Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Creating Sacred Space with Pagan Prison Inmates – V


We Pagans, at least most of us, or at least most of us in our incipient forms, worked in small, intimate, closed circles.  We had no concept of ‘ministry’ as such.

Taking the word ‘ministry’ in its Latin root meaning “servant,” I see this work as service to those in need of such services as I can provide.  I do not view myself as being a clergyperson, since I think that term carries baggage from its use in the Christian context that implies that clergy people either know more, or are somehow more spiritually evolved than the rest of us plebians, or have some direct line to the divine that’s inaccessible to the rest of us.  Of course, this blog is not for debating the use of the term clergy, or even ministry, in Pagan contexts.  I mention these things to illustrate where I’m coming from.


Relationships, or Lack Thereof

The rules for prison volunteers bar personal relationships with inmates.  Further, anyone working as a volunteer cannot correspond with inmates.  So for anyone who wishes to help, you have to make a choice either to correspond with one or more prison pen pals, or to come in to conduct services.  Again, the language is Christian-centric, in the sense that we don’t exactly ‘conduct services.’  At least that’s not my particular style.  My style is to teach inmates to perform their own rites.  Whether they are in their cells, meeting with the circle when I’m not there, in another facility, on parole, or totally free and out in society rebuilding their lives, I see my service is providing them with skills and knowledge they can use lifelong.


I am a Priestess & Witch, not technically Wiccan, as I consider that term to refer to British Traditional Witches who trace a lineage to Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders, or other clearly defined lineaged traditions of the Craft.

Further, I arose within the context of Second Wave Feminism.  My primary work is eclectic (not a bad word in my book), goddess-oriented, and loosely structured.  I’m accustomed to sharing what’s going on in the lives of each coven member.  We hug.  We share personal stories, sometimes called “check-ins.”  We dance.  And when circumstances are appropriate, say an initiation or a not-too-chilly day, we meet skyclad.

I now find myself working with all men.  We cannot be too personal in our exchanges.  We cannot have much physical contact, although we do hold hands in circle, and touch each other with the salt and water, fire and air.  The men know little about me, and I have no idea what crime(s) they committed that landed them in prison.  So I see those restrictions as challenges to overcome or work around.


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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Monday, 21 July 2014

    "I think that term carries baggage from its use in the Christian context that implies that clergy people either know more, or are somehow more spiritually evolved than the rest of us plebians, or have some direct line to the divine that’s inaccessible to the rest of us."
    Macha: Someone with a Master of Divinity (the kind of degree most ministers have) has 4 to 5 years of graduate-level education. That generally means they do know more than most people about religion.
    In Catholicism there is a belief in the priests' and church's special connection to their God, but for most of the Protestant traditions, they believe in the priesthood of all believers, so most ministers would not say they have any more of a direct line than anyone else.
    And it is a rare fool who thinks that such an education or even deep engagement in the profession of ministry makes any one more evolved that anyone else.
    You have erected a strawman here, Macha. You are being rather unfair to many if not most in the profession who are truly and humbly servants.

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Monday, 21 July 2014

    Perhaps, Sam, you are correct about your experience and your education. However, that has not been my experience from an entire childhood of being in Christian churches (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), and it continues to be my experience, tho not universal, in the world of interfaith relations. There is a phenomenon that the Very Rev. Alan W. Jones, formerly of Grace Cathedral in SF, has described as their "crippling certainty." I encounter this attitude, i.e., clergy knowing more or being more evolved, all the time. People look to clergy people for explanations in addition to comfort. And many clergy people tend to believe that press. I also encounter it in the Pagan world when it comes to HPs and other prominent Pagan personalties. I have even been the recipient of this attitude (mainly when it comes to death and dying, about which I know no more than anyone else on this side of the veil).

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