Category Archives: Dolores Whelan

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 : 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.

Brigid

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.

Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife for a New World: Part Two

Dolores Whelan continues:

A story from the Celtic tradition that illustrates the importance of the cailleach and her energy is the story of “Niall of the Nine Hostages”. Niall and his four brothers come to a well to get a drink of water. The well is being guarded by an old woman who represents the cailleach or hag. When the first brother goes to the well, she tells him that if he wants to drink the water, he must give her a kiss. He is horrified and refuses; she sends him away. The other three brothers go in turn on the same errand, and each refuses to kiss the hag.

crone

As the story goes:

Then it was Niall’s turn. Faced with the same challenge, he kissed the old hag and embraced her. When he looked again, she had changed into the most beautiful woman in the world.

“What art thou?” said the boy.

“King of Tara, I am Sovereignty . . . your seed shall be over every clan.”(1)

This story suggests that in order to have access to the life-enhancing energy represented by the water in the well, it is necessary for the young masculine to embrace this particular and perhaps unattractive aspect of the feminine energy.

Why is this so? The cailleach represents the wisdom gathered by living in right relationship with the earth, something that requires reflection, stillness, and attentiveness. It knows more clearly what is needed and what is possible in each situation, and it is aware of the consequences of particular actions. It knows how to proceed slowly; it understands the value of times of waiting and times of allowing. It knows how to be and how to act.

So how can we, you and I, begin the journey back towards wholeness and balance?
Brigid in her cailleach form can help us to embrace these difficult and fearful aspects of our lives. The cauldron, a central image in both the Celtic and other traditions, is a vessel for transformation and transmutation. In many stories, the cauldron is first filled with unpalatable raw things, which then are used to create a nourishing soup using the transforming energy of the universe through the action of fire and water.

The transformation of the contents of the cauldron is supervised by the cailleach energy, which works inwardly, quietly, and slowly to bring about an unforced and timely rebirth. The transformation of the cauldron’s contents concentrates their essence and offers them back in a new and more suitable form.

From this process, we learn that the possibility of transformation and re-birth always exists, no matter how devitalised something appears to be. A new rebirth can be achieved when we submit ourselves and our concerns to the inward and slow transformational energy of the cauldron and the cailleach.

Philosopher Richard Kearney in his poem “Bridget’s Well” speaks of the importance of this inward and downward journey and suggests that it is the only way to access the life-giving and inspiring fire of Brigid that lies underneath the water.

I will rest now at the bottom of Bridget’s well
I will follow the crow’s way
Footprint by footprint
In the mud down here
I won’t come up
Until I am calmed down
And the earth dries beneath me
And I have paced the caked ground
Until smooth all over
It can echo a deeper voice
Mirror a longer shadow (2)

This poem suggests the importance of that deep journey to the well where the source of new life and the fire of passion is found. At Imbolc (Feb 1st) the tiny spark of new light discovered in the deep womb darkness of the winter solstice has grown sufficiently to safely emerge from that inner world and begin to transform winter into spring ! At this time Brigid appears as the fresh maiden of springtime emerging from the womb of the cailleach, queen of winter. Here Brigid embodies the energy that breathes life into the mouth of dead winter. The energy of Brigid at Imbolc is the energy of Yes, and it can only emerge from the place of stillness!

Brigid is also closely associated with the life- giving aspect of fire, a fire that doesn’t burn but which can never be fully quenched. When this fire comes from a clear and deep space, as happens following the inward journey, it will be significant and filled with truth and potency.

 

This life-giving fire will act within individuals, within the land, in the relationships between the people and their land, fanning the fires of creative endeavour so that all life forms can partake in the symphony of new life emerging each springtime! The fire discovered through this deep journey is an inner light which guides each of us to find our next step!

Richard Kearney in his poem “Brigit’s Well” also speaks of the re-emergence of a new fire born of a deeper place within:

Then the fire may come again
Beneath me, this time
Rising beyond me
No narcissus- flinted spark
Behind closed eyes
But a burning bush
A fire that always burns away
But never is burnt out (3)

I believe that the archetypal energy of Brigid, the embodiment of the divine feminine, present within the essence of the Celtic tradition, has the capacity to lead and support us in transforming the present wasteland into a new life- sustaining society. For this to happen, it is necessary for us to understand that the archetypal energy that Brigid represents is a real aspect of the human psyche, one that has been largely dormant over the past few hundred years, but is now re-emerging.

Each of us can become keeper of the Brigid flame by developing and living those qualities and values that distinguished her. As we align ourselves with her archetypal energies, she supports us to courageously and safely face the demons of this time. She teaches us how to stand still in a wobbling world, to act as a unifying force, to hold the space of possibility and so become agents of transformation.

Dolores Whelan  (doloreswhelan.ie)  reprinted with permission

Notes/references:
1 Amergin Jan de Fouw Amergin Wolfhound Press Dublin 2000 ( afterword )
2, 3 Richard Kearney quoted in Stephen J. Collins The Irish Soul in Dialogue the Liffey Press Dublin 2001 p 147

Brigid as midwife of a new world

During her workshop at Galilee in February 2014, Dolores Whelan taught that it is no small task to integrate the divine energy of the sacred feminine within oneself. We only do one piece of the work but each piece joined together with the others creates a quantum shift. Dolores said that the crime is to believe that we have no power. We need to ask, “What choices do I have here?” If we say, “there’s nothing I can do,” Dolores responds, “OH YES THERE IS!”

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Dolores Whelan doloreswhelan.ie

In her article, “Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife to a New World”, Dolores Whelan shows how Brigid assists us in this great work which is our great work. Because of the richness, the timeliness, the importance of this refection, I am dividing it into two parts, with the second to follow next week.

Reflecting on the turmoil present in the world today it is clear to all but those steeped in denial, that all is not well. It seems that something ails us humans; something that causes us to live in ways that disrespect our mother, the living earth, and all our relatives. We ask what is it in us humans that create such a restless world where there is little sense of belonging, nurture or home and which causes so many of the species with which we share this planet to suffer?

The exclusion of the Feminine energy in our naming and understanding of the Divine is reflected in a corresponding absence and valuing of feminine energy in all aspects of life in western society. The devaluing and exclusion of the feminine energy over the past centuries has created a distorted story about life which has resulted in a world whose shape and vibration creates disharmony.

So how do we find our way back to a more harmonious way of life? If we know what is missing and what ails us, it may be possible for us to make the journey back towards wholeness and health.

At this time many people are becoming aware of the wisdom of the feminine. As this happens, the absence of genuine feminine energy present in most institutions, both religious and secular, throughout western culture, becomes obvious. To include the presence of the divine feminine energy in creating a world whose shape is more wholesome requires a fundamental reclaiming of the essential role of the feminine in all aspects of life. In order to create change within the physical world and in our society it is necessary to change the dreams and stories held within the imagination of a society.

Reconnecting with and re-membering the spirit and archetypal energy of Brigid, in both her Goddess and saint manifestations, is an essential task of this renaissance. Brigid, although normally associated with the maiden and mother aspects of feminine energy, is also expressed in the cailleach form, as indicated in the prayer “Molamid Brid an mhaighean; Molamid Brid an mhathair; Molamid Brid an cailleach” (Praise to Brigid, the maiden, the mother, and the crone).

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What then is the energy associated with the hag, crone, or cailleach aspect of the divine feminine? The cailleach is the embodiment of the tough mother-love that challenges its children to stop acting in destructive ways. It is the energy that refuses to indulge in inappropriate personal or societal dreams. It is the energy that will bring death to those dreams and fantasies that are not aligned with our highest good. Yet, this cailleach energy also will support the emergence and manifestation in the world of the highest and deepest within us. It will hold us safely as we embrace the darkness within ourselves and our society. It is an energy that insists that we stand still, open our hearts, and feel our own pain and the pain of the earth. This is the energy that teaches us how to stay with the process when things are difficult. This energy will not allow us to run away! 

Her way of being is a slow, inwardly focused way, with minimum outward activity: a way that values times of active waiting that pays attention and allows life to unfold.

An essential part of the journey that all the great heroes and heroines in world mythologies undertake includes facing and embracing the energy of surrender, darkness, and death. The hero or heroine learns the next step required in their outer world journey only by submitting to and being initiated into the dark world of the cailleach.

Through this initiation the mature masculine power can emerge and lead each one to find their true path. When this happens the action that follows will be in the service of the true feminine and bring forth wisdom and compassion creating new life, vitality, and sustainability.

Because western society is currently dominated by the young masculine energy, present in both men and women, characterised by its “can do” attitude, there is an urgent need for each of us to make this heroic journey with the cailleach, so that we will become agents for the transformation of our society.