The Adventures of a Wiccan Prison Chaplain

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Joseph Merlin Nichter

Joseph Merlin Nichter

Joseph Merlin Nichter is an author, blogger, ritualist, Freemason, Wiccan and co-founder of the Mill Creek Tradition and Seminary. As the first state-recognized Minority Faith Chaplain, Joseph provides Pagan religious services and assists with religious accommodations of minority faiths for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; he has also served the California Department of Mental Health as a religious program instructor. Joseph is the co-founder and current president of the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association. Joseph lives in Central California with his wife and four children, where he continues to actively serve his community.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

It seems to me that the Witches Ladder is one of those unique and valuable, yet greatly under-appreciated bits of craft lore that has fallen to the wayside of contemporary Witchcraft. If you're not familiar with the term, there's a good article you can read here on Wikipedia that will give you the background and basic gist on the ladder. And if you Google it (images) you'll find a wide variety of ladders, made in many different ways and used for many different types of craftwork. Like much of modern day Witchcraft, people have taken an old idea and done something new it, and so have I.

But there are certain challenges that arise from this type of new growth within the Craft. There are so many of us taking old bits like the Witches Ladder, reclaiming it, remodeling it or recreating it. But we're not renaming it. As a result, all these neat new and original creations like prayer beads are being labeled  as "Witches Ladders" and sold on Etsy. Make no mistake, I'm not criticizing the idea of "Witch Ladder Prayer Beads," in fact, I love the idea. I am however, trying to point out the confusion this form of appropriation and re-association can create.

For this reason, among others, we call our Witches Ladder a "Scala," which is Latin for ladder or staircase. We have several different kinds of Scala in our tradition, and today I'd like to share with you the Rota Scala or the "Wheel [of the year] Ladder." Much like the traditional Witches Ladder, the Rota Scala is a length of rope or cord. We prefer twisted manila rope, it's made from an organic fiber and usually consists of three strands woven together. While organic over synthetic is a common Pagan preference, there is a special significance to the three strand braid within our tradition. It represents Tela, the inherent spiritual interconnection between all things. Like an umbilical cord, Tela is our connection to the world and all things therein contained. This interconnection forms a "web," the very definition of the Latin word, Tela.

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Prison: Past Tense

To the uninitiated, prison chaplaincy isn't at all what you might expect. Prison life isn't always like MSNBC's Lockup Raw. I'm not challenging the shows authenticity, I've been to some of those places and sat in a room with some of those people. Although the show may paint an accurate portrait, the canvas they frame tends to promote the most extreme circumstances. It is, after all, a television show.

But not every inmate is a violent face-tattooed psychopath. Most are hard on the outside and soft on the inside. They all wear emotional and psychological armor.They have to, prison is not a place to show weakness. But as a prison chaplain, as a priest, you must be soft on the outside and very strong in the middle.

Prisons are filled with human beings; someone's child, sibling or parent. Human beings who have made mistakes that changed the course of their lives and others, forever.  Some of them use the time to improve their circumstances by pursuing education and job training. But others do not. Some regret the mistakes they made, while others just regret getting caught. Some of them are exactly where they belong, while others deserve a second chance. As a prison chaplain you can't make those kinds of judgements. You have to help them all.

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  • Cernowain Greenman
    Cernowain Greenman says #
    Joe, thank you for your chaplaincy ministry to Pagans in prison. You have been an inspiration to many. Blessings on you and upon y
  • Jamie
    Jamie says #
    Mr. Nichter, Thank you for all the help you've given to our fellow Pagans in prison. May the Goddesses and Gods bless you and you
  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter says #
    Just a quick update, my daughter passes both the practical and the written exams today. It's official, she's a pro. Proud Daddy Mo

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

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.

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  • Rebecca Basley
    Rebecca Basley says #
    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
  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter says #
    Rebecca, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Your husbands mix of culture and tradition sounds kinda cool and I'm glad you were fina
  • Diotima
    Diotima says #
    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

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

Last year at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies I spoke about PTSD, what it was like coming home and what many of us are dealing with. While my dealings with some of experiences in Iraq may be rough and troublesome, the hardest part was coming home and returning to civilian life.

After everything that I had been through, and strangely enough, everything I have become accustom to, I had a much more difficult time integrating back into "normal" life and relating to "normal" people (civilians). I soon discovered that most people had equal difficulty relating to me. There were many awkward silences because they didn't know what or what not say, and neither did I.

It's been nine years since I came home with sand in my boots. I've slowly become more comfertable, I have learned to talk openly and people have learned to talk back. Having experienced it myself, I tend to notice it and I continue to see this type social tension in our community. But this awkward social tension is not limited to our returning warriors, the same type of social anxiety also exists between our communities and the incoming Pagan parolees I like to call "Outmates."

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  • Ulf
    Ulf says #
    Thanks for writing this. I have been involved in the community for 30+ years. I wanted to add my voice on an aspect of this that p
  • Candi
    Candi says #
    Not everyone is cut out for a prison ministry of presence, but everyone can actively engage in a community ministry of compassion.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
The Unpopularity Contest

Synchronicity is a mysterious muse who has always danced in periphery of my life. I have seen her out of the corner of my eye on what often seems to be a daily basis. Today was no different except to say, this time she danced across my news feed.

The other night as I scrolled through my Facebook news feed and came across a post by Witches & Pagans editor Anne Newkirk Niven. She had written that she had just gotten her a** handed to her by some readers regarding her editorial. Being no stranger to having my a** handed to me, I was among the first to offer a supportive comment.

The next morning I found a related link to Peter Dybing's Pagan In Paradise post about Pagan Intolerance. And Being no stranger to having my a** handed to me, I was quite happy the issue is finally being addressed. And I am a huge proponent of "Sacred Regard."

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  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson says #
    It seems that the more marginal a community is, the more viciously it chews at non-conforming members. We learned some lessons the
  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter says #
    I'm sure your right Gary, I've seen the power and control issues present in many social groups and communities I've had the pleasu
  • gary c. e.
    gary c. e. says #
    good post Joseph i feel your pain. of course this problem is ubiquitous in all religious communities. ever been to a bible stud

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

One of the first articles I ever wrote was for Witchvox way back in 2009. It was titled Kangaroo Magic, and I'm resurrecting the message of that article here because the need for it has returned.

In that article I mentioned that among my travels to numerous countries, by far my favorite was Australia. Mostly because I had spent my life as a student of indigenous Magical practices and has always been fascinated with aboriginal culture and the concept of the dreamtime.

Did you know that the Aboriginal Didgeridoo was the first musical instrument in human history?

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An addendum is something added, a small supplement to the original. This post is a small addendum to the last post on Doing Dangerous Magic. First I'd like to mention how pleasantly surprise I was by how well this piece was accepted. I received a lot of feedback, all of which I viewed as positive. Including validation from a psychiatric nurse who commented on how she sees the sort of "Wand Waving" I mentions on a regular basis. She is one of those who cleans up the mess and undoes the damage done.

In that post I also mentioned that I am a certified administrator, operating a residential facility and providing direct care for developmental disabled. I also mentioned that I am required to attend 40 hours of continuing education to re-certify. And that's where I was yesterday. I spent the entire day of Ostara inside an all day re-certification seminar. Yes, you can say it, "Spiritual coma."

But we did spend some time going over new medication issues, I always perk up for this subject because if I mess it up, I could go to prison or worse, someone could die. So meds should be attended with the utmost respect, caution and concern. We talked about dangerous interactions of medications and the instructor really focused on looking "outside the box."

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs

I must admit that I've been avoiding this post for quite some time now, but the circumstances have synchronized thereby producing the perfect storm. So buckle up, I'm about to go off.

In my defense, "going off" is not something I normally do. My preferred mode of persuasion has always been a heartfelt appeal to emotion, complemented with a modest and very casual stimulation of reason. And while my prevailing demeanor has always been one of unceasing happiness; I do have my "up-to-here" moments.

So it's new moon, and as with my tradition, I am internalizing the lunar phase and focusing on my shadow, in the Jungian sense. I'm reading a pretty good Jungian-ish book on shadow work and utilizing what I consider the most effective system of magick there is.

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  • Constance Tippett Chandler
    Constance Tippett Chandler says #
    My dear Joseph, I hear you and understand your what your saying. My immediate reaction was: who is doing this? But then I have ru

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

Years ago I started a little blog called The Ink Blot Tarot, and most people know me from that blog as WitchDoctorJoe (all one word, please just humor me.) It started as a publicly-private journal of one of my second degree CraftWork projects. I may not a good writer, but I know I'm not very good at writing. I'm very self-aware that my spelling is a borderline disability, that I am punctuationally impaired and that I drive the grammar Nazis completely insane. Mostly because I tend to make up my own words, which I enjoy, because somehow you always know what I mean when I do it. My favorite thing is to take a few words, capitalize them, and then smash them together into one word like CraftWork. Regardless of how bad of a writer I may be, I am in fact extremely comfortable writing.

Or at least I was until I realized how many people were reading my blog, then I became nervous, uncertain and uncomfortable. I became very careful and very guarded with my words and feelings; and my interest began to wane. I am simply not the guarded type. I have no problem spilling my guts, sharing my intimate thoughts, feelings and fears. For example, I love chick flicks like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and I wet the bed until I was almost ten.

So being a little Wiccan fish in a big Pagan pond, I was very honored and excited to be ask to write for Witches & Pagans. But I've hardly written much here, until recently. I haven't written much here because I again felt myself become guarded, because for me, this is the big time, and I really need to bring my *A* game. And because everyone will see it, so I really need to be careful about what I say and how I say it. Right? But I was invited to come and contribute here in this space for a reason, and I suspect that reason may possibly have something to do with what and how I was writing back at the RattleBone. So I'm going back to doing what got me here in the first place, just being me, unguarded.

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  • Jackie Moore
    Jackie Moore says #
    Hello Witchdoctor Joe! I am wondering when you will finally finish your "Spells for Cells". The whole thing was to be four (4) art
  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter says #
    Jackie, life is what happens while we're making plans; I simply got busy and fell behind. I will be writing quite extensively in t
  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter says #
    Thank you!

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

As promised this the second edition of my new series about the more subtle nuances of Pagan Chaplaincy within the field of corrections, "Spells for Cells."

Over at the Wild Hunt today, Jason Pitzl-Waters posted A Quick Note on Avoiding Bottom-Feeding Trolls in Mass Media.  Pause for applause, because as always Jason is spot on in his perspective and approach to an issue. I'm a big fan of Trollspotting, it's required reading in our Coven, and I think it should so be everywhere elsewhere. Just sayin.

Much like one commenter, I'm also "as guilty as the next guy" of feeding the trolls of my past. And I had a very difficult time not dropping a house on Debra. But I commend myself, on my ability not too, and I'll be talking about how I did that below (whoop). But sometimes Trolls can serve a greater good. Like many people, she really pissed me off, which got the blood pumping, carrying fresh oxygen to my cobweb shrouded brain. There was a cough of dust and smoke, and I began firing on all pistons.

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Spells for Cells part one

Back in July 2012 I wrote a piece announcing the establishment of the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association. Since then the association has accrued a decent number of members. Considering how few Pagan Chaplains there are, we're looking pretty good. A little over a week ago we held our first annual forum at PantheaCon  and again I was pleasantly surprised by the turn out. Among those in attendance were Patrick McCollum, Selena Fox, Macha Nightmare and Glenn Turner. I personally felt honored by their presence.

Our presentation consisted of a brief introduction to the association; its mission, vision, membership, structure and development plans. I gave a short instructional vignette on essential texts related to chaplaincy within the field of corrections. This transitioned into an open discussion forum which covered a wide range of topics. Both Patrick and Selena shared valuable experience and insight on the past, present and future of Pagan Chaplaincy. The highlight of the evening for me personally was Patrick's heartfelt expression of support for the success of the association. And in the interest of full disclosure, I got a little misty eyed.

By the time we got back home and began unpacking the news that California may have to hire a Wiccan Chaplain was already well on its way to going viral. And given my obvious investment in the subject matter everyone I know began forwarding links to news feed via Facebook, instant messages and email. My computer lit up like a Samhain altar.

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Nona Sabbata

Nona Sabbata is my Latin jargon for "The Ninth Sabbat."


For over five years now our Coven has been providing open public [Wiccan] community rituals a minimum of twice a month. In all that time, of all of those rituals, we only cancel one of them each year. Because we're at PantheaCon. And by "we're" I mean over eight of us. We all load up one very large van, and pile into one very nice hotel suite. It's like a non-stop four day slumber party with your best friends, at your favorite intergalactic spiritual space station. Which no one seems surprised to find located in California's Silicon Valley.

Our events are an opportunity to disseminate important information in our community. We are always promoting articles from Witches & Pagans, Newly released books, news and current events via The Wild Hunt or the Newswire Collective and anything else we can remember. We start promoting PantheaCon at our circles fairly early in the season, read off some the the events when the schedule is released and keep reminding everyone that "we won't be here that weekend."

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It's funny when I think about it. Each of those days always begins the same, I spend the whole morning in hesitant anticipation. I often consider creating a scheduling conflict or just "oversleeping." Anything to postpone the appointment. But I always seem to arrive on time, often taking my seat in the waiting room only seconds before he turns the corner and calls me back to his office.

He's quite frank with his questions, gentle but direct, he frames them in a way that require explanations to be answered. He noticed when I became uncomfortable with where the conversation was going, it's always obvious because I rub my silver pendant with my thumb. So he shifted gears and asked about my spirituality, if and how that played a role in my experiences in Iraq. Did my experiences there cause me to question my beliefs? Did I have a crisis of faith?

"No, but I knew someone who did."

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The Leaves of Samhain

  Over the years I have noticed a natural rhythm, an ebb and flow of activity and attendance to annual celebrations of the Wheel of the Year. Many seem to skip Imbolc, perhaps it the weather or perhaps we're still shaking off the winter hibernation. Still some confess not really being sure how to celebrate Imbolc, regardless, we usually seem to warm up by Ostara and are always in full swing for the Maypole Dance at Beltane. We cruise along through the wheel at a steady even pace until Samhain when we turn up the juice full throttle for everyone's favorite holiday. 

   It's really no surprise the Samhain is arguably the most popular of the Sabbats, it perhaps one of the most fun and memorable social events of our childhood. It is not a far stretch to assume the positive experiences of dressing up like our favorite hero or villain and canvassing the neighborhood collecting candy found a comfortable place to nest in the psyche of our young minds. It can be a dream come true for many who grow up, come to Paganism and discover one of their favorite childhood holidays has deep cultural and spiritual roots which complements their religious beliefs and practices.

   I had a good childhood, great parents and a close, strong family ties. My childhood experiences have always had a significant influence on my personal spiritual beliefs and practices. The most significant influence was from my Grandmother, from whom I learned how to cast my Circles and how to celebrate Samhain.

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  • Editor B
    Editor B says #
    A very moving account. Your grandma sounds awesome. Thank you for sharing.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

It has been my experience that the biggest obstacle facing Pagans in the correctional environment is two fold, ignorance and apathy. Generally speaking correctional staff does not know much at all about minority faiths, and more often than naught, what they know is based on stereotypes, movies and many, many years of bad press. The apathy also has its own two fold, inmates are convicted felons, so one would say the deck is already stacked against them enough, but to be a one of those Pagans too? Too often that only serves to further broaden the gap of indifference.

There is no lime light to be found on a prison yard. Prison ministry is a unique calling in itself, but Pagan prison ministry is another thing all together. We most often lack resources, support and most of all funding, i.e., gas money. Over the years I have had many people express an interest in prison chaplaincy, enough to necessitate the development of our own orientation packet. That orientation begins with a single yet profoundly significant question:

 

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National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association

Gandhi said "Be the change you wish to see in the world," and it has become my own personal mantra. It has been almost six years ago since I first sat across the table from Rev. Patrick McCollum in a roadside diner as he told me the story of how he became the first Wiccan chaplain for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He had a way of telling a story that kept me on the edge of my seat as he recounted the relentless onslaught of religious discrimination he personally experienced trying to provide religious services to Wiccan inmates.

I was shocked to hear that the first time he attempted to enter a prison to provide religious services he was spit on by a uniformed correctional officer. The frustrating irony was that it was institutional staff that had called him and asked for his help. Wiccan inmates had won a legal suit and the prison was required to provide them with religious accommodations, so officials requested that Patrick volunteer his time and money, make the long journey to their somewhat remote location to assist them. But when he did, they did everything they could to stop him.

He warned me about the various challenges of the mission, should I choose to accept it. But I had just moved back home after almost ten years in the United States Army, including a tour in Iraq. So I was more than confident, I was cocky. I remember Patrick saying he thought I had what it took to do services at Corcoran State Prison, I always took that as an enormous compliment and hoped I would someday live up to that impression.

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  • Jackie Moore
    Jackie Moore says #
    I love that I am the first to comment on this posting. I am jumping and shouting as I write this, as I think it is about time that
  • Jackie Moore
    Jackie Moore says #
    I said my son's only source of spiritual guidance was from a minister in Idaho. What I neglected to say was that he is a Wiccan Mi

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     The Genius Loci or Spirit of a Place has always held great emphasis and value in my personal spirituality, world view and cosmology. I have always purposefully sought out to engage the spirit of any land I have held residence with. As a veteran this includes numerous civilian domiciles and military bases both foreign and domestic. In my experience I have often found the most direct route to connecting with Genius Loci is through the community market places, like the local Farmers’ market.

     It was only recently that I heard the term Locavore, which is someone who makes an effort to consume from locally produced food sources. There are many benefits to being a locavore and shopping at a Farmers’ market; the food is often organic or at the very least, fresher, much healthier and always seems to just taste better. Every one benefits financially as well when you buy direct from local growers, the cost is lower, the money stays in the community and stimulates the local economy. But for me, the greatest benefits are by far more Magical.

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  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter says #
    Thank you for this important information. The possibility never occurred to me based on my own limited experiences, here in the va
  • Sandra
    Sandra says #
    Buyer beware in Ontario as well. Farmers markets can advertise "grown locally" as long as the product comes from Ontario. That m
  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin says #
    I recently learned that just because something is sold at a farmer's market, that does not mean it was produced or grown locally.

  

Geomancy, of all divination systems seems to be perhaps the most unappreciated and by far the least popular. I have always found this odd as it is incorporated in the teachings of Western Hermetic Traditions and many magical orders such as the Golden Dawn.  I have personally dedicated much time to it over the last several years, and have found it to be an incredibly accurate, yet simple system. But what I have always loved about geomancy is its mysticism. Geomancy literally means “earth-divination,” the concept is that the practitioner tunes into and receives messages from the Anima Terra or the “soul of the Earth.”

   Unlike most forms of divination geomancy can be performed both operatively and speculatively. Meaning the figures can be produced by physically casting objects using a variety of techniques; or by Mano Caligo, the “ghost hand” which is a form of automatic writing. Mano Caligo is always my preferred and recommended method. The theology of mano caligo is that the practitioner establishes a direct or ambiant connection with the anima Terra through a local telluric current or earth current. This link allows geomantic signals to be conveyed similar to Morse code through telegraph lines. It only requires pen and paper, a general understanding of the figures and how they are generated.

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  • Les Cross
    Les Cross says #
    Dear Joe, I think that this is an excellent post - thank you! In fact it was the reason I signed up for this site! I prefer to us
  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter says #
    Hey Les, sorry but I was not aware of your comment until just now. I don't know about "squinning," as I have a modest knowledge o
  • Larksong
    Larksong says #
    Hi Joe, Great post. I was just suggest to Anne that we have a Geomancy section last week. We decided for the time being to roll t

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