Brigit: Flame of the Divine Feminine
Also announcing a rare opening in my online Thursday afternoon writing group
You can listen to the essay below
Blessings to all, almost a month into this new year of 2024.
Before I share my new essay, “Brigit: Flame of the Divine Feminine,” I want to let you know that there is a rare opening in my Thursday afternoon online writing group, meeting 1-5pm PST twice a month.
These small writing groups are always terrific, productive, fun and inspiring. If you are interested, you can find more details here, under Bi-Monthly Writing Groups. Since this is an online opening, you can join from wherever you are. Please email me if you’d like to sign up, or if you have any questions.
Blessings and thanks to you all for sharing the profound and generative path of writing and soul with me.
Listen as a podcast:
NEW ESSAY — Brigit: Flame of the Feminine Divine
It is January 27, four days after my 66th birthday. I was born in winter, and I love the depths and soul-searching gifts of this season. Yet I notice these days that I feel the cold differently; it is heavier in my bones. I feel the deep darkness of the days and of our world. Around my birthday, I began to notice the daylight slowly returning. By now I am aching for it.
It’s palpable. At 5:00pm here in Santa Cruz, CA a month ago we would have been drenched in darkness. Yet now at the same time I look out into the dusty twilight and the day is continuing, the sky a light powdery blue after constant rain, leaves and bushes quivering with the movement of water and wind. I feel the never-endingness of the cycle of our days.
For my Irish ancestors, winter would have been very long indeed, and very, very dark. With its northern latitude, Ireland experiences a full seventeen hours of light on the longest day—and only seven hours of daylight on the shortest. The cycle could not be missed, and the ancient Irish noted these transitions by measuring the winter and summer solstices, when the days were shortest or longest, and the autumn and spring equinoxes when the light and the dark were equal.
They also put great emphasis on the “cross-quarter” days, which lie precisely in between each solstice and equinox—perhaps because these moments in the year signaled more accurately the true changes in the seasons. By the time the Irish reached the winter solstice on December 21, they were far into the depths of winter —which for them had actually begun on the cross-quarter day of Samhain on November 1.
Likewise, the next cross-quarter day, Imbolc on February 1, meant that finally winter was easing. The Irish world was emerging from those cold, raining, soggy months and those short days. It was the begining—praise all things holy!—of renewal, of the light truly lengthening. Imbolc is considered the incipient begining of spring.
Imbolc occurs next week on Thursday. For me, it is one of the most holy days of the year. Not only because is it the enlivening moment when we feel the beginnings of new light, but also because from time immemorial it has been a major festival devoted to the goddess and saint Brigit, beloved to ancient Celtic cultures and people all over the world, particularly in Ireland. She is beloved to me.
On Brigit’s feast day of Imbolc we know that, despite it all, the light is returning. This is Brigit in so many ways—a sense of resurgance, healing, and transformational light. On Imbolc-eve, January 31, the saint and goddess Brigit herself is believed to walk the Earth, and visit people’s homes. It is a powerful time for connection with the land and the spirits of the divine all around us.
Brigit has long been widely loved and venerated all throughout Ireland, and today Her veneration has taken on an entirely new sheen. In 2022, after a three-year campaign by Irish feminists, who demanded that it was time and past time for Ireland to formally honor Brigit, their famous ancient goddess and saint, the government created a formal national holiday for Her. This is the first holiday ever named for a woman in Ireland.
The Irish have taken up this newfound call to celebrate their gifted national goddess and saint with their usual panache. The official Brigid’s Day has catalyzed a true modern renaissance in honor of Brigit and a celebration of women in Irish history and today. This coming week there will be festivals, public rituals, musical and cultural events all over Ireland in a five-day celebration of the feminine divine as Brigit.
Brigit and Me
It is thrilling to see what is now happening in Ireland, for I have walked the personal spiritual path of Brigit for thirty years. She has shaped and transformed me in countless ways.
In my forthcoming memoir/history of Ireland, The Light of Ordinary Days, I tell this story. In 1996, my mother and I traveled in Ireland for the first time together on a shared pilgrimage. I was 38 years old, and she 72.
One morning we drove to a place I had long dreamed of visiting: Kildare, sacred to Brigit. By then, Brigit had utterly filled my soul, and I had taken her name as my middle name. My mother followed signs in our rental car to Brigit’s Well on the outskirts of Kildare town. It was a leafy park surrounded by open fields, with prayer stones leading to the sacred well. A small stream flowed with Brigit’s holy water. My mother stood before the saint’s statue, bowed her head, and prayed.
I was drawn to a place by the stream, and I put my fingers in the waters, kneeling close to the earth. I considered a time fifteen years before that had led me there. In college I had read the work of scholar Elaine Pagels, whose study of the original early Christian wisdom texts known as the Gnostic Gospels found that some early Christian writings exulted in devotion to both a Father God and a Mother God. Pagels explored how these gospels had been suppressed during the development of early Christianity, and were excluded from the Bible.
Here was a crack in the patriarchal armor, and I walked right through it. That is, I was a college student, I liked to read and write, I had just joined a campus feminist group. How astonishing to find that the white-bearded old guy up in the clouds was not only not the only God—he was not even the original Christian version of God.
Religion is a sacred story; we all know this. Since we cannot know the ultimate truth, we each need a story, a myth, a creed, a mantra, something to live within. We all must ponder and ask and find our true place. I had been shaken loose from my own religious tree early, and had to find or construct or at least beach myself upon a new story, or sink utterly from want of something of spirit to touch my soul.
What touched me, what moved my soul, was humanity’s Divine Mother. Once I began looking, I saw that the feminine form of God was everywhere, and she was ancient. Archeological digs showed that the Great Mother has been with humanity for 30,000 years or more. The past two-thousand years of Christianity, which I had thought was everything, all that mattered, now shrank by comparison. I gazed at images of small ancient figurines, such as the famous Venus of Willendorf, thousands of figures, all profoundly different and unique, almost all of them female, discovered all over the earth, each carved or molded by human hands—and I was changed in a some fundamental way.
The Great Mother has animated our ancestral soul as the source of all life, from our deepest time. My own soul shivered in a kind of unbounded recognition. An innate prayer emerged from me to the great She at the center, birthing all things.
I had grown up Catholic, with a Father God said to be the spiritual center. That faith had failed me years before. I now wondered, what would humanity be if we prayed to a Divine Universal Mother as well as to a Divine Father? How might the sacred, divine urge to care, to tend, to hold and birth, to blend and assist—qualities held by both women and men—change humanity in this epoch when our species had clearly fallen out of some essential balance? How might the Divine Mother’s return help to heal these times so devoted to war, struggles for power, separation from each other based upon conjured castes and groupings, and our outsized glorification of killing and violence?
Though the Great Mother had been profoundly eclipsed by the Father God at the center of the Judeo-Christian world, I came to see that She had not been extinguished. In fact, She could be found receiving prayers from millions of people in Asia in the form of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of compassion. Indeed, the Divine Mother is central in the Catholic faith, having survived in the form of Mary, the powerful mother (source) of God, with her own miracles, visitations and profoundly felt devotionals. There were powerful female figures and goddesses in the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths, and She was deeply embedded in the native spirituality and stories of Indigeous peoples all over the world.
As I was coming to know the goddess in her myriad forms, many of them emphasizing Her love of and connection to sacred animals, I encountered Brigit, a powerful goddess of my Irish homeland. She was also beloved in the Celtic lands of Britain and Europe, where rivers bear her name. I learned that her devotions were so entrenched and long-lived that some scholars traced her to the far earlier prehistoric goddess: the Great Mother of the land, wizened by time and all encompassing, protector of the household, animals and crops. Brigit means “exalted one” in Irish, and the name at some point may have simply meant “goddess.”
I was moved to learn that Brigit was a patron of poets, and had two sisters of the same name who were a healer and a blacksmith. This suggested she was a triple goddess, like many ancient deities who have three aspects. Brigit was enchanted with animals, particularly magical oxen, boar and sheep. It was said that she was the first to cry out in the Irish custom of keening—in her wrenching grief after her son died in battle. The more I learned about Her, the more I resonated. Brigit inspired and protected writers and poets, my own people. She was a healer, and had a transformational light. I was intrigued to read that a perpetual flame had been kept by nuns and spiritual women in Kildare in Her name for many centuries. And she was of my Irish homeland.
Now in Kildare, I kneeled by the stream with holy waters that had been devoted to Brigit from time immemorial. I dipped my fingers for blessing, touching the waters to my forehead, my throat, my heart. My mother and I walked the prayer stations and to Brigit’s holy well. We both silently made our prayers—me to the goddess, she to the Christian saint, both to Brigit.
After a time, we drove to the ancient town of Kildare to Brigit’s monastery, which was at the town’s center. We walked through the gate of the tall stone wall onto the monastic grounds. A large cathedral dominated the site, then we saw a beautiful, tall round tower, and a lovely ancient graveyard.
In a moment, we came upon the remains of a small stone building, perhaps 8 by 12 feet, and waist high, with the sign below:
I stared at the sign, and at the thick stone walls of the Fire Temple. I had read about the perpetual flame for Brigit, but a person reads a lot of things. Seeing the actual remains of the Temple was fresh, blunt truth. I took off my gloves and put my hands to the stone foundation.
A bit later, we explored the cathedral and found a booklet quoting a Welsh visitor to Kildare in the twelfth century who wrote of “the fire of St. Brigit, which, they say, is inextinguishable … nuns and holy women have so carefully and diligently kept and fed it with enough material, that through all the years from the time of … [Saint Brigit] until now it has never been extinguished.”
I read and reread, and looked at the date: 1188 A.D.
So it was true. Christian nuns had kept a perpetual flame burning in Brigit’s name, likely from the time of the founding of the monastery in the fifth century all the way through to at least the twelfth century. I learned later that the perpetual flame continued for another three centuries, until it was finally put down in the 1500s during the Reformation. By then the official monastery at Kildare and its eternal flame to Brigit had functioned for a thousand years.
It was the goddess who had drawn me there, and with its pagan overtones, I knew that many scholars conclude the perpetual flame for Saint Brigit at Kildare had likely been the continuation of a pre-Christian, Celtic devotion to the goddess. For a long time I focused on the goddess and let the Christian saint be.
But over time, I could not help but fall in love with Brigit the saint as well. It is known that a woman built that famous monastery in Kildare, and looking at her accomplishments, she must have been a force to be reckoned with. She grew up in the early Irish world of Gaelic clans, druids and brehons, and converted to the emerging new religion of Christianity. She was born to or later took the name Brigit. She ultimately established a large double monastery for women and men, and named it Cill Dara, or “Church of the Oak” after a sacred tree at the site of the monastery—a name any druid would love.
A century after her death, Irish monks assigned Saint Brigit fantastic powers that seemed to eclipse even the goddess with whom she shared a name and feast day of Imbolc. It was written that Saint Brigit was born at sunrise with a pillar of fire streaming from her head. She could hang her cloak on a rainbow, and could control rivers, stop battles, and communicate with wild animals. At birth she was blessed by the presence of a white cow with red ears, a symbol of the Otherworld. Many of her miracles involved healing the ill, and care for the poor and the downtrodden.
Brigit had managed an extraordinary trick—standing as she did at the threshold of the Christian and Celtic pagan worlds in Ireland. She was an indigenous goddess who became a famous saint. That day at the Kildare holy well, my mother knew that I was praying to the Irish goddess, and I knew that she was praying to the Christian saint. And we were both praying to the same sacred Divine feminine energy.
Brigit’s folk traditions have been constant and abiding. Some Irish families have devoted their household fire to Brigit morning and night, for untold centuries. For equally long, on her feast day of February 1 people all over Ireland make Brigit’s crosses out of dried rushes and put them over their door for protection of hearth and home. Many of these customs have pre-Christian roots, and likely evolved from seasonal rituals to the goddess of the land. It is believed that Brigit herself walks the earth on the eve of her feast day, going from household to household, providing blessings and protection. People clean their homes for the Brigit’s visit, often leaving out a small square of cloth called Brigit’s cloak, which She will bless as She visits that night.
Welcoming the Divine Feminine Back into our Spiritual Center
The goddess/saint Brigit has been my spiritual path for decades now. She has guided me, oriented me, and helped me heal time and again, particularly in moments when all has fallen apart. She was the light that accompanied me ten years ago when I found myself emotionally in the depths of a dark echoing well from which I did not know if I would ever emerge. This, too, I was privileged to write about in The Light of Ordinary Days.
As people around the world know, when a deity touches your heart, something unnameable enters you, often permanently. At my death, I will still carry Brigit. She has become woven within the tapestry of my soul.
When Imbolc arrives each year I profoundly rejoice, for it is a time for me to personally thank Her in formal ritual and prayer. For millions of people in Ireland, the U.S., the U.K. and all around the world who venerate Brigit, it is a time to sing Her praises as the divine in the feminine form. It is a time to call Brigit, Kuan Yin, Mary, the Great Mother and the goddess in all her countless myriad forms back into the center of our cultures, our religions and our spiritual lives.
Imbolc-eve is the time Brigit is said to walk the earth. If you are called, this Wednesday, January 31 would be a good evening to spend some time welcoming the divine feminine into the world. On this Imbolc-eve or day, you may want to light a candle in Brigit’s name, gather with friends to honor Her, and/or leave something outside for Her to bless.
Imbolc is powerful time to let our prayers and intentions for the future emerge. Much is dissolving just now, and at the same time, much is being regenerated anew. Where we put our minds and our intentions matters profoundly.
As we seek to find our way, may our hearts and actions be guided by the call of the Universal Mother of all things, who animates and births all of us. Brigit, Great Mother, Universal Mother, may you guide us to live within your Spirit, your devotion to life, to light, peace, equality, healing and generativity.
This is my personal prayer: Brigit, may you fill my mind. May your change my heart. Universal Mother, may we hold you with us as a path, as teaching, as prayer. Oh Mother, may we carry you deeply and sing you back into the center of our lives.
Imbolc blessings to you. Gabhaim molta Bríde (Praise Brigit). May we find our way.
The 12th century Welsh visitor to the Kildare monastery who witnessed and wrote about the perpetual sacred flame to Brigit was Giraldus Cambrensis, in his book The Topography of Ireland, 1188 A.D.
All photographs by the author except where noted.
For more on Brigit celebrations in Ireland:
Herstory.ie The feminst movement for Brigid’s Day and 2024 events
Brigid1500 Kildare- A celebration of 1500 years after Saint Brigid’s birth
City of Dublin (Brigit: Dublin City Celebrating Women, 2024)
Terrific Irish Foreign Ministry 2023 video on how Brigid’s Day is being celebrated in modern Ireland and around the world
Associated Press article, 1-26-2024: “Who Was Saint Brigid and Why Is She Inspiring Many 1,500 Years After Her Death?”