Ireland has three patron saints: Patrick, Columcille, and one woman, Brigid. Today, February 1st, is Brigid’s feast day and it also traditionally marks (in Ireland at any rate) the first day of spring. There are many legends surrounding Brigid: she had a reputation as an expert dairywoman and brewer, with the enviable reputation of being able to turn water into beer (I know a few long-suffering women who would love to be able to turn beer into water!); her prayers were said to still the wind and the rain; she is the patron saint of hearth and home, of smithcraft (blacksmiths and goldsmiths), of poetry and creation, and of healing, women’s health and childbirth. All in all, she has a lot going on! If I were in Ireland today, I would be making St. Brigid’s crosses with my mum; her crosses are said to protect the home from fire. Of course, Brigid’s feast day was directly imposed by the Christian church on the ancient pagan festival of ‘Imbolc’, and she shares many of the qualities of the Celtic Goddess of the same name. Imbolc is a time to bless the seeds, the livestock and the home at this, the halfway point of the dark part of the year – mid way from 22nd December to the Spring equinox on 21st March. Fire and purification are an important part of Imbolc. Lighting of candles and fires today represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the sun as it rises noticeably higher in the sky day on day. It’s now that the first crocuses begin to emerge from the cold, frozen earth. It is also the day to traditionally begin your spring-cleaning – pull out your rubber gloves!
Just two weeks ago, entirely by accident, I came across a painting of Brigid by Scottish artist John Duncan, entitled ‘Saint Bride Carried By Angels’. This huge, dazzling, painting hangs in the Scottish National Gallery in the Mound in Edinburgh and was painted in 1913. It depicts the legend that Saint Bride (or Brigid as I’m calling her) was transported miraculously to Bethlehem to attend the nativity of Christ. A sleeping Brigid, in white robes and long flowing yellow hair, is transported over the sea, carried aloft by two glistening, ornately robed angels, a sea otter below to escort them, and flanked by seagulls above. In the far distance is a glimpse of Iona Abbey in the Scottish Hebrides. Like all good legends it achieves many impossibilities, as not only is Brigid transported by Botticelli-like angels, but she is also time travelling from the Fifth Century when she lived, back to the time of the Nativity; clearly time, distance and means of transportation mean nothing to a Saint! The painting is said to be an allegory of revelation and enlightenment, of the spiritual transport that can be achieved during prayer, not one resulting from hard physical striving.
Whilst these stories of magic and miracles can inspire and feed one’s imagination, there remains a tension in the core message that spring has sprung. There will be days to come when we think – how could it possibly be spring? It’s still cold and wet, there will probably be ice and snow in the days ahead. But it is a time of year when there are quiet, invisible stirrings, like those brave crocuses making their way towards the light. If we are quiet and still, we can tap into what we hear, feel and sense within ourselves. We’re ready for it: change, growth, renewal, and more light. Another great Irish mystic, the late John O’Donohue wrote about this in one of his books, ‘Anam Cara’, when he said: “It is wise to allow the soul to carry on its secret work in the night side of your life. You might not see anything stirring for a long time. You might have only the slightest intimations of the secret growth that is going on inside you. But these intimations are sufficient.” We are emerging from the night side of our life and into spring.
As for the crosses that I would normally make today, in true Blue Peter style, I made mine a little earlier, with rushes I collected with K. when we were in the Pentland Hills a couple of weeks ago. With or without a cross of rushes, may Brigid bless your home today.