Category Archives: Celtic Christianity

Sophia in Ireland: Two

In the morning I travel across Killarney’s Lough Leane, named Lake of Learning for the Irish monks who drew people from the far reaches of Europe to study on the Isle of Innisfallen. As our launch crosses the living lake, the waters toss and swell and smooth under the wind, swirling in grey mist, absorbing the splashing rain with the same receptive spirit that drinks in the sunlight minutes later. All the while the oak trees, roots deep in the green hills, hold the lake like a cup offered to the thirsty heart.

We come ashore on Innisfallen, and for the next three hours, I walk in the sixth century, circling the small island, stopping to gaze through gaps in the trees when the lake becomes suddenly visible, or when a shaft of sunlight turns the woods into sacred space. I find a smooth place beneath an oak tree. As clouds, like old magicians, obscure, then release, the sun, I open Croker to read what Thomas Moore wrote about this island:

How fair thou art,

let others tell,

while but to feel how fair

is mine.

On the shoreline, I pick up a blackened stone that looks to have two small monks carved on its side. I make my way back to the ruins of the earliest monastery, and stand looking under the lintel into the open doorway and wonder how it felt to enter and become a student here. In the remains of the early chapel, I see a Celtic cross of red sandstone, found in the Lake, its age unknown.

Later I will discover words Seamus Heaney wrote about visiting this ancient chapel:

Inside, in the dark of the stone, it feels as if you are sustaining a great pressure, bowing down like the generations of monks who must have bowed down in meditation and reparation on the floor…But coming out of the cold heart of the stone into the sunlight and dazzle of grass and sea, I felt a lift in my heart, a surge towards happiness that must have been experienced by those monks as they crossed that same threshold centuries ago. (Seamus Heaney Preoccupations London, 1980; in Lost in Wonder p.99, Esther de Waal, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2003)

I am at peace on this island, and find, as Moore says, that it matters not whether the sun surprises or the rain showers dampen. It’s hard to leave when the motor launch returns.

Three nights later, in the west of Ireland, in Tralee, I find my way to the newly-built fieldstone playhouse, home to the Siamsa Tire, Ireland’s National Folk Theatre. Tonight they are to perform “The Children of Lir”.

The magic begins before the curtain rises. I feel a tingling anticipation, the promise of something more, the promise of what I sought on Tara Hill.
The story is sung entirely in Irish by a young man whose voice floats on swans’ wings over the theatre while the actors dance and mime the tale with exquisite grace and beauty. I understand no word of the language of my foremothers and forefathers. I have to rely on programme notes for the storyline.

The tale of the Children of Lir is like the fairy tales that we heard when we were young. A beloved mother dies. A beloved father remarries. A wicked stepmother pretends love for the children but secretly plots their destruction. In this old Irish tale, Aifa (eefa) takes them to Lake Derravaragh (Derryvar’agh) where, using the magic staff of her husband, Lir, King of the Sea, she transforms them into swans.

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The spell will last for three times three hundred years. The swans will have to live in three different places until the dawn of the New Age sets them free. The woman must have had a small light in her dark heart, for she allows the swans to keep their human voices. She returns to the castle, telling Lir that his four beloved children, Fionnuala (fee-un-oo’la), Aedh (aid), Fiachra (fee’ach-ra) and Conn are dead. (music ends)

As the children try to adapt to their swan bodies, they comfort themselves by singing. Word begins to spread throughout the kingdom that the music of the swans can soothe away grief. The King goes to the lake, seeking comfort, and his swan children tell him what has transpired.

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Lir uses his magic staff to transform his Queen into a demon of the air. He himself moves to an encampment near the lake to be near his children. They have many happy years together until the spell unfolds the moment when the swans must go to another place.

They arrive at the Sea of Moyle which is cold and lonely. A fierce storm arises to scatter and nearly destroy them. Fionnuala arrives safely at the Rock of the Seals, but she fears her brothers are dead. She mourns for them. She sings her song of grief. Yet one by one, they return. The four are again together. A long time passes and the third of their destinations calls to them. They fly over their home, but see no sign of their father. On the deserted western shore, the swans settle into their third resting place, resigned to their fate, singing to console their hearts. Their music draws birds from all over Ireland.

Time passes. The Kairos moment arrives, the opening in the weaving of time to allow something new to happen. A holy hermit hears their song and responds with music of his own.

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The children sing with him in harmony as a pale golden light rises on the stage, appearing behind the two standing stones, carved with spirals and with the Ogham letters of the Irish alphabet. The bell of the New Age sounds even as a third stone drops to form an arch with the other two. The swan skins fall away, revealing four very old people. The hermit baptizes them, releasing them into freedom. Together they walk into the golden light. Transformation.

Though it ends in death, the Children of Lir is a birthing story. I know that I am watching a mythic tale of the beginnings of Christianity in Ireland. My soul recognizes its deep truth though it tells me nothing that might pass for history. The coming of Christianity was a promise fulfilled, a dawning whose power released from old binding spells.

That night in Tralee I fall in love once more with the promise. My quest has altered, subtly, importantly. Within me, as Yeats says, “a terrible beauty (is) born”. I know now that what I seek is not, as I had thought, to find a pure religion that existed here before Christianity, but rather to recover the beauty and passion and love that was at the heart of the early Christian faith in Ireland. I need to reclaim my own heritage.

Sophia in Ireland: One

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Twice seven years ago, I stood on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland.

I cried out for a presence in the mist, called out to the Old Ones. I was wearied beyond words, beyond telling, with the calcified religion that had swept through Ireland, drying up its Holy Wells, its Sacred Springs, its flowing Streams of laughter, song, magic, stories. That night on Tara Hill, I called out to the magic ones, the pagan ones, the holy ones, the ones the Druids worshipped.

But no one answered.

I tasted the mist, let the fog penetrate my lungs, let the mystery enfold me.
And still no one came.
“There is nothing left here.” I knew it in my very soul.
My companion appeared out of the shrouding fog, his face suddenly clear before me. He gestured towards the thickening gloom. “We’d better drive back before the road becomes dangerous.”

A few days later, I travel to the Wicklow Hills, to Glendalough, site of Kevin’s sixth century hermitage. Legend says that Kevin held his arms outstretched in prayer for so long that a blackbird nested in his hand. He stayed in that position until her eggs were laid and hatched. Fifteen hundred years later, Ireland’s poet laureate Seamus Heaney praises Kevin:

he prays
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name

By the lake at Glendalough, Kevin’s hermitage grew into a monastery that lasted a thousand years. Here I meet a teacher of Celtic Christianity. After twenty years working in Africa as a missionary priest, Michael Rodgers has returned to Ireland to teach his own people their forgotten ways. He guides us by a stream under dark oaks, and invites us to consider our journeys in life, what we seek. He walks with us by the base of the cliffs and invites us to call out our questions, and hear them echoed back to us. The answers are within, he says.

I think about my house beside the Ottawa River, where a piece of ancient Ireland hangs on the wall. A gift from my sister, it depicts in grey pottery what appears to be a woman on a cross. I want to like this shiveringly new/old image, but try though I may, I cannot feel close to it.

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I hope that in Ireland I will find the elusive ancient holiness that welcomes and embraces the feminine; I want to find a spirituality that speaks to my life as I experience it. I want to read my way back into the story.

We gather inside the shell of the monastery where the singing stones hold memories of those who left all to seek all, and add our prayers to those prayed here for a millennium. Michael tells us that the monasteries were the beating hearts of villages where people gathered to live their lives close by their “soul friends”. Each monastery was its own centre, shepherded by its own abbot, with its own rule. Of the eight remaining Books of Rule from the old monasteries, six are written in poetry.

The Celtic cross is surrounded by the ancient feminine symbol of the circle, sign of the interconnectedness of all of life, the rhythm of the seasons, the life/death/life cycle. Michael tells us that Celtic Christianity was cross-centred, focussed on the person of Jesus. His suffering gave hope to a people who felt the nearness of God so intimately that their breaths commingled with those of Jesus, his light pierced the darkness of their days and his compassion reached into the most earthy needs of their lives as they prayed.
An early Celtic prayer asks:

May Christ and Mary
Go with us the length of the road;
May our journey not be in vain
But may every inch of it be for our good.

The next day, I walk the three miles from my lodgings to return to Tara, finding in sunlight what the mist had obscured, the high stone that once sang in recognition of the one who would be High King of Ireland. The guide tells of Patrick’s visit here to the High King Laoghaire in 433 AD. seeking permission to bring the teachings of Christianity to Ireland.

“I do not understand this religion,” the king responded.

Patrick then stooped down and picked a three-leafed plant, and began to teach the king about the Trinity.

”Look down at your feet,” our guide says. We are standing on shamrocks.

On the lip of the Hill of Tara, there is an old building whose stones are full of stories and poetry. Inside, I find a small book called “Legends of Killarney” by Crofton Croker, written in 1828. I will be travelling to Killarney. Now, I have a guide.

But on the following day, as I settle into my seat on the BusEirann, I sink into a fug of uncertainty about my faith. No pre-Christian magic reached out to me on the Hill of Tara and what I am hearing about early Christian Ireland is captivating my heart against my will and my better (feminist) judgement. I look at my hands, where a hot rash had been raging the day before, until I bathed them in Patrick’s Holy Well. They are clear, as are my eyes, which had been red and itching with allergies, until I splashed the cool spring water over them. In the background I am aware of old American tunes on the BusEirann radio. A woman’s voice sings, “I’m your lady . . .” I notice this only because of a strange conjunction as we pass under a stone viaduct. Someone has chalked in large letters, “I love you, lady.” I sit wondering, feeling comforted.

I open the small worn Croker and read of the beauty that awaits me. By the time we reach Killarney, some six hours and two buses beyond Dublin, I know enough of the old legends to look forward to my exploration of the same lakes and islands that he saw nearly two centuries earlier. I will see them with his eyes as well as my own, peopled with the characters he met and full of the stories he recorded: of the old monk who travelled from Innisfallen to Mucross for the annual purchase of wine, and fell asleep for a hundred years, waking to find that spring had become winter. He seized a boat to return to Innisfallen where he found his monastery owned by strangers, and monastic life dissolved by Dublin parliament in harmony with Henry V111’s wishes. I read of enchanted wolves and lost treasure and strange battles and heart-rending loves.

I begin to trust that every inch of the journey will be for good. So I am not surprised to find that the hotel booked for me on Killarney’s main street has the beauty and comfort of long-polished wood, and my seat in the dining room is beside the illustration from the Book of Kells of the author of the Gospel of John, the Gospel most loved by the Celts.

(to be continued)

Ritual for Bealtaine May 1st

For the Celtic Festival of Bealtaine on May 1st, I created with some friends a ritual which we imagined taking place on the sacred island of Iona in the North Atlantic. I offer it to you for your own adaptation in this first week of May. Anne Kathleen
In the pre-dawn darkness we make our way into the circle of grass embraced by the low stone walls of the ruined nunnery on Iona. We have never before been here before the sun, never seen our companions like this: darker shadows against a grey sky. It is utterly still, without even the movement of light wind that heralds the sun.

 

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the garden of the ruined nunnery on Iona

Each of us has brought dry sticks, bits of gathered grass and heather and this we pile on the wood that awaits the Bealtaine fire.

On the edge of a cliff across the island is a pool that has been known for its spiritual power. Two of our companions, Shirley and Suzanne who have a deep affinity for water, who work for its healing throughout the planet, went there yesterday to collect water for our ritual. The large clay pitcher they carried back sits beside the readied fire.

 

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where they went

 

When all of us have gathered, we stand in a circle facing towards the east. We chant: “Look to the East where promise is born; look to the East where the sun brings the morn.” Slowly, slowly, as we repeat the chant, the grey of the sky warms into shades of pale seashell pink, deepening into soft rose then into deep rose madder. Slowly, slowly, the golden orb of the sun appears to be pushing itself up above the horizon. In such a way, we who know it is in fact the earth on which we stand that is rolling towards the sun, we still experience the moment as did our ancient ancestors. We still speak of a rising sun.

 

At the moment when the sun becomes visible, Mary Ellen lights the fire, and as the sun’s light ripples on the water in the clay container, we come forward, one by one, to splash the water over our faces. Then with the water still wet upon us, we stand in the rays of the rising sun. The sun blesses us, blesses the water upon us. As we feel the warmth that come from sun and fire, and the wetness from the water, we ask for a harmony within us of the masculine/sun/fire energies and the feminine/water energies.

 

By the time all thirty women have completed the ritual, the garden is glowing with the full golden light of morning. Now that it is warm enough to sit down, we gather in a circle. There is a lightness in our hearts that bubbles up in spontaneous laughter. Someone begins to sing, “Morning has broken…” and we join in.

Kathleen has brought the Celtic Calendar that Dolores Whelan created, as well as Dolores’ book, Ever Ancient, Ever New, and offers Reflection questions based on the rituals we have just done:

What negativity left over from winter do I now release into the Bealtaine fires so that my heart is ready for the newness of life and work at this season?

What new fertility in my life, in my projects, do I welcome in the form of the young mother of early summer?

How shall I honour the harmony of fire and water, the masculine and feminine energies working within the land, within myself, within the work that I am called to birth?

Kathleen invites us to take these questions into our hearts as we end our time here with the Bealtaine prayer from the Celtic Calendar:

May I/we embrace the support of the blossoming life force and growing light as I/we step boldly into the world to express my/our creativity.

Brigid and the Celtic Festival 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. We have reflected 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… 

Mary

 

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 Abbesses 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 and 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,” one of us 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?” someone 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.”download

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 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.

A Conversation With Brigid

After these weeks of reflecting upon Brigid, we decide to pay her a visit. We book spaces 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 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 look upwards, gazing at an image in stained glass of Saint Brigid, eyes looking away, one hand grasping a book of prayer, the other a flaming candle.
Clearly she is not expecting us.

image of Brigid

 

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

Beneath her, the partially open window shows 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. Yet 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, were called the Paps of Anu; the nipples of high mountains sprouting water were like breasts giving milk; wells that spring from rocks on the sides of mountains and hills or gushing forth from under the earth, or deep inside caves, were her offering of 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.

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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 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. 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.

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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.