Brigid 2016

Brigid: “The Mary of the Gael”

 

Edinburgh was coated in light snow on that February day in 1992, the air a raw biting cold, as I set out to explore the city. The National Gallery of Scotland lured me within, down a narrow staircase to an explosion of beauty, wildly out of proportion to the size of its modest rooms, its small wall space. I hold vague memories of standing in awe before landscapes, clusters of children in a garden, beautiful women, solemn men, whose painted faces gazed back at me.

 

But one image remains etched in rich detail in my mind. I stopped, breathless, before John Duncan’s 1913 painting called, “St. Bride”. Two angels in gloriously patterned robes, whose miniature tapestries held scenes from Celtic mythology, were carrying a white-robed maiden, her hands joined in prayer. One angel supported her back with his hands, as her golden hair fell in great waves towards the sea. The other angel held her ankles while her knees rested on his shoulders. The angels’ wings were a symphony of colour from scarlet to rose to pale pink, shaded with greens, golds, midnight blues. The angels’ toes just brushed the surface of the sea where a seal swam ahead of them.

I had no idea what I was seeing.

 

 


That evening, in the home of the friend with whom I was staying, I learned the story of Brigid. Legend tells that she was carried by angels across the seas from Ireland to Bethlehem in Judea, to be present at the birth of Jesus, and that she became his foster mother. Other tales add that Brigid served Mary as mid-wife, and that when Herod was seeking the Child to destroy him, Brigid distracted the soldiers by running through the streets, allowing Mary and Joseph to escape with Jesus.

 

As I am sure you recognize, we are back in the realm of story. But as I hope you realize, it is the story that matters, that lures us, inspires us, teaches us what we need to understand about life.

 

The life of Brigid is in some ways more mysterious than the life of Mary. With Mary, we have the fragments of the Gospels. For Brigid, what we have are mostly legends.

 

Brigid was born in Ireland in 457 AD and founded a double monastery in Kildare sometime before her death in 524 AD. A wealth of stories about her were carried in oral tradition until Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare, wrote his “Life of Brigid” around 650 AD. At the time of his writing, Cogitosus noted that in the Kildare monastery, the nuns still guarded her sacred fire.

 

According to Cogitosus, Brigid was the daughter of Dubhthach, a pagan noble of Leinster; her mother Brocseach was a Christian. Baptized at an early age, Brigid was fostered by a Druid.

 

The stories of Brigid reveal her spirit of compassion for the poor: one day when she was a child, after she had milked the cows, she gave away the milk to some poor persons who were passing. She feared her mother’s reproof, but when she arrived home, her milk pail was found to be even fuller that that of the other maidens.

 

The adult Brigid approached a rich landowner, asking for land where she might grow food for the poor. The landowner agreed to give her as much land as she could cover with her cloak. Brigid lay down her cloak and it expanded until it covered many, many acres.

 

Another story tells of Brigid’s father preparing for her marriage to a nobleman while Brigid herself wanted to become a nun. Through the intervention of the Christian King of Leinster, Brigid’s desire was granted. With seven other young women Brigid was consecrated to Christ.

 

In a wonderful tale, during the Ceremony for Consecration of a Virgin to Christ, the very old Bishop Mel of Ardagh mistakenly read for Brigid the words for Consecration of a Bishop. When his mistake was pointed out to him by co-presider Bishop MacCaille of Longford, Mel insisted that the Consecration would stand, as it must have been the work of the Holy Spirit. Brigid would be the only woman to hold the episcopal office in Ireland.

 

In the book, Miniature Lives of the Saints, (London, Burns and Oates, 1959) this explanation is offered for Brigid’s title, “The Mary of the Gael”:

At a synod held near Kildare, during the lifetime of the saint, says an old legend, one of the fathers declared that he had seen a vision, and that the Blessed Virgin would on the morrow appear among them. Next day Brigid arrived with her companions, and the father immediately exclaimed, “There is the holy Mary whom I saw in my dream.” Brigid accordingly came to be called “The Mary of the Gael,” that is, of the Irish; for so pure was she in spirit, so holy in every action, so modest, so gentle, so filled with mercy and compassion, that she was looked on as the living image in soul and body of Mary the Mother of God. 

Legend says that Brigid’s mother gave birth to her on the doorstep of their home, one foot within, one foot outside the door. This seems to be a prophecy for a life that would become a threshold, bridging pagan and Christian, woman and man, rich and poor….Goddess and Saint.
For the story of Brigid, founder of the Christian Monastery of Kildare, is interwoven with the ancient Irish goddess who shares her name. As goddess, Brigid is known as maiden, mother and crone. And the Feast of Saint Brigid, February 1st, coincides with the ancient Celtic Festival of Imbolc, the beginning of spring.

 

It is Brigid who “breathes life into the mouth of dead winter”. It is Brigid who, as we have already read in Dolores Whelan’s article, “Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife for a New World”  holds the cailleach energy, the energy of the cauldron where our lives, individually and communally, are transformed through the power of her fire, her water.

 

Here are words spoken by a contemporary Irish woman who was seeking to grasp the goddess/saint mystery of Brigid:

”Ah, wasn’t she a goddess before ever she was a saint?”

(in The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan)

Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife for a New World: Part Two

Dolores Whelan continues:

A story from the Celtic tradition that illustrates the importance of the cailleach and her energy is the story of “Niall of the Nine Hostages”. Niall and his four brothers come to a well to get a drink of water. The well is being guarded by an old woman who represents the cailleach or hag.

When the first brother goes to the well, she tells him that if he wants to drink the water, he must give her a kiss. He is horrified and refuses; she sends him away. The other three brothers go in turn on the same errand, and each refuses to kiss the hag.

As the story goes:

Then it was Niall’s turn. Faced with the same challenge, he kissed the old hag and embraced her. When he looked again, she had changed into the most beautiful woman in the world.

“What art thou?” said the boy.

“King of Tara, I am Sovereignty . . . your seed shall be over every clan.”(1)

 

 

 

 

This story suggests that in order to have access to the life-enhancing energy represented by the water in the well, it is necessary for the young masculine to embrace this particular and perhaps unattractive aspect of the feminine energy.

 

Why is this so? The cailleach represents the wisdom gathered by living in right relationship with the earth, something that requires reflection, stillness, and attentiveness. It knows more clearly what is needed and what is possible in each situation, and it is aware of the consequences of particular actions. It knows how to proceed slowly; it understands the value of times of waiting and times of allowing. It knows how to be and how to act.

 

So how can we, you and I, begin the journey back towards wholeness and balance?

 

Brigid in her cailleach form can help us to embrace these difficult and fearful aspects of our lives. The cauldron, a central image in both the Celtic and other traditions, is a vessel for transformation and transmutation. In many stories, the cauldron is first filled with unpalatable raw things, which then are used to create a nourishing soup using the transforming energy of the universe through the action of fire and water.

 

The transformation of the contents of the cauldron is supervised by the cailleach energy, which works inwardly, quietly, and slowly to bring about an unforced and timely rebirth. The transformation of the cauldron’s contents concentrates their essence and offers them back in a new and more suitable form. From this process, we learn that the possibility of transformation and re-birth always exists, no matter how devitalised something appears to be. A new rebirth can be achieved when we submit ourselves and our concerns to the inward and slow transformational energy of the cauldron and the cailleach.

 

Philosopher Richard Kearney in his poem “Bridget’s Well” speaks of the importance of this inward and downward journey and suggests that it is the only way to access the life-giving and inspiring fire of Brigid that lies underneath the water.


 

I will rest now at the bottom of Bridget’s well
I will follow the crow’s way
Footprint by footprint
In the mud down here
I won’t come up
Until I am calmed down
And the earth dries beneath me
And I have paced the caked ground
Until smooth all over
It can echo a deeper voice
Mirror a longer shadow (2)

 

This poem suggests the importance of that deep journey to the well where the source of new life and the fire of passion is found. At Imbolc (Feb 1st) the tiny spark of new light discovered in the deep womb darkness of the winter solstice has grown sufficiently to safely emerge from that inner world and begin to transform winter into spring !

 

At this time Brigid appears as the fresh maiden of springtime emerging from the womb of the cailleach, queen of winter. Here Brigid embodies the energy that breathes life into the mouth of dead winter. The energy of Brigid at Imbolc is the energy of Yes, and it can only emerge from the place of stillness!

 

Brigid is also closely associated with the life-giving aspect of fire, a fire that doesn’t burn but which can never be fully quenched. When this fire comes from a clear and deep space, as happens following the inward journey, it will be significant and filled with truth and potency.

 

This life-giving fire will act within individuals, within the land, in the relationships between the people and their land, fanning the fires of creative endeavour so that all life forms can partake in the symphony of new life emerging each springtime! The fire discovered through this deep journey is an inner light which guides each of us to find our next step!

 

Richard Kearney in his poem “Brigit’s Well” also speaks of the re-emergence of a new fire born of a deeper place within:


 

Then the fire may come again
Beneath me, this time
Rising beyond me
No narcissus-flinted spark
Behind closed eyes
But a burning bush
A fire that always burns away
But never is burnt out (3)

 

I believe that the archetypal energy of Brigid, the embodiment of the divine feminine, present within the essence of the Celtic tradition, has the capacity to lead and support us in transforming the present wasteland into a new life-sustaining society. For this to happen, it is necessary for us to understand that the archetypal energy that Brigid represents is a real aspect of the human psyche, one that has been largely dormant over the past few hundred years, but is now re-emerging.

 

Each of us can become keeper of the Brigid flame by developing and living those qualities and values that distinguished her. As we align ourselves with her archetypal energies, she supports us to courageously and safely face the demons of this time. She teaches us how to stand still in a wobbling world, to act as a unifying force, to hold the space of possibility and so become agents of transformation.

Dolores Whelan (reprinted with her blessing)

 

Notes/references:
1 Amergin Jan de Fouw Amergin Wolfhound Press Dublin 2000 ( afterword )
2, 3 Richard Kearney quoted in Stephen J. Collins The Irish Soul in Dialogue

the Liffey Press Dublin 2001 p 147

 

 

Brigid : The Crone Who Transforms

February 9, 2016


During her workshop at Galilee in Arnprior, Ontario, Canada, February 2014, Dolores Whelan taught that it is no small task to integrate the divine energy of the sacred feminine within oneself. We only do one piece of the work but each piece joined together with the others creates a quantum shift. Dolores said that the crime is to believe that we have no power. We need to ask, “What choices do I have here?”

If we say, “there’s nothing I can do,” Dolores responds,

“OH YES THERE IS!”

 

 

Dolores Whelan  (doloreswhelan.ie)

 

 

In her article, “Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife to a New World”, Dolores Whelan shows how Brigid assists us in this great work which is our great work. Because of the richness, the timeliness, the importance of this refection, I am dividing it into two parts, with the second to follow next week.

 

Reflecting on the turmoil present in the world today it is clear to all but those steeped in denial, that all is not well. It seems that something ails us humans; something that causes us to live in ways that disrespect our mother, the living earth, and all our relatives. We ask what is it in us humans that creates such a restless world where there is little sense of belonging, nurture or home and which causes so many of the species with which we share this planet to suffer?

 

The exclusion of the feminine energy in our naming and understanding of the Divine is reflected in a corresponding absence and valuing of feminine energy in all aspects of life in western society. The devaluing and exclusion of the feminine energy over the past centuries has created a distorted story about life which has resulted in a world whose shape and vibration create disharmony.

 

So how do we find our way back to a more harmonious way of life? If we know what is missing and what ails us, it may be possible for us to make the journey back towards wholeness and health.

 

At this time many people are becoming aware of the wisdom of the feminine. As this happens, the absence of genuine feminine energy present in most institutions, both religious and secular, throughout western culture, becomes obvious.

 

To include the presence of the divine feminine energy in creating a world whose shape is more wholesome requires a fundamental reclaiming of the essential role of the feminine in all aspects of life. In order to create change within the physical world and in our society, it is necessary to change the dreams and stories held within the imagination of a society.

 

Reconnecting with and re-membering the spirit and archetypal energy of Brigid, in both her Goddess and saint manifestations, is an essential task of this renaissance. Brigid, although normally associated with the maiden and mother aspects of feminine energy, is also expressed in the cailleach form, as indicated in the prayer “Molamid Brid an mhaighean; Molamid Brid an mhathair; Molamid Brid an cailleach”

(Praise to Brigid, the maiden, the mother, and the crone).

 

What then is the energy associated with the hag, crone, or cailleach aspect of the divine feminine?

The cailleach is the embodiment of the tough mother-love that challenges its children to stop acting in destructive ways.

 

It is the energy that refuses to indulge in inappropriate personal or societal dreams. It is the energy that will bring death to those dreams and fantasies that are not aligned with our highest good.

 

Yet, this cailleach energy also will support the emergence and manifestation in the world of the highest and deepest within us. It will hold us safely as we embrace the darkness within ourselves and our society.

 

It is an energy that insists that we stand still, open our hearts, and feel our own pain and the pain of the earth. This is the energy that teaches us how to stay with the process when things are difficult. This energy will not allow us to run away!

 

Her way of being is a slow, inwardly focused way, with minimum outward activity: a way that values times of active waiting, that pays attention and allows life to unfold.

 

An essential part of the journey that all the great heroes and heroines in world mythologies undertake includes facing and embracing the energy of surrender, darkness, and death. The hero or heroine learns the next step required in their outer world journey only by submitting to and being initiated into the dark world of the cailleach.

 

Through this initiation the mature masculine power can emerge and lead each one to find their true path. When this happens the action that follows will be in the service of the true feminine and bring forth wisdom and compassion creating new life, vitality, and sustainability.

 

Because western society is currently dominated by the young masculine energy, present in both men and women, characterised by its “can do” attitude, there is an urgent need for each of us to make this heroic journey with the cailleach, so that we will become agents for the transformation of our society.      

Dolores Whelan (part two next week)

 

 

Brigid as Archetype

Reflection for January 31, 2016

 

Above us, the young moon glowed, a silver white earring in the early evening sky. More than a hundred women entered the labyrinth, moving quickly, purposefully, along its pathways towards the centre. There, a smooth-barked tree lifted her leafy arms. There, each woman paused, removed a shawl or a scarf to fling over the branches where it would receive the dew of Brigid’s blessing at dawn.

 

On this eve of Brigid’s Day, 2016, I am recalling the Imbolc ritual celebrated during the Brigid Festival at Brescia College in London Ontario last May. Tonight is the time when we too may place a shawl, a scarf, a ribbon, a cloth to receive the morning dew (in whatever form!) on Brigid’s Dawn. That piece of cloth was traditionally kept in the home through the year as a symbol and source of healing.

 

Painting of Brigid by Jo Jayson

 

As Sophia serves as an archetype for our lives, so may Brigid. As archetype of the Sacred Feminine, Brigid differs from Sophia in that she was honoured as goddess both among the ancient Irish peoples, and later by the Celts. Christianity honours a real historical woman of 5th Century CE Ireland as Saint Brigid. Though she left us no written records, this Brigid was founder and Abbess of a Community in Kildare which, in the tradition of early Celtic Christianity, welcomed both men and women into its monastic life. Brigid’s role was akin to that of Bishop. By the time the first biography of Brigid appeared in the sixth century, some one hundred years after her death, the stories, legends and facts were woven together into a vibrant whole.

 

 

Many women seekers came to the Brigid Festival, hungry for a spirituality that would honour them as women, welcome them as they are, and offer guidance for living in these new, pathless times. Through the days of ritual, of listening and sharing with my companions, I discovered that for many contemporary women Brigid is an archetype, drawing them, bringing them home.

 

“Brigid is the acceptable face of women’s divinity”, Mary Condren told us. National Director of Woman Spirit Ireland, and Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, Mary was the keynote speaker and guide for the festival. Her research for a long-awaited book on Brigid is a seemingly endless process of pulling up a thread only to find a cluster of many more threads underneath, Mary said. Now exploring the Cailleach (Crone) aspect of the threefold presence of the sacred feminine, Mary is discovering how central the Cailleach tradition was in ancient times.

 

By uncovering old pilgrimage paths and excavating ancient ritual sites in Ireland, researchers are finding many earlier aspects of the sacred feminine that were then “folded into” the Brigid tradition which in turn was interwoven with the 5th century abbess, Saint Brigid. Mary Condren longs for Adrienne Rich’s “dream of a common language” that would bring the Cailleach/Brigid tradition into harmony with the Christian tradition.

 

The language of sacrifice that once meant an offering ( to make sacred) is used today as a weapon in the hands of patriarchy, celebrating the deaths in twentieth century wars, then engaging in a lucrative arms trade in the many wars across the planet: legitimizing weapons through honouring the war-dead. Yet mercy was the beatitude Brigid chose when she took her veil. Mary Condren believes that the difference between mercy and sacrifice encapsulates the difference between a thealogy (based on feminine values) and patriarchal traditions.

 

Brigid’s cloak is a symbol of protection and of the creative womb of the earth. Collecting dew on the Festival of Imbolc (as we did by leaving our shawls and scarves on the labyrinth tree overnight) is an ancient feminine ritual. Mary’s research into dew in the sacred writings of many religions (including Kwan Yin where the dew symbolizes compassion and in the Hebrew Bible) shows the longevity of this tradition.

 

The dew of mercy becomes in Christianity the blood of sacrifice, the redemptive liquid of patriarchy.Yet Brigid’s life and tradition offers an alternative to sacrifice in the practice of self-fragilization, a willingness to allow oneself to be vulnerable, to enter the darkness, to enter the well, and still to remain whole.

 

Brigid in honoured as a poet, because the task of the poet in ancient Ireland is to call the king to act justly. Mary Condren asks, “Who calls our leaders to justice? to integrity? to compassion?”

 

At the sacred well, we align ourselves with the call to speak truth to power; we align ourselves with what we are called to do with our lives. Brigid’s fire is an inner flame that does not burn out. Mary Condren suggests that we cultivate that inner fire of purification and protection rather than the spectacular destructive fire of sacrifice.

 

 

In January of 2013 when our Communion emerged from the mists of possibility, we chose a name that connects us with Brigid, with her sacred fire, kept alive for hundreds of years in Kildare, Ireland. At that May weekend, I experienced the power and depth of her legacy, glimpsed what might be possible for us as we grow into our call as a Communion of Creative Fire.

 

Power rose within and among us as we danced, sang, performed sacred ritual, listened to the teachings of Mary Condren and Starhawk and learned from the women gathered together whose lives are inspired by the Fire of Activism and nourished by the Waters of Compassion.

 

 

On the evening before the Festival, Starhawk spoke to some five hundred people about the crisis facing our earth. For her sacred text, she chose Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. For hope, inspiration and direction, Starhawk, whose faith roots are Jewish, called upon Brigid, pausing in the midst of mind-numbing facts and photos of burning oil wells, flooding seas, nuclear disasters, polluted waters, land ravaged by drought to sing the chant: “Holy Well and Sacred Flame” then to ask, "What Would Brigid Do?"

 

Starhawk suggested Brigid’s responses: honour water so that to defile it would be morally unacceptable; transform polluted waters (there are ways to do this!), rehydrate the earth; promote an alternate world-view based on interdependence where good food and fresh water are available to everyone; leave the oil and gas in the ground; work towards a low carbon future, finding ways to sequester carbon in the soil; engage in activism that will create enough power to bring the powerful corporate polluters to our table; stand up to say NO to oil pipelines; organize locally using whatever gifts and skills we have: educating/ researching/ negotiating/ mobilizing/acting. Find our power, find our gift. Stand with the indigenous people and with them take our responsibility as guardians of the earth. Community is an antidote to Climate Change.

 

Calling “austerity” programs a form of theft: a neo-feudalism, Starhwk said the Brigid’s life teaches that generosity creates abundance. We need a new imagination to face down the fear that arises from “scarcity thinking”.

 

As we begin this new year in our Communion, blessed and accompanied by Brigid, how might we drink more deeply of her Holy Well, how might we make a larger space in our lives for her Sacred Flame to burn brightly?

 

 

 

Brigid and the Celtic Festival of Bealtaine

 

As one of the threefold goddesses, Brigid is honoured as Maiden, Mother and Crone. The Feast of Imbolc, February 1st, looks to Brigid in her Maiden form, breathing life into the mouth of dead winter. The Festival of Samhain on November 1st honours Brigid in her Crone presence, the Cailleach who brings about transformation for our lives, for our planet, when we submit ourselves to the slow processes of her cauldron. At Bealtaine, May 1st, we welcome Brigid in her embodiment of the Mother.

 

Bealtaine ushers in the full richness of summer, the active sun-drenched days of masculine energy. Bealtaine is a mingling of three themes:

(1) purification by fire

In ancient times, the cattle who had been kept indoors all winter were walked through the fires in preparation for their move to the summer pastures; in our time we need to be purified from any negativity that remains from winter that might interfere with the blossoming of our lives and our work;

(2) the flower maiden

The young mother represents the fertility of the land goddess. She was honoured with flowers strewn on altars, on doorsteps, on rooftops invoking fertility in all aspects of one’s life; altars were built and heaped with flowers; children walked and sang in joyous processions carrying flowers;

 

(3) the sacred marriage of masculine and feminine energies

The Maypole rituals celebrate the young god of summer who woos the flower maiden away from the winter king and marries her; the masculine energy serves the seeds sown and nurtured by the feminine energies through the winter.

 

Rituals of Bealtaine celebrate the harmonious working together of masculine and feminine energies. As Dolores Whelan writes:  

In the Celtic tradition, the masculine and feminine energies are represented by fire and water and are considered to be most effective when they act together in harmony with each other. On May morning, it was customary for people to go to the top of a hill before sunrise, light fires in honour of the sun, and bathe in the rays of the sun as it rose on the first day of summer. They washed their faces in the morning dew, which was considered a magical substance as it consisted of fire and water, capable of ensuring youth and vitality. Others went to holy wells and drank the water or poured water over themselves as the rays of the rising sun hit the water. All of these customs and rituals reflect this power of water and fire working together and the potency of masculine and feminine energy working in harmony within the land, a person, or a project.

(Dolores Whelan Ever Ancient, Ever New 2010 p. 114) 

 

 Until the mid-years of the twentieth century, Catholic school children walked in joyous processions honouring Mary as “Queen of the May”, unaware that this ceremony had origins that went back to the ancient Mayday rituals honouring the Goddess. Dressed in their best clothes, walking in the sunlight of late spring, they lifted their voices in melodious hymns to Mary: “Bring flowers of the fairest, bring flowers of the rarest, from garden and woodland and hillside and dale; our full hearts are swelling, our glad voices telling, the praise of the loveliest rose of the vale. Oh Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May…”

 

 


The powerful presence of Mary as Mother in the Catholic Christian tradition may have overshadowed this third aspect of Brigid.

 

Irish theologian Mary Condren makes reference to Brigid as Mother: 

Brigit’s symbolism is firmly maternal, nourishing, protecting, spinning and weaving the bonds of human community, but it is maternal in the broadest sense of that word in that Brigit’s traditions fostered … maternal thinking... (refusing) to do in the public world what would not be acceptable in the home.

 

Brigit constantly bridged the worlds of nature and culture: her traditions aim to bridge the world of public and private and to keep the life force moving rather than allowing it to stagnate….Her traditions speak of an approach to sacrality intimately connected with relationships rather than splitting.

 

In keeping with her maternal aspects, the predominant fluid for Brigit is milk, the milk of human kindness. The milk of the Sacred Cow was one of the earliest sacred foods throughout the world, equivalent to our present day Holy Communion. In historical times it was said that the Abbess of Kildare (Brigit’s successors) could drink only from the milk of the White Cow. The same milk was also believed to provide an antidote to the poison of weapons.

 

Milk represented the ideal form of all food for its purity and nourishment. Mother’s milk was especially valuable and was believed to have curative powers…Brigit was even said to have been baptized in milk. Baptisms in milk were practised by the Irish until the practice was banned by the Synod of Cashel in 1171.

….

Whereas Brigit’s traditions had insisted on creating, maintaining, and healing relationships through the power of her artefacts, imagery, stories and rituals, the rising power of the father gods depended on their establishing or maintaining their positions by threatening to, or actually sacrificing their children. Not surprisingly, therefore, when Brigit’s traditions were overthrown, maternal milk was replaced by bloodshed, not in the course of the life cycle – childbirth or menstruation – but in the voluntary giving or taking of life, in various forms of sacrifice.

 

(Mary Condren in “Brigit, Matron of Poetry, Healing, Smithwork and Mercy” Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research 18, 2010)

 

 

Brigid as Mother challenges us to restore to our rituals, our communities, our nations and our planet a sense of the sacred that is relational rather than divisive and to replace the flow of sacrificial blood in conflict with the milk of mutual respect and nurturing.

 

May we celebrate Bealtaine with joy, as we welcome the masculine energy of activity, the bright sun that will nourish and call forth the seeds of new life we planted in the dark and quiet days of the feminine energy time.

 

Perhaps we will be drawn on May 1st to rise before dawn, climb a hill, light a fire to welcome the sunrise, then wash our faces in the morning dew. Thus we symbolically embrace masculine (fire) energies and feminine (water) energies, inviting both to dwell in harmony within us and throughout our planet.

 

 

Brigid: Woman for All Seasons

 

For several weeks now, we have been looking to Brigid for inspiration in our call to become a Communion of Creative Fire. In the Celtic Calendar, Brigid makes her first appearance at the Feast of Imbolc (February 1st ) coming in her aspect as maiden, as promise of spring, breathing life into the mouth of dead winter.

 

At the Brigid weekend in February 2014 (Galilee Centre, Arnprior, Ontario) Dolores Whelan led us in a ritual of welcoming Brigid into our lives.


The knocking on the wooden door is so loud it startles us, even though we are waiting for the sound. A woman’s voice, strong, certain, calls out from the other side: “I am Brigid. Do you have a welcome for me?”
We have our answer ready, “Yes, we do.” The door opens.
The woman playing Brigid’s role enters.

 

Our recent reflections on Brigid show us the depth, the importance of this brief exchange. Do we “have a welcome” for Brigid in our lives? What does it mean to answer her question with a resounding, “yes”?

 

Brigid is a woman of great power, an archetype, an embodiment of the energies of the sacred feminine, another facet of Sophia. Our welcome of her will open up our lives in ways we cannot foresee, cannot even imagine. But the hints are already given in the stories about her.

 

Recall the legend that angels carried Brigid over the seas from Ireland to Bethlehem so that she might be present for the birth of Jesus, assisting Mary as midwife. Brigid, who was born in the fifth century after the event….

 

Immediately we find ourselves in sacred time, in what today’s physicists, following Einstein, would call the simultaneity of time. Mystery. We suspend disbelief, allow our linear, logical brains to take a break, invite the story to offer us its teachings. Ask how this applies to our own lives. Listen.

 

Each one of us is asked, like Mary, to give birth to the Holy One. In Godseed, Jean Houston writes about the heart of our call, inviting us into a visualization of how this might be:

 

Lying down now and closing your eyes, imagine that you are dreaming. In your dreams, you see light, and into this light comes a Being of Light, a Bearer of Good News, a Resident from the Depths. This angel says to you, “Oh Child of God, fear not to take unto yourself the spiritual partnership, for that which is conceived in you is of the spiritual Reality. And this Reality, if nurtured, shall be born of you and shall help you to…bring the Godseed into the world.”

 

And now see what the angel sees—the fulfillment and the unfolding of this Child of Promise within you….see and feel and know the possibilities, indeed the future, of this Child in you, this Godseed that you are growing in the womb of your entire being, should you allow it to be nurtured and to grow and to be born into the world. (Godseed Quest Books 1992 p.39)

 

This call to birth the Christ within us is as ancient as first century Paul, who wrote of being in labour until Christ is born in us. It is as modern as twenty-first century eco-feminist theologian Yvonne Gebara who entreats us to give birth to the Christic Presence in the Universe. Contemporary writer Diarmuid O’Murchu cites the words of the thirteenth century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart: What does God do all day long? God lies on a maternity bed, giving birth all day long.

 

Reflecting on Meister Eckhart’s image, O’Murchu continues:
This is a metaphor we have known as a spiritual species for thousands of years, long before formal religions ever came into being….The Great Goddess of our Paleolithic ancestors was perceived as a woman of prodigious fecundity, birthing forth the stars and galaxies, the mountains and oceans and every life form populating planet earth today. God, the great life-giver in the pregnant power of creative Spirit, is probably the oldest and most enduring understanding of the Holy One known to our species.

 

O’Murchu concludes that: we are called to become co-birthers with our birthing God of the ongoing evolutionary re-creation of God’s world in justice, love, compassion and liberation. (Diarmuid O’Murchu Jesus in the Power of Poetry 2009 pp. 45-46)

 

When we say yes to our call to give birth, we are embracing a lifelong partnership with the Holy One of “prodigious birthing”, a responsibility that has the power to take over our lives, to demand of us everything, to offer us a life that is at once profoundly meaningful, and intimately engaged with the ongoing renewal of the universe. There will be suffering, there will be hard work, but there will also be times of ecstatic joy, tasting our oneness with the Love at the heart of life.

 

“Brigid is the acceptable face of women’s divinity,” said Irish theologian Mary Condren during the Brigid Festival (Brescia College, London Ontario, May, 2015). Listening to Mary Condren, my understanding of Brigid expanded beyond her aspect of maiden to her embodiment of mother and crone. Mary’s research for a long-awaited book on Brigid is a seemingly endless process of pulling up a thread only to find a cluster of many more threads underneath.

 

Now exploring the Cailleach (Crone) aspect of the threefold presence of the sacred feminine, Mary is discovering how central the Cailleach tradition was in ancient times. It seems that at the Festival of Samhain (November 1st), the maiden, mother and crone return to the Cailleach.

 

By uncovering old pilgrimage paths and excavating ancient ritual sites in Ireland, researchers are finding many earlier aspects of the sacred feminine that were then ”folded into” the Brigid tradition which in turn was interwoven with the 5th century abbess, Saint Brigid. Mary Condren longs for Adrienne Rich’s “dream of a common language” that would bring the Cailleach/Brigid tradition into harmony with the Christian tradition.

 

Mercy was the beatitude Brigid chose when she took her veil. Mary Condren believes that the difference between mercy and sacrifice encapsulates the difference between a thealogy (based on feminine values) and patriarchal traditions.

 

Brigid’s cloak is a symbol of protection and of the creative womb of the earth. Collecting dew on the Festival of Imbolc is an ancient feminine ritual. Mary Condren’s research into dew in the sacred writings of many religions (including Kwan Yin where the dew symbolizes compassion and in the Hebrew Bible) shows the longevity of this tradition.

 

The dew of mercy becomes in Christianity the blood of sacrifice, the redemptive liquid of patriarchy.
Mary Condren believes that Brigid’s life and tradition offers an alternative to sacrifice in the practice of self-fragilization, a willingness to allow oneself to be vulnerable, to enter the darkness, to enter the well, and still to remain whole.

 

Brigid’s fire is an inner flame that does not burn out. Mary Condren suggests that we cultivate that inner fire of purification and protection rather than the spectacular destructive fire of sacrifice.

The Imbolc question echoes: Do we have a welcome in our lives for Brigid?

 

Dolores Whelan reminds us that it is only in us, you and me, that the energy of Brigid will rise again, take form and become a force for transformation in our world.

(Ever Ancient, Ever New Dublin 2010 p. 81)

 

 

 

 

Brigid: In the Smithy of the Soul

 

After her words to us about the poets of ancient Ireland, I realize there is something more I need to ask Brigid, something about a forge, a smithy. Didn’t Anne O’Reilly tell us that Brigid is also the Matron of Smithcraft?
There are lines from James Joyce that haunt me:

 

I go for the millionth time into the reality of experience
To forge in the smithy of my soul
The uncreated conscience of my race.

 

There is a link I am trying to make, trying to forge. I risk now asking Brigid: “How does the poetry connect with smithcraft? Anne O’Reilly’s poem asks you to forge us anew. I sort of get that, but James Joyce seems to be talking of so much more. He says he must forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. What does that mean?”

 

Brigid holds my gaze for a long searing moment. “Indeed,” she says at last, “what does that mean? When you understand, you will each be ready to leave this garden, to return to your homes, to do the same for your time, for your task, for your earth.”

 

And with that, she is gone.  We get up from the almost-dry grass, shake the last drops of rain from our umbrellas, and head back to the hotel.

 

We do not see Brigid again. We return home, her last challenge still ringing in our hearts. What does it mean “to forge ourselves anew”?

 

When our Communion members first reponded to that question, here is a taste of what they said: 

 

Noreen: It is a call to each to do our own inner work.

 

Patricia: We need to trust and be in touch with how we feel, what we see… and then to bring it into relationship with our mind. We must trust ourselves and be true to who we are and what we believe, protective of the unique gift that we bring to our world.

 

Shirley: If we allow ourselves to connect deeply with our feelings, we tap into the energy that can give us courage, strength and determination to practice compassion to create a better world.

 

These three women understood the heart of Brigid’s challenge: the call to transformation that is the essence of our work in the hearth or smithy of our soul.

 

Irish Theologian Mary Condren writes compellingly of the gifts of Brigid for our time. Her article, “Brigit, Matron of Poetry, Healing, Smithwork and Mercy: Female Divinity in a European Wisdom Tradition” was published in 2010 in the Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research. Her work sheds light on this fourfold matronage of Brigid, and was my source for information in the last posting on the role of the poets in ancient Celtic Society.

 

 

 

 

Mary Condren guides us into a further understanding of smithwork of the soul, noting that as a smith, Brigid transformed people’s minds rather than metals. She forged new ways of being and transformed old patterns of behaviour into new courses of action. Her psychic mojo speaks of another kind of in-depth knowledge: the perspective of the Crone, the one who has seen it all and is not afraid to speak.

 

Brigit may be patroness of smithcraft, but her anvil was that of the soul; her alchemy, that of the spirit….Brigit’s matronage of smithwork also takes the form of the “inner fire” necessary to ensure the ethical life of the community….the fire that does not burn, the life-force within….Brigit’s followers, like the ancient Vestal Virgins, were charged with holding the seed of the fire on behalf of the community. The fire would not burn provided they remained focussed, and undistracted by flattery.

 

With the poet Anne O’Reilly we ask Brigid to forge us anew, to assist us in our work of transformation in the smithy of our souls.

 

Shirley offered a further reflection that speaks to this challenge, offering us hope:

If our hearts can be turned forward we can help co-create a new human species, a new consciousness. We cannot be fear based. If we stay fear based we can become more unconscious. There are powerful voices building, encouraging momentum. Hopefully in our dialogue we can change minds and hearts by increasing the awareness of the sacredness of all creation and the interconnection of all things.
May we ponder this and send light and love to assist in the emergence of a new human community to embrace the whole of the Earth Community.
This is part of the dying and resurrection. We work it through and that’s the power of the resurrection. This is a new universe being born and it’s messy.

Thomas Berry wrote: “We are not lacking in the dynamic forces needed to create the future. We live immersed in a sea of energy beyond all comprehension. But this energy, in an ultimate sense, is ours not by domination but by invocation.”

 

Where, as members of the Communion of Creative Fire, do we find ourselves within this great challenge?

 

Do we consciously invoke this energy, in our own way, in our daily contemplative time?

 

Do we trust that we are already creating the future through our openness, our intention to be “a cup to catch the sacred rain”?

 

Do we strengthen our shared vision of what the future might be through our words to one another, the insights/thoughts/hopes that emerge in our Sacred Hour?

 

Do we, like the poets of Ancient Ireland, draw forth from our intuition, our bodies, our inner wisdom and from the collective unconscious what is needed for our time?

 

Do we have the courage, the trust, to do this with and for one another as well as for the life on our planet at this time?

 

 

Brigid: Matron of Poetry and Smithcraft

 

Following our conversation with Brigid about the meaning of Equinox, we gather for dinner back at our hotel. The mood is somewhat subdued, the conversation sporadic, touching on the sudden chill of the air, the earthy tang of the Guinness, our plans for the evening. Within walking distance there is a poetry reading at eight o’clock, featuring the works of Irish writers of the 20th century. I do not say it to my companions, but I think poetry might be a welcome release from Brigid’s intense teaching and catechizing. I am still smarting from her comment to the fox that we have a great deal to learn…

 

Just before eight, we make our way to the pub for the readings. We crowd in, some of us clustering around small tables of dark well-polished wood, others perching on the high bar stools. Though I feel a little guilty about it, I am looking forward to an evening without thinking about Brigid. Minutes later, I hear Irish poet Anne Frances O’Reilly, the evening’s host, say that the poetry will be dedicated to Brigid, patron or rather matron, of poetry, healing and smithcraft…

 

Anne begins with her own poem to Brigid, as recorded on her CD, “Breath Song”. We in the Communion know it well, our signature poem of Brigid, beginning with the lines:

These words will never carve
your image out of bog oak
but that is what they want to do
to dig down into the moist wetness
to touch the layers of centuries
that have made you
woman, goddess, saint
to see your shape emerge intact
from the dark earth.

 

The next morning we arrive at the place we now think of as “Brigid’s Garden” under umbrellas that offer little shelter from  rain that blows towards us from the side. Balancing umbrellas with one hand, spreading jackets or raincoats with the other, we sit on the wet grass.

 


 

 

 

 Brigid is laughing, the raindrops caught in her long hair like sparkling jewels. The sunlight radiates in the drops creating prisms of light, and soon the rain has vanished as though lapped up by their thirst.

 

“Did you enjoy the poetry last evening?” Brigid asks. 

 

There is a buzz of response, nods of agreement, a few of us quoting remembered lines and images from Yeats, from Patrick Kavanagh, from Seamus Heaney.

 

“Anne O’Reilly said you are the matron of poetry, Brigid,” Ellyn says, venturing to ask, “How did that come about?”

 

“How did I come to be matron of poetry?” Brigid echoes, adding, with great seriousness, “you have seen and read, of course, my collected poems? No? Well, there’s a good reason for that.” She laughs suddenly. Lightly. It eases the tension. Each of us had been fearing we’d missed something important.

 

“I’ve never written even one verse,” she admits.

 

 “Let me tell you something of the role of poets in ancient Ireland. They were honoured along with kings and priests as part of a triad of leaders.  Poets played a role in the inauguration and the legitimizing of kings. Should a king not live up to what was required of him, the poets could overthrow him.

 

“The last time you were here, we spoke of the Celtic year that begins with Samhain, as the dark time of the year approaches. You may recall my saying that for ancient people life was understood to begin in darkness. For this reason, the training of poets for a culture that was mostly oral demanded that they spend many hours in complete darkness memorizing the ancient tales and the wisdom lore of Ireland.

 

Because they had faced this darkness and at the same time, their own inner darkness, the poets were prepared to call the community to integrity, to challenge unjust rulers, and false decisions, to defend the weak. 

 

“Now you already know that my name goes back millennia to a time when it meant High or Exalted One. In early Irish law there is mention of a Brigh Ambui who was a woman, an author of wisdom and prudence among the men of Erin. From her were named the incantations called Briathra Brighi by which the poet’s mind was made prophetic.

 

“The poets of Ancient Ireland had three significant duties: intuitive knowing, whereby they accessed wisdom from the collective unconscious and from within their own bodies; composing without thinking, or on the spot, out of this deep source of wisdom, their store of knowledge and the poetic gift that brings the knowing forth; and the illumination of song.”

 

We are silent, taking this in, expanding our understanding of the art of poetry, the task of poetry.

 

 

Reflecting on the Easter Mystery 2016

 

Through the cold, quiet nighttime of the grave underground,
The earth concentrated on him with complete longing
Until his sleep could recall the dark from beyond
To enfold memory lost in the requiem of mind.
The moon stirs a wave of brightening in the stone.
He rises clothed in the young colours of dawn.

John O’Donohue “Resurrection”

 

The Easter Mystery of life-death-life is at the heart of the universe, at the heart of life on our planet, in the deep heart of our own lives. From its birth out of the womb of a dying star, through its daily cycle of day/dusk/ night/dawn, its yearly cycle of summer/autumn/ winter/spring, the earth teaches us to live within the paschal mystery. Ancient peoples understood this mystery. Through their careful observations they constructed buildings such as the mound in Newgrange Ireland where a tiny lintel receives the first rays of dawn only on the winter solstice.

 

The ancients wove their understanding of life/death/life into their mythologies: the Egyptian story of Osiris, whose severed body was put together piece by piece by his wife Isis, then reawakened; the Sumerians tell of the great queen Inanna who descended to the underworld to visit her sister Erishkigal. There she was stripped of all her royal robes and insignia, and murdered by her sister who then hung her lifeless body on a hook. Three days later, Inanna was restored to life, all honour returned to her.

 

The people of Jesus’ time would have known these and other great myths of the ancient Near East. What was so stunningly different in the Jesus story was that the mystery of life-death-life was incarnated in a historical person. The Resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian faith. As Paul wrote, “If Christ be not risen then our faith is in vain”.

 

In our lifetime, the explosion of new science shows us the life/death/mystery at the heart of the universe. Like exploding stars, our lives are continuously being rebirthed into a deeper more joyous existence. By allowing the death within ourselves of old habits, old mindsets and narrow ideas of who or what we may be, we open ourselves to the possibility of new life being birthed within us. As Jesus told his friends, “You will do what I do. You will do even greater things”.

 

“Resurrection is about being pulsed into new patterns appropriate to our new time and place,” Jean Houston writes in Godseed. For this to happen, we need to open in our deep core to “the Heart of existence and the Love that knows no limits. It is to allow for the Glory of Love to have its way with us, to encounter and surrender to That which is forever seeking us, and from this to conceive the Godseed”.

 

“The need for resurrection has increased in our time,” Jean continues. “We are living at the very edge of history, at a time when the whole planet is heading toward a global passion play, a planetary crucifixion.” Yet “the longing with which we yearn for God is the same longing with which God yearns for us…. the strength of that mutual longing can give us the evolutionary passion to roll away the stone, the stumbling blocks that keep us sealed away and dead to the renewal of life”. (Godseed pp.129-130)

 

The yearly miracle of Spring awakens within us the confidence and joy that this same rebirth is ours to accept and to live.

We know our call to green our lives, our times, our planet.

 

 

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age (Dylan Thomas)

 

Where in my life do I most experience the need for a rebirth?


What old habits and beliefs would I have to let die in order for this new life to be born?

How does knowing that the longing with which (I) yearn for God is the same longing with which God yearns for (me) make my life more joyful?


What would a resurrected life look like, feel like, for me? for those with whom my life is woven? for our planet?


 

May Sophia, the feminine presence of Sacred Wisdom, gently guide us through the death of what no longer serves us into the joy of the rebirth for which our hearts yearn.

        

 

Brigid Speaks about the Spring Equinox

In mid-morning of March 21st, we walk from our hotel to the garden where we sat with Brigid on our first visit. She is here already, seated beside the pool of water, expecting us. Her smile warms the air of this spring day, this day of equinox. Following her lead, we too breathe in the fragrance of earth, of violets, daffodils, foxglove, and trees whose young leaves are ready to burst outwards.

 

With a gesture of welcome, Brigid invites us to sit near her where the early grass softens the earth beside the pool.
“Today we need to speak of the equinox,” Brigid begins. “Do you know its meaning?”

 

A few of us exchange glances. Every child knows what equinox means, and yet Brigid waits, expecting a response.
“It means that day and night are of equal length after the short days and long dark nights of winter,” Mary responds, politely.

 

Brigid smiles. I have the uncomfortable feeling that she knows exactly what we are thinking. “That’s a good answer, as far it goes,” she says now. “But did you not understand our last conversation? You and I and all that lives upon our beautiful planet are part of her. Our lives, our bodies, our souls, our spirits are one with her rhythms, her seasons. Since this is so, what meaning does equinox hold for us?”

“Is it about balance?” Noreen ventures.

At this, Brigid smiles. Mischievously, I think. “Balance, yes. But balance of what?”

“Light and darkness,” I say, growing increasingly uncomfortable as I wonder what Brigid is up to, if she is playing with us, trying to trip us up in our knowledge of the earth. Spurred by this thought, I rush on, “it is the balance of light and darkness that shows us that spring is coming. Longer days mean that the earth will soon be bursting with new life. And also," I add this with some pride as I have only just learned it myself, “it is the increase in daylight that draws the birds back from the south.”

Brigid appears unimpressed. “I don’t think you really understand about the equinox. You are describing what you see around you. My question is about what is happening within you.”

Suddenly a fox emerges from the bushes beyond the garden. It walks with soft steps, unswervingly, towards Brigid. Though her back is to the fox, though she could not possibly see the delicate animal, Brigid stretches her hand towards the fox, calling out, “Come, my friend. Meet some people who have a great deal to learn.”

 

We who were frozen in fear at the appearance of the fox, watch now in amazement as the small animal comes to sit, composed, peaceful, at Brigid’s feet.


“Your Celtic ancestors,” Brigid continues, as she strokes the fox’s fur with her hand, “like indigenous peoples everywhere, experienced time as circular. They danced to its rhythm: night gave birth to dawn and day blossomed before it waned into evening, back into night.

“Our ancestors watched the cycles of the moon, the turning of the tides. The women noticed how the rhythms of their own bodies, their regular times of bleeding, followed the moon’s rhythms. No wonder they felt at home in the universe, embraced by the earth.

“Because they saw their lives as part of the great cycle of life, the Celtic people created a calendar that marked the seasons of the year, dividing the year into two major parts related to the sun’s light: giamos and samos.

 

"They celebrated eight festivals that were about 45 days apart. Because they understood that it is darkness that gives birth to light, their year opened with the Festival of Samhain, November 1st where the dark days begin. These are the days of inwardness, receptivity, the time that came to be known as feminine. Here the pace slows, linear time recedes, the intuitive is honoured over the rational.

 

"With the Festival of Bealtaine, on May 1st, the bright masculine sun days begin, the samos time of outer activity when the seeds nourished through the dark days blossom into new life. The linear, analytic, rational way dominates once again.


 "In the Celtic Calendar, the Spring Equinox occurs halfway between the Winter and Summer Solstices. It is the festival just before Bealtaine, when the feminine season ends, and the masculine begins.

“Now can you see a deeper meaning for the equinox? It is an invitation to find a new balance within our lives, within our cultures,throughout the planet, of these masculine and feminine energies that so often are in opposition. It is a time to choose how we shall hold the values of the dark time of the goddess even as the bright active masculine takes over in our lives.

“How will you choose to honour the feminine intuitive gifts of the moon time in the days when the sun calls forth your logical, rational gifts? Will you make a space in these busier days for quiet reflection, for remembering your winter dreams, for poetry, music, drawing, dance or whatever nourishes your inward life? Will you seek a finer balance of work and recreation, of times with family and friends as well as times of solitude? Will you consider how the dance of opposites in your own life might flow in rhythm, even as it does in the Celtic Calendar?

 

“These are important questions, dear friends. I hope you will consider them until we meet here again.

“If we could enter into the ancient ones’ understanding of time, the rhythms of our lives would take on sacred meaning. Our times of inner darkness would hold the promise of a dawn of new joy. Our losses would be seen as invitations to embrace other gifts, our death as birth into a new as yet unimagined life.”

 

With those words, Brigid is gone, her fox companion with her!

We are left here by the pool, thinking, wondering.

 

 

Conversations with Brigid

 

After these weeks of reflecting upon Brigid, we decide to pay her a visit. We book twenty-sixty seats on an Aer Lingus Flight to Shannon Airport. Outside the airport, we find a bus, its destination clearly written above the front window: Church of St. Brigid.

 

The bus stops before a stone church that appears centuries old. Inside, as our eyes adjust to darkness, we pull shawls/sweaters/light coats more closely around us to protect against the chill, the seeping dampness left over from winter’s rain. The scent is a not unpleasant mix of wax, flowers, dusty hymnals, wispy remnants of incense.

 

Light comes from the red sanctuary lamp. In a side aisle, a single candle bows in a soft breeze from a high, partially open, window. Drawn by the candle, we find ourselves before a statue of Saint Brigid, eyes looking away, hands joined around a book, as though in prayer.
Clearly she is not expecting us.

 

 

 

But then, slowly, she lowers her gaze, looks steadily at us and…. WINKS!

 

Behind her, a door opens onto a sunlit landscape of such verdancy that we are drawn towards it, even as we see her gesturing that we follow her. We are outside now, breathing in the fragrance of wet, newly-turned earth, pungent with spring life. Brigid draws us onward towards a pool of water that holds a drowned, cloud-drifted sky, invites us to sit on the springy young grass that surrounds the pool.

 

 

When we are settled, she speaks:

“There’s something I need to tell you….” We look to her, surprised by this turn of events, eager to listen, to learn.

 

“First of all, you took the wrong bus. When I drew you here to Ireland, I thought you’d know where to look for me, but when you climbed into that bus, I had to get here ahead of you. Believe me, it was no easy task to stand so still, trying my best to look holy, otherworldly, until you arrived. But now you’re here, I have much to say to you.

 

 

“You’ve heard stories about me, of my life in the Christian Monastery of Kildare where I served as abbess to both men and women. I embodied in that role the qualities of compassion and generosity, of kindness, of fierceness in my focus, as I kept the sacred fire alight, the healing water of the holy well flowing. These stories you understand for they are part of your heritage.

 

“But there is so much more for you to know, wisdom that goes back to the countless millennia before Christianity, before the Hebrew Scriptures, before men decided that God was a powerhouse running the universe, yet wholly separate from what “he” had created.

 

“I will speak of Ireland, but you must understand that this wisdom was found in many different parts of the planet, in the myths and stories of numberless, now mostly forgotten, aboriginal peoples, in the days when the Holy was understood to be a woman whose body was the earth that births and holds us, nourishes and comforts us, receiving us back into her body when we die. Fragments of this wisdom have endured, to come to us in stories, in myths, in rituals.

 

 

“In those ancient days, wave after wave of people came to Ireland, each bringing their own understanding of that sacred being, our mother. Over the millennia, she was called by many different names: Anu, which relates to Danu, the goddess for whom the great river Danube is named; or Aine, the wheel of the seasons, the circle of life; and later Brigit, a name that derives from an Indo-European word brig, meaning the High, the Exalted One.

 

 

“In ancient Ireland, Brigid was honoured as embodying all three aspects of the goddess: maiden, mother and crone. The poets, who themselves held positions of honour almost equal to that of the king, worshipped the goddess Brigid, taking her as patron. She was said to have two sisters, each named Brigid, one the patron of healers, the other patron of smith-craft.

 

“In this, you can see that Brigid was a goddess of many aspects, perhaps herself the many-faceted One, the sacred holy mother of far more ancient times.

 

“I can see by your expressions that some of you are wondering why I feel it so important to tell you all of this, you who live in a time so different, so removed from the ancient days of Ireland.

 

But I am coming to know you, dear women of the Communion of Creative Fire. When you chose me as one of your godmothers, didn’t you expect I would take a particular interest in you?

 

“I have seen in your hearts some of the darkness and suffering you carry, your grief for the ravaging of the planet, the earth that you know as your mother. I have felt your pain over the desertification of the rain forests, the lungs of your planet, the pollution of its waters, its rivers, lakes, oceans, its very life blood, the poisoning of the air…

 

“I want you to know, to rediscover the wisdom of the ancient ones who saw Brigid/Aine/Anu as the life within the earth herself. The hills, her breasts, called the Paps of Anu; the nipples of high mountains sprouting water like breast milk; wells that spring from rocks on the sides of mountains and hills or gushing forth from under the earth, or deep inside caves, offering healing.

 

“Open your eyes, dear ones, so that you may see the earth as co–creating with you in love. See yourself as a partner in this great work, and know yourself held in love by the earth whom you honour as mother.

 

“As you watch spring returning to your land, remember these things, remember me, and know you are not alone.

 

“I hear your bus returning. You need not tell the driver what we’ve been speaking about. But do come back again, for I have so much more to tell you!”

 

We board the bus, bemused, intrigued, making for our hotel. We know this is only the first of many conversations with Brigid.

 

 

 

Brigid: Learning to Hold Our Ground

 

The light in her eyes is fiercely bright, a Brigid fire that holds my gaze even as her words pierce the air between us. “I’ve been thinking about the schedule,” Dolores says. "We’ll work through Saturday afternoon until just before supper. It is a Brigid challenge to hold our ground.”

 

For Celtic Spirituality teacher Dolores Whelan, Brigid is more than a research project. For her, Brigid is soul-shaper, trail-blazer, way-shower, one who patterns for us how to be and do in the midst of life’s challenges.

 

Dolores Whelan (www.doloreswhelan.ie)

 

I had met Dolores two days earlier. In the three-hour drive from Montreal’s Trudeau Airport to the Galilee Centre in Arnprior, west of Ottawa, we spoke about Brigid. Dolores told me of the recent Festival near her home in Dundalk in County Louth Ireland that celebrated Brigid as Goddess and Saint marking Imbolc, the Coming of Spring in the Celtic Calendar.

 

Then we talked about the weekend of teaching and ritual that Dolores would facilitate. I told her of the scheduling challenge that had arisen. The resident priest, who would not be part of the weekend experience, had invited us to attend the Mass he was celebrating in the Centre’s Chapel at four o’clock on Saturday.

 

I was uncomfortable with the invitation, wondering if Dolores envisioned a different flow for the days, a flow that would perhaps lead to and culminate in our own ritual celebration on Sunday morning. I knew that the women coming to the weekend were seeking an expression of Celtic Spirituality. Would some of them welcome a chance to attend a Mass?

 

We considered the question together. When Dolores suggested that a peaceful resolution might be simply to have some free time around four pm on Saturday to allow for those who wished to attend the Mass, I agreed….

So why am I now seeing a Celtic Tiger burning bright before me? And what has this decision to do with Brigid?

 

Over the days, as Dolores brings life to the legends of Brigid, I find the answer. For Dolores, being in relationship with Brigid is not about devotion. Rather it is about finding the qualities that guided her life, then imbibing them, living as Brigid lived. Brigid was “fiercely authentic, fiercely protective of her gift,” her call, the focus of her life. She stood her ground, would not be turned aside from her destiny.

 

I recall the legend that tells that when her father, a pagan chieftain, sought a husband for her among the leading men of Ireland, Brigid contrived to make herself appear ugly so that no man would want her. When she achieved her desire, taking vows as a nun, the ugliness dissolved.

 

Women are too ready to be accommodating, Dolores says, too ready to set aside our own focus, our own destiny in order to please others. (As I would have done, altering the schedule so as not to offend…) We need to create a container to hold the divine energy that waits to enter us. We may have a moment of grace but we cannot contain it because our cauldron leaks, our energy dissipates, flowing away.

 

The women who tended the sacred fire in Brigid’s Monastery in Kildare have been likened to the Vestal Virgins whose task was to tend the sacred fire in Ancient Rome. To be virginal, Dolores explains, is to be defined in relation to oneself. Celibacy is chosen so that sexual energy may be used to keep the fire alive.

 

“What is the flame within us that will never burn us but will never die out?” Dolores asks. It is the passion within us. But that flame can go out if we allow ourselves to become overtired, if we don’t allow ourselves sufficient rest. We have to take care of ourselves and of the gift we have been given. By being too busy, we let the flame go out.

 

Brigid, though busy, knew the secret of aligning herself with heaven and earth. As we saw in the story of Brendan and the whale who cried out to Brigid for help, Brigid’s constant focus on, awareness of, God kept her in alignment in the midst of her many tasks.

 

 

Many of the legends about Brigid relate to her power to manifest food, lands, cows, whatever was required to meet the needs of the poor. Dolores sees that this gift rests on an absolute trust in the universe and in abundance. Brigid did not act from ego, which is fear-based, doubting that what is required will be supplied; rather she trusted that she would get what she needed.

 

“Brigid never felt unworthy,” Dolores believes. She was “always in confidence” that she would have what she needed. She gave away with abandonment, because she knew she would have enough. Her generosity came out of a belief in the abundance of the universe. It is gratitude that opens the heart and attracts to us what we need.

 

Over the days of Dolores’ teaching, I feel a fire building inside me: a fierce determination to keep my life focused on the call that is my own purpose and destiny; I see that I need to deepen my trust in the abundance of the universe; I understand that giving freely, and being grateful for all that I receive, releases me from the fear of not-enough.

 

I want my fire to burn bright. I need to create a strong container for the divine energy that wants to fill me, my own “cup to catch the sacred rain”. Brigid becomes real for me.

 

The ritual that we celebrate on Sunday morning holds power, manifests beauty. And it is ours, a feminine expression flowing out of the time we spent with Dolores who brought us Brigid, and with one another.

 

It is no small task to integrate the divine energy of the sacred feminine within oneself, Dolores assures us. We each do only one piece of the work but each piece together creates a quantum shift.

 

Brigid and the Communion of Creative Fire


Who is Brigid for us today? As women of the Communion of Creative Fire, we take inspiration from her. Yet we are separated from her life by a millennium and a half. We don’t live in a monastery, or in a way of life intimately tied to the land and its cycling seasons.

 

In her book Praying with Celtic Holy Women Bridget Mary Meehan writes that “the force of (Brigid’s) Celtic soul is a rich lodestone of the Celtic feminine which continues to challenge each new generation.” (p.29) Consider the word Meehan chooses: a lodestone, a magnet, a thing that attracts…. What is it in Brigid’s story that so attracts us after so many centuries?

 

 

 

I will give my own answer, inviting each of you to give yours.

What I see in Brigid is that she matters to the time in which she lives, and to the people whom she serves, as I hope we each do in some way. But she also matters to (maters as in mothers) the Church where her leadership was strong, recognised and luminous.

 

As a woman living in the 21st century in the Roman Catholic Church, I do not matter. I write, I teach, I offer retreats, and am largely ignored by the Institutional Church.

 

Until now, I have not minded. It allows a certain freedom. But something in Brigid’s story makes me wonder if perhaps it does matter very much indeed that the Church to which I have belonged since infancy does not appear to need or even notice women.

 

How does the Celtic Feminine as expressed in Brigid’s life challenge me/us in this matter?

In last week’s Reflection on Brigid, we saw how old Bishop Mel, guided by the Holy Spirit, accidently consecrated Brigid as a bishop. We know that her monastery in Kildare was a double monastery, housing consecrated women and men, as was the way in the Celtic expression of Christianity. Brigid would have governed as Abbess/Bishop to both women and men.

 

The development of Irish Monasticism appears to have been richly differentiated, a garden of wild profusion and endless variety. So there is no way of knowing how or when or why Brigid’s monastery of women began to welcome men. But here is a story I found that tells how it may have happened:

 

One day a group of men, for whom Brigid’s faithful spirit and generous heart were as a lodestone, came knocking at the door of the Kildare Monastery, requesting that they be allowed to join the community. Brigid consulted with her Sisters. They were aghast! What? Men! Noisy, unruly, bothersome. No way! Brigid’s first assistant sealed the matter with the words that have frequently put an end to something new: “It’s never been done before.”

 

Not at ease with the decision, Brigid went outside and sat near the holy well. Something urged her to look deeply into its dark waters, recalling as she did so that imagination dwells in the dark places. Brigid picked up a tiny stone and dropped it into the well. Down, down it fell, until a small splash in the deep told her it had reached the water.

 

But there was still nothing to be seen in the well’s depths. She picked up another stone and dropped it into the well. Just at that moment the noonday sun at its highest place in the sky illumined the water where the stone had struck. Brigid saw tiny circles rippling out from where the stone had pierced the water.

 

In the depths of her own imagination, Brigid saw a circle widening. She thought about this: “Because it’s never been done before does not mean it can never be done.”

 

And it was so. Kildare become a monastery for both men and women, drawn by the depth of Brigid’s holiness.

 

Seeking a meaning for the word "lodestone" I find another word: "lodestar". This refers to the star by which a ship navigates, usually the pole star. Symbolically it refers to a guiding principle. This illumines something for me, shining into the wells of legend and story that flow around Brigid’s life. Under the tales there is a guiding principle that will illumine our lives if we look deeper.

 

What was the lodestar of Brigid’s life, the star by which she navigated the uncertainties and challenges that faced her each day?

 

When Brigid became one of the “godmothers” of our communion, I wrote an imaginal dialogue with her. I asked that she help us to build a fire that “never dies away”. I asked her what its source must be and how it is to be ignited.

 

Here is Brigid’s response:

From the first moment I met the Holy, my thoughts have never left her…. Can you say the same? Or are you like Brendan, anxious about the weather and the tides and the location of the fish? focussed on your important tasks but forgetting the one thing necessary?

 

I had to admit to her how easily I lose focus, forget the One who began this work in me, let the Holy One slip from my gaze, from my path, from my heart. I realized then that it is the fire of a passionate love for the Holy that has been lit within me, a fire I must tend faithfully. A fire tender must first of all take care that the flame of her love burns bright. All else, for each one of us, flows from that.

 

We in the communion can support one another in the wisdom, creativity, vision of new life that flow from that fire, but first we must keep our own fires alight. The one thing necessary is the flame that must be tended and nourished from deep within. Then the fire may be turned to other uses: warming those who come near, creating art, poetry, song, melody and ritual, offering food to the hungry, and justice to those denied it.

 

Brigid spoke again: If you turn your heart towards the fire, the other tasks will seem less arduous. The fire will ignite your creativity. The love will give you the strength and joy you require.

FOCUS! That’s the Brigid–gift I offer you.

Brigid, you are our lodestone, drawing us to a life aflame. You are our lodestar, offering us guidance in something so utterly new, so untried, that it sparkles in the sun’s light even in the midst of surrounding darkness. The ripples make circles that widen, that embrace ever-new possibilities. 

 

  

Brigid Twelve: Young Mother of Bealtaine

 

As one of the threefold goddesses, Brigid is honoured as Maiden, Mother and Crone. We began our reflections on Brigid with the Feast of Imbolc, February 1st, when Brigid in her Maiden form emerges to breathe life into the mouth of dead winter. More recently, we have been reflecting on Brigid in her Crone presence, the Cailleach who brings about transformation for our lives, for our planet, when we submit ourselves to the slow processes of her cauldron. With the Celtic Feast of Bealtaine, May 1st, we conclude this time with Brigid. 

 

Bealtaine ushers in the full richness of summer, the active sun-drenched days of masculine energy. At Bealtaine, we welcome Brigid in the third aspect, in her embodiment of the Mother. 

 

Bealtaine is a mingling of three themes:

(1) purification by fire

In ancient times, the cattle who had been kept indoors all winter were walked through the fires in preparation for their move to the summer pastures; in our time we need to be purified from any negativity that remains from winter that might interfere with the blossoming of our lives and our work;

(2) the flower maiden

The young mother represents the fertility of the land goddess. She was honoured with flowers strewn on altars, on doorsteps, on rooftops invoking fertility in all aspects of one’s life; altars were built and heaped with flowers; children walked and sang in joyous processing carrying flowers;

(3) sacred marriage of masculine and feminine energies

The Maypole rituals celebrate the young god of summer who woos the flower maiden away from the winter king and marries her; the masculine energy serves the seeds sown and nurtured by the feminine energies through the winter. 

 

Rituals of Bealtaine celebrate the harmonious working together of masculine and feminine energies. As Dolores Whelan writes:  

In the Celtic tradition, the masculine and feminine energies are represented by fire and water and are considered to be most effective when they act together in harmony with each other. On May morning, it was customary for people to go to the top of a hill before sunrise, light fires in honour of the sun, and bathe in the rays of the sun as it rose on the first day of summer. They washed their faces in the morning dew, which was considered a magical substance as it consisted of fire and water, capable of ensuring youth and vitality. Others went to holy wells and drank the water or poured water over themselves as the rays of the rising sun hit the water. All of these customs and rituals reflect this power of water and fire working together and the potency of masculine and feminine energy working in harmony within the land, a person, or a project.

(Dolores Whelan Ever Ancient, Ever New 2010 p. 114)  

 

Until the mid-years of the twentieth century, Catholic school children walked in joyous processions honouring Mary as “Queen of the May”, unaware that this ceremony had origins that went back to the ancient Mayday rituals honouring the Goddess. Dressed in their best clothes, walking in the sunlight of late spring, they lifted their voices in melodious hymns to Mary: “Bring flowers of the fairest, bring flowers of the rarest, from garden and woodland and hillside and dale; our full hearts are swelling, our glad voices telling, the praise of the loveliest rose of the vale. Oh Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May…” 

 

The powerful presence of Mary as Mother in the Catholic Christian tradition may have overshadowed this third aspect of Brigid. 

 

Irish theologian Mary Condren makes reference to Brigid as Mother:  

 

Brigit’s symbolism is firmly maternal, nourishing, protecting, spinning and weaving the bonds of human community, but it is maternal in the broadest sense of that word in that Brigit’s traditions fostered … maternal thinking... (refusing) to do in the public world what would not be acceptable in the home. Brigit constantly bridged the worlds of nature and culture: her traditions aim to bridge the world of public and private and to keep the life force moving rather than allowing it to stagnate….Her traditions speak of an approach to sacrality intimately connected with relationships rather than splitting. 

 

In keeping with her maternal aspects, the predominant fluid for Brigit is milk, the milk of human kindness. The milk of the Sacred Cow was one of the earliest sacred foods throughout the world, equivalent to our present day Holy Communion. In historical times it was said that the Abbess of Kildare (Brigit’s successors) could drink only from the milk of the White Cow. The same milk was also believed to provide an antidote to the poison of weapons.

 

Milk represented the ideal form of all food for its purity and nourishment. Mother’s milk was especially valuable and was believed to have curative powers…Brigit was even said to have been baptized in milk. Baptisms in milk were practised by the Irish until the practice was banned by the Synod of Cashel in 1171. 

….

Whereas Brigit’s traditions had insisted on creating, maintaining, and healing relationships through the power of her artefacts, imagery, stories and rituals, the rising power of the father gods depended on their establishing or maintaining their positions by threatening to, or actually sacrificing their children. Not surprisingly, therefore, when Brigit’s traditions were overthrown, maternal milk was replaced by blood shed, not in the course of the life cycle – childbirth or menstruation – but in the voluntary giving or taking of life, in various forms of sacrifice. 

 (Mary Condren in “Brigit, Matron of Poetry, Healing, Smithwork and Mercy”, Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research 18, 2010)

 

Brigid as Mother challenges us to restore to our rituals, our communities, our nations and our planet a sense of the sacred that is relational rather than divisive and to replace the flow of sacrificial blood in conflict with the milk of mutual respect and nurturing. 

 

 

May we celebrate Bealtaine with joy, as we welcome the masculine energy of activity, the bright sun that will nourish and call forth the seeds of new life we planted in the dark and quiet days of the feminine energy time.

Perhaps we will be drawn on May 1st to rise before dawn, climb a hill, light a fire to welcome the sunrise, then wash our faces in the morning dew. Thus we symbolically embrace  masculine (fire) energies and feminine (water) energies, inviting both to dwell in harmony within us and throughout our planet. 

 

 

 

Brigid Eleven: Cailleach and Midwife for a New World: Part Two

Dolores Whelan continues:

Because western society is currently dominated by the young masculine energy, present in both men and women, characterised by its “can do” attitude, there is an urgent need for each of us to make this heroic journey with the cailleach, so that we will become agents for the transformation of our society.  

   

A story from the Celtic tradition that illustrates the importance of the cailleach and her energy is the story of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Niall and his four brothers come to a well to get a drink of water. The well is being guarded by an old woman who represents the cailleach or hag. When the first brother goes to the well, she tells him that if he wants to drink the water, he must give her a kiss, he is horrified and refuses; she sends him away. The other three brothers go in turn on the same errand, and each refuses to kiss the hag. As the story goes:

Then it was Niall’s turn. Faced with the same challenge, he kissed the old hag and embraced her. When he looked again, she had changed into the most beautiful woman in the world. “What art thou?” said the boy. “King of Tara, I am Sovereignty . . . your seed shall be over every clan.”(1)

 

This story suggests that in order to have access to the life-enhancing energy represented by the water in the well, it is necessary for the young masculine to embrace this particular and perhaps unattractive aspect of the feminine energy. Why is this so? The cailleach represents the wisdom gathered by living in right relationship with the earth, something that requires reflection, stillness, and attentiveness. It knows more clearly what is needed and what is possible in each situation, and it is aware of the consequences of particular actions. It knows how to proceed slowly; it understands the value of times of waiting and times of allowing. It knows how to be and how to act.

 

So how can we, you and I, begin the journey back towards wholeness and balance?

 

Brigid in her cailleach form can help us to embrace these difficult and fearful aspects of our lives. The cauldron, a central image in both the Celtic and other traditions, is a vessel for transformation and transmutation. In many stories, the cauldron is first filled with unpalatable raw things, which then are used to create a nourishing soup using the transforming energy of the universe through the action of fire and water. The transformation of the contents of the cauldron is supervised by the cailleach energy, which works inwardly, quietly, and slowly to bring about an unforced and timely rebirth. The transformation of the cauldron’s contents concentrates their essence and offers them back in a new and more suitable form. From this process, we learn that the possibility of transformation and re-birth always exists, no matter how devitalised something appears to be. A new rebirth can be achieved when we submit ourselves and our concerns to the inward and slow transformational energy of the cauldron and the cailleach.

 

Philosopher Richard Kearney in his poem "Bridget’s Well" speaks of the importance of this inward and downward journey and suggests that it is the only way to access the life-giving and inspiring fire of Brigid that lies underneath the water.

I will rest now at the bottom of Bridget’s well

I will follow the crow’s way

Footprint by footprint

In the mud down here

I won’t come up

Until I am calmed down

And the earth dries beneath me

And I have paced the caked ground

Until smooth all over

It can echo a deeper voice

Mirror a longer shadow (2)

 

This poem suggests the importance of that deep journey to the well where the source of new life and the fire of passion is found.  

 

At Imbolc (February 1st) the tiny spark of new light discovered in the deep womb darkness of the winter solstice has grown sufficiently to safely emerge from that inner world and begin to transform winter into spring ! At this time Brigid appears as the fresh maiden of springtime emerging from the womb of the cailleach, queen of winter. Here Brigid embodies the energy that breathes life into the mouth of dead winter. The energy of Brigid at Imbolc is the energy of Yes, and it can only emerge from the place of stillness!

 

Brigid is also closely associated with the life giving aspect of fire, a fire that doesn’t burn but which can never be fully quenched. When this fire comes from a clear and deep space, as happens following the inward journey, it will be significant and filled with truth and potency. This life giving fire will act within individuals, within the land, in the relationships between the people and their land, fanning the fires of creative endeavour so that all life forms can partake in the symphony of new life emerging each  springtime! The fire discovered through this deep journey is an inner light which guides each of us to find our next step!

 

Richard Kearney in his poem "Brigit’s Well" also speaks of the re-emergence of a new fire born of a deeper place within:  

Then the fire may come again

Beneath me, this time

Rising beyond me

No narcissus-flinted spark

Behind closed eyes

But a burning bush

A fire that always burns away

But never is burnt out (3)

 

I believe that the archetypal energy of Brigid, the embodiment of the divine feminine, present within the essence of the Celtic tradition, has the capacity to lead and support us in transforming the present wasteland into a new life- sustaining society. For this to happen, it is necessary for us to understand that the archetypal energy that Brigid represents is a real aspect of the human psyche, one that has been largely dormant over the past few hundred years, but is now re-emerging. Each of us can become keeper of the Brigid flame by developing and living those qualities and values that distinguished her.

 

As we align ourselves with her archetypal energies, she supports us to courageously and safely face the demons of this time. She teaches us how to stand still in a wobbling world, to act as a unifying force, to hold the space of possibility and so become agents of transformation.  

 

1   Amergin  Jan  de Fouw   Amergin  Wolfhound Press  Dublin 2000 (afterword )

2, 3   Richard  Kearney quoted in Stephen J. Collins The Irish Soul in Dialogue the Liffey Press Dublin  2001  p 147

 

(Deep gratitude to Dolores Whelan for this profound reflection)

 

Brigid Ten: The Crone Who Transforms

 

Imaging Brigid as Maiden, Mother, Crone

 

In our last reflection, Mary Condren referred to Brigid’s psychic power as coming from the perspective of the Crone, the one who has seen it all and is not afraid to speak. 

 

The recent report of the UN on Climate Change, the scathing indictment this week by the leader of Doctors Without Borders about the desperate situation of refugees in UN camps in Sudan, the daily news of the plight of so many aspects of life on earth from bees to butterflies to whales to millions of humans… each of these is a call to us to become involved. 

 

During her workshop at Galilee in February, Dolores Whelan taught us that it is no small task to integrate the divine energy of the sacred feminine within oneself. We only do one piece of the work but each piece joined together with the others creates a quantum shift. Dolores said that the crime is to believe that we have no power. We need to ask, “What choices do I have here?” If we say, “there’s nothing I can do,” Dolores responds, “OH YES THERE IS!” 

 

Within our communion, Suzanne gave us a powerful example in her invitation to join with her in a simple, beautiful blessing of a bowl of water, extending that blessing to the waters of the planet. Within days, Suzanne sent us word that the Clean Water Protection Act had been extended to include a vast expanse of waterways in her home state of Illinois. There have been reports both in Europe and in the Northwestern US about efforts to clean up rivers or waterways where the workers were amazed at how swiftly the waters recovered, much faster than had been predicted. It is as though there is a spiritual power within all of life that is ready to respond to our efforts. 

 

Dolores Whelan, in her article, “Brigid: cailleach and midwife to a new world”, shows how Brigid assists us in this great work which is our great work. Because of the richness, the timeliness, the importance of this refection, I am dividing it into two parts, with the second to follow next week.

 

Dolores writes:    

Reflecting on the turmoil present in the world today it is clear to all but those steeped in denial, that all is not well.  It seems that something ails us humans; something that causes us to live in ways that disrespect our mother, the living earth, and all our relatives.  We ask what is it in us humans that create such a restless world where there is little sense of belonging, nurture or home and which causes so many of the species with which we share this planet to suffer?

 

The exclusion of the Feminine energy in our naming and understanding of the Divine is reflected in a corresponding absence and valuing of feminine energy in all aspects of life in western society. The devaluing and exclusion of the feminine energy over the past centuries has created a distorted story about life which has resulted in a world whose shape and vibration creates disharmony. 

 

So how do we find our way back to a more harmonious way of life?  If we know what is missing and what ails us, it may be possible for us to make the journey back towards wholeness and health. 

 

At this time many people are becoming aware of the wisdom of the feminine. As this happens, the absence of genuine feminine energy present in most institutions, both religious and secular, throughout western culture, becomes obvious. To include the presence of the divine feminine energy in creating a world whose shape is more wholesome requires a fundamental reclaiming of the essential role of the feminine in all aspects of life.   In order to create change within the physical world and in our society it is necessary to change the dreams and stories held within the imagination of a society.

 

Reconnecting with and re-membering the spirit and archetypal energy of Brigid, in both her Goddess and saint manifestations, is an essential task of this renaissance.  Brigid, although normally associated with the maiden and mother aspects of feminine energy, is also expressed in the cailleach form, as indicated in the prayer “Molamid Brid an mhaighean; Molamid Brid an mhathair; Molamid Brid an cailleach” (Praise to Brigid, the maiden, the mother, and the crone). 

 

What then is the energy associated with the hag, crone, or cailleach aspect of the divine feminine?  The cailleach is the embodiment of the tough mother-love that challenges its children to stop acting in destructive ways. It is the energy that refuses to indulge in inappropriate personal or societal dreams. It is the energy that will bring death to those dreams and fantasies that are not aligned with our highest good. Yet, this cailleach energy also will support the emergence and manifestation in the world of the highest and deepest within us. It will hold us safely as we embrace the darkness within ourselves and our society. It is an energy that insists that we stand still, open our hearts, and feel our own pain and the pain of the earth. This is the energy that teaches us how to stay with the process when things are difficult. This energy will not allow us to run away! 

 

Her way of being is a slow, inwardly focused way, with minimum outwardactivity:  a way that values times of active waiting that pays attention and allows life to unfold.

 

An essential part of the journey that all the great heroes and heroines in world mythologies undertake includes facing and embracing the energy of surrender, darkness, and death. The hero or heroine learns the next step required in their outer world journey only by submitting to and being initiated into the dark world of the cailleach.

 

Through this initiation the mature masculine power can emerge and lead each one to find their true path. When this happens the action that follows will be in the service of the true feminine and bring forth wisdom and compassion creating new life, vitality, and sustainability.

( to be continued….)

 

 

 

Brigid Nine: In the Smithy of the Soul

 

Our three most recent Reflections on Brigid were imaginal conversations held with her beside a pool in Ireland. During the final encounter, aware of her title as Matron of Smithcraft, we asked her to explain for us the words of 20th Century Irish poet, James Joyce:

 

I go for the millionth time into the reality of experience 

To forge in the smithy of my soul

The uncreated conscience of my race.

 

Brigid’s response was a challenge: “When you understand, you will each be ready to leave this garden, to return to your homes, to do the same for your time, for your task, for your earth.”

 

Since then, having returned home, we continue to seek a deeper understanding. Some in our Communion have sent your reflections, and others, I trust, will do so over the next weeks.

 

Noreen suggests it is a call to each to do our own inner work.

 

Patricia, reflecting on the weekend with Dolores Whelan, touches on the same theme: We need to trust and be in touch with how we feel, what we see… and then to bring it into relationship with our mind.  We must trust ourselves and be true to who we are and what we believe, protective of the unique gift that we bring to our world.

 

Shirley, commenting on the magnitude of the challenges presented to us by the global crisis in the planet’s environment, suggests that:  If we allow ourselves to connect deeply with our feelings, we tap into the energy that can give us courage, strength and determination to practice compassion to create a better world. 

 

These three women have understood the heart of Brigid’s challenge: the call to transformation that is the essence of our work in the hearth or smithy of our soul.

 

Irish Theologian Mary Condren writes compellingly of the gifts of Brigid for our time. Her article, “Brigit, Matron of Poetry, Healing, Smithwork and Mercy: Female Divinity in a European Wisdom Tradition” was published in 2010 in the Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research. Her work sheds light on this fourfold matronage of Brigid, and was my source for information on the role of the poets in ancient Celtic Society. (see Archives: Brigid Eight) 

 

Mary Condren guides us into a further understanding of smithwork of the soul:

 

As a smith, Brigid transformed people’s minds rather than metals. She forged new ways of being and transformed old patterns of behaviour into new courses of action. Her psychic mojo speaks of another kind of in-depth knowledge: the perspective of the Crone, the one who has seen it all and is not afraid to speak.

Brigit may be patroness of smithcraft, but her anvil was that of the soul; her alchemy, that of the spirit….Brigit’s matronage of smithwork also takes the form of the “inner fire” necessary to ensure the ethical life of the community….the fire that does not burn, the life-force within….Brigit’s followers, like the ancient Vestal Virgins, were charged with holding the seed of the fire on behalf of the community. The fire would not burn provided they remained focussed, and undistracted by flattery.

 

With the poet Anne O’Reilly we ask Brigid to forge us anew, to assist us in our work of transformation in the smithy of our souls.

 

Shirley offers a further reflection that speaks to this challenge, offering us hope:

 

If our hearts can be turned forward we can help co-create a new human species, a new consciousness. We cannot be fear based. If we stay fear based we can become more unconscious. There are powerful voices building, encouraging momentum. 

Hopefully in our dialogue we can change minds and hearts by increasing the awareness of the sacredness of all creation and the interconnection of all things.

I have not always been successful but you cannot hold the Spirit down. What you put out there still has a positive response even though it may not have been how you first intended it to be. I recognize that it is important for me to always try to be aware/conscious and trust that goodness is emerging. It is important to remain hope-filled. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  

Where two or more are gathered in love, I am what happens between them.

May we ponder this and in a joint venture meditate collectively sending light and love to assist in the emergence of a new human community to embrace the whole of the Earth Community. 

This is part of the dying and resurrection. We work it through and that’s the power of the resurrection. This is a new universe being born and it’s messy.  

Thomas Berry wrote: “We are not lacking in the dynamic forces needed to create the future. We live immersed in a sea of energy beyond all comprehension. But this energy, in an ultimate sense, is ours not by domination but by invocation.”  

 

Shirley concludes her reflections with this reminder to our Communion of Creative Fire: St. Brigid had to keep the fire burning, to bless the water, and her spirit is still with us today.  Now we are part of the community that has to bring about change. 

 

Brigid Eight: Matron of Poetry and Smithcraft

 

Following our conversation with Brigid about the meaning of Equinox, we gather for dinner back at our hotel. The mood is somewhat subdued, the conversation sporadic, touching on the sudden chill of the evening, the earthy tang of the Guinness, our plans for the evening. Within walking distance there is a poetry reading at eight o’clock, featuring the works of Irish writers of the 20th century. I do not say it to my companions, but I think poetry might be a welcome release from Brigid’s intense teaching and catechizing. I am still smarting from her comment to the fox that we have a great deal to learn…

 

Just before eight, we make our way to the pub for the readings. We crowd in, some of us clustering around small tables of dark well-polished wood, others perching on the high bar stools. Though I feel a little guilty about it, I am looking forward to an evening without thinking about Brigid. Minutes later, I hear Irish poet Anne O’Reilly, the evening’s host, say that the poetry will be dedicated to Brigid, patron or rather matron, of poetry, healing and smithcraft… 

 

Anne’s poem invites Brigid to come again from the dark bog and forge us anew.

 

Hours later, my soul nourished with Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree”, I fall asleep recalling his words : “...and I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow…” But I waken in the deep heart of the night, remembering other lines, something about a forge, a smithy. I get up, hunt out the program, find the quote from James Joyce that is suddenly as important as it is incomprehensible:

 

I go for the millionth time into the reality of experience 

To forge in the smithy of my soul

The uncreated conscience of my race.

 

I go back to sleep, knowing what I must ask Brigid today, not caring one whit if I sound a perfect fool.

 

The day is overcast with a light mist. We arrive at the place we now think of as “Brigid’s Garden” under umbrellas that offer little shelter from a wetness that blows towards us from the side. Balancing umbrellas with one hand, spreading jackets or raincoats with the other, we sit on the wet grass.

 

Brigid is laughing, the raindrops caught in her long hair like sparkling jewels. The sunlight radiates in the drops creating prisms of light, and soon the rain has vanished as though lapped up by their thirst.

 

“Did you enjoy the poetry last evening?” Brigid asks.  

There is a buzz of response, nods of agreement, a few of us quoting remembered lines and images from WB Yeats, from Patrick Kavanagh, from Seamus Heaney. 

 

“Anne O’Reilly said you are the matron of poetry, Brigid,” Elizabeth says. Herself a poet, she then ventures to ask, “How did that come about?” 

 

“How did I come to be matron of poetry?” Brigid echoes, then adds, with great seriousness, “you have seen and read, of course, my collected poems? No? Well, there’s a good reason for that.” She laughs suddenly. Lightly. It eases the tension as each of us had been fearing we’d missed something important. “I’ve never written even one verse,” she admits.

 

“Let me tell something of the role of poets in ancient Ireland. They were honoured along with kings and priests as part of a triad of leaders.  Poets played a role in the inauguration and the legitimizing of kings. Should a king not live up to what was required of him, the poets could overthrow him. 

 

 “The last time you were here, we spoke of the Celtic year that begins with Samhain, as the dark time of the year approaches. You may recall my saying that for ancient people life was understood to begin in darkness. For this reason, the training of poets for a culture that was mostly oral demanded that they spend many hours in complete darkness memorizing the ancient tales and the wisdom lore of Ireland. Because they had faced this darkness and at the same time, their own inner darkness, the poets were prepared to call the community to integrity, to challenge unjust rulers, and false decisions, to defend the weak.  

 

“Now you already know that my name goes back millennia to a time when it meant High or Exalted One. In early Irish law there is mention of a Brigh Ambui who was a woman, an author of wisdom and prudence among the men of Erin. From her were named the incantations called Briathra Brighi by which the poet’s mind was made prophetic. 

 

“The poets of Ancient Ireland had three significant duties: intuitive knowing, whereby they accessed wisdom from the collective unconscious and from within their own bodies; composing without thinking, or on the spot, out of this deep source of wisdom, their store of knowledge and the poetic gift that brings the knowing forth; and the illumination of song.”

 

We are silent, taking this in, expanding our understanding of the art of poetry, the task of poetry. 

 

There is a link I am trying to make, trying to forge, I suddenly realize. I risk now asking my question aloud. “How does the poetry connect with smithcraft? Anne O’Reilly’s poem asks you to forge us anew. I sort of get that, but James Joyce seems to be talking of so much more. He says he must forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. What does that mean?”

 

Brigid holds my gaze for a long searing moment. “Indeed,” she says at last, “what does that mean? When you understand, you will each be ready to leave this garden, to return to your homes, to do the same for your time, for your task, for your earth.”

 

And with that, she is gone. 

We get up from the almost-dry grass, shake the last drops from our umbrellas, and head back to the hotel.

 

 Brigid Seven: Spring Equinox

In mid-morning of March 21st, we walk from our hotel to the garden where we sat with Brigid on our first visit. She is here already, seated beside the pool of water, expecting us. Her smile warms the air of this spring day, this day of equinox. Following her lead, we too breathe in the fragrance of earth, of violets, daffodils, foxglove, and trees whose young leaves are ready to burst outwards. 

With a gesture of welcome, Brigid invites us to sit near her where the early grass softens the earth beside the pool.

“Today we need to speak of the equinox,” Brigid begins. “Do you know its meaning?” 

A few of us exchange glances. Every child knows what equinox means, and yet Brigid waits, expecting a response.

“It means that day and night are of equal length after the short days and long dark nights of winter,” Mary responds, politely.

Brigid smiles. I have the uncomfortable feeling that she knows exactly what we are thinking. “That’s a good answer, as far it goes,” she says now. “But did you not understand our last conversation? You and I and all that lives upon our beautiful planet are part of her. Our lives, our bodies, our souls, our spirits are one with her rhythms, her seasons. Since this is so, what meaning does equinox hold for us?”

“Is it about balance?” Noreen ventures. 

 

At this, Brigid smiles. Mischievously, I think. “Balance, yes. But balance of what?”

 

“Light and darkness,” I say, growing increasingly uncomfortable as I wonder what Brigid is up to, if she is playing with us, trying to trip us up in our knowledge of the earth. Spurred by this thought, I rush on, “it is the balance of light and darkness that shows us that spring is coming. Longer days mean that the earth will soon be bursting with new life.  And also,” I add this with some pride as I have only just learned it myself, “it is the increase in daylight that draws the birds back from the south.” 

 

But Brigid appears unimpressed. “I don’t think you really understand about the equinox. You are describing what you see around you. My question is about what is happening within you.”

 

Suddenly a fox emerges from the bushes beyond the garden. It walks with soft steps, unswervingly, towards Brigid. Though her back is to the fox, though she could not possibly see the delicate animal, Brigid stretches her hand towards the fox, calling out, “Come, my friend. Meet some people who have a great deal to learn.”

 

We who were frozen in fear at the apperance of the fox, watch now in amazement as the small animal comes to sit, composed, peaceful, at Brigid’s feet.

 

“Your Celtic ancestors,” Brigid continues, as she strokes the fox’s fur with her hand, “like indigenous peoples everywhere, experienced time as circular. They danced to its rhythm: night gave birth to dawn and day blossomed before it waned into evening, back into night. 

 

“Our ancestors watched the cycles of the moon, the turning of the tides. The women noticed how the rhythms of their own bodies, their regular times of bleeding, followed the moon’s rhythms. No wonder they felt at home in the universe, embraced by the earth.

 

“Because they saw their lives as part of the great cycle of life, the Celtic people created a calendar that marked the seasons of the year, dividing the year into two major parts related to the sun’s light: giamos and samos. They celebrated eight festivals that were about 45 days apart. Because they understood that it is darkness that gives birth to light, their year opened with the Festival of Samhain, November 1st where the dark days begin. These are the days of inwardness, receptivity, the time that came to be known as feminine. Here the pace slows, linear time recedes, the intuitive is honoured over the rational. With the Festival of Bealtaine, on May 1st, the bright masculine sun days begin, the samos time of outer activity when the seeds nourished through the dark days blossom into new life. The linear, analytic, rational way dominates once again.  

 

“ In the Celtic Calendar, the Spring Equinox occurs halfway between the Winter and Summer Solstices. It is the festival just before Bealtaine, when the feminine season ends, and the masculine begins. 

 

“Now can you see a deeper meaning for the equinox? It is an invitation to find a new balance within our lives, within our cultures and throughout the planet, of these masculine and feminine energies that so often are in opposition. It is a time to choose how we shall hold the values of the dark time of the goddess even as the bright active masculine takes over in our lives. 

 

“How will you choose to honour the feminine intuitive gifts of the moon time in the days when the sun calls forth your logical, rational gifts? Will you make a space in these busier days for quiet reflection, for remembering your winter dreams, for poetry, music, drawing, dance or whatever nourishes your inward life? Will you seek a finer balance of work and recreation, of times with family and friends as well as times of solitude? Will you consider how the dance of opposites in your own life might flow in rhythm, even as it does in the Celtic Calendar? 

 

“These are important questions, dear friends. I hope you will consider them in the time until we meet here again.  

 

“If we could enter into the ancient ones’ understanding of time, the rhythms        of our lives would take on sacred meaning. Our times of inner darkness would hold the promise of a dawn of new joy. Our losses would be seen as invitations to embrace other gifts, our death as birth into a new as yet unimagined life.”

 

And with those words, Brigid is gone, her fox companion with her!

We are left here by the pool, thinking, wondering. 

 

 

Brigid Six: Beyond the Theshhold

 

After these weeks of reflecting upon Brigid, we decide to pay her a visit. We book thirty spaces on an Aer Lingus Flight to Shannon Airport. Outside, we find a bus, its destination clearly written above the front window: Church of St. Brigid.

The bus stops before a stone church that appears and feels to be centuries old. Inside, as our eyes adjust to darkness, we pull shawls/sweaters/light coats more closely around us to protect against the chill, the seeping dampness from winter’s rain. The smell is a not unpleasant mix of wax, flowers, dusty hymnals, wispy remnants of incense. 

Light comes from the red sanctuary lamp and, in a side aisle, a single candle bows in a soft breeze from a high, partially open, window. Drawn by the candle, we find ourselves before a statue of Saint Brigid, eyes looking upwards, hands joined as though in prayer. 

Clearly she is not expecting us. 

But then, slowly, she lowers her gaze, looks steadily at us and…. WINKS! 

Behind her, a door opens onto a sunlit landscape of such verdancy that we are drawn towards it, even as we see her gesturing that we follow her. We are outside now, breathing in the fragrance of wet, newly-turned earth, pungent with spring life. Brigid draws us onward towards a pool of water that holds a drowned, cloud-drifted sky, invites us to sit on the springy young grass that surrounds the pool. 

When we are settled, she speaks: “There’s something I need to tell you….”  

We look to her, surprised by this turn of events, eager to listen, to learn.

“First of all, you took the wrong bus.  When I drew you here to Ireland, I thought you’d know where to look for me, but when you climbed into that bus, I had to get here ahead of you. Believe me, it was no easy task to stand so still, trying my best to look holy, otherworldly, until you arrived. But now you’re here, I have much to say to you.

“You’ve heard stories about me, of my life in the Christian Monastery of Kildare where I served as abbess to both men and women. I embodied in that role the qualities of compassion and generosity, of kindness, of fierceness in my focus, as I kept the sacred fire alight, the healing water of the holy well flowing. These stories you understand for they are part of your heritage.

“But there is so much more for you to know, wisdom that goes back to the countless millennia before Christianity, before the Hebrew Scriptures, before men decided that God was a powerhouse running the universe, yet wholly separate from what “he” had created. 

“I will speak of Ireland, but you must understand that this wisdom was found in many different parts of the planet, in the myths and stories of numberless, now mostly forgotten, aboriginal peoples, in the days when the Holy was understood to be a woman whose body was the earth that births and holds us, nourishes and comforts us, receiving us back into her body when we die. Fragments of this wisdom have endured, to come to us in stories, in myths, in rituals.

“In those ancient days, wave after wave of people came to Ireland, each bringing their own understanding of that sacred being, our mother. Over the millennia, she was called by many different names: Anu, which relates to Danu, the goddess for whom the great river Danube is named; or Aine, the wheel of the seasons, the circle of life; and later Brigit, a name that derives from an Indo-European word brig, meaning the High, the Exalted One. 

“In ancient Ireland, Brigid was honoured as embodying all three aspects of the goddess: maiden, mother and crone. The poets, who themselves held positions of honour almost equal to that of the king, worshipped the goddess Brigid, taking her as patron. She was said to have two sisters, each named Brigid, one the patron of healers, the other patron of smith-craft.

“In this, you can see that Brigid was a goddess of many aspects, perhaps herself the many-faceted One, the sacred holy mother of far more ancient times.

 

“I can see by your expressions that some of you are wondering why I feel it so important to tell you all of this, you who live in a time so different, so removed from the ancient days of Ireland. But I am coming to know you, dear women of the Communion of Creative Fire. When you chose me as one of your god(dess) mothers, didn’t you expect I would take a particular interest in you? 

 

“I have seen in your hearts some of the darkness and suffering you carry, your grief for the ravaging of the planet, the earth that you know as your mother. I have felt your pain over the desertification of the rain forest, the lungs of your planet, the pollution of its waters, its rivers, lakes, oceans, its very life blood, the poisoning of the air…

 

“I want you to know, to rediscover the wisdom of the ancient ones who saw Brigid/Aine/Anu as the life within the earth herself. The hills, her breasts, called the Paps of Anu; the nipples of high mountains sprouting water like breast milk; wells that spring from rocks on the sides of mountains and hills or gushing forth from under the earth, or deep inside caves, offering healing. 

“Open your eyes, dear ones, so that you may see the earth as co–creating with you in love. See yourself as a partner in this great work, and know yourself held in love by the earth whom you honour as mother. 

 

“As you watch spring returning to your land, remember these things, remember me, and know you are not alone.

“I hear your bus returning. You need not tell the driver what we’ve been speaking about. But do come back again, for I have so much more to tell you!”

 

We board the bus, bemused, intrigued, making for our hotel. We know this is only the first of many conversations with Brigid. 

 

Brigid Five: The Crios Bride

 

It is Saturday evening of the “Awakening to Spring” retreat at Galilee and Dolores Whelan has suggested we work with a partner to weave an ancient symbol associated with Brigid: the Crios Bride. We have come prepared with cloth cut into three long narrow strips. One woman holds the three ends securely while the second braids the long strips as she might braid her daughter’s hair. The end result is a colourful plaited belt known as the girdle of Bride, used in earlier times in healing as well as in assisting a woman in childbirth. 

 

Sunday morning after we bid farewell to the Cailleach, the Winter Crone, with gratitude for her gifts to us, after we welcome Brigid who knocks on the door to invite us to new life, after we receive the blessing of water to wash away the winter energy, we leave the room to gather in the hallway.

 

Two women hold their crios high over their heads as we process into our sacred space, passing beneath the girdle of Brigid. Inside the room, we form one large circle, twenty-one women, each holding our own crios. Dolores asks us to consider the question: “What is it you wish to bring into the world?”

 

One, one by one, we step forward, walking through the half circle of our crios, each in our turn proclaiming: “This year I will focus on bringing (my gift, hope, purpose) into the world.” After each woman speaks, the circle responds, “We support you in this intention.” There is now a blessing of fire, followed by the circle dance of fire and water, then the spiral dance to energize our intentions. A prayer that places us under the protection of Brigid concludes the ritual. 

 

Days after the ritual, I am gazing once more on the crios where it now sits on my home altar, when I suddenly “get it”. In our ritual the crios was again put to its ancient use, assisting in a birthing. Brigid as midwife of our souls was there to help us birth the newness each one of us pledged to bring forth into the world. 

 

I thought further. I made another imaginal step through the crios with our Communion of Creative Fire, imagining our circle of thirty women, whom we call by name, each holding her crios, each with her heart open, ready to bring forth something new. 

What is it that you wish to bring into the world? 

Wherever you are now as you read this, think about how you will respond. Hear a chorus of women in our Communion of Creative Fire standing with you, calling out to you: “We support you in this intention.”

 

But there is more. Though our communion offers mutual support in each one’s soul-call, spirit-path, there is the possibility of a larger, shared call. Over this past year, as we travelled this new way together, as we listened in silence to our hearts, to the wisdom that rises from the sacred space inside us, as we listened to one another’s wisdom in our Gathering Space, as we reflected on the Powers of the Universe, on the great wisdom women: Hildegard, Mary, Brigid and Julian, have we caught a glimpse, heard a whisper, felt an inner fire that showed something we might create together? Something beautiful, new, nourishing for the souls of women and men who are seeking meaning and spirit-filled life in our time, in the midst of so much change and challenge? 

 

When those glimpses/ whispers/ fires come to you, please draw or write or sketch or sing them. Share them with us. That is how our way will be shown. Don’t wait until they are fully formed, perfect, for clarity and direction may take time to reveal themselves.

Teilhard de Chardin encourages us: 

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything,

to reach the end without delay.

We would like to skip the intermediate stages.

 

We are impatient of being on the way 

to something unknown, something new, 

and yet, it is the law of all progress, 

that it is made by passing through 

some stages of instability...

and that it may take a very long time.

 

And so, I think, it is with us. 

Our ideas mature gradually.

Le them grow, let them shape themselves 

without undue haste. 

Don’t try to force them on, 

as though you could be, today,

what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances 

acting on your own good will)

will make you tomorrow. 

 

Only God could say 

what this new spirit

gradually forming within you 

will be.

 

Let God lead you, 

and accept the anxiety 

of feeling yourself incomplete.

 

Brigid Four

The knocking on the wooden door is so loud it startles us, even though we are waiting for the sound. A woman’s voice, strong, certain, calls out from the other side: “I am Brigid. Do you have a welcome for me?” 

We have our answer ready, “Yes, we do.” The door opens. The woman playing Brigid’s role enters. On this final morning of our weekend with Dolores Whelan at the Galilee Retreat Centre, we are enacting an ancient Celtic Ritual of Imbolc, as we welcome Brigid in her Maiden form. Brigid, who “breathes life into the mouth of dead winter”, comes among us, announcing spring.

 

As I begin our fourth reflection on Brigid, godmother/ foster mother of our Communion of Creative Fire, I see the depth, the importance of this brief exchange. Do we “have a welcome” for Brigid in our lives? What does it mean to answer her question with a resounding, “yes”? 

This is a woman of great power, an archetype, an embodiment of energies of the sacred. Our welcome of her will open up our lives in ways we cannot foresee, cannot even imagine. But the hints are already given in the stories we have been recalling.

In “Brigid: The Mary of the Gael”, (see our KreativeFire Archives) we recalled the legend that angels carried Brigid over the seas from Ireland to Bethlehem so that she might be present for the birth of Jesus, assisting Mary as midwife. Brigid, who was born in the fifth century after the event…. 

Immediately we find ourselves in sacred time, in what today’s physicists, following Einstein, would call the simultaneity of time. Mystery. We suspend disbelief, allow our linear, logical brains to take a break, invite the story to offer us its teachings. Ask how this applies to our own lives. Listen.

Each one of us is asked, like Mary, to give birth to the Holy One. In Godseed, Jean Houston writes about the heart of our call, inviting us into a meditation, a visualization, of how this might be:

Lying down now and closing your eyes, imagine that you are dreaming. In your dreams, you see light, and into this light comes a Being of Light, a Bearer of Good News, a Resident from the Depths. This angel says to you, “Oh Child of God, fear not to take unto yourself the spiritual partnership, for that which is conceived in you is of the spiritual Reality. And this Reality, if nurtured, shall be born of you and shall help you to…bring the Godseed into the world.” 

And now see what the angel sees—the fulfillment and the unfolding of this Child of Promise within you….

….see and feel and know the possibilities, indeed the future, of this Child in you, this Godseed that you are growing in the womb of your entire being, should you allow it to be nurtured and to grow and to be born into the world.  (Jean Houston in Godseed Quest Books 1992 p.39)

 

This call to birth the Christ within us is as ancient as first century Paul, who wrote of being in labour until Christ is born in us. It is as modern as twentieth century eco-feminist theologian Yvonne Gebara who entreats us to give birth to the Christic Presence in the Universe. 

 

Contemporary writer Diarmuid O’Murchu cites the words of the thirteenth century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart: What does God do all day long? God lies on a maternity bed, giving birth all day long. 

Reflecting on Meister Eckhart’s image, O’Murchu continues: 

This is a metaphor we have known as a spiritual species for thousands of years, long before formal religions ever came into being….The Great Goddess of our Paleolithic ancestors was perceived as a woman of prodigious fecundity, birthing forth the stars and galaxies, the mountains and oceans and every life form populating planet earth today. God, the great life-giver in the pregnant power of creative Spirit, is probably the oldest and most enduring understanding of the Holy One known to our species. 

O’Murchu concludes that:

we are called to become co-birthers with our birthing God of the ongoing evolutionary re-creation of God’s world in justice, love, compassion and liberation. (Diarmuid O’Murchu Jesus in the Power of Poetry 2009 pp. 45-46) 

 

When we say yes to our call to give birth, we are embracing a lifelong partnership with the Holy One of “prodigious birthing”, a responsibility that has the power to take over our lives, to demand of us everything, to offer us a life that is at once profoundly meaningful, and intimately engaged with the ongoing renewal of the universe. There will be suffering, there will be hard work, but there will also be times of ecstatic joy, tasting our oneness with the Love at the heart of life.

 

Dolores reminds us that: It is only in us, you and me, that the energy of Brigid will rise again, take form and become a force for transformation in our world.(Dolores Whelan in Ever Ancient, Ever New Dublin 2010 p. 81)

Brigid, midwife of this birthing, stands at the door. We hear her voice, “Do you have a welcome for me?”

What is our response?  

 

Brigid Three

The light in her eyes is fiercely bright, a Brigid fire that holds my gaze even as her words pierce the air between us. “I’ve been thinking about the schedule,” Dolores says. "We’ll work through Saturday afternoon until just before supper. It is a Brigid challenge to hold our ground.” 

For Celtic Spirituality teacher Dolores Whelan, Brigid is more than a research project. For her, Brigid is soul-shaper, trail-blazer, way-shower, one who patterns for us how to be and do in the midst of life’s challenges. 

 

I had met Dolores two days earlier. In the three-hour drive from Montreal’s Trudeau Airport to the Galilee Centre in Arnprior, west of Ottawa, we spoke about Brigid. Dolores told me of the recent Festival near her home in Dundalk in County Louth Ireland that celebrated Brigid as Goddess and Saint marking Imbolc, the Coming of Spring in the Celtic Calendar. Then we talked about the weekend of teaching and ritual that Dolores would facilitate. I told her of the scheduling challenge that had arisen. The resident priest, who would not be part of the weekend experience, had invited us to attend the Mass he was celebrating in the Centre’s Chapel at four o’clock on Saturday. I was uncomfortable with the invitation, wondering if Dolores envisioned a different flow for the days, a flow that would perhaps lead to and culminate in our own ritual celebration on Sunday morning. I knew that the women coming to the weekend were seeking something else. But perhaps some of them would welcome a chance to attend a Mass? We considered the question together. When Dolores suggested that a peaceful resolution might be simply to have some free time around four pm on Saturday to allow for those who wished to attend the Mass, I agreed….  

 

So why am I now seeing a Celtic Tiger burning bright before me? And what has this decision to do with Brigid? Over the days, as Dolores brings life to the legends of Brigid, I find the answer. 

For Dolores, being in relationship with Brigid is not about devotion. Rather it is about finding the qualities that guided her life, then imbibing them, living as Brigid lived. Brigid was “fiercely authentic, fiercely protective of her gift,” her call, the focus of her life. She stood her ground, would not be turned aside from her destiny. I recall the legend that tells that when her father, a pagan chieftain, sought a husband for her among the leading men of Ireland, Brigid contrived to make herself appear ugly so that no man would want her. When she achieved her desire, taking vows as a nun, the ugliness dissolved. 

Women are too ready to be accommodating, Dolores says, too ready to set aside our own focus, our own destiny in order to please others. (As I would have done, altering the schedule so as not to offend…) We need to create a container to hold the divine energy that waits to enter us. We may have a moment of grace but we cannot contain it because our cauldron leaks, our energy dissipates, flowing away.  

The women who tended the sacred fire in Brigid’s Monastery in Kildare have been likened to the Vestal Virgins whose task was to tend the sacred fire in Ancient Rome. To be virginal, Dolores explains, is to be defined in relation to oneself. Celibacy is chosen so that sexual energy may be used to keep the fire alive. 

“What is the flame within us that will never burn us but will never die out?” Dolores asks. It is the passion within us. But that flame can go out if we allow ourselves to become overtired, if we don’t allow ourselves sufficient rest. We have to take care of ourselves and of the gift we have been given. By being too busy, we let the flame go out.

Brigid, though busy, knew the secret of aligning herself with heaven and earth. As we saw in the story of Brendan and the whale who cried out to Brigid for help, Brigid’s constant focus on, awareness of, God kept her in alignment in the midst of her many tasks. 

 

Many of the legends about Brigid relate to her power to manifest food, lands, cows, whatever was required to meet the needs of the poor. Dolores sees that this gift rests on an absolute trust in the universe and in abundance. Brigid did not act from ego, which is fear-based, doubting that what is required will be supplied; rather she trusted that she would get what she needed.

“Brigid never felt unworthy”, Dolores believes. She was “always in confidence” that she would have what she needed. She gave away with abandonment, because she knew she would have enough. Her generosity came out of a belief in the abundance of the universe. It is gratitude that opens the heart and attracts to us what we need.

 

Over the days of Dolores’ teaching, I feel a fire building inside me: a fierce determination to keep my life focused on the call that is my own purpose and destiny; I see that I need to deepen my trust in the abundance of the universe; I understand that giving freely, and being grateful for all that I receive, releases me from the fear of not-enough. I want my fire to burn bright. I need to create a strong container for the divine energy that wants to fill me, my own “cup to catch the sacred rain”. Brigid becomes real for me.

 

The ritual that we celebrate on Sunday morning holds power, manifests beauty. And it is ours, a feminine expression flowing out of the time we spent with Dolores who brought us Brigid and with one another.   

 

It is no small task to integrate the divine energy of the sacred feminine within oneself, Dolores assures us. We each do only one piece of the work but each piece together creates a quantum shift.

 

Brigid Two

Who is Brigid for us today? As women of the Communion of Creative Fire, we take inspiration from her, and yet we are separated from her life by a millennium and a half. We don’t live in a monastery, or in a way of life intimately tied to the land and its cycling seasons.

In her book Praying with Celtic Holy Women Bridget Mary Meehan writes that “the force of (Brigid’s) Celtic soul is a rich lodestone of the Celtic feminine which continues to challenge each new generation” (p.29) Consider the word Meehan chooses: a lodestone, a magnet, a thing that attracts…. What is it in Brigid’s story that so attracts us after so many centuries? I will give my own answer, inviting each of you to give yours. What I see in Brigid is that she matters to the time in which she lives, and to the people whom she serves, as I hope I do in some way. But she also matters to (maters as in mothers) the Church where her leadership was strong, recognised and luminous. As a woman living in the 21st century in the oh-so-very-Roman Catholic Church, I do not matter. I write, I teach, I offer retreats, and am largely ignored by the Institutional Church. 

Until now, I have not minded. It allows a certain freedom. But something in Brigid’s story makes me wonder if perhaps it does matter very much indeed that the Church to which I have belonged since infancy does not appear to need or even notice women. How does the Celtic Feminine as expressed in Brigid’s life challenge me/us in this matter?

 

In last week’s Reflection on Brigid, we saw how old Bishop Mel, guided by the Holy Spirit, accidently consecrated Brigid as a bishop. We know that her monastery in Kildare was a double monastery, housing consecrated women and men, as was the way in the Celtic expression of Christianity. Brigid would have governed as Abbess/Bishop both women and men. The development of Irish Monasticism appears to have been richly differentiated, a garden of wild profusion and endless variety. So there is no way of knowing how or when or why Brigid’s monastery of women began to welcome men. But here is a story I found that tells how it may have happened:

One day a group of men, for whom Brigid’s faithful spirit and generous heart were as a lodestone, came knocking at the door of the Kildare Monastery, requesting that they be allowed to join the community. Brigid consulted with her Sisters. They were aghast! What? Men! Noisy, unruly, bothersome. No way! Brigid’s first assistant sealed the matter with the words that have frequently put an end to something new: “It’s never been done before.”

Still not at ease with the decision, Brigid went outside and sat near the holy well. Something urged her to look deeply into its dark waters, recalling as she did so that imagination dwells in the dark places. Brigid picked up a tiny stone and dropped it into the well. Down, down it fell, until a small splash in the deep told her it had reached the water. But there was still nothing to be seen in the well’s depths. She picked up another stone and dropped it into the well. Just at that moment the noonday sun at its highest place in the sky illumined the water where the stone had struck. Brigid saw tiny circles rippling out from where the stone had pierced the water.

In the depths of her own imagination, Brigid saw a circle widening. She thought about this: “Because it’s never been done before does not mean it can never be done.” And it was so. Kildare become a monastery for both men and women, drawn by the depth of Brigid’s holiness.

 

Seeking a meaning for the word lodestone I notice another word: lodestar. This refers to the star by which a ship navigates, usually the pole star. Symbolically it refers to a guiding principle. This illumines something for me, shining into the well of legend and story that flow around Brigid’s life. Under the tales there is a guiding principle that will illumine our lives if we look deeper. 

What was the lodestar of Brigid’s life, the star by which she navigated the uncertainties and challenges that faced her each day? When Brigid became one of the “godmothers” of our communion, I wrote an imaginal dialogue with her.  I asked that she help us to build a fire that “never dies away”. I asked her what its source must be and how it is to be ignited. 

Here is Brigid’s response:

            From the first moment I met the Holy, my thoughts have never left her…. Can you say the same? Or are you like Brendan, anxious about the weather and the tides and the location of the fish? focussed on your important tasks but forgetting the one thing necessary?   

 

I had to admit to her how easily I lose focus, forget the One who began this work in me, let the Holy One slip from my gaze, from my path, from my heart. I realized then that it is the fire of a passionate love for the Holy that has been lit within me, a fire I must tend faithfully. A fire tender must first of all take care that the flame of her love burns bright. All else, for each one of us, flows from that.  

 

We in the communion can support one another in the wisdom and creativity and vision of new life that flow from that fire, but first we must keep our own fires alight. The one thing necessary is the flame that must be tended and nourished from deep within. Then the fire may be turned to other uses: warming those who come near, creating art, poetry, song, melody and ritual, offering food to the hungry, and justice to those denied it.   

 

Brigid spoke again: If you turn your heart towards the fire, the other tasks will seem less arduous. The fire will ignite your creativity. The love will give you the strength and joy you require. FOCUS! That’s the Brigid–gift I offer you.  

 

Brigid, you are our lodestone, drawing us to a life aflame. You are our lodestar, offering us guidance in something so utterly new, so untried, that it sparkles in the sun’s light even in the midst of surrounding darkness. The ripples make circles that widen, that embrace ever-new possibilities. Thank you.

 

Brigid: “The Mary of the Gael”

Edinburgh was coated in light snow on that February day, more than twenty years ago now, the air a raw biting cold, as I set out to explore the city. The National Gallery of Scotland lured me within, down a narrow staircase to an explosion of beauty, wildly out of proportion to the size of its modest rooms, its small wall space. I hold vague memories of standing in awe before landscapes, clusters of children in a garden, beautiful women, solemn portraits of men whose painted faces gazed back at me. But one image remains etched in rich detail in my mind.

I stopped, breathless, before John Duncan’s 1913 painting called, “St. Bride”. Two angels in gloriously patterned robes, whose miniature tapestries held scenes from Celtic mythology, were carrying a white-robed maiden, her hands joined in prayer. One angel supported her back with his hands, as her golden hair fell in great waves towards the sea. The other angel held her ankles while her knees rested on his shoulders. The angels’ wings were a symphony of colour from scarlet to rose to pale pink, shaded with greens, golds, midnight blues. The angels’ toes just brushed the surface of the sea where a seal swam ahead of them. 

I had no idea what I was seeing.

That evening, in the home of the priest friend with whom I was staying, I learned the story of Brigid. Legend tells that she was carried by angels across the seas from Ireland to Bethlehem in Judea, to be present at the birth of Jesus, and that she became his foster mother. Other tales add that Brigid served Mary as mid-wife, and that when Herod was seeking the Child to destroy him, Brigid distracted the soldiers by running through the streets, allowing Mary and Joseph to escape with Jesus.

As I am sure you recognize, we are back in the realm of story. But as I hope you realize, it is the story that matters, that lures us, inspires us, teaches us what we need to understand about life.

The life of Brigid is in some ways more mysterious than the life of Mary. With Mary, we have the fragments of the Gospels. For Brigid, what we have are mostly legends.

Brigid was born in Ireland in 457 AD and founded a double monastery in Kildare sometime before her death in 524 AD. A wealth of stories about her were carried in oral tradition until Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare, wrote his “Life of Brigid” around 650 AD. At the time of his writing, Cogitosus noted that in the Kildare monastery, the nuns still guarded her sacred fire. 

According to Cogitosus, Brigid was the daughter of Dubhthach, a pagan noble of Leinster, while her mother Brocseach was a Christian. Baptized at an early age, Brigid was fostered by a Druid.

The stories of Brigid reveal her spirit of compassion for the poor: one day when she was a child, after she had milked the cows, she gave away the milk to some poor persons who were passing. She feared her mother’s reproof, but when she arrived home, her milk pail was found to be even fuller that that of the other maidens.

The adult Brigid approached a rich landowner, asking for land where she might grow food for the poor. The landowner agreed to give her as much land as she could cover with her cloak. Brigid lay down her cloak and it expanded until it covered many, many acres.

Another story tells of Brigid’s father preparing for her marriage to a nobleman while Brigid herself wanted to become a nun. Through the intervention of the Christian King of Leinster, Brigid’s desire was granted. With seven other young women Brigid was consecrated to Christ. In a wonderful tale, during the Ceremony for Consecration of a Virgin to Christ, the very old Bishop Mel of Ardagh mistakenly read for Brigid the words for Consecration of a Bishop. When his mistake was pointed out to him by co-presider Bishop MacCaille of Longford, Mel insisted that the Consecration would stand, as it must have been the work of the Holy Spirit. Brigid would be the only woman to hold the episcopal office in Ireland.

In  Miniature Lives of the Saints, I came upon this explanation for Brigid’s title, “The Mary of the Gael”:  

At a synod held near Kildare, during the lifetime of the saint, says an old legend, one of the fathers declared that he had seen a vision, and that the Blessed Virgin would on the morrow appear among them. Next day Brigid arrived with her companions, and the father immediately exclaimed, “There is the holy Mary whom I saw in my dream.” Brigid accordingly came to be called “The Mary of the Gael,” that is, of the Irish; for so pure was she in spirit, so holy in every action, so modest, so gentle, so filled with mercy and compassion, that she was looked on as the living image in soul and body of Mary the Mother of God. (London, Burns and Oates, 1959)

 

Legend says that Brigid’s mother gave birth to her on the doorstep of their home, one foot within, one foot outside the door. This would seem to be a prophecy for a life that would become a threshold, bridging pagan and Christian, woman and man, rich and poor….Goddess and Saint. 

 

For the story of Brigid, founder of the Christian Monastery of Kildare, is interwoven with the ancient Irish goddess who shares her name. As goddess, Brigid is known as maiden, mother and crone. And the Feast of Saint Brigid, February 1st, coincides with the ancient Celtic Festival of Imbolc, the beginning of spring. 

 

It is Brigid who “breathes life into the mouth of dead winter”. It is Brigid who, as we shall see in later reflections, holds the cailleach energy, the energy of the cauldron where our lives, individually and communally, need to be transformed through the power of her fire, her water.

 

I close with a line from an Irish woman who, seeking to grasp the goddess/saint mystery of Brigid, said, ”ah, wasn’t she a goddess before ever she was a saint”.

 

 

(in The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan)


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