Who is Brigid for us today? As women seeking to live a spirituality of and for our time, 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?
What I see in Brigid is that she matters to the time in which she lives, to the people whom she serves, as we each hope to do in some way. But she also matters to (maters as in mothers) the Church where her leadership was strong, recognised and luminous.
A woman living in the 21st century in the Catholic Church does not matter in that way. She may write, teach, offer retreats, and yet be 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.”
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 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? In an imaginal dialogue with her, I asked that question. Here is Brigid’s response:
From the first moment I met the Holy, my thoughts have never strayed. 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. 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.
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.