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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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Joseph Merlin Nichter holds a Master’s Degree in Human Services Counseling, specializing in Crisis Response and Trauma; a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, specializing in Military Resilience; and an Associate’s Degree in Religion. He is a state licensed Residential Care Administrator, and is a certified Law Enforcement Chaplain. As the first state-recognized Minority Faith Chaplain; Joseph provided religious services and facilitated religious accommodations for a diverse population of faith practitioners, on behalf of the California Department of Corrections, and has also served as an Alternative Religions Program Instructor for the California Department of Mental Health. Joseph has authored two books and a number of articles, published both online and in periodicals such as Modern Witch Magazine, Living Stones Magazine, and Witches & Pagans Magazine.


  • Diotima
    Diotima Tuesday, 05 November 2013

    Thank you for posting this. I riffed off of it for the Samhain ritual I did for the inmates I work with, and it was very powerful for them. Two of them told me they bawled like babies -- in their meditations. It's progress...

  • Rebecca Basley
    Rebecca Basley Tuesday, 05 November 2013

    I am grateful to hear of a pagan ministry for inmates! My husband is a long term inmate here in Connecticut. We are serving a 40 year sentence (I saw we because our daughter and I are there every step of the way). All three of us are pagans but each of us follow a different path. My husband follows a strict mix of Celtic Druidry and Japanese Bushido. I am always looking for advice and suggestions on how to help him spiritually as he continues to serve his sentence. So far, we had to fight for over 3 months to get him to be able to wear a pendant that reflects his beliefs and brings him comfort where he is. We are in this for the long haul and we got 34 more years to go. So any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I subscribed to your page and will send my husband articles you have written. Thanks for listening Rebecca an inmates wife.

  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter Friday, 08 November 2013

    Rebecca, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Your husbands mix of culture and tradition sounds kinda cool and I'm glad you were finally able to get the pendant approved. Although his hybrid spirituality is commonly accepted within the Pagan community, the department(s) of corrections usually have a difficult time digesting the concept. My best wishes to you both, thanks for reading.

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