Goddess & Saint: Trusting Shared Space on Imbolc

Imbolc 2019

In the Northern Hemisphere, February 01 is Imbolc or the Feast of St.Brigid/Brigid’s Day. Imbolc, in the Celtic calendar, marks the beginning of spring (which, I understand, is a little bit laughable coming from a Canadian currently sitting in the midst of the polar vortex). The day rests halfway between the autumnal and spring equinoxes, just as the summer festival of Lughnasadh does in August. Imbolc celebrates the return of the light, of planting, and new life waiting to germinate.

Who, then, was Brigid?

It depends on whom you ask.

In their pagan-Christian book of dialogue, Lilly Weichberger and Kenneth McIntosh write about their ideas of Brigid.

In pre-Christian times, Brigid (or Bride, or Brigantia, or Ffraid, among other variants) was an ancient Celtic goddess known to most tribes in one form or another. Celtic tribes worshipped many local deities, but Brigid was one of the few deities worshipped across Britain and Gaul. She is often referenced to light — especially hearth and fire, and is often portrayed as having been raised on the milk of a white cow with red ears (one often encounters red animals with red ears in Celtic writing, especially when speaking of the Fairy Folk). Her triple identity intersect with fire: the hearth, the forge, and the living light of inspiration we all carry.

In Christian times, the identity of Brigid relates more to a specific human. While many stories about St.Brigid swirl around this woman, my favourite is the story that recounts how Brigid is born to a single mother and thus rejected by her tribe. As an infant, she’s set adrift on the sea in a coracle, but instead of succumbing to the elements, she drifts to the island that would become Iona. She grows up to be a figure of supreme compassion, fostering and suckling even a Celtic version of the Christ.

Both images are powerful and intimate. Yet the pagan Brigid is as far distant as could be from the Christian Brigid, not in character but rather in the distance of the storytellers. Sadly, the Christian Brigid was forced over the pagan Brigid through the persecution and slaughter of pagans themselves. Celebrating the Christian Brigid is a tender spot for pagans, because once again, the Christianized narrative has attempted to drain memory, legitimacy, honour, and power from the pagan narrative.

I love Weichberger and McIntosh’s book for just this reason: a pagan and a Christian coming together to remember divinity, deity, mystery, and love together bound in a female figure intimately important to both. Rather than shouting across the divide or remaining holed up in our own silos, the authors choose a form of courage that demands a high degree of trust.

It is this trust between the two of them that strikes me the most. Brigid comes to life for me in ways I could never dream because Weichberger and McIntosh come together to talk. Yes, they both describe their visions and relationships of Brigid, and yes these descriptions open up pathways of understanding within myself. But the very action of the two people coming together is what bridges the divide for me.

It means Weichberger must trust that McIntosh will treat her narrative and her beliefs with reverence and respect — qualities not often afforded pagans by Christians. McIntosh must trust that Weichberger  will treat his narrative and his beliefs with understanding and a desire to see the beauty within, and past what dominant forms of Christianity have already done.

And whether the authors spoke of this reciprocal trust at length between themselves or not, my sense is that there would have been a need to understand the power dynamics flowing around the trust: the Christian narrative, despite Christianity having fallen out of favour in many countries, is still the dominant narrative. Both sides have a need for trust, and yet Weichberger’s Brigid still stands as having more to lose.

I don’t know about you, but I find trust incredibly difficult. Even in the world of social justice, there are so many talking heads that often compete for air time. How can I hope to receive fair critique when I can’t trust the critic? How can I hope to reciprocate in good faith when I can’t trust the recipient or even the process of reciprocation?

We’ve all been delivered unfair critique — wounding criticism — that has caused everything from small paper cuts all the way to deep, festering wounds. Stinking with gangrene, we live in survival mode. No one else will ever come close to us again.

My privilege lets me stay in survival mode. It means, even people calling me out on privilege are untrustworthy or wrong. I want to change — some days, I even see my need to change — but I can’t seem to step into that healing space for fear that ‘the Other’ is on the attack or wrong to the point that I’ll get hurt again. Privilege whispers, “Stay here.  You’re safe. It’s not your fault.” Trust urges, “Get up. Try again. Step into the circle. This is a good thing.”

Daylight is slowly growing longer now. Even in the frigid temperatures of the polar vortex, those extra precious moments of light are ones to hang on to. When the sun shines at this time of year, even on the coldest day, I can feel that there’s more power now in the light. Before Christmas? Not so much. Now? The incremental change is thrilling to my core.

In our dark world where we’re pulled from one extreme to the other without nuance or shade or dimension, extra moments of light or the those small degrees of heat are divine gifts from God. Whether as the Goddess Brigid or as St.Brigid, the fire of life is returning.

Brigid occupies pagan space and Christian space at the same time. If She can, am I also able to follow suit and dwell in both spaces at the same time? Can I relinquish my control over my own interpretations of the world in order to choose that trust with other narratives occupying the same space?

It’s a demand for trust, and a steep demand that assures me of imperfection. All my fear of being exposed, of being called out, of being wrong, or being unfair rise up within me like dark waves smelling sickly of bile. But in the end, it’s only fear. That’s all.

If all I stand to lose are my fears, then I’m certainly able to choose this demanding trust. And on a day that celebrates Light in all forms and faces, the warmth of this knowledge brings healing.

 

Check out “Brigid’s Mantle: A Celtic Dialogue Between Pagan & Christian”, by Lilly Weichberger & Kenneth McIntosh.

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