I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.
I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that should I suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.
(Prayer traditionally attributed to St. Brigit)
During Advent 2014 and Epiphany 2015 I was fortunate enough to be part of a small group of ‘dancing monks’ to take part in a twelve week online class called ‘Birthing the Holy’ at the Abbey of the Arts. The material from this course has now been developed by our Abbess, Christine Valters Painter, into her new book Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics (Sorin Books, 2016). The course contained enough material in it for me to spend the entirety of 2015 pondering its ramifications, and an equal abundance is now contained in this book through the use of Lectio Divina, meditation, and visual expression in addition to Paintner’s inspired commentary as she explores the life and work of twelve monks and mystics to illustrate particular spiritual archetypes.
Over the last couple of weeks as Godspace has been reflecting on listening to Celtic spirituality, I have come back to my course notes, and Paintner’s chapter on St Brigid (ca. 451-525), the Healer, and I wondered how I might listen to this saint anew.
Brigid the Celtic saint might trace her roots back the ancient Celtic goddess of fire, Brig; her name in some Gaelic forms means’ strength’; the legends surrounding her often relate to her hospitality, reaching out to others in need, forming monastic communities whose purpose was to serve those who were poor and destitute, whose purpose was to bring harmony between the Christian and the Celt. So Brigid becomes ‘the bridge’ between communities. Her Saint’s day is February 1st, the feast of Candlemass, and the Celtic festival of Imbolc, so Brigid becomes the saint of the threshold, the first sign of spring, the healing mother in the birth of light and new lambs. And so Brigid also becomes the saint of the well, of those ancient sacred sites of healing, where pilgrims come to find the gift of refreshment and cleansing.
Brigid has become a symbol of the strong woman for me: certain of her own gifts, certain she is beloved of God, certain she is sent to reach the helpless and show them a way across the divides between rich and poor, between the holy and the unholy, between fires that burn them and water that overwhelms them, between the harm they do others and the pain they inflict on themselves. Brigid encourages wounds to be revealed, that they may be salved.
I find this image deeply compelling: a woman of strength and wisdom being a bridge and a threshold to her own healing, as well as an instrument of transformation in the communities by which she finds herself surrounded. As someone who lives with a chronic illness, the idea of healing is always going to be attractive, but Paintner’s exploration of Brigid as the archetype of the healer encouraged me to dig into what I actually meant when I used the word ‘healing’ to myself. I found myself asking the difficult questions: What are the divisions in me that need healing today? Where are my wounds that still need transforming? What is my calling out into the world today, tomorrow, next month, next year?
It turns out that my divisions are many, and that, as a result, I end up projecting those divisions outwards. I look around me, hear the news, and see them multiplied wherever I look. So I am spending time sitting with my divisions, with the abyss within me where so much unloving towards myself has been stored down the decades, and where a fountain of grief pours forth. It soon becomes apparent that there is a whole troupe of Kates within me whose voice has not been heard, some of them for a very long time. There is a line of Kates queuing up who feel scattered, fragmented, hurt and shamed.
My job now is to offer each of them hospitality, to find out from each of them whether she needs Brigid’s ale or milk, her fire or her water. It will be my lifetime’s work. For what I am learning is that healing is about ‘wholeness’; the act of healing is to help some thing or someone become, be, whole, to assume the form that our God created them to be.
What I am also learning is that the most natural way for me to find that wholeness for myself, and to offer it to others is expressed through the visual arts, in the combination of word and image; in the combination of image and silent space. I need silence to pause and listen to the wounded, divided self my Beloved longs to meet and heal; I need to provide that same pause for everyone I encounter, so that the Spirit can pour into their breaches, so that Wholeness can call unto Wholeness.
So when Painter reminds me that ‘the ancient stories tell us the wound is where the jewels are hidden’ and then asks ‘how might those wounds contain the very medicine you are called to offer to the world?’, I know the legends of Brigid still have much to teach me, if I will but welcome her in.