Of all the trip-related posts, this one has been the hardest to write.
Part of that is the realization that the trip posts haven’t been very well read. A few of you really like them, but they can be hard to relate to for people who haven’t been to Ireland or who aren’t planning a trip there. I write them anyway, to serve as a reference for future pilgrims and tourists, and also because I’m a storyteller – I can’t not tell my stories.
But this one is especially hard to write because it’s subtle. There were no hard-to-find caves with ominous names. There were no fairy dogs or ordeals by storm. On a beautiful day, a group of Pagans visited a nominally Christian group devoted to Brighid in all her forms. We listened to history, walked a labyrinth, lit candles, visited wells, and then went home.
But subtle magic can be powerful magic. It takes root and grows, often below the surface where it can’t be seen. And then one day it bursts into the open and something that seemed trivial at the time becomes critically important.
This was a quiet, subtle stop on an otherwise loud pilgrimage. But it’s worth talking about every bit as much as the more dramatic events.
Brighid, Bridget, Bhride
The many variations of spelling and pronunciation of Brighid have been well-documented elsewhere and I’m not going get into them. And I’m not going to spend much time talking about the Goddess Brighid vs. Saint Brigid. My best guess is that Saint Brigid is the amalgam of two or three or four historical women from the early Christian era, who absorbed some of the lore of the Goddess Brighid.
When I take off my amateur historian glasses and put on my polytheist glasses, I see a prime example of the multiplicity of the Gods. Perhaps the Saint and the Goddess are two separate and distinct beings. Perhaps They are the same being who presents Herself differently to different people who have different needs and understandings. Or perhaps it’s more complicated than either of those possibilities. The multiplicity of the Gods is a mystery that I understand intellectually but have trouble grasping at an intuitive level.
I will simply say that the person I experienced at Solas Bhride – and really, throughout Ireland – was very, very similar to the person I’ve experienced for years in Texas and elsewhere.
Solas Bhride is “a Christian Spirituality Centre which welcomes people of all faiths and of no faith. The Vision of the Centre is to unfold the legacy of St. Brigid and its relevance for our time.” It is the home of the Brigidine Sisters, “a small, diverse and prophetic group of women, inspired by the person of Jesus and the vision of Brigid of Kildare.”
Their story is on their website and I encourage you to read it. As with almost every place we went in Ireland, we were made very welcome at Solas Bhride. Sister Mary and Sister Phil were friendly and gracious hosts who showed us their home, explained their work, and shared some of their stories of Saint Brigid. Their eco-friendly building, their social justice work, and their acceptance of people “of all faiths and of no faith” reminded me of the best of Unitarian Universalism.
They keep the Perpetual Flame, which burned in Kildare from ancient times into the Christian era, until it was extinguished in the Suppression of the Monasteries by Henry VIII of England in the mid-1500s. It was re-lit in 1993 and is tended by the Sisters.
There are no dramatic sites to see here. But if you want a quiet spot for reflection and meditation, and if you want to see what a modern religious order can be, make arrangements for a visit.
The Many Wells of Brigid
One of Brighid’s titles is “Lady of the Well.” The Holy Wells of Ireland lists 15 Brigid’s Wells, but it seems like every town has one. We visited one at Tara, one at Liscannor (near the Cliffs of Moher), and two in Kildare.
At each one, we found offerings left by those who made requests or who offered thanks. Some in our group collected water, which will be used in personal practice and magical workings.
Early in our trip planning process, Kildare and Solas Bhride became a “must do” stop. Morgan Milburn, who painted Cernunnos Denton last year, is called by Brighid and has taken vows to Her. This visit was as important to her as Rathcroghan and the stone circle of Lough Gur were to me – perhaps more, since I had been to Ireland twice before.
And we all knew it. We left Dublin at 10:00 after not getting to our hotel till 4:00 AM because of rough seas and delayed ferries. Nobody stayed in bed – we all wanted to support Morgan. And we wanted to see Kildare for ourselves, but mainly we wanted to support Morgan.
After their presentation, the Sisters invited us to wander their grounds, including the statue of Saint Brigid and their labyrinth. So we did.
Walking a labyrinth is an inherently introspective, individual activity. I started my walk with prayers of thanksgiving for safe travels and for the ability overcome the bad weather. But before too long, I heard “You’re welcome. Now shut up and let me talk.” Those are my words, not Hers – She spoke more in impressions than in words, and Brighid is often firm but never harsh, at least in my experience.
She began to remind me of my commitments, and of the work that is in front of me. The deadlines She and others have given me are not arbitrary – they do not exist because She wants to make me work harder and faster, but because what I’m working on is needed very soon.
Holy, Holy, Holy
We all paused and gathered in the center of the labyrinth – our individual introspections became a group activity again.
At various points on the trip – such as before and after going into the cave at Rathcroghan – we joined together for offerings and prayers. Usually Cyn or I led the prayers – we’ve done it a lot and we’re comfortable with it. But we all knew Morgan needed to lead this one, and she did.
Morgan’s prayer is not mine to share, and in any case it was extemporaneous, not scripted. But like everything else at Solas Bhride, it was soft and subtle, with roots of deep commitment that will grow and strengthen over time.
As we walked out of the labyrinth, the combination of many subtleties became strong.
The successful end of a challenging but joyous pilgrimage.
The home of an ancient sacred tradition, relit anew.
The presence of a familiar Goddess, in a place new to us.
A commitment to necessary work, reaffirmed.
The earnest and powerful prayer of a young dedicant.
And the only words I had for that moment were “holy, holy, holy.”
I learned those words long ago in a Christian context, but holiness is not the exclusive property of any one religion. That which is holy is good and pure and consecrated to the Gods and to Their virtues. That moment and all the steps that led to it were and are holy.
And now we are home, and the work of turning the experiences of the trip into tangible reality has begun. That, too, is holy.
Tomorrow: in the first-ever guest post on Under the Ancient Oaks, Morgan Milburn tells her story of her pilgrimage to Kildare.