This week I announced that Imbolc 2020 finishes out 1 full year of working within the prison system providing ADF Druid rituals at a women's penitentiary. I have a friend who asked for a reflection on what I have learned in the past year and I thought that it was a really good question. In response to that question, I wanted to look at it thorough the lens of each ADF virtue as they have all been touched upon in the past year through this experience.
*Note: I have been doing Prison Ministry with another grove member so I am not doing this alone, nor do I do all the writing and planning of rites on my own, it is a team effort!*
Wisdom: Sometimes I feel insecure that I don’t know “enough” about something to speak about it. Do I really know “enough” of the ancient tale to tell it? Am I really smart “enough” to be educating others? What I have learned this year is that there will always be people who know more than me, but there will also be more people who are hungry to learn even the smallest bits of what can be offered. I’ve learned that my wisdom is valued, that it's okay to admit my knowledge is limited but that it's always welcome when it is shared. It's helped me be more confident in sharing what I know.
Piety: The wheel of the year generally honors 8 major holidays but in the penitentiary we visit monthly. This means we are creating new ritual themes throughout the year that are outside what Columbia Grove does. It has strengthened my practice not only to preform a second (or third) rite for each holiday (One with Columbia Grove, one with Cosmic Oaks Prison Group, and generally one solitary rite as well) but to also focus on creating new rites of deep value for these women which affects me as well.
Vision: Creating new rituals opens my eyes to possibilities that I hadn’t considered before. It enhances my liturgy skills to consider new Indo-European cultures to honor, new stories to tell, and new ritual themes to share. I have been inspired by the women's requests and have also had a lot of fun teaching new things. I have created many new rituals from the ground up and it has allowed me to see beyond the standard 8 high day themes. I've learned to embrace my truth that my spirituality should not center just on 8 holidays. There is no reason why one can't create more reasons to celebrate!
Courage: This is a big one. I was terrified to go into the penitentiary for the first time. I had terrible trauma surrounding my experiences with a former partner going to prison when I was younger. It was the darkest period of my life and the very idea of putting myself in a prison environment terrified me. It took a lot of meditation and reflection to even TRY to be "okay" with the idea. My first time in I shook like a leaf but by the end of the rite I left changed. I was still on guard to begin with but through the rite the energy helped me. It made me connect to what I was doing in a whole new way. I felt more confident in WHY I was doing the things I was doing in ritual and how I was helping my community in a very different way which was exceptionally meaningful. I know ADF liturgy quite well, but a different door in my mind was unlocked in this new environment. Halfway through the rite, it became less about me remembering my past trauma, and more about helping these women’s spiritual present and future. I felt my trauma taking a huge backseat to my mission now. To service my community to the best of my ability, to share the history and magic of the ancients and to keep the old ways alive in the hearts and minds of those here now and in our future generations.
Integrity: When you are preforming rites in prison it is important to remember that the inmates are often counting down the days until the service. Having a spiritual outlet through ritual can be the highlight of their entire month. They have to sign up far in advance to even be allowed to participate. So on days when I am feeling blah, or just plain lazy, I remind myself of my mission again and try my absolute best not to break promises and cancel our rites. I had to cancel once last year due to illness and it really bothered me a lot afterward. They understood because I was honest about it, but If I had canceled every time I felt lazy, that would not be fair or honest to them. This past year has really reminded me WHY I do this for them and how important it is to honest and make the right decisions.
Perseverance: Much like integrity, I sometimes have a hard time with the follow-through when I “just don’t wanna” that day. However, EVERY SINGLE TIME I go anyway and preform a rite, I always feel better and am so happy I went there for them. I have also learned different ways to persevere through ritual when things go “wrong” (I say wrong, but what I really mean is when things don’t go as planned). Sometimes I will make a reference to a freedom that is not available to them (such as being able to go for a walk in nature or even go grocery shopping for offerings) and I feel awful for reminding them of simple things that are outside their world. I do my best to remind myself to bring the conversation back to a place where they can connect again and during the tough conversations, the tough times in general, I try my best not to give up or panic. Even though I was scared to go the first time, I went anyway and am thankful that I faced that fear and didn’t turn away.
Moderation: I have learned to be moderate on a whole new level. Excess is not really an option in prison. There are a lot of freedoms that are denied (such as offering types, physical activities, props and clothing options etc.) that everything has to be scaled down to the basics of ritual. More is not always “better” or even necessary, you can do an exceptionally powerful ritual with simple items and realize you didn’t even need or miss them.
I have also learned to be moderate in how I handle people who have criminal records. With my past history, it would be easy to judge all criminal offenders as just “bad” and unworthy of special religious privileges. I “could” go and look up each inmate that comes to our rites and see why they are there in the first place. I “could” judge them just for being there in the first place but I don’t. I have learned to moderate those immediate reflexes and to treat these women as human beings instead of monsters. Would I agree with their past decisions? Could I forgive them for some of their offenses? Who knows. That’s not why I am there. I am there to provide an outlet that helps them NOW and hopefully impacts and influences their future as well. Their past is not mine to judge it’s between them and their Kindreds to make peace with. The justice system has sentenced them, I am there to help brighten their experience in positive ways and that helps me remain neutral and treat them like human beings.
Fertility: Many women have came up to me and said “I just started looking into witchcraft/wicca/druidry/paganism/etc. and I want to learn more!”, those inspired seeds have been planted in their hearts and minds and they are looking for anyone to help water and nurture that plant to grow. These are exceptionally fertile women who are looking for encouragement and support without judgment. They are requesting a spiritual mentor to help guide them as they learn on their own and I see that growth each and every time I visit. I see potential and I am endlessly happy that I can be there to help them water those seeds with my own wisdom and fertile spirituality as well.
Hospitality: A good guest/host relationship is about reciprocity. I give offerings, my energy, respect and devotion to the Kindreds and hope that they bless me with messages in return. In prison, I am in the inmate’s chapel space. I am respectful of my environment and set up everything for these women. I print out pamphlets ahead of time for them, I help choose interactive ritual parts that they can participate in for them. I put time and money into each ritual to be a good host and provide them with a great experience. In return, they are excellent guests. Many return each month to our services. All of them are on their best behavior; they say please and thank you and put their own chairs away without ever being asked. They participate in ritual, fully. There isn’t much they can do to reciprocate as guests but I see that they do everything that is within their means. I am a guest in their space so I am respectful of everyone there. It balances very well.
Is there always the possibility of danger? Always. It’s a prison! These ARE criminals. Am I still on guard when I am there? Absolutely. It would be folly for me to waltz in there without being aware of my surroundings. Self preservation is important and I know at all times that I am putting myself into an environment where it could be dangerous and I need to be careful of what I do or say that might trigger violence. I know I need to limit personal information and tailor conversations in directions that are safe and neutral. Working within a prison has taught me new ways to respectfully communicate and to think more about the words I am using and what purpose they are serving (not just because I want to say them).
Lastly, this experience has taught me perspective. It doesn't matter who you are, you are still a human being, and religion can be a central component to many people including those are also actively trying to redeem themselves for past offenses. My mission is to provide services and resources to my local community and beyond. I never thought that would include women incarcerated (and would have called you crazy 3 years ago for simply suggesting the idea!) but I am glad it has because its opened my eyes to different ways to practice, think, learn, heal and grow as a person and in my own spiritual practice.
Its been a great experience for me and I look forward to 2020 as a new year