The Legacy of Bridget Cleary

This morning I saw two sad stories online: one about a mother who killed her 6 year old daughter, believing she was possessed by the devil, and the other — from a few months ago — in which a man explained the killing of his two stepdaughters as the consequence of a “spell gone bad.”

Both of these tragic stories remind me of the horrible Burning of Bridget Cleary, a notorious 1895 murder in rural Ireland where a man attributed his wife’s illness to the malevolent influence of the fairies, and burned her alive in the belief that holding her over the fire was what it would take to have the fairies restore her to health.

Of course, news reports are dangerous because you never get the whole story, and I’m sure a host of forces may have been at play in each of these slayings, ranging from mental illness, domestic violence, addiction, poverty, and superstition. But it’s the superstition that gets talked about, and makes the headlines. Perhaps this is because we’re fatigued by all the murders that arises out of substance abuse or domestic violence.

It’s not about any one religion. A spell gone wrong sounds like a perversion of Wicca, while seeing the devil in a little girl smells like a perversion of Christianity. The key word here is perversion: but of course, the opponents of religion in general (or of either of these religions in particular) could use these stories as evidence of the inherent dysfunctionality of either (or all) spiritual belief systems. Of course, both Christianity and Wicca have strong ethics of love and compassion as well as advocating nonviolence, so one of the issues here is the question of how poorly people understand what religion has to say.

Please join with me in praying for these families that have been forever traumatized by such unspeakable atrocities. And no matter what your faith may be, let’s all think about big and little things we can do to nudge our world away from violence and superstition, and toward a more integral culture of compassion and care.

Any ideas?

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Peter

    I’ll jump in here, take off my theological hat, and make an attempt at the practical side of things (not my strongest suit), with a bit of a personal story:

    We have 6 kids, ages 28 down to 10. Four of them are still home; our oldest 2 boys are on their own (one married and the other just finishing university). Our youngest son, who is 10, is the only one who has been identified as a troublemaker in school and other social settings: he (probably) has ADD, is highly energized and mentally brilliant, but displays antisocial behavior in most settings with his peers (classrooms, church-school classes, etc). Currently we are working steadily to train this young guy (his name is Christian) in how to get along with other kids, particularly those who are a lot younger than he is.

    To quote Carl, this is all about “nudging our world away from violence and superstion,”–starting right in our own back yard (literally). Yesterday Christian and his sister had some friends over, in a kind of baby-sitting situation, and they were playing on our trampoline in the back yard. Christian got upset about what one of the little girls (age about 6) was doing or saying, and reached out and scratched her on the arm, causing her to bleed and leaving a small scar.

    Later Christian’s older sister (age 12) was upset about something he was doing, and knocked him over (on the concrete) and sprayed water all over him.

    I see that the way Barb and I handle these situations is critical. Christian’s sense of justice (and mercy)–his conscience–is at stake. In the first situation, he needs us to see that whatever the little girl was doing to irritate him was probably wrong; but he needs also to be clearly and powerfully steered away from the sense that his rights prevail over hers, or that violence is going to help in any way. He needs training in negotiation and conflict resolution, on an elementary level–something Barb and I are both very good at, but which we need to impart to him.

    On the other hand, in dealing with what his sister did to him later–well, I saw that he was being extremely irritating to her; but she has no more right to lash out in frustration and attack him than he had toward our little visitor. We need to take her through the drama of seeing this and admitting it, as we did with him earlier, so this kind of thing does not come across to him as one-sided (i,e, unfairly stacked against him). This would be damaging to his sense of justice and fair play–and it would be our fault.

    As for the connection with superstition: I have observed that those whom I have personally known who have been caught up in the negative side of paganism, that is, the witchcraft and superstition and cursing of others, typically have some kind of justice issue at the core: they have not felt honored or recognized for their natural gifts or potential value to the community, and so they have tried to compensate by taking on some kind of short-cut to this recognition, some kind of instant power-trip by which they can “command” or “demand” respect from others by their successful use of supernatural powers. I am not attempting a deep psychological analysis here! What I am attempting is a simple observation that, in social situations many steps earlier in the process than the horror stories in Carl’s post here, everyday applications of the “strong ethics of love, compassion, and nonviolence” that we nearly all say we believe in can be made in ways that plant deep in the consciences of our children (and others we influence) an effective protective barrier against such perversions.

    This seems to be the kind of thing Jesus meant when he said to us, “What I say unto you I say unto all: Watch!” What I mean is that it seems to be an area where continual vigilance is essential, as we train our little ones in fundamental expressions of honor and courtesy and kindness. The power of Jesus to love our neighbors and our enemies is far stronger than our society’s violence (which is really a sign of weakness), but it has to begin with the practice of the power (en-krateia) self-control (which the Bible says is a fruit of the Holy Spirit). We plan to continue to invite Christian and his sister to partake of the sweetness of the Holy Spirit at every opportunity, and then to require that they express some of His character as a result.

    I hope this qualifies as an “idea” of some of the “big and little things we can do…”


  • Carl McColman

    Peter, if only more parents were as concious (and conscientious) as you and your wife. Thanks for taking the time to share this. I do agree that magic (in all settings, not just pagan/Wiccan — there’s plenty of Christian “magic” out there, like novenas or the prayer of Jabez) tends to be tied in with our feelings of powerlessness. Part of the move away from superstition and toward compassion must also be a move toward healthy empowerment.

  • Peter

    Well, Scripturally, forgiveness is the highest form of empowerment: the Jews at the time of Jesus (even if they were a bit superstitious about this) had it right when they asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

    Who, indeed? Yet Jesus made it a main point of what He taught and shared to give this power away to us–at great expense to himself: “Whose sins you release, they are released; whose sins you keep, they are kept.”

    I am not a Catholic, so I believe that, in the great Reformed tradition of the priesthood of all believers, this empowerment from Jesus is meant for all His followers. But I’m pretty sure that Carl and his fellow Catholics would agree that the empowerment of forgiveness is surely something we can all practice toward one another by the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Further, this empowerment is likely to go a long way toward de-fusing the power search of those looking for it in magic. I agree that there is lots of “Christian magic,” though a case could be made that this term is an oxymoron, since the kind of magic we are talking about is forbidden in the Bible and hence not truly Christian at all. But in any case, as in LoTR (Tolkien), a truly godly response toward magic (as in your post, Carl, about “Magic vs Miracles) is to throw it into the fire as soon as we can, and to depend humbly on the miraculous power of God, who is more willing to empower us than we are to go through the purification necessary to qualify us to handle the holy power He has in store for us.

    Thanks for listening to my story. Oh, and please pray for our parenting practice: I admit that I can be pretty good at talking about this stuff, but not as good as putting it into practice.

    Yours in Christ,

  • ned

    Such a sad story …

    Peter’s story was wonderful, as was his advice to start in one’s own backyard.

    For example, my own mother is a very simple woman, conventionally religious, not very intellectual, and certainly kind of superstitious a lot of the time. My biggest challenge is just learning to maintain and project a deep inner silence when I am with her, and not reacting or freaking out when she gets superstitious or irrational. If I freak out, all I do is feed her fear and the cycle repeats itself endlessly. Nor can I allow myself to get into long intellectual discourses on Reality or God or religion — she won’t understand it and I’ll just be mentally masturbating. So personally I need to learn a lot of self-control and to express ideas in a language that my mother can understand rather than just talking past her and getting scared or scaring her. Compassion is totally different from being afraid of someone else’s suffering — the former liberates and the latter entraps, and yet most people only ever do the latter.

    Fear is such a terrible thing. It’s almost as if we need a planetary exorcism. Oh, wait — that’s *exactly* what we need! ;-)