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.
This ritual, usually celebrated on the eve of February 1st, was part of a weekend Brigid Festival which I attended at Brescia College in London, Ontario in May of 2015.
As Sophia may serve 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 named Brigid who was born in 5th Century CE Ireland. 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 where Brigid as goddess and Brigid as saint intermingle.
Brigid Painting by Jo Jayson
At the Brigid Festival, I met many women seekers, 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 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 is 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.
Power rose within and among us over that May weekend 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.
Starhawk called “austerity” programs a form of theft: a neo-feudalism. Brigid’s life teaches that generosity creates abundance. We need a new imagination to face down the fear that arises from “scarcity thinking”. 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?