Brigid: A Gateway to Wholeness
Brigid: A Gateway to Wholeness
By Kenneth McIntosh
You’re reading this article while living in a sadly partisan world, one where the brand of shoes one buys, or the food chain one eats at, or entertainment choices, are seen as indicative of one’s place in a world divided between “us” and “them.” To restore the wholeness of Western civilization in our time we need more examples of “both-and” thinking, more myths that can look across cultural borders and say, “we are them.” We need tales that show us how to be passionate supporters of justice while at the same time viewing with fondness those with whom we differ. Brigid is such a figure, she is a gateway between religious traditions, between traditional gendered roles, between socio-economic divides, between the human-and-animal realm, and between mundane reality and the realms of imagination.
For those entirely unfamiliar with Brigid, we are speaking of a semi-historical Being, a blend of Ireland’s most important Goddess of pre-Christian times and a fabled saint of the fifth century. She has many names—Bhride, Bride, Brighid, Brigid, Bridget—and so on, and many honorific titles, “Fair Maiden, Brigid of the Mantle, Brigid of the Fire, and Mary of the Gaels. She is revered by both Pagan and Christian in many lands—all of the Celtic Nations, England, and the former colonies of the British Empire.
Legend has it she was born in the doorway of a dairy barn on the Dawn of February first. That means she was born in-between: indoors and outdoors, winter and spring (by the old Celtic calendar), and night and day. Gaelic peoples paid attention to liminal space, the in-between realms, sometimes referred to as “thin places.” Examples of liminal space are fog, wells, and mountain—and Brigid is in her own being such a liminal space.
She is a gateway between differing religions, a fact evidenced by the Dalai Lama’s visit to Brigid’s religious order in Kildare, Ireland, in April of 2011. All the tales of Saint Brigid’s early life note that she was fostered by Druids, and Sister Rita Minehan, of the order of Saint Brigid, says, “Brigid the saint inherits much of the folklore associated with the goddess Brigid, a dimension which contributes to her popularity. It may be an exercise in futility to try separating the historical Christian Brigid from the goddess since, clearly, the two are so interwoven. St. Brigid stands at the meeting of the two worlds. Neither the boundaries of Christianity nor the older beliefs can contain her exclusively.”
She is also the gateway between social classes. Saint Brigid is said to be born of a major chieftain, named Dubtach, and a slave woman, Broicsech, hence Brigid is both high-and-low on the social scale. Her legends repeat stories of speaking truth to power, as when the King of Leinster declared he would give her “only the ground you can spread your cloak over” to build her monastery—so the cloak grew and grew to cover vast acreage. There are also tales of the young woman giving away her father’s wealth (behind his back) to alleviate poverty.
She serves as a bridge between traditionally distinct gender roles. Women’s power in the British Isles of the Early Middle Ages was limited and often challenged by patriarchy. Saints’ lives tell of powerful abbesses but also of misogyny from the male hierarchy. According to legend, Brigid was “accidentally” declared to be—not an abbess, as intended—but a bishop. The presiding archbishop said, “It must be the will of God,” and so she occupied a role of unique ecclesiastical power in her historical setting.
She also bridges the animal world and the human realm, with her famous never-dry red cow, and stories of taming various creatures, including a wild boar and a wild fox. Perhaps her most spectacular feat of union with nature is hanging her cloak over a sunbeam. And that brings us to what is perhaps her most important gateway role.
Brigid is a portal between realms of limited reality and imagination. Whenever limitations enter out thinking, imagination replies, “Maybe not yet, and perhaps not in this place, but someday, somewhere, we can go beyond this state.” A title of Brigid is “Sireach Thal”—to ‘See Beyond.’ The tales of her miracles are ways of saying “There can be something greater.” She calls us to see beyond the partisan divisions, beckons us to ‘see beyond’ the sufferings and injustices of our time.
Kenneth McIntosh, author of Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life and Brigid’s Mantle: A Celtic Dialogue Between Pagan & Christian (co-authored with Lilly Weichberger).