Pagan Paths

Quaker Pagan Reflections is the online journal of a couple of Quaker Pagans. We write about the ways our Quaker and our Pagan practices overlap, intersect, and occasionally conflict with one another, and about the insights they give us about life, humanity, magic, nature, and the gods.

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Peter on Grief and Communities

Well, that was unexpected.

For the last year, ever since my mom’s health took a sharp downturn, I’ve been my dad’s ride to Florence Congregational Church on Sundays.  That community has been important for my dad and the weekly outing with me was something he always looked forward to and enjoyed, so I didn’t mind taking him there.  It meant giving up attending my own Quaker meeting for the duration, but I had already been questioning whether silent waiting worship was working for me.  I was ready for a sabbatical.

A month ago, my dad was Section-Twelved into a geriatric psych hospital when his dementia started to make him emotionally volatile.  I had been visiting him every day at his assisted living facility which was right on my way home from work, but the hospital was almost an hour away.  I didn’t see him at all for three weeks, and when I did visit him there, it actually took me a couple of seconds to recognize him.  He was slumped forward in a wheel chair, looking very gaunt and drained, and Cat and I weren’t able to rouse him enough to say more than a few words.

A week later, he was discharged and transferred to a nursing home in Amherst.  I had toured half a dozen nursing homes and this was a good one, with a more intensive memory support unit than assisted living could provide, plus some physical therapy.  My first couple of visits there found him too sleepy to open his eyes, but on Friday I found him awake and relatively energetic.  He had been sitting with other residents out in a common space listening to a musical performance, and clearly enjoying it.  When I sat down next to him and took his hand, he smiled and asked, “Is that you?”  I’m pretty sure that means he recognized me.  I wheeled him out to a quieter room and read aloud to him a couple of chapters from a kid’s book about Apollo 13.  He stopped me now and then to make comments, but he was really incoherent.  He’s lost almost all of the nouns from his expressive vocabulary.  Still, he seemed contented and happy, and when I asked him if he wanted to go back and hear more music, he was enthusiastic.  I told him I’d be back in a couple of days, and when I left, he wasn’t clingy the way he sometimes used to be.

Yesterday (Saturday) I was irritable and glum trough a day of puttering, and last night it took me forever to fall asleep.  Crankiness lay over me like a blanket.  When at last I consciously opened up to it and let it in, I realized—oh, yeah—this isn’t annoyance; this is grief.  The colors and outlines of grief are very familiar to me.

This morning I went alone to Florence Congregational Church.  I wanted to let them all know what was up with my dad and to tell them he probably wouldn’t be coming back, and also to say goodbye myself, since it was time to go back and start rebuilding my connection with my Quaker meeting. 

Even if I were still Christian, I could never be Congregationalist.  Protestant church services haven’t ever worked for me, in spite of my Methodist upbringing.  My hunger for God has led me to sing Gregorian chant in an Anglican monastery, to raise organic vegetables in a gardening co-op, to build housing for refugees in a Christian commune, to draw down the God in a Wiccan coven, and to sit in silent worship and feel Spirit bring me to my feet and speak in Quaker meeting.  But Protestant hymn singing and sermons just feel flat and flavorless to me.

Still, I was feeling sad about leaving the community at Florence Congregational and the kickass pastor there who’s been all kinds of supportive.  (That is one of the things I’ve always felt the strong lack of, both in Pagan and in Quaker settings.  God / the Gods speak to each of us directly.  We have Pagan leaders and teachers, and we have weighty Friends and recorded ministers, but we don’t have anything like pastors we can go to.  A high priestess isn’t the same thing, and neither is a care and counsel committee.)  I found myself grieving that loss along with grieving my dad’s dementia.

But I did not expect to start weeping uncontrollably as soon as I sat down to wait for the service to begin. 

One after another, people came up to ask about my dad, and to ask how I was doing, and to offer hugs and support.  I got it under control once the service began, and when the time came for prayer requests, I was able to stand and tell them about my dad’s rapidly advancing dementia.  And I told them that I had come this morning partly to say goodbye, because I didn’t think I would be coming back either.

But, I told them, I found now that I couldn’t do that.  Over the year that I’ve been attending, that community has become very important to me as well, and I cannot say goodbye.  I will start attending Quaker meeting again, but I’ll keep dropping in now and then to stay connected to that congregation.

I’m still very much a Pagan, and that makes all of this a little weirder.  Pastor Irv and I have talked openly about my spiritual identity.  With the rest of the congregation, it just hasn’t come up.  At some point it might need to.  I’m a polytheist, a panentheist, and a neo-Platonist.  I’m a Pagan and a Wiccan and a Witch.  In their church, I’m a sojourner in a strange land.

And I can’t leave them, because I’m one of them.

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Cat Chapin-Bishop and Peter Bishop have been Pagan since the mid 80s, and also Quaker since 2001. Cat is the former Chair of Cherry Hill Seminary's Pastoral Counseling Department, and her essays have appeared in the Pagan anthologies Godless Paganism, Pagan Consent Culture, and Celebrating the Pagan Soul, as well as in the anti-racism anthology Why Black Lives Matter (Too). She has earned her bread as a a psychotherapist, a high school English teacher, and once, for two days in her youth, as the person who cleans the gunk out of the potato-chip machine in a potato chip factory. Peter has served asan officer of the Covenant of the Goddess and the Church of the Sacred Earth, and on the board of directors of the Woolman Hill Quaker retreat center. His essays have appeared in Celebrating the Pagan Souland in Enchanté: A Journal for the Urbane Pagan, and he hopes to publish his first novel soon. He has worked as a WIC nutritionist, a high school biology teacher, and on occasion, as the guy drawing carrots on signs for the local coop.  


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Wednesday, 17 January 2018

    I am so sorry for your loss, and can't possibly understand what you are going through. (My parents just "dropped dead" in their mid-50's, so this kind of prolonged goodbye is foreign to me.)

    But I am so grateful that you shared this experience with us. It speaks volumes about compassion, openness, and sheer humanity. The boxes we put around ourselves ("Pagan" or "Christian", for example) are often helpful. But sometimes they just dissolve unexpectedly, and that can be a moment of grace, too.

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