by Paula Jean West
Candles shimmered and glittered everywhere in the small apartment in Washington, DC, transforming everyday reality into another place, another time. The smoke of our sage and lavender incense rose and whirled around us. Face to face, our bare feet scrunched and slid on the salt strewn on the floor. While my partner Bran chanted a blessing, we entered the doorway into trance. Suddenly, the roar in my ears stopped with a deafening silence. There were no sounds, no words, no movement, no thoughts. For a second, I ceased to be, my heart stopped, my breath froze. My eyes closed tightly, but the surrounding landscape formed and reformed around me, hanging between the worlds.
Bran stopped chanting and jumped back, immersed in his own visions. The candles trembled. A flame shot up over my head. A voice filled my mind, filled the room, filled my womb. Pictures flashed through my head of a single standing stone thrust up from the treeless green hill. I stood in a circle with eighteen others, who over and over repeated the words, "Brid is come, Brid is welcome." I had no concept of where I ended and the song began.
A light flared again above my head in the chilled flat. Bran's voice called my name over and over. Candles were burning down, guttering out in the grey February dawn. A voice filled my universe. "You are mine! You are my daughter!" My eyes opened and I saw the fear and concern in the eyes of my lover. "Are you all right?" he asked. I replied, "I am Brighid's. I am. I have been called..." My words trailed off, becoming indistinct. "Mother," I breathed, "I have come and I am yours."
The frigid air around me was chilling, and I paled. Bran took me by the arms and gently led me back the long hallway to our tiny room. I fell, tumbling into the bed with the motion. My eyes closed and I stood again on the hillside with the eighteen priestesses of Brid. I chanted. I was called and I had been chosen. Once again I spoke, with calm dedication in my eyes. "Brid, I have come, and I am yours.".
The Origins of Brighid
Brighid, the Goddess to whom I had dedicated myself, is the Celtic Goddess of inspiration, healing, and smithcraft. She is one of the best examples of the survival of a Pagan Goddess into Christian times. She was canonized as St. Brigit by the Roman Catholic Church and various stories are given of Her origins and Her life. She was a Druid's daughter, described in the Carmina Gadelica as the "daughter of Dugall the brown." She is reported to have predicted the coming of Christianity and to have been baptized by St. Patrick. Popular folk tales describe Her as the midwife to the Virgin Mary, and She is thus always called upon by women in labor. The Christian St. Brigit was a nun, and later an Abbess, who founded an Abbey at Kildare in Ireland. She was said to have had the power to appoint the bishops of Her area, an unlikely role for an Abbess, made stranger by Her unusual requirement that these bishops also be practicing goldsmiths.
In ancient times, the Goddess Brighid had a shrine at Kildare, with a perpetual flame tended by nineteen virgin priestesses called Daughters of the Flame. No man was permitted to come near Brighid's shrine and neither did Her priestesses consort with men. Even food and supplies were brought to the priestesses by women from the nearby village. When Catholicism overtook Ireland, Brighid's Fire Temple became a convent and the priestesses became nuns, but the same traditions were upheld and the eternal flame kept burning. Each day a different priestess/nun was in charge of the sacred fire and on the 20th day of each cycle, the fire was miraculously tended by the Goddess/Saint Herself.
For more than a thousand years thereafter, the sacred flame was tended by nuns. In 1220 CE, though, the Bishop became angered by the no-males policy of the Abbey of St. Brigid of Kildare. He insisted that nuns were subordinate to priests and must open their abbey and submit to inspection by a priest. When the Brigidine nuns refused and asked for another Abbess or other female official to perform the inspections, the Bishop was furious. He decreed that the keeping of the eternal flame was a Pagan custom, and ordered the sacred flame to be extinguished. Despite this persecution, St. Brigit remains to this day the most popular saint in Ireland, along with St. Patrick. In the1960s, though, Vatican II declared there was insufficient proof of St. Brigit's sanctity, or even of Her historical existence, and She was decanonized, so that the Roman Church's campaign against Her became successful. Recently, however, despite the initial protests of the Roman Catholic church, two nuns, by the name of Sister Mary and Sister Phil, have reestablished the worship of St. Brigit at Kildare and have relit Her sacred flame, which burns once more. The first modern Candlemas/Imbolc celebration at the ancient site of Brighid's sacred well in 1997 drew hundreds of people and grows every year in popularity. The flame of Brighid's love burns brightly once more.
Brighid's Sacred Well
In the summer of 1998, I was called to Ireland by Brighid. Specifically, She called me to come to Kildare to visit Her cathedral. The train ride from Dublin was filled with faery-tale scenery, after which a short walk brought me from the picturesque old train station to the cathedral. It was as beautiful as I had expected, since I had already seen pictures of the site in books.
As I walked around outside and inside the cathedral, though, I was struck with how empty I felt, or more specifically, how empty the cathedral and the grounds felt to me. I found the tiny plaque that indicated the hole in the lawn where the sacred Pagan fire temple had once been. For me, though, everything there was sterile and bare, devoid of any mystical or magical feeling. I was very disappointed. I had come thousands of miles to see St. Brigit's Cathedral, but was very saddened by what I discovered there, so I instead trudged into the town of Kildare. I stopped at an information kiosk in an antique building in the heart of town to see how I might redeem the rest of the day. I poked through the pamphlets and brochures, but nothing struck my fancy. Even more dejected, I left the information center and headed out to look for something to do to pass the time until the next train left.
As I came to the main intersection in town, I noticed a signpost indicating Brighid's Holy Well, with an arrow pointing to a road that led out of town. Suddenly brightening, I headed down that road to see what adventure I could find. I thought the signpost had said that the well was a mile away, but I have found that in Ireland distance is similar to Pagan Standard Time, and is a very unstable measurement.
About two miles into my journey, I started to wonder whether I had missed some important turn in the road. Before I gave up and turned around, though, another sign with yet another arrow pointed me down a gravel road. By the time the road had turned into a narrow path, I finally saw a park, or at least something that looked promising, up ahead in the distance.
Finally reaching the entrance to Brighid's Holy Well, I breathed a sigh of relief. The small park was absolutely delightful. The lawn within the park's fence was green and lovely. I had no idea how amazing the day would turn out to be, but I could feel that something incredible was about to happen. I walked reverently to the spot where in legend Brighid had supposedly healed the lepers, and put my hands into the soothing waters. I was totally engrossed, saying the Genealogy of Bride, when I stopped and suddenly looked up into a face so beautiful and familiar to me that I didn't jump or feel alarmed.
I asked this faery apparition if she was the guardian of the well and she answered with a huge smile, "Yes. Did you call me?" My new faery guardian, one of the human members of Solas Bhride (the nuns associated with Brigid's cathedral) was named Tara. She looked enough like me to be my real sister, with red hair, blue eyes, generous figure, and all. She took my hands, pulled me up, and said to me, "Come, Brighid has sent me to take you to meet Sister Mary and Sister Phil."
One of my most cherished possessions is a letter from Tara telling me how Brighid brought her to the well that day and how glad she was that she listened to the summons. Tara and I spent the rest of that day together, and, much later, she gave me a ride back to the station so I could catch the last train back into Dublin. We talked and talked and drank huge cups of tea at her home just a few minutes from the well.
As promised, Tara took me into town and introduced me to Sister Mary and Sister Phil, the Brigidine nuns who have reestablished the worship of Brighid in Kildare. I had taken some water from Brighid's holy well and Sister Mary gifted me with a candle lit from Brigid's eternal flame. I use that votive candle to light each candle on my altar every time I do ritual work.
Sister Mary has re-lit Brighid's flame and keeps it burning in her home. Every time I light a candle now, I see Sister Mary, Sister Phil, and my guardian faery friend, Tara. I, too, have become a Daughter of the Flame, and a guardian of Brighid's Sacred Well.
Photos and article by
Paula Jean West
AKA Branwenn White Raven