Monday 23 March 2009

Rituals On Wards

Performing ritual with patients has a number of purposes. Here’re a few of them:

1. to develop or maintain a Pagan rhythm to their lives
2. to begin to develop or to maintain a Pagan identity

and for patients who have had no prior experience of Paganism

3. to begin to teach Pagan norms which they can take with them when they leave.
4. to begin to teach the importance of inner and outer work.

Religious people have long discussed the importance of not confusing the symbol for that being symbolised. At heart I’m a kitchen witch and content that we use whatever we can: if there’s nothing available then we simply use our will and imagination, the foundation of my training. That said we do need symbols to move us beyond words and thought. We do need to explicitly acknowledge the difference between the mundane and the numinous from time to time and make a ritual meeting different from a non-ritual one.

Much of this can be achieved by embodying a different way of being, of behaving differently. In my practice we normally meet in a relaxed manner, sitting face to face and no one is under any pressure to do anything. Although we begin in this way on days when ritual is to be done, at the moment before the ceremony begins we stand. The act of standing and remaining on our feet symbolises that we are meeting in a different manner for a different purpose and is the first and most important ritual act of changing consciousness at will.

We work from rituals laid out on the page in very short paragraphs, often just a sentence long. We don’t take any time deciding who’s going to ‘do’ East and so on, one of us just starts and at the end of a paragraph the other person speaks. Where there’re severe literacy problems I speak their part quietly and they repeat my words half a beat behind. Inviting the quarters and casting the circle are achieved through an understanding of what we’re actually doing and an altered awareness, and since psychiatrically ill people have a great deal of experience in altered awareness I’ve not experienced any problems in the mutual creation of sacred space.

This way of working achieves several intentions: we work as equitably as we can, which may be the patients first experience of being trusted to behave as if they can achieve what a person in authority can achieve. The creation of sacred space is demonstrated and shared so that they can create their own in their own time, something that can be phenomenally useful since every ill person is (with good reason) frightened. We specifically address ethical problems of power, fear, control and loss of control, responsibility and so on. My responsibility, since I am the person with the power, is to monitor the feelings within the circle, to be aware as I can be of what seems to be happening, what may actually be happening and, perhaps most importantly, to keep everything earthed as well as out in the open. Secrets, in this environment, are poison, and the antidote to secrets is trust.

In a non-psychiatric environment the chaplain has to adapt ritual behaviour to circumstances, perhaps taking full responsibility for all the ritual or conversely being silent while the patient takes full responsibility for it all. I’ve heard so very much about how Paganism rejects hierarchy, spoken or written by people who hold every ounce of power in the ritual situation; as Chaplains we need to get over it. We’re taking responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of a vulnerable person in an alien environment because we have a particular talent and some self-confidence. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to think about, discuss and experiment with the basics of what we believe, and why, and how we can express that succinctly and with great meaning.

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