The Circle of Coll Visits Airway Heights Correction Center a Second Time
(From the journal of Moss Magill)
“It is a time in between time. It is a time of thresholds. It is a time of reflections.”
(–excerpt from the final Grail meditation for 2014 by OBOD member Stefanie Warren)
So begins the final leg of the inner Grail journey that culminated during this year’s Circle of Coll Samhuinn ceremony in Seattle on November 1. This pilgrimage began on Alban Arthan 2013 with the first of eight meditations borne in each of the Rituals of the Wheel. Here, we were invited to visualize our own inner Grail, to be held within the protective bastion of the heart, from one festival to the next, where the seed of our ultimate potential was planted to be accessed, fed and fostered, from a tiny sprout to fruit-bearing harvest.
The Circle of Coll Seed Group was asked to attend the annual Samhuinn feast that is traditionally accorded to the Pagan community within the razor-wired walls of the Airway Heights Correction Center in Spokane, Washington. The invitation included a request to attend the dinner and to participate in the full moon ceremony that was planned by the local Wiccan ministers. We were also called to facilitate a Druid Samhuinn ritual and workshop for the handful of OBOD members who are incarcerated within in the state owned minimum and maximum security facility. At first we hesitated, thinking of the five hour drive from Seattle to Spokane over Snoqualmie Pass at the start of the dark and blustery half of the year. Our July visit earlier in the season had seemed doable and in fact, was an extremely pleasant summer expedition, but the thought of unpredictable mountain roads in November was a rather formidable deterrent. Ultimately, the Circle of Coll did attend the celebration, as I boarded a plane with drum and robes in tow and flew to Spokane in a mere 30 minutes!
I was met at the airport by Joan and Ted, the local Wiccan ministers of the prison, who also generously provided lodging for the night since I would be facilitating a two day program. The first event of the evening was the dinner in the visitor room of the correction center where all the incarcerated men who identify themselves as Druid, Wiccan, or Asatru were invited with their families to share this very special Samhuinn feast. I was told that this is a banquet that the men look forward to every season and is a considerable improvement over the victuals that are typically served in the prison cafeterias throughout the rest of the year. The Chaplain had set aside separate areas for three factions so that the Druids, the Wiccans, and the followers of Asatru would have their own conversation areas while they ate. The Druids were thoughtfully placed in a windowless corner of the room that donned two rather impressive, if somewhat faded photographic murals of mountains and trees.
Before I further describe the activities of the evening, I must take a moment to characterize the heroic makeup of the chaplain at AHCC. Chaplain Joseph who startlingly identifies himself as a “Jesus freak,” has single-handedly created a world-class interfaith program at the facility, providing space for not only the men who walk the traditional religious pathways, but also for those who courageously insist upon room for the other, more alternative observances such as Druidry, Wicca, Asatru, and Native religions. Joseph’s yearly calendar is full of acknowledgements of an overwhelming variety of religious festivities, each scheduled with the other in mind as he harmoniously plans his year, making sure that he accounts for holidays of various spiritualties as well as his inability to be in two places at once. Jesus freak or no, I have never seen such compassion and willingness to serve minority traditions as I see in Joseph. He is definitely doing divine work and has become an expert at what he does.
Every planned event in prison begins and ends exactly on time with absolutely no room for tardiness or the running behind of schedule. This regiment can be a bit difficult to get used to if one is regulated by “Pagan” time. Chaplain Joseph has developed a talent for herding cats on the run, scurrying the ministry volunteers from ritual to workshop and building to building all within the allotted time for travel between sessions. As my eyes were pouring over the imposing detail of the murals in the dining room, the men filed in, as expected, right on the button. The excitement they had for this event preceded them into the space and I could feel my own pulse quicken as I saw the familiar faces that I had known from our previous visit in July. Jeff, Garreton, Bill, Bunker, Fungus (whom I like to refer to as FunGus) and a few others, and a new fellow who I believe is called Cory. These bearded, head-shaved, tattooed offenders were given, for this small moment, an opportunity to become small boys, excited, ecstatic, and forgetful of their situations, their brains firing at a rate that superseded their ability to speak. We shook hands, patted each other on the backs (hugging is highly discouraged in prison) and got caught up a bit since our last meeting. A couple of them were asked to help serve the food on the chow line. Eventually the announcement was made for us to process to the center of the room, pick up a tray, and receive our meal: ham, roast beef, potatoes, green beans, fresh oranges and pre-packaged cinnamon rolls for dessert.
During the meal, we chatted very little about Druidry. The men mostly reminisced about what it was like in their lives before their confinement, their families, the jobs they had, who they really were. I was given the opportunity to look into the windows of these prisoners, many of which held on to memories of incarcerated or indicted parents or family members, as well as to residual resentments and sadness. It was in those moments at dinner that my heart reached out to these men in a way that I never expected.
After dining in our picturesque Druid corner of the multi-purpose room, I was invited to join the larger Wiccan party who were preparing for a full-moon Samhuinn ceremony in the middle of the visitor area. Most of the Druids remained with the murals to continue their conversations over their cinnamon rolls. As the Wiccans began to gather for Circle, I noticed that family members were also in attendance. The rite was traditional in that it began with grounding and the establishment of sacred space, followed by a seasonal acknowledgement of the dearly departed and loved ones, with candle lighting, a procession to the ancestor altar, and moments of private introspection and meditation. At the end of the rite, I was able to meet some of the men who identify themselves as Wiccan as well as their families. The spouses, girlfriends and parents seemed to not only accept their loved one’s incarceration, but also their chosen spiritual identity with the grace and patience that I admit I found somewhat surprising. As I am learning, there is a multitude of compassion within the prison walls, if not from the staff and guards, then from the Chaplain, the incarcerated and those that love them.
I was to report back to the corrections center by 8:00 am the next morning to be processed for re-entry and then to facilitate a workshop that I called “Finding the Seed of Your Own Re-birth.” That morning Chaplain Joseph led me to one of the larger rooms in the RAC (Religious Activities Center) where I set up a circle of eight chairs around a small altar that held a votive candle, a smudge stick, a wooden bowl of water and a dried oak leaf. The men filed in on time and we began the workshop with smudging, grounding, and the intoning of three Awens. I had plenty of time for this activity, (nearly 3 hours), so we had the luxury of a lengthy check in.
I have chosen not to know what it is that brought these men to prison. I was told that they are a mixture of maximum and minimum security offenders but I would rather not learn each of their specific situations. This boundary affords me the opportunity to get to know them despite their crimes where I feel I can relate to them without any of my own prejudices or triggers. I have seen that these men are highly intelligent with the capacity for great compassion for each other. They are surprisingly open with me as I am regarded as a religious ally, with like mind who uses a spiritual vocabulary that is known to them. The OBOD ritual format, the Awen, the Eisteddfod, the Druid prayer and oath are all familiar touchstones for the men and for me, bridging the gap between incarceration and freedom and providing moments of comfort if only for a very short time.
The workshop continued with an in-depth discussion about Samhuinn and its significance. We considered the festival as a time of thresholds between the world of the living and the world of the dead when the ancestors are near and communicative. We also took up the topic of year-end and harvest time, the waning King, and the voyage that ferried Arthur to Avalon to become the seed of his own rebirth. All of this was to prepare for the upcoming activities of the morning and of the ceremony scheduled for that afternoon.
The first enterprise of the workshop was an analysis of the passage in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini in which Taliesin describes the “Fortunate Isle.” This is the famed island where Morgan and her sisters embraced the dying Arthur until he could be reborn and returned to the Apparent World. After reading the excerpt, we visualized an excursion of our own, one that we can undertake at any time to another world for healing and repose. Together, we descended from this place to reach another shore.
I am the deep purple heart of the Universe
I am the indigo breath of the Midnight Sky
I am the blue rain of a Weeping Cloud
I am the green moss of the Ancient Maple
I am the yellow face of the Summer Fires
I am the orange horizon of the New Dawn
I am the spinning red core of the Earth
Here, we were met by Taliesin and his splendid boat that bore us across the sea to “The Fortunate Isle” where Morgan and her sisters were waiting. Stepping ashore, we were led to the blackness of an ancient Yew tree where our temples and feet were bathed with the moonlight spilt from the full moon. We were allowed time to rest, to be regenerated, and most importantly, we were given a place where all worries and tensions can be forgotten if only for a few brief moments.
After a time in the Yew cave, we were ushered out into the sunlight once again. As it was described in the Vita Merlini, Morgan and her sisters then transformed into gargantuan eagles, whisked us off the island, back to the shore where we began our journey and where we ascended back to the Apparent World to bring our meditation to a close.
During the discussion that followed, I discovered the impact that this journey work had on the men. Many of them shared that the value of a reflection like this can be easily measured against many of the stressful and demanding situations in daily prison life.
We closed the workshop with a brief dialogue about practical activities that can become a part of a regular spiritual practice during the winter months. The following is a partial list that grew from that conversation:
- Practice introspection, meditation, contemplation, drawing upon the peaceful sanctuary of the season
- Shift burdens by doing something about them, giving up unnecessary patterns
- Remember the ancestors and celebrate their wisdom
- In this deep season of darkness and introspection, seek the sun at midnight, the rich treasures that lie in the lap of Winter
- Be aware of the ancestral teachers, the grandparents and elders of the spiritual traditions, whose footsteps have kept the pathways open
- Walk and meditate outdoors for at least ten minutes daily
- Be active with like-minded others, in recording, preserving, living and learning about ancient wisdom of indigenous peoples, especially those in your own land
- As you travel through the land of Winter, relate your spiritual journey to the wisdom of the season
After a quick and frantic lunch off site with Chaplain Joseph and the local Wiccan ministers, I was hustled back to the corrections center to prepare for the Samhuinn ceremony that would be held in the Stone Circle in the prison yard. It is certainly a miracle that Joseph, Joan and Ted were able to construct this space. There are four rather significant stones marking the perimeter of the circle, with a center altar stone, a fire pit and a working hose as a source of water. All of this is surrounded by a requisite chain link fence, dropped in the middle of a treeless, blacktopped corner of the grounds. This particular stone circle belongs to the “Wiccan” community of men at the prison. The Druid faction is permitted to use it for ritual, although I am told that there are plans to build a separate Druid Stone Circle in the near future.
The intention for this ritual was to access the Otherworld through the thinning veil, seeking support, advice or other messages from ancestors, spirit guides, dearly departed or other invisible beings. We accomplished this with chanting, drumming and by providing an opportunity for each participant to advance to the altar in solitude to commune with the entity that emerges for him. The context for this was the Inner Grail Quest upon which we have been embarking as a seed group in Seattle over the last year. At each ritual and through meditation, we were gifted a vessel – a Holy Grail – a tool with which to manifest our intentions. Over the last year, we planted seeds in our grails and nourished them with our attentions, our experience, and the support of our ancestors, guides, and guardians. Then we reaped the harvest of those seeds, and with each turn of the Wheel of the Year, the seeds of our intentions continued to grow. Each of these visualizations built upon the previous one, forming a continuous story within each of us to reach this climactic moment at Samhuinn. Now it was time to unearth the true character of our Inner Grails with the assistance, once again, of the intangible world.
There were oracle cards on the altar that could be drawn to answer a particular question or to translate tidings from the unseen. Since each of the eight men approached the center of the circle individually, it was a rather lengthy process, offering plenty of time for a deeper dive into a truly reflective and fathomless personal place.
We concluded the rite with cakes and ale (crackers and juice) provided by the prison and with an unstructured social time in the Stone Circle. At this stage, poems were read, questions were asked and time was made for relaxed discourse on all manner of spiritual topics.
Throughout my visit, I sensed that Chaplain Joseph was anecdotally counseling me about the business of prison chaplaincy, describing some of his processes, record-keeping practices and policies. He also made a point of construing his role as chaplain and how he is perceived by the other staff members of the facility. At one point, he revealed his belief that some of his co-workers would rather he not be employed there perhaps because his work is considered to uphold an unnecessary distraction or annoyance to the system. It seems there are members of personnel who do not see the importance of interfaith gentleness in a strident, black and white prison world. Nevertheless, I believe that the program that the Chaplain has developed for these men of all pathways is regarded by the staff members I have encountered as an important part of life in this facility. It not only provides the obvious spiritual respite from an otherwise bleak and arduous existence, but also an outlet for those prisoners who seek a devotional expression, reducing soulful stress and violent outbursts which can the endanger the lives of both offenders and prison staff.
The Druid community at Airway Heights Corrections Center is just beginning to establish itself as an acknowledged “denominational” assembly. Like the other religious groups that Joseph manages, the Druids have acquired a labeled locker that is maintained for them in the RAC. It’s not as well stocked as the Catholic, Native American, Jewish or even the Wiccan lockers, but we are working to remedy that. The Circle of Coll has already donated books and other publications related to Druidry and a wish list of allowable ritual items is currently in negotiation. There is more opportunity here, not only for the Circle of Coll, but also for Joseph and the Druids of AHCC. We are not just preventing prison outbursts by holding rituals and workshops. We are changing the landscape of religious understanding and compassion in a world usually devoid of reasonable empathy and grace. I intend to continue this work with the help of our seed group, with Chaplain Joseph, the Wiccan ministers, and the gentle, intelligent men of Airway Heights Corrections Center.
 At AHCC, the term “Wiccan” is used to identify a more inclusive community of Wiccans, Pagans, and members of other non-traditional religious traditions.