Wednesday 22 December 2010

Welcome Yule

There are times when you can almost hear the machinery of the universe creaking as planets align. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere tonights solstice coincides with a lunar eclipse and if the clouds stay away we’ll see the shadow of the earth move across the moon. Light and dark in movement and balance.

We’ve been living through interesting times for some years now and people are getting weary. I’m noticing that when people say that they’re feeling under the weather they can get buried by unsolicited Good Advice of incredible banality: have a cold? “Here’s a great idea! Take some honey in a glass of hot water!!” Feeling a little miserable after some days without sunshine? “Get on out there! Breathing that cold winter air will cheer you right up!!!” The value of simple commiseration seems to be lost in a tidal wave of “If you’d just do something positive you’d feel so much better!!! Get up, get going, get on with it! God helps those that help themselves!”

We’ll build a small fire tonight and extend our circle to encompass everyone else who will be celebrating this longest night, people at Stonehenge and other sacred sites, people who celebrated solstices in the past and those who will celebrate in the years to come. My Ancestors remind me that I too will die and all the echinacea in the world isn’t going to change that. My Descendants remind me that whilst teaching and advice is all very well simple love and attention creates at least two better people. The eternal movement of massive celestial bodies moving into and out of alignment helps put all striving and ambition into perspective.

Lets share time with each other for the sake of it, giving presents because we truly want to, consciously receiving the valuable, life-saving gift of comfortable company. Just spending time with people in hospital, not talking about spiritual things or doing Pagan things but just hanging out, can create a lot of warmth and pleasure and remind people that they’re more than a patient or a container for illness. You don’t have to do anything at all. You just have to be. That really, truly is good enough. And so are you.

Sunday 28 November 2010

UK Hospital Death Rates

Some years ago I had to have a very minor examination at a local hospital. The waiting room was filled with other people waiting for the same exam and we all sat there mutely as the minutes ticked past our appointment times. A fat, slovenly nurse swaggered backwards and forwards doing bugger all and in the end I asked her sweetly what the wait might be about.  She looked at me with disdain and actually turned her back and walked away. I minced off to find her boss who, when I eventually found her, told us that the doctors weren’t on site. Like attempting to open an oyster I continued to ask this woman questions until she finally told me that the doctors would not be in at all that day.

A little later I needed another small exam in a different hospital. Same kind of hanging around, same kind of nurses filled with loathing and I kept my mouth shut almost as a kind of spiritual exercise. Until I couldn’t stand being treated so rudely, so roughly any more – this was just getting ready for the exam rather than the exam itself. In the end I simply woke up and said, “What’s your name?” A tense conversation ensued encapsulating the hospital policy on name badges, this woman’s behaviour and – the clincher – the fact that I used to be a nurse in this hospital. The shift in her attitude was polar; she couldn’t have been more attentive and apologetic. It was this that really got my goat: she was capable of caring but actively chose not to.

Visiting people in hospital I’ve seen nursing staff handle patients roughly, seen an elderly person stumble and put a hand onto a nurse for balance only to have that nurses face writhe with revulsion and push the patient off shouting, ‘Don’t touch me!’ I’ve heard a desperately ill patient in a cold ward ask a nurse to pull the covers up around his shoulders as she strode past yelling, “Do it yourself.” My neighbour wept and desperately called out to be taken home, such was his distress at his treatment. I’ve supported a friend as he made complaints about the treatment his father suffered and at every point the administrators were incompetent, abused their power and treated my friend as if he was an idiot.

The NHS is very good at emergency care. Our nurses, having to participate in regular professional development, have never been more professional. And hospitals are, as any person who’s been in a hospital recently knows, killing patients. What goes on in care homes is beyond description.

What has this to do with Pagan hospital chaplaincy?

The simple presence of a chaplain on the ward makes people behave better. I doubt that there’s any research to support this assertion because it would have to start with the proposal that some ward staff behave badly and as any researcher knows, ‘That which is observed, changes.” That’s partly the point, that when a chaplain, a person with power, authority and legitimacy, walks onto the ward (rather than a relative who has legitimacy between certain hours and no power or authority) things change, particularly for people who have any kind of faith.

We have the same responsibilities as any other person, whatever their professional designation, when it comes to reporting cruelty and bad practice, and making the judgment about whether to report or not can be difficult for all kinds of reasons. But chaplains, with our fantastic, transformative gift of liminality, have the power to talk with people in ways that other staff feel unable to. A part of our job, just by our presence, is to remind everyone that they’re individual human beings with all that this entails. The machine world has always existed, all of us use each other to validate our worldview, but sometimes just by saying, ‘I see you. I see you as a person rather than as a collection of qualifications and a uniform,” creates a massive shift in attitude. It reminds us that we exist. More than that, it reminds us that we are alive, warm, sentient and have the capacity to do a lot of good and also the capacity for self-awareness and appropriate shame instead of always submitting to our place in the hierarchy of ‘Just doing my job.’

Monday 22 November 2010

Death and Other Love Songs: On Midwifing the Death of My Father

A guest post by Jacqui Woodward-Smith

Northern Star (for my father)

            Your journey is not mine to choose,
                 manipulate, to change or bend 
            Life’s spiral path must have its way
                 Its aim unclear until the end

You drifted deep inside your mind
A second and the veil reached out
I stand upon the distant shore
My call a futile, wordless shout

        I call to you my joy, my father,
           as priestess, to the Blessed Isle
        As daughter, call you ever homeward
            to stay with me for just a while

My soul shrinks to a grain of sand
To see your hard-fought words unborn
And yet your smile, my northern star,
Would bring the honey to the dawn

        I call to you my joy, my father,
           as priestess, to the Blessed Isle
        As daughter, call you ever homeward
            to stay with me for just a while

Words lost in too many words
The meanings far from tongue or ear
But I will listen in my dreams
   and in my heart your words I’ll hear

For you have walked the bitter edge where
   fear and love entwine in wild embrace
And you have kissed Her blood red mouth
   and gazed upon Her stone deep face

        I call to you my joy, my father,
           as priestess, to the Blessed Isle
        As daughter, call you ever homeward
            to stay with me for just a while

A deep-root oak, your spirit stands
Around we spin in praying dance
To pull you back from dark confusion
To sing you home from endless trance

Will you surface from Her cauldron
  Lost and caged or changed and healed?
Will life’s choices branch before you
Or has Her kiss your future sealed?

        I call to you my joy, my father,
           as priestess, to the Blessed Isle
        As daughter, call you ever homeward
            to stay with me for just a while

But heron comes to show the way
   through misty marshes of the mind
The edge of love, the edge of fear
The connection we were born to find

And when Crone Mother finally calls you
   to rest and change in dreaming womb
I will rejoice that you are with Her
But always feel you left too soon

        I call to you my joy, my father,
           as priestess, to the Blessed Isle
        As daughter, call you ever homeward
            to stay with me for just a while

            Your journey is not mine to choose,
                 manipulate, to change or bend
            But it is my joy to walk with you,
                 my father-child, your daughter-friend

©Jacqui Woodward-Smith, July – September 2007

Death and Other Love Songs: On Midwifing the Death of My Father*
by Jacqui Woodward-Smith

In memory of Ronald Henry Smith, 14th September 1929 to 17th August 2007 and for ‘She who births us, and waits for us at the end of a life, to take us to another shore’1

And when life can no longer hold you let the red and white springs sing you home …2

I thought long and hard about whether to write this article; death is such an intimate, personal thing that I thought perhaps it would be a betrayal of my father, who I loved more dearly than I can ever say. And yet, when I think about the days and months before his death, about the honesty, openness, dignity, and humour with which he approached his final moment I know that he would say that it was ok. That if it helped others to be less afraid then his death should be shared. Ultimately, his final journey was his alone, and I can only relate my experience of it, so perhaps there can be no betrayal after all. The secrets of that journey have gone with him and I can only share what I know. From my own perspective I do know that death should not be hidden, as is so encouraged in our society, and that the strongest memory I have of those last hours, and the days following it, are of the savage beauty and fierce love to be found at the heart of the Crone.

My dad, Ron, was diagnosed with prostate cancer following a stroke in 2004. I don’t think that I had ever realised what a strong and determined man he was until I saw him fight his way back to health after the stroke but that was also the first time that I ever saw him cry and perhaps the first time that I really saw him as a human being and not just ‘dad’. In a way, I think that there are few things that have shocked me more than seeing my father cry but, through his recovery, we did develop a stroner and more honest connection, for which I am ever grateful. During that time he had many strange visions and in one he saw me shape-shift into a heron, which made him laugh, but made me think of the bird that guards the liminal spaces between life and death. It was then that I first began to consider the role that I might, as best as I was able, play in midwifing his death when the time came.

I saw him battle that stroke and win and he approached cancer in the same way; with dignity and a determination to be well. He was a fierce protector of his family and he would have considered it a betrayal of us to give in, no matter what the personal cost to himself. In the years to come I often wished that it were otherwise and that he would let go, but that was not his way. As time went on and I saw his health failing I, feeling the brush of the heron’s wing, found the courage to talk to him about death and what we both thought it would be like. He became more and more open to talking in a way that he never had, about the past and memories of his own parents and siblings, about his dreams and disappointments, and about how proud he was of my brother and I and I told him that I loved him many times (which was something that we had never really said). During this time my brother began to research our family tree and dad cried when he saw the names of all the relatives that he had never known but hoped that he would meet some of them when he died. He was also disappointed that no serial killers or highwaymen had revealed themselves! Over time I saw the masks that he wore melt away like autumn leaves and I saw the kind, funny, strong, wounded, and gentle man beneath. It was an honour to share that time with him.

Eventually, in July 2007, he was admitted to hospital with acute kidney failure and, although his kidneys improved, he was told that, as the cancer had by then spread to his bones and lymphatic system, there was nothing more that could be done for him. He received this news with courage and good humour (as he put it he had “both feet in the last chance saloon and Marlene Dietrich was singing ‘Boys in the Backroom’”!), and I think a degree of relief because the responsibility he felt to carry on fighting had been removed. He then went about giving us his final messages (mainly about looking after one another and telling us how proud he was of us) and preparing for death.

A week before he died I attended the Glastonbury Goddess Conference in honour of the Crone. It seemed so perfect to me that we would be journeying with the Crone this year and I learned much about Her nature, and my own, in that week. I had felt for months that our family was being held in a liminal space waiting for death and, through my own intuition and talking to others, found that to be very like the time of waiting for a birth. Both death and birth are transitions into another state of being and it was as though all my attention became focussed on that one thing. When I left for the Conference and said goodbye to dad in the hospital I thought that I might never see him again but I knew that we had said all that needed to be said (despite that fact that I would rather have been able to say those things to him over and over again until the end of time). At the opening ceremony I read out ‘Northern Star’, the poem that I had written for him at the time of his stroke and, by phone, asked the nurses caring for him to tell him that many people had cried. He was a man who never felt ‘seen’ and I wanted him to know that he was seen and mattered before he left.

Often as a priestess during the conference I found myself holding the energy around the doors in ceremony and reflected on my role as gatekeeper for him as he came closer to death. I felt unprepared for the task but hoped that my priestess training and some of the energy of the conference would stay with me and get me through what needed to be done. In the end though I think that it is love that helps us through; there really is nothing more that we need. Before I left the Conference I attended a ceremony where priestesses embodied the Goddesses of the Wheel of Brigit-Ana and gave oracles. I went to Cerridwen and asked Her to give my father a gentle death. Her reply has stayed with me; “he will have his own death with its own dignity” and those words seemed to free me from feeling that I was responsible for making it ‘alright’ and allowed me to let go of expectation and react to what was happening around me, rather than constantly worrying about what it ‘should be like’.

After the Conference I went straight to see dad and we talked about my experiences and his poem being read; he told me again that he was proud of me. It was a warm and lovely afternoon and, looking back, it was the last time that we shared that connection before he began to let go and journey into death. The next few times that I saw him were more difficult, as he was becoming irritated with life in hospital and frustrated that he was no longer able to help with some difficult issues that were happening in our family. He began to close down, becoming angry and uncommunicative and looking frailer by the day. I was saddened by, what seemed to be, the loss of the warm connection that we had found but reminded myself that it was his journey and that my role was as a witness. I had always felt that he would struggle to die, that he would find it hard to let go when the time came, so perhaps that ‘winding in of the threads of connection’ was exactly what was needed at the time. Whatever the reason I trusted the wisdom of his dying.

As a final gift I took a plastic box, which I labelled ‘Ron’s Box of Love’, into the hospital with some pens and paper and asked everyone to put their ‘love’ into it. On my last few visits I, with dad more often asleep than not, spent my time writing thoughts and memories on slips of paper and placing them in the box. My niece and nephew also placed things inside, as did my brother and even one of the nurses caring for dad. It felt important to spend the time expressing our gratitude for all the things he had given us, even though he was perhaps unaware of us doing so (after he had died his nurse told me that she had read some of the notes out to him and that he had smiled). One night in bed, after a particularly difficult visit, I pulled my ‘crow cloak’, which I wear to work with the energy of the Nine Morgens, over me and I heard their voices. They told me that the Death Mother was circling but that the time was not right for Her to descend. Instead they said that dad was “with the earth one”, learning about the experience of being in a failing body and how to let go of it. I also saw a vision of beautiful autumn leaves decaying back into the earth and felt comforted. The Morgens helped me to see that dad’s journey was unfolding as it should and I began to see the gifts that even something as seemingly terrible as cancer can hold in allowing us to fully experience letting go, if we have the courage to do so. I reflected on the added pain and fear that might come from a sudden and unexpected death and felt grateful that my dad had been able to, as much as possible, experience a gentle end to his life.

In the following days I returned to work but also made another short trip to Glastonbury, where I collected water from the red and white springs and communed with the landscape to gain further strength for the days to come. The morning after my Glastonbury trip I packed my bag for work as usual but also felt that I should pack the sacred spring water and some other items from my altar to Cerridwen (which I had created on my return from the conference). I had only been in my office for a few hours when I received a phone call to say that I should come to the hospital; dad had developed a chest infection and he, and those caring for him, had made the decision not to treat it. It took me two hours to get to the hospital and, by the time I got there, he was virtually unconscious, probably because of the drugs that he was being given. My mother was there, later my brother came, and we all sat together, not saying much but glad to have one another. Eventually mum needed to sleep and my brother took her home before he had to return to his own family. He said that he would return in the morning and so dad and I were left alone.

It is almost impossible to describe that night, although I still remember every moment. Dad had been moved into a side room that morning and so we were more or less left alone, the nurses only coming in a few times to check his drip. As soon as mum and my brother were gone I set up a simple altar on a side table. I felt right to create a sense of sacred, despite being in the hospital. If we had been at home I may have been more creative (lighting candles etc) but perhaps that simple collection of objects was all that dad would have wanted; he was a man who appreciated simplicity. I called to the Death Mother, Cerridwen, asked Her to be with us and sat wondering what to do then. I held his hand and told him that I loved him, that he had done all that he needed to do and had kept us safe, that he was brave and that I was proud of him, and I told him that when the time was right he could let go, that he would know what to do. I know that he heard me because I felt him squeeze my hand and a tear rolled from his eye. I repeated the same things several times during the night and also told him all the things that I had been too scared to say, knowing that this would be our last chance in this lifetime. Often I sang to him quietly but most of the time it felt right that my only role should be as a fully present witness. I wanted him to know that I was there but didn’t want to interfere.

What I learned was that death is hard work and is something that we do, not something that is done to us. The Death Mother is our partner in the dance of death and we do have our role to play. Dad was busy that night and was constantly moving his hands. I didn’t hold his hand for much of the time because it felt important that he should be able to move as he needed to. He appeared to be making something and mumbled that he had to go to work, a place perhaps where he had been most himself and had felt most creative and appreciated. He had been a toolmaker and a few days later I mentioned some of the movements that he had been making to an ex-colleague and she gasped and said that they were the movements that he would have made at one of his machines! A few times he appeared to take some food and ate it, at one point seemingly picking some fruit from a tree. I was reminded of Leslene della-Madre’s account of her mother’s death; that her mother had burrowed into the pillow as though searching for the breast.3 It seems that there is something that sustains us even in our dying and it was quite beautiful to watch. Dad worked, and I witnessed, for many more hours; he was sometimes peaceful, sometimes busy, and sometimes set his jaw with the determined expression of a small boy. I cried many times but I smiled many times too. He only opened his eyes once more and looked at me sadly, not as father to daughter but as friend to friend. I felt that that was when we truly said goodbye and I smiled at him for one last time.

Several hours later, when his breathing had remained the same, I began to think that he would live for another day and eventually slept for a few hours. When I woke his breathing was slightly shallower but still strong and I sat singing to him softly for several more hours. He continued to work with his hands and appeared to be having a discussion with someone, his face showing questioning or approval of what was being said. I began to sense that he might have become ‘stuck’ somehow; he was a strong man who had fought all his life to do the right thing and to protect his family and, although he had accepted death, it seemed that some part of him was not ready to go. It felt right to call all the goddesses of the Wheel of Brigit-Ana, which I work with as a Priestess of Avalon, into the room. I called the Mothers of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth and Maiden, Lover, Mother, and Crone, with Brigit-Ana in the centre. I asked each of them to bring their individual gifts to dad’s last moments and to help him let go when the time was right. I told them that he was a child of their soil, that his feet had walked their sacred land all his life, and asked them that they care for him and show him the way one last time. Finally I called to our ancestors and particularly to his mother, Annie, who he had spoken of so often in his final months. I asked her to come to him and take his hand. I told him again that he was brave, that he would know what to do when the moment came to let go, and that all our love would go with him to be joined with the love of our ancestors in the Otherworld; from love into love. I began to sing but, even as I began, he gave three breaths and died. The room was completely still and I felt a deeper peace than any I had ever experienced before. It was as though there was a presence of a great and luminous darkness that was both light and dark all at the same time. I believe that, at the end, the Goddess, who is Mother of us all, and his ancestors came to show him the way. There are things that I would have wanted to be different; he had wanted to die at home, perhaps there was too much sedation, perhaps there was more that we needed to say to one another, perhaps I could have been better/different/more but these are just questions and don’t matter now. All that matters is that his was a good enough death; Ronald Henry Smith died bravely and well and I was, and am, proud to be his daughter.

I sat with dad for another hour before I called the nurses and the great feeling of peace remained with us. I felt privileged to have been allowed to witness the death of another human being. Sometimes I also felt angry; if the Goddess could have taken him so easily why couldn’t She have let him stay? But I knew that all was exactly as it should have been and that She had come with love and compassion and taken him back to Her womb, which is ever changing and ever the same.

When the nurses eventually came I asked whether I could help them wash his body and was able to bless him with water from the red and white springs before he was wrapped in a shroud and taken away from me. My brother came and we went home to tell mum; life took over once more and I was deeply comforted by the feeling of family togetherness that we had for those few days. Eventually dad’s body was brought to the funeral home and I again requested to wash his body. I had expected them to say no but they seemed pleased and gave me everything that I needed. I was left alone with him and was able to bathe him and rub peppermint oil into his body. I also washed, dried, and combed, his hair, which felt like such a deep and tender act of love that it makes me cry just to think of it. When he was placed in the woven willow coffin that he had requested I was able to visit several times to sit with him and fill the coffin with fresh herbs, my mother offered a yellow rose, my brother photos of his children. Just before the lid was sealed for his funeral I marked dad’s brow with red ochre and wished him a gentle journey in the Cauldron of the Goddess. His coffin was decorated with daisy flowers and greenery, as though we had gone out into a meadow and collected them that morning. Rosemary was woven into them for remembrance. Someone who saw his coffin said that it reminded her of a Moses basket.

After the funeral I, and several of my dear friends and fellow priestesses, watched his coffin being committed, as he had requested, to the flames and the creative and transformative fires of the Goddess, and loudly sang ‘We all come from the Goddess’. It all felt very ancient, very right, and somehow comforting, and I like to think that dad would have been pleased (and probably highly amused).

I never believed that I could sit with someone in their dying, that I could wash their body after death, that I could stand and watch them taken by the fires, but I found that I could and I will be forever grateful to my father for allowing me to learn so much about both life and death. I wasn’t able to do this because I am a priestess but because I loved him and because I know that none of us can ever be whole until our lives, and within that our deaths, are touched by the Sacred Feminine, who has been so long denied.

I was ‘high’ for several weeks after dad died; as though the stardust that clings to those who have just given birth was also clinging to me, but now I journey with grief and mourning and sit in the cave of the Morgen Crows as they tattoo the story I shared with my father into my skin; I won’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt. I don’t know how long I will stay with them but I do know that everything has changed and that I, like my father, have been through an initiation whose effect is not yet clear. There is much pain and fear in dying, there is much sorrow, but, if we can learn to see through that fear, if we can question all that we have been taught, if we can sit with the Goddess in our dying, then something deep and wounded will be healed; just wait for the brush of the heron’s wing.

©Jacqui Woodward-Smith, Samhain 2007

   1. Leslene della-Madre, Midwifing Death: Returning to the Arms of the Ancient Mother (Plain View Press, 2003) p.59.
   2. Jacqueline Woodward-Smith, unfinished poem
   3. As 1. p.56.

First published in Goddess Pages 2007 and reproduced with permission

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Pagan Health Survey

From the excellent Wild Hunt blog news of Dr Kimberly Hendrick's survey of Pagan health.

Not surprisingly, she demonstrates that many Pagans tend towards a more holistic approach to health care than do many health care professionals, which leads those Pagans to seek alternatives.

Is this a uniquely Pagan stance? How enduring is this attitude? If I get knocked over I'm not sure I'd look to lavender oil and crystals to sort me out and not many Pagans I know would either. Discrepancies between Pagan and conventional understanding of mental health are particularly apparent and interesting.

Listen in to the podcast on Friday 19th and hear it from the horses mouth!

Monday 1 November 2010

Happy Samhain

Whichever Pantheon we work with the story is the same: the Goddess moves from Her younger aspect into the older. She seems more brutal and distant but remains the arbiter of ultimate justice and inevitable change.

May our decent into the dark womb of Winter be warm and rich. Happy Samhain!

Sunday 24 October 2010

Virtual Day Of The Dead

Trinity Church offer a virtual Day of the Dead Altar on Facebook

Upload a photo to this event wall of someone you want remembered on The Day of the Dead!

This year, Trinity Wall Street is creating a Day of the Dead Virtual altar where you may place a remembrance of someone in your life who has died.

TO PARTICIPATE simply upload your digital photos, mementos and keepsakes to the event wall. Each day, the images will be collected and on Friday, October 29th, you can see your images on the Day of the Dead Virtual Altar at

Also, beginning October 29th, TWEET #TWSdayofthedead and your thoughts, prayers or meditations will scroll on a live Twitter feed adjacent to the virtual altar.

I don’t suppose our Beloved Dead spend too long worrying about who’s commemorating them, remembrance has been used by many cultures to honour and in some sense to give meaning to the lives of our dead. Whether we become Pagan Ancestors or live in the ancient Greek Underworld, whether we remember our dead so that they can move more quickly towards their heaven or if we go into burial mounds to bring out the bones of our dead at certain times, remembrance seems to be hard-wired into us.

Trinity’s virtual remembrance pages aren’t the first, but they are accessible to all. I found it moving to scroll down so many pictures of Beloved Dead.

What Is Remembered, Lives.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

When Your Family Can't Cope With Your Diagnosis

 One reason why your family might not be able to "be there" if you are faced with a terminal illness may have to do with how resilient they are. Their reticence does not mean that they do not care; rather, it reflects their (often unconscious) attitudes about life and about crises. That said, the good news is that people can move from being psychologically fragile toward being psychologically resilient.

Thanks to Megory Anderson at Sacred Dying Foundation for this.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Support McCollum Again!

His quest for equal rights for Pagans in [McCollum's} federal court case involving prison chaplaincy and the California Department of Corrections has moved to a new phase. Furthermore, Lady Liberty League has received reports that in addition to Patrick being denied access to do Pagan ministry support for certain inmates, Pagan ministers from other traditions and organizations are also being denied.

It's so tedious. The most powerful nation in the world (so far) is a theocracy. Feh.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Watching The Creation Of An Ancestor

I’ve just come from sitting vigil with a dying neighbour and her family, staying with her body until the undertakers came, remaining with the family for a little while then coming downstairs into my own flat. The nights have closed in and I feel securely surrounded by the lives above me, around me, all of us doing our living and dying, childrearing, grieving, enforced rites of passage and unconscious day to day existing. I wasn’t with this family as a priestess or Pagan but as a neighbour who came to see how Maria was doing. We all knew she was dying but I arrived at the point where dying became death and was priviledged to be welcomed by her family into that intense process.

What a lot of death there’s been in the last few weeks. Of course, death occurs at every moment but lately I’ve been surrounded by a more than usual number. There’s a feeling of skill and accomplishment  in not being confused, frightened or thrown off balance when confronted with the absolute facts of death; remaining grounded and present creates a particular atmosphere, whether one is robed and formal or in houseworking clothes, not least that the family doesn’t have to be concerned about someone wobbling around while they’re absorbing devastation.

I was going to post the following closer to Samhain but it feels appropriate to do it tonight. Back in 1997 when I ran the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust Caitlin Matthews, one of the Trustees, wrote liturgy for what we hoped would become a regular event, Ancestral Remembrance Day. I came across the old papers for the event and found them still relevant. These words later entered Caitlins book, A Celtic Devotional.

Viajan bien, Maria.

Ancestral Remembrance Day
Caitlin Matthews

This format is a suggested one only: it includes ourselves as well as our ancestors an offers opportunities to clear away what is outworn in order that the renewing tide can recycle all burdens that are clogging up our lives. Please use what you will of it, adding or changing details for your personal need and circumstances. The wording has been purposefully planned to be inclusive of all spiritual traditions. You can use this format as a personal celebration or can adapt it for small group celebration, according to need.

You may wish to set up a simple shrine. This might consist of photographs of dead family and friends, some flowers or a plant, a candle or objects from the natural world that feel ancestral to you. Our prayers and ritual patterns need not be formal. Remember your ancestors as human beings, speak to them the way you would if they stood in the room with you now. The most important thing is that we bring love and perhaps forgiveness. Forgiveness is a releasing and letting go from binding ties of fear, anger, frustration and jealousy: allowing such emotions to freely go, we simultaneously release our ancestors and ourselves from complex ancestral bequests which, without forgiveness, tend to cascade from generation to generation.

Finding new ways of celebrating and honouring our ancestors is a challenge but the rewards of such remembrance are far-encompassing. Think of ways in which you can publicly mark your own ancestors: tending family graves and decorating them at Samhain, marking and hanging wreaths on your own trees and bushes in the garden, setting up a votive light in a window, organising small gatherings among neighbours and friends, are a few of the ways we can bring our public spiritual and ancestral celebrations to a wider and more public forum.

Remember, we will be the ancestors to our decendants. Whatever patterns we lay down now will help change attitudes to death and bring the ancestors back to our communities in warming and loving ways.

I am the hallow-tide of all souls passing
I am the bright releaser of all pain
I am the quickener of the fallen seed case
I am the glance of snow, the strike of rain.
I am the hollow of the winter twilight
I am the hearth-fire and the welcome bread
I am the curtained awning of the pillow
I am unending wisdoms golden thread

Weaver of Life, Reciever of Death, you teach us time and eternity and the blessings of change. In the silence of our meeting reveal to me how I also need to change. Sacred silence. Your merciful compassion is my guide.

I remember all in the realms of light, the dear ones and Holy Ones whose vocation is a template for my own, whose life-ways have opened my own pathway especially. May they enjoy concord, joy and felicity.

As the year falls into darkness I ask my souls’ teacher to help me recognise what is finished, not to manipulate the powers of life and death to keep alive what is really worn out this year. I relinquish the fear and pride which may have restricted the flow of universal vitality into my life. May all the worn out things that I have harboured find their true rest and eternal home.

Wise Men, Wise Women, Holy Ones of all generations, I call to you to send a blessing upon all who are stuck in the past and walk the spirals of an in-turning maze: may your wisdom lead them by fresh and fruitful pathways to the blessing of the present moment. Please show to me the ancestral patterns which I inherit, the pathways of the maze which I sometimes tread myself. Help me to be aware that these pathways are not my own patterns, that I have my own way to walk.

I give thanks for the golden links of lore that our ancestors remembered and which spill into our hands: for the treasures of tradition, for the rich heritage of wisdom, for the ancestral experience which I inherit in every cell of my body.

Glad Giver, True Taker, as the raven stoops upon decay and cleanses the earth, so also do you take to yourself all scattered beings, keeping safe their souls. In the mercy of your silence I stand between life and death. May the life-blood in my veins bring me to perfect mindfulness of my souls purpose.

Into the hands of the Grandparents of Life and Death I commit the souls of all who have passed from this life. I remember my own dear ones. May they find peace, clarity and restoration.

I consider the moment of my own death: may I be well prepared and worthy to enter the Land of the Living. May my life be lived with virtue and integrity, may my soul friends help me prepare for my death, however unlikely it now seems, that my dear ones are not weighted down with cares and responsibilities that I could have spared them. I make frank appraisal of the things which I have left undone which must be completed before I die. I consider also the legacy of wisdom I bequeath to my decendents.

Glad Giver, True Taker, you hold the threads of life within your hands; both the greatest and the smallest creature is in your care; as I enter the cave of your silence I am remade, as the day is reborn of the night.

I light this candle to shine as a beacon for those who go homewards to their death.
May all who have died without anyone to mourne them or bid them farewell
be blessed and released from their wanderings.
May Holy Ones and Wise Ones from the realms of peace guide all wandering souls to their true abode.
May all who have died violently and without opportunity to prepare their passing
be peaceful and enter into the treasury of souls.

I raise this light for all who fear death.
May they learn that the dark is no darkness at all, that the end of this life is but the beginning of another way of living.
The blessing of love, light and life
Be upon the ancestors
Now and forever.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Happy Equinox

My daughter and I went to see Starhawk last night at St James’ Church, Piccadilly. I enjoyed and was grateful for how ordinary Starhawk was: she didn’t offer to Change My Life, she hadn’t seen angels as a child or been given Deep Teachings from otherworldly beings that compelled her to pass Ancient Wisdom ™ on to us. Instead she spoke about permaculture, paying young people to grow vegetables rather than sell drugs and finding people from their own communities to teach instead of parachuting in na├»ve idealists. She spoke about fungi and microorganisms that thrive on and neutralise pollutants.

My girl was mildly disappointed by the talk. In her own quiet, sceptical way she wanted to be immersed in magic and ritual, to hear a great leader speak about Goddesses and power, learning how to access internal authority and effect change both externally and in ones own essential nature.

Which was what Starhawk spoke about but in such grounded terms and in such an ordinary manner that a young person had to retune away from the hyperbolic ad-speak of so many ‘alternative’ presenters to tune into the regular, everyday voice of someone who has been doing something that works for them and for people who don’t share or care about their philosophy. Disenfranchised young men probably couldn’t give a stuff about theories of interconnectedness and would rather shoot themselves dead than invoke the Goddess but can see the practical value of making a profit from something legal and useful in which they have a personal investment.

My appreciation of Starhawks talk has grown during the night as the experience settled into me. I, too, love a peak experience but the more I see people manufacturing them – the desperate ‘shaman’ disinterested in everyone other than the person with power, the dreadlocked white woman who must howl, the catastrophically anxious Reiki flower essence practitioner – the more precious and illusive such experiences become. I didn’t experience euphoria last night and a small part of me was disappointed; I wanted to break my heart open in the company of my daughter who would simultaneously experience an awakening and homecoming into my own religion. It didn’t happen. 

But we walked through London arm in arm under the almost-full moon, she listened as I explained that Paganism is, if it is anything, about Being Here Now, becoming a grounded, practical person concerned with and part of the natural world. Any damn fool can buy a cheap fake turquoise bracelet and jump around under the title Earth Warrior, but it takes a different mindset to plan and grow a garden, a family, a home, and to be of use to people who don’t want to see divas but do want to eat. Sometimes, perhaps, pretending to see angels is an fledgling part of that mindset.

So this week contains both the autumnal equinox (let's just call it the autumnal equinox rather than impose a medieval boys name onto it for no good reason) and a full harvest moon. I wish you a good yield from this years work, a continued gathering of fruit and root and shelves filled with glowing preserves and stored abundance. I wish for us all an understanding of the vital importance of the mundane as well as a yearning for the transcendent, and a dark green appreciation of the immanence of the ordinary.

Friday 10 September 2010

World Suicide Prevention Day

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day

Here's the main page for the event and here's the link for Maytree Respite Centre.

Maytree offers a short stay in a safe residential setting where you can talk, reflect and rest - and restore hope. Maytree is a place where you will be heard, respected and accepted, without judgement and in confidence.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

I've Got The Fear

NB - I'm really sorry about the irratic links. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.
Old Woman made her presence known and the old woman, she mixed up some of the redstain soup powder stuff and the sacred sisters drank it and got a bit affected. They laughed and made a couple of bad jokes, and lay down on their beds and drank more. And people kept on talkin’ and singin’ and tellin’ stories and the sisters got dreamier and drank more of it, and soon we knew they were somewheres with bright colours and new music and good feelin’ air and then, almost all at the same time, they crossed over and left their meat behind on their beds.

Anne Cameron
Daughters of Copper Woman
The Woman’s Press p65

...Cleopatra sent to Caesar a letter which she had written and sealed; and, putting everybody out of the monument but her two women, she shut the doors. Caesar, opening her letter, and finding pathetic prayers and entreaties that she might be buried in the same tomb with Antony, soon guessed what was doing. At first he was going himself in all haste, but, changing his mind, he sent others to see. The thing had been quickly done. The messengers came at full speed, and found the guards apprehensive of nothing; but on opening the doors, they saw her stone-dead, lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments. Iras, one of her women, lay dying at her feet, and Charmion, just ready to fall, scarce able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress's diadem. And when one that came in said angrily, 'Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?' 'Extremely well,' she answered, 'and as became the descendant of so many kings'; and as she said this, she fell down dead by the bedside.
Plutarch, Life of Antony (LXXXV.2-3, Dryden trans.)

When Crito heard, he signaled to the slave who was standing by. The boy went out, and returned after a few moments with the man who was to administer the poison which he brought ready mixed in a cup. When Socrates saw him, he said, 'Now, good sir, you understand these things. What must I do?'

'Just drink it and walk around until your legs begin to feel heavy, then lie down. It will soon act.' With that he offered Socrates the cup.

The latter took it quite cheerfully without a tremor, with no change of color or expression. He just gave the man his stolid look, and asked, 'How say you, is it permissible to pledge this drink to anyone? May I?'

The answer came, 'We allow reasonable time in which to drink it.'

'I understand', he said, 'we can and must pray to the gods that our sojourn on earth will continue happy beyond the grave. This is my prayer, and may it come to pass.' With these words, he stoically drank the potion, quite readily and cheerfully. Up till this moment most of us were able with some decency to hold back our tears, but when we saw him drinking the poison to the last drop, we could restrain ourselves no longer. In spite of myself, the tears came in floods, so that I covered my face and wept - not for him, but at my own misfortune at losing such a man as my friend. Crito, even before me, rose and went out when he could check his tears no longer.

Apollodorus was already steadily weeping, and by drying his eyes, crying again and sobbing, he affected everyone present except for Socrates himself.

Knowing that John would be in control of his death was a tremendous source of comfort for me as well as for John. Indeed at a stage when MND had almost totally eroded his dignity, knowing he would have that control gave some dignity back to him. John's death was sad but my grief at losing him was tempered by the control he had over the way he died. Having said our goodbyes, I held his hand as the barbiturate overdose took effect: he fell into a deep sleep which was followed by unconsciousness and, after 20 minutes, death.

"kaze sasofu / hana yori mo naho / ware wa mata / haru no nagori o / ika ni toyasen."

More than the cherry blossoms, Inviting a wind to blow them away, I am wondering what to do, With the remaining springtime.

I’ve been around an unusual number of deaths lately and it’s made me slightly panicky. I’m not afraid of death but the more deaths I come into contact with the more worried I become about my own and the people I love processes of dying.

You’ll know that I’m a supporter of voluntary euthanasia which has become better understood in recent years even if it remains an impossibility for most of us who don’t have the resources to arrange a trip to Switzerland. Now, rather than heavy-handed legislation preventing us from taking direct control of our lives it’s the dear old market economy. As voluntary euthanasia becomes more attractive so more centres will be created and the cost will come down. I hope that happens soon. The free market is much better respected than people’s basic needs.

What’s making me anxious is the way in which I’ve seen people die recently, in ways that have been described as natural, but which have not been so. Doctors getting the willies around analgesia and not giving enough so that a patient who is in the final stages of dying lingers around in pain for longer than necessary: the intent is clearly to keep doctors safe rather than to offer the dying person anything. Nurses who frankly detest patients, something I find so repulsive and disgraceful that I don’t know where to begin. Nursing in the UK changed out of all recognition as soon as it became professional, something that I was in strong support of when I was a nurse myself, but the results have altered my opinion 180 degrees.

There are many other sites that discuss the shameful attitude of too many people who are in a nursing role and it is a fact that you can starve, face a serious risk of acquired infection and are certain to be subjected to contempt if you’re unlucky enough to find yourself on a ward of any description but more likely if you’re on a long stay medical (low status) ward. Which is where many of us will die. There’s nothing you or I can do about it since the causes are numerous and beyond our individual control, but this is the way it is, and it frightens me. I do not want to be at the mercy of miserable, cruel people; to have my symptoms rather than my self treated; to spend my last weeks in pain that can be dealt with but isn’t, or surrounded by people who don’t speak English and who therefore can’t care for me. That basic communication is no longer considered necessary for health care professionals is a measure of how hospitals now function.

Bringing our dying home seems to be one way to ensure that they will at least be paid some attention, and in the UK there are groups that will support us. But this work disproportionately affects the elderly and it’s hard for a person in their 70’s or older to physically care for someone who’s ill. Some statutory help is available and, once again, of an almost universally poor standard but nevertheless if they can do the heavy stuff and then get out it relieves some of the burden from people least able to cope with it. Even this barely acceptable offering is threatened by government cuts.

In reply to my blog of July 09 Joseph offered the following:

Amongst the Heathen Norse, it was not unknown to kill someone with a weapon when they were too old and infirm to fight. Doing so would offer them the chance to enter into Valhalla (because they had been killed by a weapon) rather than dying the "straw death" (dying in their bed of straw) and being denied even the chance of such a hero's reward.

Now, I’m not proposing that we immediately run off and follow this example, but it does illustrate that there are different cultural attitudes to bringing and receiving death than those we’re familiar with. We live in Christian societies, we were brought up, knowingly or otherwise, as Christians and many of our attitudes remain Christian. Often that’s entirely fine but when it comes to this incredibly sacred event it’s not automatically good enough or appropriate for Pagans.

How can we make use of this research, which seems to demonstrate that a naturally occurring chemical in a plant well known for it’s shamanic properties, reduces misery? (The comments following the piece show just how dreadful palliative care in the US can be, when medicine and populist ideology collide.) Using LSD for similar purposes has a solid history. Our counter culture cousins may or may not be using psilocybin when they become terminally ill and Pagans with our dedication to the natural world, could discuss in practical terms if, how and why we would use it too.

We do so much work in the non-practical: envisioning this and that to release wandering souls, energy work, working with God-forms, and it seems clear that this helps distract us and give us the illusion of control. Just like non-Pagans few of us work with the dying and so can be unprepared. When we’re confronted by the reality of someone in extremis it’s very tempting to unleash a panoply of techniques to distance ourselves from them.  I can tell you that if anyone imposes Reiki on me when I’m dying I will haunt them for a good, long time.  Ditto if any crystal is brought near me. Neither do I want anyone singing over me or twanging a tuning fork in my ear when my heels are going black because I haven’t been moved for hours on end. What I want is to be touched with compassion and care, to have my skin cared for, to be looked in the eye, to be seen as a living, precious individual in the active process of dying.

I dearly want someone to be compassionate enough to hear me when I say I’ve had enough; to bring me the equivalent of hemlock when I ask for it, someone who knows how to source it, prepare it and administer it; someone who will stay with me fearlessly as the drug gets to work and who will care for my body when it’s over. That could be a nurse or doctor. A competent drug dealer would do. But how wonderful if it could be a priestess or priest.

Thursday 2 September 2010


In 2007 Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper wrote a book called ‘Relational Depth’ a minute part of which covered Mearn’s counselling work with the client ‘Dominic’. One sentence between Means and Dominic went like this:

“Dom, be here, be here drunk, but don't play fucking games with me.”

and small bomb went of in the Person Centred counselling world. You can read the rationale for the opposition to this way of being here:

Objections were founded in theory and as such are sound and worthy of discussion but in the midst of the debate was the unspoken, something indefinable, and for me it came down to issues of who counsellors often are, who clients often are, the ways in which we define ourselves and most importantly, the terror that many counsellors have of actual connection. Connection is the primary concern of the book and the work of the counsellor.

In reply to my previous piece Amanda commented:
I found myself absolutely tongue tied when I spoke to her for the first time after the event. We do not share a spiritual path, but even if it were so I do not know what I could have said to her. I am not a mother, I cannot begin to know the pain of losing a child. This is one area that troubles me as I consider continuing on the path to fully involved pagan clergy... will I ever be able to find the "language of mystery" to help with this very particular kind of grief with no knowledge of that relationship myself?
which touches on an important aspect of counsellor or clergy training: how do we empathise with people who have had an experience that we have not?

The pat answer is that we all share similar experiences and can use them to empathise with the experience of the client. There’s some truth in this but the existence of specialist support groups speaks to the importance of the truly shared experience. People can communicate in intimate shorthand without having to explain or pull their punches for the sake of the listener, a shared journey with close companions, people who don’t need to be told everything for there to be a sense of kinship.

Connection has been categorised and simplified, codified and reduced to a technique. “You can empathise with a woman who’s lost her baby because your dog died.” Not really. One of my peers wanted to prove that online counselling was able to provide Buber’s I-Thou relationship between client and counsellor. That this person wanted to prove anything in research was a measure of her need. Despite discussions she went off and did the research which, astonishingly, showed that an I-Thou relationship was possible in online counselling.

Buber spoke of moments of I-Thou relationship, brief (but timeless) instances beyond speech touching the realm of mystery; fragile, unrehearsed, attuned to agape. This goes beyond empathy into the realms of perfect love and perfect trust, connection rather than relationship, existential meaning-making and life purpose.

Buber is wonderful to read: dense, rich and complicated it takes time to absorb his wisdom. There are many other authors who build on his work and create their own whose writing is accessible and not in the least mystical without losing any gravitas or wisdom. I entirely recommend Working at Relational Depth by Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper which brings together the philosophy and research into connection of many of the most important modern voices on the subject – and builds beautifully on their foundations. Try anything by Peggy Natiello, Brian Thorne and Irvin Yalom.

Immerse yourself in their writing, try feelings on for size, respectfully experiment with your friends – see how it is to truly attempt to move into their frame of reference, see what, if anything happens. But here’s the magic ingredient: expect nothing to happen.

A very respected Pagan leader recently expressed his disgust with someone we’ve known for many years: “I've tried for years to make her less miserable. I don’t care any more.” How awful of this woman to not do what he wants. Who knows what she needs to do, or why? One thing is certain, she doesn’t exist for people to change, to make her easier to be around, to heal and Paganism is veritably heaving up with healers. Physician, heal thyself. When I’m made queen of the world all counsellors and clergy shall be made to repeat this every month, and best it be when the moon is full: “I am attempting to heal myself when I work with clients.” For better or worse.

If we have an agenda it can only come down to “Let me do no harm and let me be truly of service to this individual.” Not to heal them. Not to make them feel better. Not to stop their pain. Not to make contact or do the I-Thou thing. But to be available and worthy of contact.

So much of the time I don’t know what I’m doing with clients and ironically if I can be comfortable in the not-knowing, trusting the process, then I know something is going well.

Saturday 28 August 2010

The Power of Language

Babies are strong and can tolerate conditions that adults can’t. Whilst there’re excellent evolutionary reasons for newborns of all species to be resilient it’s also humbling and touching to hear about the struggle for life and potent maternal instinct of James and Kate Ogg in Australia.

These kinds of events are hailed as miracles in some cultures and such is the relief and gratefulness of the parents and loved ones that it’s entirely understandable. Then believers come along and perceive it all as an act of their god, something that makes many classical theologians depressed: if their god is wholly simple – that is, unaffected and beyond all we can understand – then how would their god get involved in that world? If that involvement occurs then their god is no longer godlike.

Protestant theology, which perceives the bible as their god and their god as intensely interested in them, disagrees which in fact bears a close relationship to how many Pagans function. Many of us have a personal relationship with our gods and they with us. So what might Paganisms response to the powerful evidence of one child’s will to survive be?

Personally, I don’t believe in miracles but this doesn’t prevent me from experiencing intense interest or from being very moved by James’ struggle and becoming even more convinced of the power of physical touch and physical connection to change destiny. I’m aware of only a few Pagan responses to this story and they’re all based in wonder and joy. In some of the replies there’s just a hint – which I, all good midwives, good neonatal nurses and many mothers share – of  “This goes a long way towards further proving that skin-to-skin contact between newborn and mother has enormous consequences.”

(The link works in formatting but not in fact! Take a look at   

Maternal instinct is frequently correct and is sometimes the difference between life and death. Pagans seem to know that as a scientific and beautiful reality rather than as a miracle.

One or two Pagan responses have given me pause. I doubt any would say they believe in miracles, not one has any ill intent behind their comments, none would dream of using this event to proselytise or judge. But they use a language of poetry which bestows numen and a particular weight to what they say. Just as we respond to specialised medical language or the language of advertising so we respond to the language of ‘Karmic connection’  ‘ a holy gift’ ‘the quiet voice that knows truth’ and so on. That’s why the language of ritual is different from mundane language and it’s why I’ve stopped using what I perceive to be the language of mystery outside of ritual.

Because in this case it makes the mothers of dead babies failures. They didn’t have the karmic connection. Why didn’t the Goddess give them the gift of a live child? Despite hours of skin-to-skin contact and yearning and communication they didn’t bring their dead child back to life, perhaps because they didn’t listen hard enough for or were unworthy of the voice of truth. That is clearly not the intent of people who have used the language of mystery to communicate their feelings and it can’t help but have that effect.

Every mother and father that has had a premature or full term stillbirth or neonatal death will be pitched back into stinging grief by this story. Did they do
enough? Did their child have a chance that they didn’t take? Did they put too much trust in their medical team? How were they deficient? There’s no mother of a dead or disabled child who at some point doesn’t ask herself this, even if she knows that the answer is an unambiguous no. It’s only very recently that mothers were allowed to have anything to do with their dead baby. Imagine our mothers, grandmothers, other older women now wondering if they’d only been allowed to hold their baby, what if, what if. Lets not add things to feel dreadful about.

The kind of attention to pain which concerns itself with unknowing and doubt, semi-consciousness and the unconscious, can be approached most effectively through careful and specialised use of the language of mystery, sometimes through formal ritual and sometimes in less formal shifting of awareness. When we listen to and respond to people in pain this cultural language can be useful but it’s not the language of the everyday. This is why priestesses and priests are trained. It can come naturally but it has to be used carefully. Words have power.

I’ve long had a particular bugbear about the careless use of poetic language, language used to change the writers and the readers consciousness and which marks the person who speaks in this manner as seperate from the poor dumb mundanes; it’s become used by every Pagan to describe brushing their teeth. Life can be tough, tedious and banal which is just as important to our human understanding as joy, peak experiences and excitement; arguably more important to get to grips with and understand. Whilst all of creation is sacred and we are sacred beings living sacredly as part of it, we also have to maintain some perspective and keep our knickers on. Getting breathless about canning pears is a tad hysterical. And using the language of ritual casually and habitually can have unintended but horrendous consequences.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Buddhist Resource

"To people who know but little Dharma, death seems something strange, something never before experienced. And because of this at least such people fear death. The question is, do we have need to fear death, or not? And if not, then why not? The answer here depends on the actions of individual people. Some people will have cause to fear dying, others will have no cause. What are the causes, which bring about the fear of death, and what are the causes which lead to a peaceful death?"

Preparing for your last breath
Laurence – Khantipalo.

Lots of information on preparing for death, dying and after death, from the Buddhist Dharma Education Association.

Monday 9 August 2010

Pagan Medical Ethics

The concept of Pagan ethics is getting a good airing; as a community we’re ready to think about our responsibilities as well as our rights. But I do wonder how, or even if, we approach medical issues that other religions struggle with, things like fertility, quality of human life and the artificial manipulation of genes. Individual choice is part of the post-modern mindset which Paganism has most effectively embraced and of course no matter what any religious authorities decide on most individual religious people go their own way, choosing to have or not have assisted conception, abortions, genetic treatments for conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy and so on. Their religious leaders and societies have the debate, understandings are generated but followers generally ignore them. Beyond vegitarianism and in the US, the abortion debate (based in politics much more than religion) we're yet to really get going.

News of Ciaran Finn-Lynch and his life-saving trachea transplant grown from his own stem cells reminds us that medical science is both exciting and moving at a speed that may often be beyond what we can keep up with. New guidelines around the use of genetic tests for children demonstrates that philosophy may not move as fast as science or the free market but is profoundly necessary to protect the individual, family, society and the most vulnerable from the excesses of both.  Freedom of choice for the parent has, in this situation and others, overwhelmed the rights of the child. Post modernism and raw capitalism are ironically close relatives.

So where might Paganisms start with a deasophy of assisted conception? Do we start with ‘An it harm none . . .” or the damage that is being done to the Earth by the unsustainable numbers of humans draining the basic resource of water? We already use medical technologies like surgery, chemotherapy and antibiotics so why not AI and IVF? Where do our responsibilities as a human community intersect with our individual human rights? Might we embrace infertility not only as part of the natural world that is as worthy of respect as other aspects of fertility, as much a demonstration of balance in nature as flood and fire but now also a much needed natural gift to the Earth? Might we forgo or limit reproduction as part of a sustainable relationship with the planet? This might be the most pointed definition of ‘Bioethics.’

Vegans have long experience of coping with the ethics of animal-derived medicines and treatments born from vivisection but what about the ethics of human research? Are Pagans who put themselves forward for medical research honouring animals or dishonouring their own bodies? How does being paid for the risk effect the ethics?

And since we don’t consider our children Pagan how do we make decisions about our children’s health? Is there a uniquely Pagan way or do we just tag along with our friends?

There are often no answers to these kinds of questions but in attempting to answer them we discover what is fundamentally important to us and why, not just viscerally but materially. Speaking about inter-relatedness and earth consciousness is one thing; but how do we relate to the realities of disability, poverty, mental illness?

Obstetric and neonatal care and life expectancy has improved so radically that there are already a greater number of people with learning disabilities than there were a decade ago and this number is expected to rise.

In the UK most people who have learning disabilites live with their families and 40,000 live in institutions. Although a tiny minority of these institutions are excellent (measured by the kinds of relationships you would want for yourself rather than a managerial tick box exercise) most people in institutions are not treated as well as they might be.  Here are some cheery statistics:

•    Four times as many people with learning disabilities die of preventable causes as people in the general population.

•     People with learning disabilities are 58 times more likely to die before the age of 50 than the general population

•     Almost one in three people with learning disabilities say they do not have any contact with friends.  One in twenty have no friends and do not see anyone from their family

•     40 per cent of people say they would like more say in what goes on in their everyday life

•    Nearly one in three people say they did not feel safe using public transport

•     Nearly one in three people with learning disabilities said someone had been rude or offensive to them in the last year. In most cases, the person who bullied them was a stranger

•     Only one in four women have ever had a cervical smear

•    More than one in ten people with learning disabilities say they never feel confident.

People with learning disabilities have a right to life. They can have rich and fulfilled lives and improve the lives of people without learning difficulties simply by being present in them. The reality is that most will die young and live as second-class citizens. Like the elderly and mentally ill they are too often used as a form of employment scheme for people who would not be able to work in an environment where clients can make use of a meaningful complaints process.

How might a Pagan ethic approach this situation? People who detest the meat industry can become vegan and have an economic effect, but how do we respond to a reality that is located between ethics and economics, between total expediency (involuntary euthanasia) and a total social revolution that values fire-fighters, teachers and people with disabilities as much as CEO’s and celebrities? We know it’s wrong to euthanize people with disabilities (Why? Just because Nazi’s did it? Is there a Pagan take on right to life, voluntary and involuntary euthanasia, quality of life?) but we are, in truth, killing them off through direct and indirect neglect and many will live lives filled with casual, catastrophic and everyday abuse.

Some of these issues are addressed directly in Starhawks' Truth or Dare whose understanding of power dynamics have been taken up by academics and practitioners. If Paganisms are more than Reclaiming what are the other Pagan ways of approaching modern medical ethics?

The temptation is to look for ultimate answers where there may only be fragmentary ones if any exist at all.  But engaging with the questions, examining reality as it is rather than as we wish it was; developing new and decidedly Pagan understandings of what, why and how we value the Apparent world (as opposed and in relation to our colossal valuing of the Otherworlds) and the people in it (as opposed and in relation to the concepts of animals, Land and Nature) demonstrates a readiness to be taken seriously as part of that world.

Start here with a feminist, relationship ethic and please feel free to contribute your own favourite
 Pagan medical ethic pages and sources.

Monday 28 June 2010

Spirituality in Cancer Care

Facebook is a wonderful thing. Thanks to William for  bringing this to my and all his FB friends attention.

Spirituality in Cancer Care: comprehensive, peer-reviewed information for health professionals about religious and spiritual coping in cancer care. This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board

I don't know why the PDQ link won't work, please cut and paste this:

Friday 18 June 2010

Sacred Dying

Megory Anderson of the Sacred Dying Foundation brought the following piece from the New York Times to the attention of her Facebook friends: Making Sure Patients Don’t Die Alone. The article demonstrates how enlightened young doctors can be but it also throws light onto the way we perceive death and dying: a failure to cure, an opportunity for litigation, perhaps something rather shameful. It is extraordinary that something as basic as someone being around when a person dies makes the news.

Paganism has an uneasy relationship with death. We talk about life, death and rebirth, celebrate Samhain, honour deities Who deal out death as well as Those from Whom life flows knowing that They’re often one and the same. But when it comes to the reality of the end of life we are, unsurprisingly, products of our societies. Fragmented, isolated, we can perform endless ritual and still find ourselves helpless in the determinedly real and unromantic event of death.

So many of our rites of passage are organised to be performed at seasonal gatherings but of course when we begin actively dying we’re unlikely to be able to travel, to be away from the things that make living and sleeping less uncomfortable, to have time between medical appointments or simply to have enough energy. The Pagan dying, like everyone else’s dying, disappear.

It doesn’t help that, like giving birth, dying happens in its own time. I like the analogy of midwifery for both birth and death but there are important differences: if a labouring woman encounters difficulties the midwife needs to be technically skilled because things can go very wrong very quickly. There is nothing to go wrong in the physical processes of death. Many physical symptoms can be relieved, many psychological processes can be facilitated but the outcome will always and inevitably be the same. It can even be (whisper it low) tedious to be with a person who is dying when they just don't die. Birth midwives learn to sit on their hands, be attentive and act swiftly when it's needed. People attending the dying learn to be attentive and do very little, actively.

Dying is a high energy event, it draws people to it, we all want to be in some way connected to this ultimate drama. Being involved with death brings out the worst as well as the best in people perhaps because there’s no set way to ‘do’ it. As the dying person becomes less connected to the everyday world there's a risk that they become a means for others to take a little limelight. All that  unfocused energy around death and dying has to ground somewhere, and when doing nothing is the most important thing to do we can all get frustrated.

You’ll know by now that I trip up over the word ‘Healing’. I don’t like it because it’s routinely abused, particularly so around the dying. The only healing for death is death itself and it’s self evident that this hasn’t been thought through or even thought about by a great majority. People offering candle lighting, prayers, ritual and so on for the ‘healing’ of a person who is actively dying would be horrified to think they were actively working towards someone death, or conversely that they were holding a person unnaturally in a life that is finished.

The Sacred Dying Foundation is one of the premier resources around death and dying, offering ways in which to focus some of that instinctive anxiety and interest, to be helpfully involved. The following is reproduced with kind permission.

10 Tips for Vigiling and Establishing Sacred Presence
Megory Anderson

Reclaim Grace and Dignity for Your Dying Loved One
10 ideas to engage family and friends in “Spiritual Presence” for your loved-one.

1: De-clutter the bedside area. 
  Set the space apart using candles, music, etc., to create a calm, peaceful atmosphere.  This will be the “sacred space” around your dying loved-one.

2: Within this physical sacred space, keep the focus of any conversation on the dying person.   
   Allow intentional conversation with or about the person, but no idle chatter among visitors: keep that outside.

3: Take cues from your loved-one regarding practical matters.
    If there is no indication that s/he would like to discuss or handle practical things, keep these things well away from the sacred space.  If you know the person’s wishes regarding privacy, make sure they are respected.

4: Take turns or assign someone as “door keeper” to shepherd the transition from the outside hubbub to the sacred space.
It can often be helpful to establish a daily or weekly schedule with family members.

5: Take cues from your loved-one regarding not only physical needs, but emotional and spiritual as well.
Don’t take center stage with your own emotions.  While your own needs are certainly valid, if all eyes are on you and the comfort you need, consider stepping outside the sacred space to allow the focus to re-shift to the loved-one.

6: When s/he begins actively dying, the most important element of vigiling is your calm presence.  It is a solemn gift.
To hold this quiet space so your loved-one can transition as easily as possible, use tools that you have already gathered in a “vigiling toolkit”.  Items to include: special objects to hold that have personal or religious meaning (a prayer shawl, a favorite scarf, a rosary), reflective readings or books or prayers, music, candles (flame or battery).  Traditional prayers are often used, but other favorite readings can be appropriate, too.  The idea is to personalize these items for your loved-one.

7: If you are at home, don’t be surprised if family pets want to participate. 
If possible, let them behave naturally: on the bed or on your lap, etc. 

8: Friends/family who can’t physically be there during this time can still be involved from afar.
For example, someone long-distance could be in charge of mass communications, informational emails, etc.  There are many online choices such as candle-lighting websites, creating a Facebook page with updates, and other internet options.

9: Ask absent friends/family to vigil with you at a designated time once or twice daily.
They could do this from anywhere in the world, simply taking a few minutes in shared thought/prayer, listening to music, lighting a candle, etc.

10: Don’t worry about making practical calls immediately after s/he passes.
Spending some time in silence can be profound and meaningful.  Then, consider designating one person to go do practical things while one continues to sit quietly for as long as possible.

© Megory Anderson 2010