Tuesday 6 December 2022

Interview with Mael Brigde, Devotee of Brigit

Mael Brigde is the author of A Brigit of Ireland Devotional – Sun Among Stars. I talked to her about her book and her spiritual practice.

 Q: Can you explain what that means to you to be a devotee of Brigit, both the Irish goddess and saint?

A: I suppose there are two elements to that question: what does it mean to me to be a devotee of Brigit, and what does it mean to be a devotee of both the goddess and the saint.

In the early 1980s, when I first began to honour Brigit, I mostly wanted to know more about her and express my gratitude for her appearing in my life. I’d left the church I grew up in years before and felt the lack of a spiritual path and community. I wanted someone to turn to in times of celebration or distress. I’d read about ancient goddess worship and wished something like that was possible today. In time I met a Pagan, who (hurrah!) introduced me to modern goddess worship. After a while, I began looking for one I had a cultural connection to, someone my distant ancestors might have venerated.

I was overjoyed when I heard about Brigit, who fit this beautifully and appealed to me greatly, especially as goddess of poets. I hurried to the public library and the university library to learn about her (there was a tiny bit) and her world (somewhat more). I began to form a relationship with her based on the little I knew. Fast forward to 1992 when I began to feel a strong pull to do something for her. It was no longer just about me and my life but about serving her in some way.

It disturbed me that her perpetual flame had been forcibly extinguished (see below). I thought of several things that would honour her and introduce her to more people, people who were searching, but those ideas were out of reach for me. Bringing the practice of tending her flame back into the world was something I thought I could do. (I didn’t know that at this very moment the Catholic Brigidine sisters in Ireland were preparing to relight her flame, too.) After thinking it over, I press-ganged some friends into joining with me and on Imbolc 1993 I lit Brigit’s perpetual flame, which has burned continuously in our far-flung homes ever since. Earlier that same day I’d gone with two friends to an icy mountain stream where I initiated myself as her devotee. Meanwhile in Kildare, Ireland, Sister Mary Teresa Cullen lit Brigit’s flame in the town’s Market Square.

In my life, being Brigit’s devotee means honouring and loving her and serving her and her community. I share my evolving understanding of her, giving sources so others can form their own conclusions, and try to avoid blurring the lines between tradition, modern interpretations, and personal beliefs. I embody her qualities as best as I can, like compassion and generosity, for the saint, and excellence in my craft, for the poet goddess. I share news through my blog and social media, publish other’s poems to Brigit in a second blog, offer encouragement and support to devotees, and in my teaching and writing assist folk in connecting more deeply with her.

What it means to me to be a devotee of both goddess and saint is that I am careful not to attribute the traditions of one to the other, or elevate one above the other. Whatever their origins, they are deeply connected now, and they are one in my heart. It’s important to me to give to Saint Brigit what is hers, and to the goddess Brigit what is hers, which allows others to make clear choices in their own understanding of her. Once, I viewed everything about her through a Pagan lens, as I was furious with Christianity. I no longer do that. Although I am not Christian, being devoted to Saint Brigit has allowed me to heal my relationship to that faith, and to treasure her for herself. I no longer bring hostility to every interaction with Christianity, or feel damaged, which is monumental. I have her to thank.

Q: You founded the pagan group Daughters of the Flame to rekindle the perpetual fire once burned by the sisters of Saint Brigit in Kildare, Ireland. Can you tell me more about what flamekeeping entails?

A: One of the first things I learned about Brigit was that the perpetual flame tended by her nuns had been extinguished, not once but twice. It seemed such a simple and beautiful practice, one that could serve both as a focus and discipline and as an inspiring symbol. There has been much debate about the origin of the flame and I won’t go into that here; I cover it in my book.

We know of the flame through one source only, Gerald of Wales, writing at the end of the twelfth century. He wrote that the flame was tended daily by nineteen sisters, and that on the twentieth day it was left alone. Brigit herself, by then many centuries dead, kept the fire alive on her day. He also said no man might look on her flame.

Because I had so little information about the original practice and wanted to be as exact as I could, I chose to make the group nineteen women strong, and closed to men. I knew almost no one who had even heard of her, let alone wanted to tend her flame, but I did have one male friend who would have been glad to do so; this was a difficult choice to make.

I offered to help him start his own group, which he declined, and over the years when I was contacted by men I made the same offer. It was never that I thought men shouldn’t participate – how can I say who may express their devotion to a deity in what way? Only that within the confines of this group there would be no men.

Because I knew of no authentic liturgy or format for tending the flame beyond those things, and because I wanted women to be free to develop a practice that would be meaningful for them, I left it open as to how we each would tend the flame. All were welcome. Pagan, Christian, or otherwise.

Q: Who would you say your book A Brigit of Ireland Devotional is aimed at, and can you say a bit about what’s inside?

A: When I was writing my book a friend often asked me that question and I usually dodged it. I wasn’t writing for one audience.

I wrote it for people who grew up with her and are exploring her anew, for devotees who want contemplative readings, something that will help them deepen their intimacy with Brigit, and for others who want an understanding of her and her history. It’s for Irish folk, descendants of Irish migrants, and people with no blood or cultural connection who are drawn to her, people of any religion or none. Because historically perceptions of Brigit have changed so much and been so varied, and I’ve tried to stay faithful to whichever perspective I’m presenting in a poem, there will be some that deeply appeal to one person yet may leave another cold.

Sun Among Stars is also a reference book, with essays delving into important questions around Brigit’s cult, ample endnotes for the poems, an extensive glossary, thorough bibliography, and resource lists – plus a brief exploration of my evolving understanding of her, meant to be of use to others exploring their own.

Q: What other advice would you offer someone who wanted to learn about Brigit or follow a path of devotion to her?

A: I’d advise them to keep their minds open and be sceptical of everything they read about Brigit, while at the same time allowing inspiration in. There are many errors shared about her, and interpretations change, too. Even if we find out that what initially drew us to her is a modern construction and not ancient tradition, that’s okay. It’s important to acknowledge these things but it isn’t that only old is good. I strongly advise being respectful of the cultures that gave rise to her, to read the old Lives of Saint Brigit, to learn about her folk traditions, and to read at least the portions of the old texts where the goddess Brigit is mentioned. Find out what modern Irish people have said and written about her and how she is celebrated today in Ireland. What do the Pagans there say, the scholars, activists, and Christians?

This doesn’t mean that we non-Irish have nothing to offer, or that every Irish person agrees with every other. But although I have Irish ancestors I didn’t grow up with her presence in the every day, with the background of the Irish landscape and mythology, the shared history, sensibilities, and assumptions of ordinary Irish life. I can’t help but see her from my own vantage point, and it’s vital that we not let non-Irish perspectives drown out those of the people who have preserved her cult for hundreds of years. I know there are generations of Irish who didn’t hear much about Brigit growing up. But the background was still there in a way that it isn’t for those elsewhere. (I know that Saint Brigit is also native to Wales, Scotland, etc., but most of what we know of her is from Ireland.)

Q: I understand you run teaching courses. What does that cover and how do people sign up?

I teach three Brigit courses through Mystery School of the Goddess. Discovering Brigit – Goddess and Saint is a brief overview which discusses her mythology, what she means for us today, and methods for clear discernment. It offers a well meditation and tools for learning more about her. (There’s a discount coupon for Stepping Into Brigit at the end of Discovering Brigit.) Stepping Into Brigit is an immersion in her lore and a celebration of her in music, poetry, meditations, ritual, food, art, and crafts, with opportunities for journalling. Journey with Brigit, Goddess of Poetry is an intensive retreat in which her inspiration and protection are sought, the pleasure of both reading and writing poetry is kindled, in the context of the history of the poet in Ireland.

Q: What are you doing now and what your plans for the future?

A: I enjoy giving online presentations about Brigit, talks, contemplations, and so forth, so most of the writing I’ve done in the last couple of years has been to that end. I’m currently creating the 30th anniversary newsletter for Daughters of the Flame, which will be a mighty tome, as I mine old newsletters for gems. I’ve begun a new round of reviews of Brigit books, to follow up A Long Sip at the Well.

As to the future, I’ve had different thoughts but haven’t settled on anything yet. Possibly a children’s book, or some slender volume whose nature so far only flickers through my mind. One thing I do hope is that I’ll write fiction, which is what I used to write before I got swept away with Brigit.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?

A: Just how grateful I am that I was able to complete A Brigit of Ireland Devotional – Sun Among Stars and that the publisher I wanted to work with accepted it, but most of all that there are people for whom it has made a real difference, who use it in their practice or simply find joy in the poems themselves. That is immensely rewarding, because really all of this work has been for that: to serve my beloved Brigit and give to other people, from my heart, the fruits of my long relationship with her. I am grateful to Brigit for being with me throughout.

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