The Adventures of a Wiccan Prison Chaplain
Seasons In A Cell
It was explained to me at a young age that funerals are more for the benefit of those left behind than for the deceased. Our rites facilitate our emotional and communal needs to grieve, mourn, express our feelings and provide an opportunity for closure. Our Pagan rite of Samhain perpetuates those opportunities every autumn and through the seasons we are able to transition from morning the loss of those who have crossed over, to honoring and celebrating their lives.
In seminary I was taught to turn to the Bible and how to employ Biblical scriptures to render aid and comfort to those suffering from the grief and trauma of death and other critical incidents. More than once I have attended funerals where the family of the deceased had given strict instructions to the funeral homes forbidding the use of any and all Christian references, especially Jesus or the Bible. This in effect, tied the hands of the chaplain leading the service and rendered him utterly useless, except to make the general announcement and invited family and friends to speak. I watched as they clutched their good books and hesitated to speak, struggling to find a suitable substitute to their gospel. More than once I have been asked to speak at these events, to read from my Grandmothers book the story of a little leaf who grew up on a tree in a city park, and to share with them the Gospel of Nature.
I have shared this story so many times and for so long that I don't actually need to read it from the book anymore. I know it by heart. And it is by heart that I share it with others. Because our path is not written in any one book, it is whispered in the winds, it flows through the running waters, it burns in our hearth fires. The Gospel of Nature is not written in ink, it is carved in the stones which lay at our feet.
It was six years ago this Samhain that I walked into a prison chapel and shared the Leaves of Samhain with inmates for the first time. In those six years I have shared many leaves with countless inmates, honoring and celebrating their ancestors. Many have lost parents, grandparents, children and other family members during their incarceration, losses which they were never able properly acknowledge.
I say properly because prison is not exactly a safe environment to express sentiment, to show emotion is often interpreted as a weakness and weakness not something you want to display while sharing a cage with predators. Therefore, many of those emotional and communal needs to grieve and mourn the loss of a loved one go unfulfilled.
In addition, there is also an element of guilt involved. Guilt for their absence in the lives of their friends and family, guilt for not being there in their last moments and guilt for not being able to pay them their proper respect. Over time, the combined weight and pressure of their withheld emotions, lack of closure and incarcerated guilt can be very damaging and diminishes the very concept of rehabilitation.
Over these past six years I have seen the power of Samhain change lives; relieving the pressure of unexpressed emotions and lifting the burdens of incarcerated guilt. Giving inmates an opportunity to share the leaves that have fallen from the trees of their lives. The circle gives them a safe space, a sanctuary, to finally release what they've been withholding for so long. It's never a dry ceremony, emotions so powerful don't just exit the body through words from the mouth alone, they are always found streaming from the heart and bursting forth through the eyes. On several occasions over these past six years, the leaf, the life that an inmate had chosen to honor was the very life they had been imprisoned for taking. And to that, even I lack the words.
Thank you Lord and Lady, for allowing me to bring the seasons in a cell.
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