We emerge from the Well of the Storyteller on Ireland’s Tara Hill. Her tale of Seal Woman has shown us a sacred space within ourselves, a homeplace where all that we are is held in love. Her tale of a woman of bone has revealed something of our longing for love. The poetry of Hafiz has spoken to us of a love at the heart of the universe that yearns for us in return.
From Tara Hill, we travel to London Ontario to attend a three day Festival at Brescia College, honouring Brigid. Rather than a mysterious presence who will not tell her name, we encounter and celebrate a woman who actually lived on our planet some fifteen centuries ago.
Brigid, the fifth century abbess of Kildare, was born in Ireland just as Christianity was taking root in soil once sacred to the goddess of many names. Her father was a pagan chieftain, her mother a Christian. Legend tells us that Brigid’s mother gave birth on the doorstep of her home, a foreshadowing of Brigid’s call to be a threshold person, a causeway joining pagan and Christian Ireland. As abbess of a monastery for both women and men, Brigid held the spiritual power, the moral authority of a Bishop. Though she left us no written records, stories of her life hold an energy, an influence, that has now reached far beyond Ireland.
On Thursday evening before the Festival, Starhawk, an earth-honouring social activist from the U.S., 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, she called on 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”, 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, Starhawk said Brigid’s life teaches that generosity creates abundance. We need a new imagination to face down the fear that arises from “scarcity thinking”.
In the days that follow, we hear of Brigid’s generosity: as a child she would give away the milk she took from her family’s cow, only to find that the pail had refilled itself when she returned home. As a woman concerned for the hungry, Brigid asked a rich landowner to give her a field that she might grow food for the poor. He agreed to give her all the land that her cloak would cover. When Brigid spread her cloak on the ground, it stretched across several acres. Brigid shows us that our generosity yields abundance.
Brigid’s sacred flame, which her community kept burning for more than a millennium, shows us the fire that does not burn, the inner fire that keeps us focused on what truly matters.
We experience rituals: a sacred dance of earth, water, air and fire; walking the labyrinth under the young moon; singing together; following the drum in a spiralling meditation; passing through the gateway of the braided crios or belt of Brigid that in ancient times was a symbol of woman’s authority. With more than a hundred women as companions, we find spirit sustenance, a homeplace where our soul might rest. This is Brigid’s threshold power at work, drawing together women who had left other faith traditions that did not nourish them.
Ritual table showing braided crios
“Brigid is the acceptable face of woman’s divinity”, Mary Condren told Festival participants on Friday morning. Mary, who is the National Director of Woman Spirit Ireland, and Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, is exploring the Cailleach (Crone) aspect of the threefold presence of the sacred feminine, discovering how central the Cailleach tradition was in ancient times. It seems that at the Festival of Samhain, 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 fifth century abbess, Saint Brigid. Mary Condren expressed a longing for Adrienne Rich’s “dream of a common language” that would bring the Cailleach/Brigid tradition into harmony with the Christian tradition.
Brigid’s cloak is a symbol of protection and of the creative womb of the earth. At her 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.
We leave the Brigid Festival, knowing we have encountered in the women we met, and in the spirit of Brigid herself, another aspect of Sophia, the sacred feminine presence.