Category Archives: Brigid as Face of Sacred feminine

Brigid as Archetype

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.

Brighid by Jo Jayson

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?

Brigid: Mary of the Irish

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 ancient 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.

st-bride-john-duncan(3)

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, 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, aboyut the sacred feminine aspect of the Holy.

Brigid, who was born in Ireland in 457 AD and founded a double monastery in Kildare sometime before her death in 524 AD, left no writings of her own. But there is a cauldron of stories that were carried in the 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 woman 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, and that 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 home. 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. 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”.

Brigid 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. We are now halfway through the dark time of the year, the feminine days within the transformative cauldron. This is the time when, as Celtic teacher Dolores Whelan says, winter is pregnant with summer.

As we celebrate Brigid’s Day we turn our eyes, our hearts, towards the maiden aspect of the sacred feminine, awaiting the return of the young days of spring, the promise of new life within as well as outside of us.