Wednesday 23 February 2011

Professor with terminal cancer uses illness to teach

Larger view
 Professor Monte Bute

Bute has terminal cancer, and he' been using his personal perspective to enlighten students on the process of death and dying in a class called Life of the Mind.

Students in this master's level course dive into philosophy, medieval history and literature.
In a recent evening class, they watched the film "The Seventh Seal," by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
"Anytime I feel very Lutheran and tortured I try to watch it," he said.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Summerland Project

Offering accessible spiritual support to dying and bereaved Pagans across Lincolnshire …
and awareness training to those offering that support

Some of you reading this may have already have found yourselves approached about conducting a Pagan funeral service, or in the sad situation of spiritually supporting a dying friend or loved one.  For others reading this, those unasked for things may yet be in the future.  For those who have already had to face up to performing such services, without knowing quite how, you may have got through those difficult times, but wondered what more you could have done.

The Journey So Far …

The Summerlands Project was instigated back in 2004 as a result of requests for Pagan funeral services in Lincolnshire.  Although others had confidence in me as a Priestess, I felt ill-equipped to provide these services.  The writing and performance of rituals for large groups were familiar to me from many years of conducting open celebrations.  My initiatory experiences had also revealed death to me to be a truly spiritual passage; so my own faith was strong, even in the face of others’ doubts.  Where I felt lacking was in my ability to offer comfort and support to shocked and grieving families. Just what do you say, when suddenly thrust into the heart of a grief-stricken family, one you have possibly never met before?

I felt my way through those early services and followed them up with what amounted to bereavement support, although I knew nothing about bereavement support at the time.  One of the questions asked of me by a grieving widower, was why local funeral directors had access to contact details of the Pagan Priesthood while the local hospital didn’t.  While dying of a brain tumour, his wife had requested a Pagan Spiritual Advisor and was told by the Hospital Chaplain that they didn’t know of one.  Upset at the thought of someone seeking and being denied meaningful spiritual support at such a difficult and frightening time, I promised to rectify the situation, without any clear idea about what exactly such spiritual support might entail!

In trying to answer the question of what was needed, the Summerlands Project was born.  Throughout the Autumn of 2004, a group of a dozen or so of us met in a local Chapel to discuss the issues of death and dying as relevant to Pagans.  Some weeks we had guest speakers – mediums, funeral directors, healers etc.  Some weeks we held discussions, shared meditations, etc.  The aims of these meetings were:

  • To support those of us wishing to work with dying/bereaved Pagans by examining many of the issues surrounding death and dying
  • To work together to come up with a training plan covering the various services needed
  • To identify and provide an accessible network of Pagans across the county who were willing to provide that kind of service/support

Since those meetings ended, the group has been largely internet based, but work has continued on developing resources, and an awareness training plan.  We’ve worked as a community on painting wall hangings of the Sun, Moon and Stars and these have regularly been used as a backdrop to funeral rites.   Members individually have been gaining experience in different fields – developing healing skills, undertaking bereavement support training, etc.  The group now numbers over twenty, and is very diverse, with different people bringing different ideas and skills to the group.  Membership is not limited to Lincolnshire, and includes various PF Officers from the East Midlands and beyond.  We also have hospital and hospice workers and a range of healing practitioners within the group, while recognised Pagan traditions represented here include Druidry, Shamanism, Heathenry and Traditional Witchcraft.

In the intervening years since 2004, sadly, several of us have been involved in providing funeral rites for friends, and, where necessary, ongoing bereavement support for their loved ones.  In 2008, Alan, a long-time friend and an active Summerlands Project member himself, passed into the Summerlands after a fourteen month struggle against cancer.  And I suddenly realized I really didn’t want to help people to die, but to live!  Since then, Alan has been an inspiration and an encouragement to me.  As a result of the time I spent with him in his last months, my own journey has included a lengthy detour into natural healing, and to qualifying in 2009 as a Clinical Hypnotherapist.  Knowledge and skills which I have since been able to use to help support others.

Where We Are at Now …

The PF and I parted company for several years (long story), but recently the President, recognizing the need for an accessible network of Pagan funeral officiants has pledged to support the Project and I have been persuaded to rejoin.  So, after several years of not being sure how to proceed with our aims, we are now at an exciting point!  At the risk of boring those of you in other counties, I’ll outline where we are at, and what we are looking for. 

Lincolnshire is the second largest county in England.  It has ten hospitals, three hospices (one covers virtually the whole county), and six crematoria.  We are hoping to find at least one (and preferably more) volunteer to cover each of these facilities.  Making this task harder is the fact that Lincolnshire falls into three different PF Districts – the bulk being in the East Midlands, but with North Lincolnshire falling in the North East, and the southern part of the county in the East Anglia region.

At present, we are focusing on identifying those willing to undertake the provision of funeral rites.  Given the increasing number of requests for Pagan/alternative funeral rites, we felt this needed to be our priority.  Currently, we have five volunteers (introduced below, with their approximate area) who are willing to cover Grimsby, Alford, Boston and Lincoln crematoria, and we are actively seeking volunteers in the Grantham and Scunthorpe areas.  Although four of our six crematoria are covered, in real terms, further volunteers are always required as each crematorium has a wide catchment area, which doesn’t always translate to the area a Project member would ideally choose to cover.

Officiants are often ambassadors for Paganism, bringing as they do our spirituality to the wider world.   Therefore, we need not only to be caring and compassionate, but also professional in what we do.  Good inter-personal skills, confidence in writing and performing rituals, and being comfortable with the idea of death are good starting points.  An understanding and appreciation of different Pagan traditions is also useful.

Once a few more willing officiants have come forward, a series of awareness raising/training sessions will be held.  These proposed sessions include discussion, role play and the putting together of individual portfolios of resources.  Within the Summerlands Project are individuals who don’t feel able to perform funeral rites themselves, but who are willing to support those who do.  In the past, I have found this kind of support invaluable – from friends who played/sang unaccompanied at services, to those who helped with Pagan wreaths, and the layout and printing of “order of service” sheets. 

These services have truly been community efforts, and the Summerlands Project itself is a community project.  It isn’t intended to replace the in-depth (and often prohibitively expensive) training of other organizations – the BHA, or Life-Rites, but is more about a community coming together to discuss, and work out how best to serve and spiritually support those within that community – and then doing just that.

It is my wish by Midsummer for us to be in a position to contact all funeral directors in the county, offering contact details for a Pagan officiant within their locality.

Later, we intend to address the need for spiritual support in Lincolnshire’s hospitals and hospices.  Already within the Summerland Project membership we have individuals in employment in several of these organizations.  It is not necessary to work within a hospital or hospice to volunteer as a Pagan Spiritual Advisor, or “Resource” as our local hospital termed it, though.  And anyone who feels they could offer these kind of supportive services in hospitals or hospices, and would like to explore the possibility and learn more, are welcome to join the Project.  We are hoping to receive clear guidance and support from the PF in achieving a cross-county hospital/hospice ministry.

But the Project is not just about going into institutions such as hospitals and hospices, but about evolving the best and most appropriate ways to spiritually support members of the community who are facing their own death, or the death of a loved one.  While this undoubtably involves hospitals and hospices, it also involves supporting and working with people in their own homes.

With this support in mind, an awareness training plan has been developed, running to twenty sessions.  The initial sessions are a comprehensive (and sometimes uncomfortable) look at death – the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of it, and acknowledging our own fears about it.  We then move onto looking at ways in which we can support others going through this process, looking at existing transitional programmes, counseling skills, energy and other forms of healing, co-meditation, relaxation and guided imagery, etc.  From there we move onto more “magical” ways of working – looking at Tradition-specific imagery, “death workings” (pathworkings created for use at the time of death), holding vigils, performing “Last Rites”, blessing the body after death and a variety of other things.  In time, the awareness training moves onto funeral rites, bereavement support and working with the spirit after death.  We are not claiming to “qualify” anyone to do these things, but merely to raise awareness of the many issues and possibilities inherent in the work.  As a group, we are here to support and encourage those who feel drawn to this kind of ministry.   To help with this, we not only have the internet forum, but also have a substantial library, and various other resources which are available to all members. 

Hopefully, this article has kindled a spark of interest in some of you, and you feel inspired to join us in providing these invaluable services.  If so, please drop me an email at  Alternatively, you can apply for membership by visiting -  

In summing up, I'd just like to say that the past six years have been a journey of discovery for me and although the work is often challenging, it is also very rewarding.  And I've learnt, whatever skills and abilities we may have, often the greatest and most appreciated gift we can give is the gift of presence.

This article is dedicated to two founding members of the Summerlands Project
… our dear friends, Alan and Ken …
who now dwell beyond the Veil.
With love and gratitude to you both.

Copyright M A Lawrence (c) 2011

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Self Care

I’ve felt quite tearful and fragile today spending much of it wobbling around ineffectively trying to get some work done. My morning began with two counts of bad news: one in five children have experienced severe abuse and (as if we didn’t know) the elderly are routinely being abused in the NHS

A round of hand-wringing, more reports, outraged defense of nurses, the usual nonsense will ensue. I left nursing partly because I didn’t like nurses too many of whom had unresolved personal issues and no sense of personal power which led to them using patients to abuse that power rather than defending patients as a matter of basic humanity, never mind professional ethics. They wouldn’t strike on behalf of patient care because they couldn’t be bothered to think about complex issues and because taking action worked against their view of themselves as angelic martyrs.

I used to be a Royal College of Nursing steward, gods help me, and it was simply impossible to get any of our colleagues interested in the issues that faced the NHS at the height of Thatcherism. There was one glorious march of 6,000 nurses – out of a total of 70,000. I see little change now, other than that the majority of carers on wards are no longer nurses and are less able and less willing to think for themselves. A streak of intentional cruelty has entered the profession, and not just in elder care.

So that’s the NHS. Everyone knows patient care (as opposed to generally good medical work) on anything other than acute and high tech wards is pretty rubbish and getting much worse. But to discover that one in five children has been abused left me reeling. If we can’t care for our own children then it’s a given that we can’t care for needy strangers.

Happily, a good friend came round, she too was delicate calling the news a ‘pyrrhic vindication’ of her stance against the flood of crap that she’d endured as she complained about the disgraceful lack of care her mother had suffered to indifferent and defensive nursing home, hospital and administrative drones. She too felt hopeless, that our entire population had apparently become brutish, futile and terminally isolated from ourselves and each other.

So we ate pancakes with Iberico ham, mozzarella, pesto and rocket, and more pancakes with strawberries, banana, lemon juice and sugar, and a large amount of tea. We moaned at each other and listened, and cared for each other and empathized and felt somewhat better.

Self care and self respect are ethical priorities for carers, not by any means a luxury. This is not to wallow in a vision of oneself as a martyr that no one must question - if the job's so awful, don't do it. Neither is it to attack reports and people who question whether some people could do a better job, as if you are uniquely perfect in the world. 

Almost every time I come into a hospital in a Chaplaincy role I begin to get burned out. I find myself wanting to cut corners or feeling guiltily grateful if a patient isn’t available, yet working with patients is fulfilling, interesting, pleasurable. Some of that is the stress of not knowing where this ward is or how that policy works. Becoming trusted and part of the team alleviates some of that stress and makes my life easier which makes my work with patients more fulfilling – I’m not having to work at putting distracting feelings and thoughts aside.

When I first began doing this work regularly I was, frankly, freaked out. Being confined in airlocks, having endless locked doors between me and fresh air made me frantic with claustrophobia, which I had to work bloody hard at disguising so that I could spend time with patients who spent months in that environment. The naked suffering and anguish that many patients were experiencing, the knowledge that many of them would never be free of it, a growing, horrified understanding of deeply shocking pasts, blew my mind. I would come home staggering, leap straight into the shower and pray, sometimes flat on my belly, for strength.

In time I became more resilient but not in denial of all those things that  distressed me. My experience of overwhelming panic and anguish offered me a brush of empathy with patients – this is how some of them feel, sometimes. So it was a useful and fruitful experience and one I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I wouldn’t suggest it as a way that hospital chaplains should learn their trade.

But there was nowhere Pagan to go for wisdom, understanding, even sympathy. Getting support in a form that suited me rather than suited people who wanted to impose their reiki or crystals or chanting or other stuff that they desperately wanted to do at me and that drove me berserk, was impossible. My non-Pagan friends gave me very, very welcome tea and sympathy, a non-Pagan counselling supervisor gave me non-Pagan supervision, my Gods felt far away and I felt absolutely useless.

Where I found support was with Christian religious, nuns and monks who listened in a detached kind of way, accepted and felt no need to stop my weeping jags or make me feel better. Just suggesting the obvious, that my Gods were very close to me as they’re close to everybody, was a great relief, and that was offered so tentatively, so respectfully that I spent some more time weeping again at their graceful humanity.

Support is something that’s best done in community, allowing others to genuinely care for us because they love us rather than because our job title renders us automatically worthy of respect, to lovingly say, 'You're not working at your best. What do you need to address that?' I know this viscerally and yet can’t seem to access it within Paganism and after years in this game I don’t believe it exists. Just as I don’t care about the excuses that nurses will have for not washing a patient for 13 days or routinely dehydrating and starving patients to death, so I don’t care about the excuses Pagan communities have for not materially supporting the people who are doing important work on their behalf, whether that’s chaplaincy or childcare or interfaith work. If you know of a good, existing model of ongoing Pagan support then let us know about it here. I would be absolutely delighted and not a little relieved to be proved wrong.