Imbolc – Sacred Inspiration

To continue my series on the sacred within Wicca, I would like to concentrate on learning to cultivate a connection with the divine, or sacred inspiration. Imbolc is a time of celebrating Brigid, and one of her specialties is inspiration, especially the inspiration that gives voice to poetry. I am not a good enough poet to begin to express the beauty of her inspiration, but I would like to try my meager hand at encouraging you to try experiencing divine inspiration yourself.

Many cultures have seen inspiration as something that comes from the divine; in some Hellenistic cultures it would be the Muses who brought artistic or scholarly inspiration, and that role has come down to us today in our language, although usually diminished in sense. Being a muse today is often seen as a passive role, while the original sense, and the kind of inspiration I want to discuss here, is very much a function of active engagement on divinity’s part.

There are different ways to experience different degrees of inspiration. Here I am not talking about full-blown possession, but rather something more gentle (which can shade into possession if you learn that style of work), more about a sensed connection with the divine which leads to new information, ideas, or emotions arising within you.

In Judy Harrow’s essential book Spiritual Mentoring, she names the divine collectively as the Entheoi, meaning the deities who are within us. This is a lovely revisioning that emphasizes the immanent nature of deity rather than the transcendent, and it normalizes the connection with the divine, emphasizing that the divine is present within each of us, something we only have to become aware of rather than create from scratch.

Even with those features in mind, though, it can still be difficult to access this kind of awareness; just because the divine is within us doesn’t mean it’s automatically easy to talk with them, because they are still vastly different from us. Think – and feel if you can – how different our awareness is than that of a wild animal, or a plant, especially a long-lived one like a tree. If we are so different from these living beings with whom we share our form of being, then how much more different must be the metaphysical beings we know as the deities? They are as far away from us as we are from the sun and the Moon, yet as close as our own heartbeat, our own breath.

That difference in being but closeness in spirit is why I refer to the relationship that leads to sacred inspiration as a connection that needs to be cultivated, because it is through practice and repeated attention – which, after all, is what we really mean by devotion – that this connection or mode of awareness becomes stronger and more reliable.

Cultivating a connection which will support inspiration requires a particular kind of devotion, though, because this is not the aggressive devotion of an athlete constantly pushing herself harder; nor is it an empty passivity that negates the self; this is a devotion very much like wooing a beloved, with regular attention and an open curiosity that delights in the presence of another.

I learned to cultivate this through trance work first; for me, that was a safer place to have these beyond-normal experiences; the real wonder for me is when we create the conditions to let that awareness flourish while maintaining connection with the outside world so that our different types of awareness can inspire and augment each other.

I believe that one of the highest goals of ritual and the work we do in general is to put people in touch with the sacred more directly, helping each and every person who wishes to do so to open that connection a little bit wider, helping them learn to use it on a regular basis.

The first place to start building this connection is usually with your primary deities – your matron or patron. And having an existing relationship with your matron or patron makes this whole process much easier, because you have someone to guide you, someone you trust, someone you know has your best interests at heart, which makes it much easier to accept the kind of closeness that is necessary for successful inspiration to be communicated.

The more I study, and the more I practice, the more I come to the conclusion that Wicca is a religion of relationship, and the relationship with the divine is one of the most beautiful parts. So once again, begin with relationship, begin with devotion. Begin with the simple act of being present. Be present for yourself, and then expand your awareness to begin to be present for those others who are so near and yet so different, whose wisdom we crave and whose closeness we cultivate.

May your presence be blessed with the awareness of their presence.

Imbolc – Poesis

I was called away from home suddenly a few days before Imbolc, and things have only settled down now. I am continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2012. I currently plan on moving in the middle of March, so things will probably continue to be intermittently disrupted for me until at least Ostara.

So far in this series, I haven’t written much about magic, or about specific deities, but for Imbolc, I’d like to delve into both areas, and in particular the way that my matron goddess, Brigid, helps me understand magic.

There are lots of Celtic influences in Wicca, and one of the most obvious is the Sabbat of Imbolc, which is traditionally the feast of the goddess Brigid. [1] No other Sabbat is so closely tied to a particular deity; even the rebirth of the Sun at Yule can be interpreted within a multitude of cultural contexts, historical and modern. And while Imbolc can be celebrated as the recovery from that rebirth and presage of spring, many people come together to honor Brigid at this time of year. She is an enormously popular matron and a figure that nearly anyone can turn to, which is perhaps why she was adopted as a Catholic saint and her worship continues in multiple forms down to the present day. I think her continuing popularity and accessibility are due in part to the way she embodies some of the fundamental ideas of magic as a way of interacting with the world.

Traditionally, Brigid has three specialties: she is the matron of healing, especially midwifery; of smith craft; and of poetry. Her history as a healer would be enough to explain her popularity, since nearly everyone needs healing at some point. But the other two areas seem like a strange combination: blacksmithing is not usually associated with either healing or poetry, and it is even more unexpected for a goddess to take an interest in what is traditionally a male-dominated craft. But the piece that seems not to fit is in fact the key to understanding the relationship between all three areas, as well as her continuing presence in Wicca. Smith craft is just that, a craft, and healing and poetry can be approached as crafts as well. It is this idea of crafting in many different forms that makes Brigid such a good representative of witchcraft as well.

Another way to understand this is to start with the idea of poetry. This English word comes from a Greek root, poiesis, which has to do with the whole concept of crafting and creating, almost in the sense of shaping. [2] To me, the way a skilled poet can go to the heart of a matter with just a single word exemplifies poesis. By the very faculty of naming and describing, poesis can influence the nature of a thing. This is not creation ex nihilo; it’s about emergence and shaping the way something develops in the world.

All three of Brigid’s areas are forms of poesis: healing is a process of transforming a situation, and a midwife in particular has the unique opportunity to help both mother and baby. Blacksmithing is also literally a process of shaping and forging something; it turns lumps of rock into useful tools. As these examples show, poesis is not just about words, but to me, the use of language in shaping reality is one of the most amazing examples. When a skilled writer crafts sounds and squiggles to produce meaning . . . well, that’s why we call it poetry. To me, all of these are magical processes, making Brigid fundamentally a goddess of magic itself.

Now, when I say that smithing is a magical process, I don’t mean that it is purely magic in the “Harry Potter” sense: the smith doesn’t wave a wand and instantaneously transfigure iron ore into horseshoes. The very idea of sorcerous shortcuts eliminating the hard work and necessary effort of the craft is antithetical to my understanding of magic. It doesn’t break the laws of nature, it works within them, just like everything else in the world. [3] This is why I don’t tend to ask whether something is “magic” or not. Instead I ask how magical it is. Think of something as simple as a seed sprouting: I can understand the biology, the chemistry, and the physics of it, but the simple fact that an apparently inert object can, under the right circumstances, transform itself into a living being thriving on simply dirt, water, and light is magical. It fills me with awe and joy. It is the numinous in the mundane which is characteristic of what I call magic.

Looked at this way, healing is also terrifically magical, whether it comes about because of meditation and mind-body work, or because of pharmaceuticals and surgery, or (better yet) some of each. Terry Pratchett observed that stopping someone from choking “doesn’t even sound magical until you understand that a way of turning nearly dead people into fully alive people is worth a dozen spells that just go twing!” [4] If you’ve ever seen someone suffering from low blood sugar have a dose of glucose administered, you’d think it was downright miraculous: in a matter of minutes, a person can go from passed out cold to walking and talking as if nothing ever happened. Understanding how that works so that healers can use it to help people, to make a difference in the world, makes it even more magical to me.

When I practice magic, it is closest to a form of poetry. I may use many different tools – stones, herbs, candles, cords – but what I’m doing, deep down, is describing things, crafting an understanding of the world that transforms from one thing to another, the way that the twist of a good poem suddenly transforms your understanding from one thing to another: snowflakes aren’t just snowflakes, they’re bits of lace. That juxtaposition of different understandings that changes the whole situation is the closest I can come to expressing what practicing magic is like.

These acts then become part of the narrative that I am making of my life, and taking that narrative into my own hands is most magical of all. It empowers me and it challenges me: if I really have these choices, what do I do with them? It helps me be more the storyteller and poet of my own life. I don’t have complete control, of course; this isn’t a work of fiction. But here in reality, it makes a difference, even about the things it can’t change. Magic and poesis do not “magically” fix all of the hard situations in my life. They help me face hard things gracefully, with understanding.

[1] There are myriad ways to spell the name of this goddess, including Brighid, Breed, Brigit, and more.

[2] See poesis. It actually comes by way of Latin, because while the Romans excelled in rhetoric and oratory, they admired Greek civilization for its much older and broader tradition of literature in all forms, and many of the great Roman writers considered themselves students of this Greek heritage. Another form of this root survives in medical terms like hematopoiesis, the process by which blood is created.

[3] This is why I both agree and disagree with Clarke’s Third Law: yes, technology can be magical, but to me, obfuscation is not a necessary part of magic. Understanding how something works increases my appreciation for the wonder of it and is part of why I find things magical.

[4] Pratchett, Terry. A Hat Full of Sky. HarperCollins e-books, 2004. Kindle location 4198 of 4579.

Imbolc: Make a Brigid’s Cross ritual

It’s almost Imbolc! In honor of Brigid’s day, you might want to read my stories of Brigid, think about making an affirmation to engage Brigid’s gifts of fire and poetry in your own life, or try this simple ritual. Whatever you do to celebrate the day, enjoy, and may Brigid bless you richly!

Ritual: Crafting a Brigid’s Cross

Making Brigid’s crosses is a traditional Imbolc activity. In this ritual, we use strips of paper and empower each strip with an intention that we send to Brigid. Each strip can be a separate matter, or you can weave together multiple intentions all related to a single project or issue.

Materials:

  • Strips of paper. You can make these using regular typing paper, but I recommend construction paper if you can get some. Try multiple colors! Cut the strips lengthwise, about a half inch wide. If possible, use a ruler and pencil to sketch straight lines and cut with a long pair of scissors to make the strips even. You will need about 12 strips to make a single cross.
  • Writing instrument that will show up on the paper chosen.
  • Tape to seal the ends of the cross, or glue.

Ritual:

Cast the circle and call the Quarters. You can focus your invocations on Brigid and the theme of Imbolc, or tailor them to fit the intentions you will be instilling into your project.

Invoke Brigid with a poem, chant, or song. “Way to the Well” and “Holy Well and Sacred Flame” are especially well-suited to this Sabbat.

Write your intentions, wishes, or prayers on the strips of paper. Don’t worry about filing them all; it is better to have a few blank ones included than to have too many to work into a single cross.

Leave one strip blank, or just write Brigid on it. Lay it down in the center of your space, pointing up and down.

For the next strip, read it aloud, and say, “Brigid, hear my prayer.” Fold the strip in half with the words on the inside, folding it across the center strip with the ends pointing to the right.

Rotate your cross a quarter-turn counter clockwise. Now the single center strip is pointing left and right, and the strip you just folded is pointing up.

Read and bless the next strip. Fold it in half across the previous one with the ends pointing to the right.

Repeat the previous two steps until your cross is a size you like.

For a visual example of the folding, see these instructions or this example with pipe cleaners.

When you are done, use a little bit of tape across the ends of the arms to hold all the strips in place. (If you prefer to use glue to glue together each strip as you go, follow the instructions in the first link above.)

Holding your completed cross, repeat your poem, chant, or song and give thanks to Brigid.

Thank the Quarters and open the circle.

Afterwards, keep the cross and hang it somewhere where you can look at it and draw on its energy. If this is a short-term project, then when it is completed, dispose of the cross by burning, recycling, or composting it as a thanks-offering to Brigid. It is especially appropriate to burn it on one of the fire festivals (Beltane, Lunasa, or Samhain) if you can. If the cross relates to a long-term project or concern, dispose of the cross at the next Imbolc, and make a new one if you wish.

Kindle the fire in my deep well

Kindle the fire in my deep well, lady,
being the light in the midst of the dark,
healing the old wounds, the deep ones, the scarred ones,
believing in life in the middle of winter.

Kindle the fire in my deep well, lady,
to burn like a star on the surface of water.
Let my emotions give fuel to my will,
transform in the light of your brilliant blue flame.

I’m turning my attention away from the social stuff back to my own practice, to pause over this weekend and reach inside, reach up to the moon and out to the cold earth. It’s really, truly cold here for the first time this winter, and there’s just enough snow to make things a little interesting.

Next weekend is Imbolc, and even in the midst of the cold and the dark, I can tell the light is beginning to return, that the cold won’t last forever. So I honor all those things at once – the snow and the moon, the light and the dark, and I use this time to gather my will to take the next steps, to work to make change in the world.

These are some of the words I’m using to do that and to honor Brigid. May you find your own inspiration to do so as well.

Planting Time: A Poem for Brigid Poetry Festival 2011

In the belly of the Mother, deep within the earth,
seeds are being planted while the ewes give birth.
Drinking the new milk, suddenly I know
the spark of an idea: the fire in the belly grows.

This poem was also published in the Order of the White Moon’s publication, Seasons of the Moon, in the Imbolc 2011 issue.

Stories of Brigid

This evening I participated in Sacred Circle‘s open ritual for Imbolc by telling the following stories of Brigid.

Sit down, sit down, make yourselves comfortable; you should be comfortable to listen to the stories of Brigid, because Brigid always wanted people to be comfortable.

Now, the stories of Brigid have no single beginning. Some people say Brigid was a goddess, the daughter of the Dagda, the good god. And the goddess Brigid was born to the mother goddess Danu, whose people are the Tuatha de Danaan; and Danu is the one who pours out the rivers that flow through the lands. And some people say that Brigid was a woman, the daughter of a druid, or maybe just born to a serving-woman in the druid’s household. And maybe both stories are true.

Now, Brigid was out one day, and when she came home, her cloak was wet all through. So she hung it on a sunbeam to dry. And it stayed there till it was dry. By that you know she had the power – not because she hung her cloak on a sunbeam, mind you, but because the sunbeam stayed there till the cloak was dry! For in Ireland, the weather can never make up its mind for five minutes altogether, and while you might get a sunbeam where you ask for one, it’ll never stay there when you turn your back on it. But I think that maybe the sunbeam just wanted to be helpful to Brigid, because Brigid herself was helpful to others. That’s how she used her power, after all.

And the power Brigid had, she used for her three great talents: the service of healing, the gift of giving what was needed, and the wisdom to inspire and change the souls of men and women.

Once a sick man came to Brigid to beg for food. Brigid asked, “Would you rather be king of all Ireland, or be healed of your disease?” The man answered, “I would rather be healed, holy Brigid, for a man who is healthy is his own ruler.” And she saw that he knew the truth of the matter, and she brought water, and washed him, and he was healed. In this she did the service of healing.

Another time, two widows, who were poor and sick, came to beg for food, and she offered them the one cow that she had, and bid them share it between them. But one of the widows was proud, and insisted that she would not share. The other widow let the proud one take the cow, and turned to Brigid, saying that she would be content if Brigid would just pray for her. Brigid did more than that: she put her hands on the old woman’s back, where it had been bent and sore these many years, and Brigid prayed, and the widow’s back was healed. Just as she was going out, another man who had been helped by Brigid came, bringing her a cow, and Brigid gave it to the widow who had been healed, and said, “See, because you were humble, you have a cow and your health as well, while the proud widow went away content with her pride.” This was the gift of giving what was needed.

Yet another time, two lepers came to beg for healing, and Brigid washed the first one, and he was healed, and she bid him wash his companion, so that he too might be healed. But the one who had been healed refused, and would not share the gift of healing, for now that he was clean and whole, he disdained to touch the ragged skin of his fellow leper. Brigid was angry, but she didn’t say anything; she just took the water, and as she washed the second leper herself, his disease went into the skin of the one who had refused to share the gift of healing. Now he cried out twice as loudly for Brigid to heal him again, and was sorry for his pride. She healed him again, and then he had gotten not only the service of healing, but the gift of what he really needed as well, which was the wisdom that good things are meant to be shared. This is wisdom that inspires and changes the soul.

A similar thing happened when Brigid was working in the dairy, for she was told to divide the milk and butter into twelve parts, but she divided them into thirteen, and made the thirteenth larger than all the rest, and gave it away to the poor and hungry. A woman working with her warned Brigid that the owners of the dairy would know that she had stinted the twelve parts, but Brigid said, “The Dagda, the good god, he will make it up.” Then the woman looked, and Brigid was right: the twelve jars of milk were full up to the brim, and the twelve portions of butter were overflowing. On another day, Brigid had given the milk and bread and butter for the evening’s dinner to feed a hungry woman and her children, so Brigid went out before dinner to milk the cows again. And although the cows had been milked twice already that day, and their udders should have been empty, but they gave milk in plenty, and as soon as Brigid put her hand to the churn, there was butter, as much as she had given away, and more.

As you’ve heard, a great many of the tales of Brigid have to do with cows and milk and butter, so it’s no surprise that her day falls at this time of year, when the first milk begins to come into the belly of the cows and ewes. Brigid’s day also comes at this time when we crave the beginnings of spring, when we are hungry for light, even hungrier for light and warmth than we are for milk and butter. We look for the light that was promised to us at midwinter, and Brigid brings that promised light, just as she and her priestesses tended the sacred flame at Cill Dara, the church of the oak, and still, today, in Kildare in Ireland, her sacred flame is burning, and with her three great talents, she lights the way for us.

And now, when they need her talents, the healers call on her, and they bless their water in her name, saying, Brigid, let this be the water of healing just as pure and as clean as if it came from your holy well. Brigid, let me serve others with my healing, and make them whole. Then healers wash people with the water of healing, serving with compassion and caring, helping others become whole. And in doing the service of healing, they shape the world.

And when the smiths need her talents, they call on her, and on her sacred flame, for smiths know that the fire doesn’t just consume things – the fire can give, too, and the fire can be used to make what is needed. The smiths kindle the fire in their forges, saying, Brigid, let this be a spark of your flame, let me use this flame to give to others. Then the smiths heat the metal and bend it and shape it into the tools that are needed. Thus the smiths give the gifts that are needed, and in their forging, they shape the world.

And the poets call on her too. Now you know what poets are like – they are people who feed their souls on beauty, and a verse that won’t run to its meter is as painful to them as a wrenched knee is to the rest of us. But a poet wants more, too – a poet wants a verse to go out and do some good; for the poet shapes the verse – which is what the root of the word poetry means, after all – but then she sets the verse out to do some shaping of its own. So the poets call on Brigid, saying, Brigid, heal my words so that they run to the meter, and Brigid, light the flame of inspiration so that I can bend the words to my purpose, but most of all, they say, Brigid, let my words go out to others to be a source of wisdom, wisdom that does the service of healing, and wisdom that gives the gift that is needed, and wisdom that inspires the souls of women and men.

So when we come together, on this, Brigid’s day, we who practice the craft of the wise, we who bend and shape the world, we honor Brigid. We give her praise and thanks, and petition her to be with us, so that she will share her power and her three great talents with us, as we strive to be healers, and smiths, and poets, that we too may shape the world, in her name.

The stories told herein are my interpretations of stories of both the goddess and the saint. Some are derived from these two groups of stories.