Category Archives: Celtic Christianity

Who is Brigid for us Today?

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?

third image of Brigid

 

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.

 

 

 

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.