Today I’m delighted to offer you this guest blog by my friend, Mael Brigide. Mael is a writer, poet, thinker, devotee of the Irish goddess/saint Brigid.
As those of you who come here regularly know, I am always interested in matters of faith, especially when they coincide with literature. Mael’s journey to a place of faith that resonates with her is inspiring. I hope you enjoy it, and will look more deeply into her work.
Mael Brigde, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, is a devotee of the Irish goddess and saint, Brigit, and the founder of the Daughters of the Flame, which has tended Brigit’s flame since Imbolc 1993. She publishes a general interest Brigit blog, Brigit’s Sparkling Flame, and a Brigit poetry blog, Stone on the Belly. She teaches courses and webinars on Brigit, including Journey with Brigit, Goddess of Poetry, an intensive class that explores reading and writing poetry as a sacred act. Her book, A Brigit of Ireland Devotional – Sun Among Stars is available for pre-order.
Tending Her Flame
I have tended a flame for Brigit of Ireland, saint and goddess, every twenty days for the last twenty-eight years; I’d like to tell you why. I’ll try not to wander off on tangents, but stay focused on these two components:
- Why I tend any flame at all
- why Brigit’s
Why I tend a flame
In my life spirituality has been very important, though not always easy. The gentle Jesus and helpful, holy saints of my childhood, the hopefulness that came through catechism, reassuring prayer with my mother at my bedside, mass with the community – these imparted wonder, wisdom, and a sense of safety despite my fears.
With what sadness, outrage, and disbelief did I gradually learn that the values of acceptance and support I learned from Christianity and the sisters who taught me were violated by church policies and the attitudes of too many Christians toward those who didn’t fit an image they accepted and understood. People like me.
I left the Church at thirteen and set off on my own, like the peregrinatio of the Irish church, with no oar or rudder to guide me to my destination. Unlike those travelling monastics, I was not quiet in the knowledge that God would steer me where I needed to go.
For years I ignored spirituality, nurturing my private activism of social justice, of honest, compassionate, and fair relationships, of caring for our battered natural world. I was not great at any of those things, but they were my compass and my goals. I did my best to understand and relieve my own anguish, as well, and threw myself into writing, singing, painting. I did therapy. I became an activist.
But in there, mostly unattended, there was still that loss, which now and then came forcefully back into my awareness. Something was missing, something that would nurture all these other elements of life.
Once, I read a book about the religions of ancient Mesopotamia. How I wished there were religions with goddesses today! The desire for a clear spiritual path blinked out at me. Anger over Christianity’s betrayal stayed firmly where it was.
The important point is that despite the fullness of my life, the work I did, the relationships I had, the art I created and enjoyed, there was always that lack, too, where the vessel of my spirit once rested. I needed it. I need it still.
Flame-tending offers me the opportunity, every twenty days, to pause my busyness, my distractions, and take a few moments to quiet down, bring a sense of stopping and opening to whatever is in my heart, and to that larger, more nebulous yet so desired thing, the realm of the spirit. It gives me the duty to care for something with and in service to others, and to use that time to offer something of myself.
My shift comes when it comes, no matter what I’m doing or how I feel. Yes, I can ask a sister to help out, but I don’t like to. I’m challenged to be creative in how I meet my commitment to tend. Tired or anxious or out all day – is there still a way to honour that promise? If there is, I will. Twenty days later, I get to move through this all over again.
I forget sometimes. This has happened since day one. Forgetting bids me to examine the feelings that come up as a result. All that stuff about screwing up, letting someone down, missing out – I get to look at that, over and over, and in time, my perspective shifts.
I can be disconnected when tending. The candle is lit, but I’ve forgotten all about it and what it means to me. Remembering it flushes out a whole new set of reactions.
That is the beauty of a cyclical devotion. Like the tide, it returns again and again. There is no point at which you have screwed up beyond being invited to tend again, no time where you have perfected or finished it and moved on to something else. It comes with you for as long as it has value for you, as long as you’ve promised; you never run out of chances to begin anew.
One day I found the beginnings of my Brigit path. I mentioned to a friend that I wished goddess religions existed today (overlooking those like Hinduism that do). She said, “Let me lend you this book,” and I was thus introduced to Neo-Paganism and modern Western Goddess worship.
It resonated strongly with me. The magical, herbal, nature-based, god-and-goddess-loving religion of the Neo-Pagans, and the movement among feminists to reclaim the divinity of the female sex, with or without male divinities thrown in. Hope was kindled in me once again. I began to explore religion that attempted to nurture the wild human, that rejected domination (not always successfully, but those patterns take a long time to unlearn). Deities with a firm and direct understanding of my body and my experience because they shared my female form. So many goddesses! Nisaba and Innana were the first to capture my attention, Sumerian goddesses who moved and excited me.
But as time went by, I accepted that the Lord and Lady thing of the Neo-Pagans I knew didn’t work for me. And Sumer, Rome, and Greece were too distant for me to really understand. I wanted to meet a goddess I had some family, some cultural connection to.
One day, there she was. I read a few paragraphs in a book, and the flame caught. She was a saint – Brigit of Ireland – which made her comfortingly familiar to me, and she was a goddess, inspiring me to find a way out of my Christian training and on a solid path to her. She worked in the dairy as a saint, piling up miracles that involved the poor and marginalised, that emphasized her generosity but also her ability to stand up for herself and those in her care. As a goddess, she was worshipped by poets, smiths, and healers. As one of the marginalised, who finds solace and strength in writing, each side of her spoke to me. A perpetual flame had been tended by the saint’s religious descendants, I learned, and on the twentieth day Brigit, long since housed in heaven, kept it alight herself. I thought long about that devotion, and one day years later, I decided to bring the practice back.
All of this was enough to start me courting her, and it is why, some thirty-five years later, I am with her still.
That part of me that longed for a deity I could feel at home with, a faith community to serve and be supported by, tales and rituals to make sense of the important moments of life? She is here, lighting Brigit’s flame, and she is content.
Why I Tend Your Flame
why return always
to this endless ritual
of nineteen days plus one
(on the twentieth day of the cycle
when each sister has had her turn
you keep your flame alive
(in the evening of the following day
you offer me the glowing coal
my own small fire)
I am so forgetful
I strike the match
and before the wick is blackened
I am a thousand miles away
planning worrying angry wishful
hurrying to accomplish this and that
if I am so very forgetful
in that moment
when I take a breath
place the candle in its lantern
lantern in its cauldron
pour water clean and fresh
around its base
when I add the blue juniper
whisper words of honouring
of sharing and of blessing
when I open my hands to receive
your eye-bright coal
my heart opens with them
I glimpse this wider land
this wider life
for one fraction of a second
this is your gift to me
mine to you
is to return
again and again
to this moment of ignition
in my soul
May we all find the path to our own spirit, to ourselves, to our roots within this world, and to the deities, people, and passions that ignite our souls. — Mael Brigde