Brigid: Goddess, Saint, and Bridge

I would like to share with you a guest post by Amy Panetta. I first encountered Amy when I listened to her podcast, The Celtic Feminine Podcast. I wanted to learn more about Brigid from a historical and academic perspective and also a perspective more in line with folk wisdom and longing. Amy seems to be able to blend the two wonderfully as she weaves her formal education into a meaningful conversation between common people. Her reflection on the changing of the seasons and the power of Brigid to help us cross the bridge from sorrow to joy is a message that we all need to hear from time to time.

I hope you enjoy her article!

I am the sovereign splendor of creation,
I am the fountain in the courts of bliss,
I am the bright surrender of the willpower,
I am the watchful guardian and the kiss.
I am the many-colored landscape,
I am the transmigration of the geese,
I am the burnished glory of the breastplate,
I am the harbor where all strivings cease

-The Song of Lughnasadh from
Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings
by Caitlin Matthews

This August day here in Ste-Brigide-d’Iberville, Quebec is quite cool, with intermittent sun showers. This weather seems to be very much like the climate that Ireland experiences much of the year. To explore and connect with nature on this day, I took off, barefoot. To the east, a deep cerulean sky. On the ground, patches of bright sunlight on the radiant green grass. The sunflowers, vibrantly-colored daylilies, calendula blossoms, black tomatoes ripening on the vine, as well as other plant-life in the garden were wet with dew. I found myself wanting to ground myself in the earth and ground myself in the Lughnasadh season.

Lughnasadh is a Celtic holiday occurring on the 1st of August every year which marks the first harvest in the Northern Hemisphere. Being a “cross-quarter” holiday, Lughnasadh season spans from August 1st until October 31st. The other cross-quarter holidays are Samhain on October 31st, Imbolc on February 1st, and Bealtaine on May 1st. The Lughnasadh is named after the Celtic god, Lugh, who is known for being a skilled craftsman, resembles the Roman god, Mercury. His name could derive from the Old Irish word lug, meaning “light, brightness.”

Whenever I think of the first harvest that occurs during Lughnasadh, I cannot help but hearken back to Imbolc or St. Brigid’s Day on February 1st, when the very first signs of new growth appear. Imbolc is the very early start of Spring in Ireland, as well as throughout the Celtic lands, when seeds are planted, ewes give milk, and flowers, such as snowdrops and daffodils, bloom. This is the time when Brigid, the pre-Christian Celtic goddess, as well as the Irish saint by the same name, is said to have “breathed life into the cold winter.” While Lugh could be considered a sun god, there is also a connection with light for Brigid, as she has been associated with the perpetual fire that has been kept in her name.

In the Irish Sagas, particularly in Cath Maige Tuired (“The Battle of Magh Tuiredh”), the goddess Brigid is part of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who are the “people of the goddess, Danu” and are known as an ancient mythological tribe of Ireland. As the daughter of the Dagda, Brigid is also the wife of Bres, and they have a son together named Ruadán. In the saga, after the death of Ruadán, Brigid is said to be the first one to express her sadness through keening, which is a combination of crying and singing. In the 10th century monastic text, Cormac’s Glossary, it is written that Brigid inspires poets and has two sisters: Brigid the healer and Brigid the smith. Perhaps Brigid was considered a triple deity.

Brigid the saint has the same name as the goddess and the saint also shares some of the same symbolism and characteristics as her pre-Christian counterpart, such as Springtime, fertility, woven crosses, fire, cattle, and sacred wells. Some individuals believe Saint Brigid was not a real person, others believe that Saint Brigid was actually a Christianization of the goddess, or that they were completely separate figures. Others have determined that it is a futile effort to separate both the goddess and saint, and they accept that both are inextricably linked.

One of the most awe-inspiring stories and symbols was a perpetual fire that was said to have been tended by 19 of St. Brigid’s nuns. Each nun would tend the fire each night and on the 20th day, it was St. Brigid’s turn to tend the flame. Apparently, the fire was put out with the dissolution of the monasteries by the British in the 16th century. Some theorize that this perpetual fire was a carry-over from pre-Christian times when priestesses kept the fire dedicated to Brigid the goddess. However, others argue that there is no proof of this occurrence. Regardless of what has occurred in the past, the Brigidine order of Catholic sisters in Kildare, Ireland relit the flame in 1993 and still tend the perpetual flame to this day.

In her hagiographies, Saint Brigid is said to have been born around 451 AD in Faughart, County Louth in Ireland to Dubhthacht, a Druid chieftan, and Broicseach, a slave woman. As Brigid became older, it was documented that she performed miracles such as healing the sick and making food appear to feed the poor, as well as a mediator who settled disputes between opposing parties. She is known by her qualities of generosity, kindness, and compassion. Eventually when she took the veil as a nun, she set up a double abbey in Kildare, Ireland.

Brigid’s story captured my attention and imagination back in January 2005, and I had become obsessed to find out as much as I could about her ever since. What I found online was relatively scant at the time, but I was excited to find the blog “Brigit’s Sparkling Flame” online, a book entitled, The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint written by the Irish monk, Sean O’Duinn, and a guidebook to the sacred sites dedicated to St. Brigid written by Sister Rita Minehan. Sister Rita is a Brigidine sister who centers her spiritual life around Kildare. I was awe-struck to read in Minehan’s guidebook that Brigid was referred to as “The Feminine Face of God”:

What emerges from the stories about Brigid’s abbacy is the portrait of a powerful leader, an organiser, and anamchara (soul friend), a healer, a prophetess. She is a potent symbol of womanhood, showing us, in so many ways, the feminine face of God.

In my own spiritual journey, I longed to connect with the feminine, mothering aspect of the Divine. In order to learn more and follow this new inspiration, I voraciously researched how I could visit Kildare and the Solas Bhride Centre that was started by the Brigidine sisters, as well as tended to by volunteer lay people in the area. In 2008, a friend and I finally decided to make a pilgrimage to the Solas Bhride Centre and the sacred sites in Kildare. I was a school music teacher at the time in New Jersey and had a week off for spring break. We were warmly met by Sisters Mary, Rita, and Phil, enjoyed conversation and connection, and were set on our merry way to discover the sacred sites for ourselves.

The trip was very meaningful to me and my friend. When I came back to New Jersey, I had this unexplainable connection and pull towards Ireland. As I’ve spoken to others many years later to people who are not from Ireland, it seems like Ireland had that same pull on their heartstrings as well.

While on my summer breaks, I was taking professional development courses at the master’s level in music education. I wondered what it would take to get a masters degree in Ethnomusicology, which is the study of music within a culture. I realized that I could not just take summer courses for this program, but would have to devote myself full time to a program like this. I wanted to study the cultural context of music so that it could help inform my work in the classroom. And through more research, I found that there were programs in many different areas, including Ireland.

Fast forward to 2009, the economic downturn had occurred in the US, and I found myself jobless. I suddenly had the availability to go to Ireland and was accepted into a master’s program to study ethnomusicology. On my first opportunity, I took a bus out to see the Brigidine sisters. Through reuniting with them and our conversation together, I became inspired to study the songs that people currently perform dedicated to Brigid for my thesis project.

10 years later since the start of my master’s program (and subsequent completion), I am married to a French Canadian and we live in Quebec together. In 2018, after a bit of searching within certain distance and budget parameters, we found a couple charming homes. The most charming home that we found, just so happened to be built in the 1840s, around the same time that Irish immigrants settled in the area and wanted to set up a parish. The parish was named after one of the patron saints of Ireland: St. Brigid! We even negotiated the price of the home over St. Brigid’s Day 2018. The synchronicities here were so profound for us.

Now in August 2019, I reflect on this journey that has, at times, been bittersweet. In the past year, I felt an inertia, like a deep heaviness of resistance. Through a bit of research, I realize part of what was going on for me is what is known as “settlement stress,” which is marked by feeling melancholy, nervous, and overwhelmed by new changes due to moving or immigrating to a new place.

I muse that I could be an example of a microcosm of the macrocosm here. I wonder if our Western society is plagued with a very real sense of “settlement stress” through feeling disconnected and isolated from others. So many people move hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from their families, friends, and social networks. Not to mention, even those who live near their families may find themselves dealing with deep ideological divides of many different kinds.

I go back to the words from the blog post entitled, “The Deep Mystery of Sacred Sadness” from this very blog that brings me solace:

So, if you find yourself feeling a heaviness in your heart, don’t assume that means you are off track. If you find yourself mourning for the state of the world, then you are mourning with Christ. Do not fight the sadness, do not run from it. Be at peace with it. Be comfortable in it…This is the sacred sorrow…When it comes to sadness, as with all things, the presence of the sacred can be known by the presence of peace…Yet, underneath this delectable sorrow is a river of love which is neither sadness nor joy. It is eternity, beyond any human description. We call it love because that’s the closest human word we have – but it is more than love, more than the joy and sorrow which go along with love. It is the root of all joy and sorrow. Once we find peace with our sorrow and with our joy then we can move into the realm of the Eternal – and our spiritual journey will have found the sacred well from which our soul longs to drink.

For so many people, the stories of St. Brigid have brought them so much comfort, especially in the qualities of hospitality, generosity, and compassion that she possesses. St. Brigid has been referred to by the Brigidines as a “bridge” — a bridge between the pagan and the Christian, as well as other divergent ideologies, as well as to bring people together and work towards healing and peace. If I take a bit of liberty, St. Brigid can be a bridge from sorrow to joy.

I planted the seeds years ago to meet a like-minded partner, to live in a more sustainable, natural environment that restores and replenishes our holistic well-being. I look around me and see what is here during this first harvest, both in the external world, and internally in my own self-development. While I’ve felt the heaviness, I do feel a profound sense of gratitude. Our human nature seems to be programmed to look for the negative, as well as to ruminate about the harshness we experience in our day-to-day world, instead of towards gratitude.

As John O’Donohue states in his prayer, Beannacht:

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

Where in your life can you bridge the gap between the heaviness, sorrow, dismay, and frustration to gratitude, service, hospitality, and connection? Where can you take a deep dive into the Eternal sacred well as part of your spiritual journey and drink to satiety? What will you reap and harvest this year at this season of Lughnasadh? What seeds will you plant in the future?

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