almost never good to sit on the bed and you may just have to pull the chair around so you and the patient can see each other’s face.

8. Don’t touch any equipment, but do consider touching the patient at some point. People in hospital are seldom touched at any time other than to do something medical. Get over the ‘sexual assault’ paranoia, and just touch or hold a hand (that doesn’t have an IV in it) in a centred, reassuring manner without making a fuss.

9. Every visit will require a different amount of time. I’ve spent 2 or three hours with some patients and at times just going to the bedside, saying hello and asking if they need anything will be enough.

10. Listen, listen listen. Some of what you hear may be distressing. You’ve chosen to enter into a potentially distressing role, so contain it without withdrawing from the situation. Avoid frivolity.

11. If a patient complains about their care they may be right. But don’t undermine the staff. If you’re any doubt, talk with the lead Chaplain.

12. You may well be interrupted. Don’t assert your right to the patient but reassure them that you will visit again.

13. Wash your hands before visiting and after. If you find yourself with nothing to do, wash your hands.

Things to consider after a visit.

1. Timetable in a period of reflection after the visit. The multifaith room or chapel is an excellent place to do this. Talk with Deity. The purpose of this time is to be mindful of the importance of your meeting, to remember and even write down anything that you’ve been asked to do, and then to put the meeting to one side.

2. Maintain confidentiality. This is particularly important when talking with other Pagans and people outside of an official role beyond the hospital.

3. Where do you get your support? In this context support means a safe and supportive, professional meeting where you can express and experience your feelings in depth. It doesn’t mean being surrounded by people who think you’re great. Having a trusted person or group of people who will be loyal and honest is central to your continued good practice.

Reading Patients Notes

Simply: don’t.

You’re not entering into a clinical relationship with patients so you don’t need to know anything about what’s wrong with them. Nursing staff will let you know if a person can sit up or eat or drink or walk around and this should be fairly obvious in any case; if in doubt, ask.

The patient has a right to privacy, that is, he doesn’t need everyone knowing the fascinating soap opera of his life. Some people, in the depths of illness, may have done things that they’re now ashamed or confused about and frankly, you don’t need to know about that and they don’t need you to know about that.

Your way of being with a person cannot help but change if you know someone was violent in the past or that they suffered violence, often extreme violence. You’ll know from your own experience what it’s like when someone discovers a part of your past that you’re not comfortable with, there’s a shift, often unconscious, sometimes not, in the power balance. Mentally ill people can be particularly sensitive to the imbalance of power which is part of what makes many people mentally ill in the first place, so be with them as you are and as they are, here in this room at this time.

Are there individual reasons to be aware of a person’s history? Possibly. It’s too much of a generalisation to say never. But the potential for violence isn’t a reason. If the staff feel that you both will be safe with each other, and you feel personally safe then that’s good enough. All chaplains need to use our common sense, intuition and work on our personal development so that we don’t enter into the paradigm of even very severely mentally ill people becoming an automatic threat. Neither do we need to be able to be comfortable with every situation.

The role of a chaplain is to support the person in the here and now. This holds particular power in institutions, no matter how excellent, where routines and policies can often take precedence over the individual, nuanced needs of patients. Most staff will intend to treat everyone as an individual but when 20 people need washing before 10am and feeding between 12 and 1 a rather impersonal flow and routine is inevitable. One important role of the chaplain is to see the patient as something other than a patient: as an individual person with complex and unique ways of being in the world. Sometimes patients need to be reminded of this themselves and this can be achieved by aiming to be truly authentic, truly in relationship with each other, as two human beings rather than a Chaplain visiting a Patient, or an Expert giving something of value to someone in need.

Being a visiting chaplain is to enter a liminal space: you’re not a member of staff but you have a different kind of status to an ordinary visitor. Most hospital staff will be very cautious about telling any religious representative what they may and may not do because there’s uncertainty and fear about overstepping some kind of Equal Opportunity policy. This gives you particular access to vulnerable people. Consider the potential for the abuse of your power if you ever feel the need to read notes or ask about diagnosis or history. Who does it really serve?

Sunday 24 August 2008

Theories of the Soul

Theories abound, as you will see if you google 'Theories of Soul.' They’re well worth reading up on, not least to see that there’s nothing new under the sun. The point of theories is this: they make order out of chaos. It’s important to remember this. Nothing about the soul can be proven. All we are doing is finding ways in which we can help people who ask for our care to feel more settled and safer, and doing that service for ourselves too. It’s impossible to live in the chaos that is the randomness of life and so we see patterns where there may be none.

Whenever I’ve travelled more than 10 miles I notice that I feel a bit discombobulated for a while, and that the longer I travel the more discombobulated I get. It’s not so much how far I travel as the length of time spent travelling. When I travelled to Australia I was almost as off as when I took a particularly long journey to Wales. My understanding of this is that my soul can’t travel as fast as cars, trains and planes.

There’s a tradition about a silver thread that connects the soul to the body, and there’s a tradition about soul fragmentation. Does my soul travel like a balloon on a string stretching all the way to Australia? Maybe it does, the soul doesn’t function as part of the material world. I feel instinctively that my soul can fragment and can be put back together too. And it may be that time spent quietly, visualising parts of my soul being sought out, reassured, brought back, moving into place and settling in, and then taking time to nurture them, may simply be good for my psychology.

Who knows?

It’s useful to have your own theory of what the soul might be and how it might function so that you can discuss it with people in your care. Many Pagans will have a belief in reincarnation but as soon as we start moving from the idea of the wheel of rebirth, of a simple, mechanical process of birth, death, birth, it cannot help but become complicated.

What is reborn? What happens in the bit after death? Do we learn something? How do we learn it? Who teaches? Why? How do we store the learning? How long does it take? Why?

Most of us have theories about all kinds of things but when faced with illness, madness, bereavement, death, these theories can get shaken. Most of the people I’ve worked with seem wobbly, not settled, perhaps fearful and they may not even be aware of it. There may be very good psychological and physiological reasons for this. Hospitals aren’t places people actually want to be. No one wants to be ill. Illness makes the body uncomfortable. Surgery is painful. Medication can affect the mind and the body. And as a patient or any person suddenly thrust into a vulnerable position you are bottom of the pile in the power stakes. Never underestimate the impact of that.

So we need to know how to help people negotiate where they are in relation to their soul and their body. At times it may be best to leave the body partially uninhabited by the soul rather that force it back into a place that it feels unsafe in. Can a whole soul increase or decrease the perception of physical pain? At times, bringing the soul back into the body may help someone feel more whole and may help them be physically and emotionally healthier. It can give a person an excuse to get better. And there are times when managing a persons expectations of their soul can simply help them feel safer, held, cared for, less isolated. Loved.

Saturday 23 August 2008

A Guide to Otherworld Guides

Anyone can gain access to the Otherworld, just as anyone can take a plane to the Antarctic. But it’s probably worth getting some information about the place and talking with people who’ve been there - and who you wish to emulate.

It’s important that you carefully choose whose information you follow. Unlike Antarctic explorers, you won’t drop dead if you mess about in the Otherworld. According to most Shamanisms you may get depressed or ill if things aren’t going well in the relationship between yourself and the Otherworld and this is likely to creep up on you rather than suddenly snap your fingers off. Everyone seems to be a shaman, with a vast and hugely populated Otherworld. It would seem that the only way in which to judge a teacher is your resonance with them.

Personally, I’m not interested in anyone who is addicted to cannabis or alcohol, who have neurosis’ around food, who seem to have no identity beyond their mysticism or who are parents to Indigo children. Out of the very many teachers out there I’m aware of a handful who are actually grounded in solid, useful practice and who care about the individuals they work with. Caitlin and John Matthews, Dolores Ashcroft Norwicki, Barry Patterson, Aeron Medbh Mara, M. Macha Nightmare.

Caitlin and John Matthews have written extensively on the soul from a shamanic perspective and offer perfect litany. Aeron Medbh Mara wrote the book of ministry, Life Rites many, many years ago. M. Macha Nightmare inspired and edited the Pagan Book of Living and Dying, a resourceful and practical book. Barry is a true blue (green?) nature mystic. Dolores Ashcroft Norwicki is a major inheritor of Golden Dawn lineage, and updated the classic Book of the Dead by Dion Fortune in her own New Book of the Dead.

You’ll have your own favourites. I offer these as a solid foundation.

The Soul 1

What do Pagans mean by ‘soul’? We don’t seem to have one definition so here are some thoughts to begin with.

'A soul is an entity which is evolved by experiences; it is not a spirit, but it is a vehicle of a spirit. 'The spiritual soul and the divine soul, or atman, combined, are the inner god -- the inner buddha, the inner christ.'

The Occult Glossary by G. de Purucker 1996 Theosophical University Press.

Since most of western occultism is founded on Theosophy, we can cautiously begin to frame the understanding that the spirit is that which animates the body and the soul is that which experiences. Though that great theosophist and member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Dion Fortune, seems to blur the two:

It is a great mistake, nay, a blasphemy, to think of our loved ones as dead, or to associate them with the dust that is returning to the earth whence it came. We should think of the vital mind, the everliving and aspiring spirit, going up and on with its evolution and calling us to comradeship in that great adventure.
Book of the Dead p36

'Celtic' mysticism moves into the mists of poetry

Since the human heart is never completely born, love is the continuous birth of creativity within and between us. We will explore longing as the presence of the divine and the soul as the house of belonging.
Anam Cara, JohnO’Donohue p17

But lets not get lost in the mist, let’s stick with the idea of a soul as that which experiences, which is eternal, which is most truly the Self.

The Greek for soul is psychikos from which we get our word ‘psychic’. There are any number of ways we can understand this: my understanding is that when we work with the soul we work with and in the Otherworld, and the Otherworld works in and with us whether we know it or not.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Ritual for Jennifer

This is the ritual we performed after the death of a patient.

Ceremony for ourselves, and for Jennifer*

We’ll bring together things that will help us talk about how we feel about Jennifer’s sudden death. Things that remind us of her. Things that help us talk about our shock and fear. There may be other stuff that we want to talk about that we think may be too difficult or shameful or fearful to share, but bring them anyway, you won’t be forced to talk.

Together, we’ll create a space for all these things in the centre of what will be our circle, making an altar for ourselves and Jennifer. Then we’ll start the ceremony.

With salt and water we cleanse this place and make it sacred for our gathering.
Let the Goddess make this place Her own and keep it pure.

With this athame I draw the circle around us to protect us from all harm,
and claim this place for the Goddess.

Maiden, with your flowers, bless and hallow this place
and make it sweet for the Goddess and her people.

With sweet smelling incense I make this offering to the Goddess
and to the soul of our sister, Jennifer.

Mother of healing
help us to believe in the
place where wounds can heal.

Mother of weaving,
show us that what has been torn
can be mended.

The worst has happened.
How can we believe in hope again?

Jennifer! Jennifer! Jennifer!

Boatman, ferryman,
She has had a rough crossing.
Carry her gently.

Comfort her, Mother.
In your warm arms of night
rock her to sleep.

And in our distress and disbelief
Mother of healing
Comfort us too.

We’ll sit with the bowl of salt water and take turns to speak our feelings into it. Salt and water are traditional cleansers and they’ll help us shed some of our shock, grief, fear, anger and anything else that is causing us pain.

Then we’ll sit with cups of tea and remember Jennifer, talk with her and with each other until we feel complete.
When we’re ready, we’ll join in blessing Jennifer on her journey.

Blessing of the Elements for Jennifer

May the Air carry your spirit gently
May the Fire release your soul.
May the Water wash you free of sorrow and suffering,
May the Earth receive you.

Be free, be strong, be proud of who you have been,
know that you will be mourned and missed, that no one can replace you,
that you have loved and are beloved.

Move beyond form, flowing like water, feeding on sunlight and moonlight, radiant as stars in the night sky. Pass the Gates, enter the dark without fear returning to the womb of life to rest in the cauldron of rebirth.
Rest, heal, grow whole again. Be Blessed.

We turn to the North:
Goddess of the corn, Giver of food,
we give thanks for the life of Jennifer and ask your blessing on us,
your children.

Turn to the East:
Goddess of the rainbow, Bringer to birth,
we give thanks for the life of Jennifer and ask for your blessing on us,
your children.

Turn to the South:
Goddess of passion, Lady of beauty,
we give thanks for the life of Jennifer and ask for your blessing on us,
your children.

Turn to the West
Goddess of the waters, Bringer of the sleep of death,
open the Gates so that Jennifer may pass through
and begin her journey to the sacred isle.

We give thanks for her birth and accept her death,
for we believe that she is traveling home to the Source of all love,
all peace, all kindness and joy.

Farewell Jennifer.

All repeat: Farewell Jennifer


The Closing

I wash away the circle of cleansing and return this place
to the physical plane once more.
I call back the circle of protection and return this place
to the physical plane once more.
I call back the circle of colour and fragrance and return this place
to the physical plane once more.

The ceremony is over.
Let our memories hold what our eyes, ears and hearts have gained.

Blessed be.

* The patients name has been changed.

Sources include

Ashcroft Norwicki D. 1992 The New Book of the Dead Aquarian Press

Budapest Z. 1989 The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries. Wingbow Press

Nightmare M Macha The Pagan Book of Living and Dying 1997 Harper Collins

Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids

Image courtesy of Kathryn Huxtable


In the years that I’ve worked as a Chaplain I’ve been met with a friendly reception on all the wards and departments I’ve come into contact with, open hearts and minds and positive interest. Not surprisingly in a hospital, staff want to support patients. Frankly, not many give a hoot about spirituality or religion; just as it is a minority interest in society so it’s way down on the list of their priorities when understaffing and increased workloads are standard, and personally I find this attitude the most easy and reasonable to work with. They know that some patients will feel the need for some spiritual support, they’re almost always happy - unless the ward is unbearably busy - to have me there. And even then, staff have positively made the effort to get me onto the ward.

I have come across 4 episodes of direct discrimination against the patients I work with and a number of instances of indirect discrimination. In each case the person doing the discriminating was a member of an Evangelical or Pentecostal church. (Which means that I haven't experienced direct - or indirect - discrimination from Anglicans, Catholics and Free Church Christians.) Nursing and support staff, chaplaincy and management dealt with these situations swiftly and seriously and disciplinary action was taken.

UK law makes it illegal to discriminate against a person because of their religion or certain beliefs.

Religion is defined in law as any religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief. There is no specific list, but it includes all major religions and less widely practised ones. If it’s uncertain what counts as a religion or belief under law a Tribunal can decide.
DirectGov 08

My own experiences of direct discrimination have been nurses imposing their personal views on Pagan patients, telling them that Paganism is the work of their Devil, describing the torments of their hell, and, incredibly, that mental illness is because they are Pagan. Interestingly, none of these fervent souls talked with me about their concerns but smiled and carried on as normal, suggesting that at the heart of the matter was their need to dominate a weaker person.

Indirect discrimination is less easy to define. A member of staff fairly held his nose when I invited him to join our circle when he wouldn’t give us privacy. A particularly straight face when asking what Paganism was about. Some genteel, dismissive debate when I insisted we be allowed to go to the multifaith room on the grounds that Christian and Muslim patients are allowed to, whatever the staffing levels might be.

But what about this one?

On this ward patients can spend 3 or four years living together. One of them died. All of the patients went to a service in the Chapel to remember the patient and to begin to work through their bereavement. The Pagan patients didn't go to on the basis that they were Pagan. They weren’t prevented from attending but provision was made for staff to remain on the ward with them while the other patients went to the church service.

I imagine what happened was that the staff, with the best will and intent, believed they knew that Pagans and churches and Christian services do not mix, and who can blame them when the anti-Christian noise from Paganism can be very loud? In fact the Pagan patients felt isolated from a powerful group experience. The were distressed that they weren’t able to symbolise their loss, fears and other feelings. They found it difficult to move towards some kind of understanding that their peers were able to access as part of the church service. And they felt separate from the rest of the ward at a time when mutual solace was important.

It may have been that the staff asked the Pagan patients if they wanted to come and they said no. I was contacted by the hospital the same day as the death occurred but, for any number of reasons, didn’t know about the church service. If I had I would have positively encouraged them to go and would probably have come up to attend the service with them, not because they needed protection from Yahweh but to offer a positive reinforcement in benevolent spiritual group work. Just as many Pagans tend to look down on Christians who feel unable to stand in a circle, so this disdain can be reflected right back at us if we refuse to enter a church.

But was the action the ward took in any way discriminatory? I don't know. It seems many assumptions were in place, both Pagan and non-Pagan.

And what about this? As we were performing the ritual for Jennifer, in a quiet, secluded part of the hospital grounds, a member of staff came close to see what we were up to. He’s a very decent person who knows me well. Within 10 feet of us he realised we were working, stopped, then walked on waving to us in a friendly way and called out, “Don’t do anything naughty!”

There wasn’t an ounce of malice in him or his intent. But he wouldn’t say this at a Christian memorial (or any other) service.

There are a number of issues here, not least the problems of outdoor working and the difficulty of an official Multifaith room not being close enough for all users to access easily. I didn’t bring it up with him or anyone else because I felt it would be disproportionate and counterproductive: if I’d been aware of any intentional mockery I’d have addressed it. There’s a thin and difficult line to walk between being utopian and snotty or too relaxed and accepting.

Introduction to Caring for the Pagan Patient

The first NHS guide to Paganism was written in 1992 and although Pagan practice and the needs of Pagans in hospital hasn’t altered in the intervening years, my experience of working in a secure psychiatric environment has brought new insights into that speciality. What has changed is hospital practice. Paganism is much more widely recognised and understood, patient rights are taken more seriously and more health care staff are themselves Pagan.

Paganism has become a mainstream religion and continues to grow at a steady pace. In Britain it’s recognised by the NHS, the Home Office and Prison Service, interfaith groups, the Church of England, the Trade union Congress and any other mainstream organisation that has knowingly come into contact with Pagans.

Equality and human rights play a vital part in the work of the Department of Health. Every member of society is likely, at some point, to be a recipient of health and social care. DH welcomes diversity in society, acknowledging that experiences, aspirations and needs are also diverse.

This applies equally to minority groups, those who have been traditionally excluded and to those whose voices are seldom heard by the health and social care system.
Department of Health 2008

The Department of Health have a number of working groups to oversee the functioning of the Human Rights Act 2000. The article that covers religion is

'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion'.

Sunday 29 June 2008

The Religion Debate

Christian practices as diametrically opposed as Quakerism and Evangelical churches, Pentecostalism and contemplative nuns all happily fall under the banner of Christianity. Buddhism has no deity and remains a religion. Hinduism is so close to Paganism as makes no difference, and is a religion.

There are some Pagans who get very heated when Paganism is described as a religion. This is certainly an interesting theological or semantic debate for the pub or internet discussion boards. For the purposes of Pagan chaplaincy - bearing in mind that we are providing a service to vulnerable people - it makes everything simple to describe Paganism, if you don't already, as a religion.

The alternative is to open up a can of worms.

Whilst Paganism has become much more recognised and understood it is still a minority practice. A Pagan in hospital doesn't need the added stress of feeling that their spiritual needs are not going to be taken seriously by non-Pagan staff because there's confusion about the status of Paganism. They certainly don't need Christian Evangelical staff telling them that Paganism isn't a religion because Pagans say it isn't. This has happened 3 times in three years in my own experience.

My understanding of the 'no religion' debate is that Pagan practice is so varied that Paganism can't be defined. And yet, people who go to Pagan events, join Pagan discussion boards, use Pagan shops, read and write books, magasines and websites about Paganism, join Pagan organisations generally understand themselves to be Pagan! It's also my experience that many Pagans define themselves by what they reject; organised religion, hierarchy, feelings of obligation and submission. Each of us is on our own journey of understanding. When our choices affect the wellbeing of others we might need to reconsider them.

Whatever the case, hospitals and all other public (and many private) services that Pagans have come into contact with recognise Paganism as a religion and positively look to help Pagan patients fulfil their religious needs.
It's difficult to know how to be a Pagan Chaplain. Pagans, like other groups of friends, have always visited each other in hospital and historically, the way Pagans have had their spiritual needs met by their friends on the ward is by naming on of them as a Spiritual Advisor. This term was suggested in 1995 in the booklet 'Caring for the Pagan Patient: A handbook for Healthcare Professionals' to acknowledge the experience of (largely) Christian hospital chaplains.

13 years on Paganism has evolved to a stage where the description of Chaplain is now more applicable to many of the people who volunteer to support the spiritual needs of Pagans - and non-Pagans who find that our philosophy sits better with them that other spiritualities. But it's still a role that's under construction and one that will never ossify, if only because every individual Chaplain brings their own flavour to the job.

The purpose of this site is to offer some thoughts about issues that directly affect Pagans going into hospitals either as patients or as Chaplains, people who are more likely to be attached to the hospital rather than visiting a friend.