Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ritualizing Returning Home

What follows is the text of a five-minute presentation given at Beyond Memorial Day: Understanding the Hidden Wounds of War, sponsored by the Interfaith Center of the Presidio.  More about that event to follow shortly, but for now I post this piece on "Ritualizing Returning Home."  Bear in mind that this was presented to an overwhelmingly Abrahamic gathering, most of whom know nothing at all about Paganism.

Ritualizing Returning Home

Beyond Memorial Day: Understanding the Hidden Wounds of War
April 26, 2012
Orinda, California

            Pagans are much taken with ritual.  As with all, or at least most, religious practitioners, we perform rituals we’ve learned in our training.  We also create new rituals, or adapt familiar ones, for specific purposes.  We draw from many of the customs of our ancestors all over the world and we blend these with more contemporary techniques and themes to suit not only particular occasions but also to customize them for specific individuals and the work, often healing work, that we do.

            In addition, we recognize the importance of doing things with our bodies, not just in our heads, as a way of engaging with the world.  This is especially important when folks have been engaged in something as physical as combat.  Ritual is a physical way to engage with the spiritual and psychological realities of returning home

            We offer some suggestions here for support and inspiration in all of our work to reintegrate our military sisters and brothers into our communities.  Some may be obvious to you, things you may customarily do.  Others may be unfamiliar.  Perhaps articulating these ideas will inspire you in your work with your congregations.

            1.            Cleanse and Release Using one or more of several methods, we welcome the returning serviceperson by cleansing her or him.  We may use sage or another purifying incense.  We may use water, salt water, scented water, anointing oil.  We speak, chant or sing words while we do this, or we may perform these acts in silence, or with the rhythm of drumming or a droning sound.  Performing acts of ritual cleansing can help release the burdens of war both energetically and symbolically.

            Such acts may be preceded by the literal laying aside of arms (although the arms themselves may be symbolic.  For instance, one may cleanse, polish, and sheathe a sword, even though he or she didn’t use a sword in battle.

            The clothing of the returnee may be changed.  He or she may wish to remove the uniform and redress in civilian clothing.  Others may prefer to clean their uniforms, polish their brass, and re-don the uniform that has been rededicated to another use, such as keeping the peace.

            2.            Support and Welcome Home Next we welcome the veteran home.  One individual may speak words of welcome on behalf of the entire congregation or community.  But it’s better, more effective, more meaningful, if this welcoming is done by each person one by one, extending a personal face-to-face, eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart welcome to the returnee.  This series of acts can be done in the context of a circle or spiral dance, with music and/or chanting and/or drumming.  Flowers may be exchanged, or flower petals strewn around.

            3.            Expression of Thanks for Service It’s easy to say, “Welcome home.  Thanks for your service.”  These words bear repeating from time to time, and by different people.  Other ways to articulate our gratitude are the planting of a memorial tree, the engraving and installation of a plaque, bench, garden gate, or other lasting physical acknowledgement of the person’s service to the greater community.  A shared feast, or perhaps a specially decorated cake, always brings people together in camaraderie and fosters fellowship.

            Circle Sanctuary, a Pagan organization based in Wisconsin, bestows a Pagan service ribbon on all veterans of whatever military conflicts.  Your religious institution may have symbols – pins, ribbons, armbands, pendants or other jewelry – that can be presented to your returning veterans.

            We hope that hearing of some of the ways Pagans use ritual to restore returning veterans and their families, to heal them of their spiritual, psychic, and emotional wounds…

            We leave you with a brief guided meditation that anyone can use wherever they are to reconnect with the sense of the sacred.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Don Frew concluded with a Tree of Life meditation, something everyone can understand and use when they feel the need.

M. Macha NightMare (Aline O’Brien)
© 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

CoG Interfaith Reps at Veterans Event

A couple of weeks ago, Macha and I attended a one-day interfaith event in the San Francisco East Bay called “Beyond Memorial Day: Understanding the Hidden Wounds of War”.  The conference was aimed at educating clergy about the spiritual problems of returning vets and helping to connect clergy with the resources that are out there.  Macha and I had been part of the planning group for this event – she acting on behalf of the Marin Interfaith Council and me on behalf of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.  Main organizer Carrie Knowles has written a fine account of the event (available on the ICP website at and Macha has written on the [AIR] e-list of the Covenant of the Goddess about the moving personal stories we heard.  I’d like to address the aspects of the event that I found problematic as a Witch.

We knew going in that the program would be based in a pastoral model of congregations.  This was due to the overwhelming presence of Christians (with a few Jews) in both the planning group and in the resources available to us in the form of vets, active service people, printed documents, etc.  Mach and I had a number of vague issues and concerns about this, but the experience of the conference brought them into focus.  We were two of only three Pagans at the event, at which there were very few non-Christians.

First, on the positive side, I learned a lot about the issues.  A key problem of which I had been unaware is how much more the problems of vets are magnified among members of the Reserve and National Guard.  These folks have been called up repeatedly in unprecedented numbers for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Unlike regular duty personnel, Reservists and Guard members leave combat and go straight home, where they are 1) dispersed, 2) away from the understanding community of peers, and 3) further away from easy access to veteran support services.

Another thing that makes these recent wars unlike previous ones is the ease of communication with folks back home through sat-phones, text, email, etc.  One minute you can be a Dad arbitrating a dispute between your kids and the next be suiting up for combat.  This is like coming home and shipping back out every few hours.  It makes coming home for real less real.  And when you do come home, it takes just a few hours, not a long boat trip among comrades during which you can decompress.  As a result, vets have to decompress on the fly while already back home.

Over and over again we heard about how the voluntary military has resulted in the creation of a warrior caste, in which certain families send their sons and daughters into service generation after generation, while most of us remain unaffected.  We heard many calls for, if not a draft, at least some form of national service.

Where I had difficulty relating to the material being presented was when the speakers addressed the “moral & spiritual wounds of war” and how to respond to them.  I couldn’t help feeling that both the problems and the solutions were being exacerbated by the Christian and Jewish (maybe “Biblical”?) context that was being assumed.

Rev. Ed Hatcher, author of Care for Returning Veterans, talked about the problem of confronting evil.  How young people who have grown up believing in a loving, omniscient, omnipotent God are brought face to face with “evil” in the arena of combat in the form of torture, rape, killing of civilians, etc.  No one used the term, but this is familiar to the student of religions as “theodicy” (lit. “justifying God”) or “the problem of evil”: If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, then how can evil exist in the world?  Christian theologians and scholars have written volumes on this, but Witches don’t have the same problem in the same way.  (Gus diZerega has an excellent discussion of a Pagan view of evil in his Beyond the Burning Times, Lion Books, 2008.)  Our personified Gods don’t combine the qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence.  We don’t believe in the existence of evil as an active metaphysical force.  To the extent that evil does exist in the Wiccan worldview, it is in the actions of some humans.  I don’t know if Wiccan soldiers would experience this problem in the same way or to the same extent as Christian soldiers (except, of course, to the extent that we are all products of an overwhelmingly Christian over-culture).

Ed said that “killing is not a natural human act and there is a price to be paid for it”.  I believe that this view comes out of the Old Testament, in which an originally perfect humanity “falls” into its current, sinful state.  Most of the Witches I know accept the theory of evolution and have no problem seeing humans as killers under the right circumstances.  In fact, it was an essential part of the process that led to modern humans.  The Warrior Ethic found in some forms of Paganism makes killing a virtue when circumstances demand it.  While killing is usually a breach of the social contract that requires some sort of repair, once again, I don’t know if we would have the same sense of fundamental “wrongness” that Ed assumes.

Ed spoke of the need to understand the spiritual side of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a “spiritual disruption in a person’s core belief system”.  This can lead to an unwillingness to discuss the problem with members of the clergy since the clergy are representatives of the system that’s been disrupted.  I have trouble seeing what core Wiccan beliefs about the world would be disrupted by the experience of combat, or would result in an unwillingness to turn to one’s fellow Priests & Priestesses for support.  The disruption we would most likely share with Christian vets would be that of the usual sense of home, trust, and cooperation that living in the US permits us to enjoy.

Ed said that he prefers a “guilt-ridden” vet to a “shame-ridden” vet because the guilt-ridden vet will seek redemption while the shame-ridden vet will hide from the world.  That’s fine, unless you don’t come from a guilt-based or shame-based system.  In my experience, Witches reject this dichotomy and tend to be more honor-based than anything else.

I don’t know.  I am not a veteran, nor have I known any family members or close friends who have been in combat.  Also, I am one of the few Witches I know of in my generation who was not a practitioner of another religion before becoming a Witch.  Wicca is the only religious tradition I have ever known.  So, my view might not be representative, but I can’t help feeling that the issues that confront Witches in combat are different than those confronting Christians and Jews.  If that’s true for us, than it is probably also true for many other non-Abrahamic religions.

All this being said, I think Ed’s basic advice, and the advice we heard reiterated by speaker after speaker, was sound and valuable:
            1) Don’t sit in your office; go where the vets are.
            2) Build personal relationships with vets.
            3) Do this before and during deployment, not just after.  (Several service people nodded when it was pointed out that a clergy person should NEVER just go knock on the door of a family with a member who’s been deployed.  They will always assume the worst!)
            4) Be prepared to pass various informal “tests” before being accepted.  Can you stomach the horror stories?  Do you know what you are talking about?  Will you stick around?  etc.
            5) Don’t do it alone; have peers you can rely on for support.
            6) Listen!

Once we process that feedback from this event, we plan to hold more, similar events in other parts of the SF Bay Area.  Macha and I will work to ensure that the structure and content will be more inclusive as we go.

Blessed Be,
Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative
Covenant of the Goddess

Friday, May 11, 2012

Women & Mythology Conference

I am at Women & Mythology Conference at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. M. Matcha NightMare and Faelind (Linda)...all the way from Dallas...are here as well. Judy Grahn is speaking on the direction of women and myth studies at the moment, being sure to include transgender people and non birthing women in her talk. People are enthusiastic to hear about the Covenant of the Goddess and what CoG is doing. I spoke with a mystic Christian woman last night interested in starting a feminist Christian women's ministry around Sophia concept. She was curious about CoG structures and practices, which I described. Blessings, Michelle Mueller