Friday, February 1, 2013

Keep the fires burning - Imbolc

I am something of a spiritual magpie, finding expressions of gratitude and solace in traditions from around the world. I don't believe this to be contradictory or disrespectful, as all of these traditions are born from human need and are yearnings towards the inexpressible, so whether something comes from my own Judaism, from Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, or some other faith, it's all about being alive in this world and finding a path through our magnificent, confusing, awe-inspiring, heartbreaking lives.

Today is Imbolc, the Celtic day to honor the goddess Brighid. It's also St. Brighid's Day, no coincidence there. Brighid is the goddess of fire, of creativity, of poetry, medicine, arts and crafts, smithing and birth/spring. She's my kind of girl.

Many years ago I was traveling in Ireland in the spring. It was a pivotal time in my life, turbulent with change. Among other things, I was truly beginning to embrace my calling as a storyteller, beginning to label myself as such, so it felt very daring to tell people that this was my work. In the U.S., when I said I was a storyteller, the assumption was that I read to children or that this was my hobby, not at least an avocation. But in Ireland, no one flinched or wondered, they just nodded and said, Oh, you're a shanachie! It was so much easier. An old man in a pub asked for a story and, when I was done, nodded, then told me I had the gift so I'd best go visit Kildare and be blessed by Brighid. Americans all said I should kiss the Blarney stone (which I didn't get to) but this old man, with his pipe and muddied boots, wasn't to be denied. I went to Kildare, where Brighid's sacred well lies and her eternal flame once burned.

I found myself outside of a church, St. Brigid's of Kildare. It was a cool, wet day and I wandered through the grounds, my shoes soaking through. Towards the back of the churchyard was the site of her sacred flame, extinguished for many years (since rekindled). As I looked into the earth I saw offerings. Shattered crockery, small figurines, stacked rocks, notes folded and decayed. I closed my eyes and in that moment I saw two sturdy hands, working clay and I knew I would survive this turbulence. I knew I would emerge reshaped, not unscathed, but whole.

I left an offering. I gave my thanks. I walked into the Norman cathedral and listened to the Good Friday mass; I hadn't realized the date until the priest welcomed me in and invited me to stay. I had never before paid much mind to this particular story of sacrifice with the hope of redemption. I sat in the cold, feeling the world reshape itself around me. I could feel a small flame alight inside as I welcomed myself back home. I could live this life, be this person, do this work. When the service was done I left an offering. I gave my thanks. And I walked back to the rest of my life.

Now, every year on Imbolc, I light a candle to Brighid. I consider hands, shaping clay. I remember an old man, pointing me to Kildare, inviting me to be blessed. I keep my fires burning.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. A lovely meditation, Laura; I too may be a spiritual magpie -- love the designation.

    As I seem to remember from my Celticist past, it was obligatory to drive one's stock (cows in particular) through a fire on Imbolc to protect them. This is probably not recommended for guinea pigs, I admit. Yet some of the images of being protected by going through fire also seem relevant nowadays.

    Wishing you all safety, protection, and spiritual health --

    1. Beltane is the Celtic time for cattle being driven through the cleansing fires...perhaps they do it twice for good luck?
      I have been honouring Bridget since 1990 when I saw the beautiful painting by John Duncan in Edinburgh of the angels carrying the teenager Bride over to be midwife to Mary for the birth of Jseus. It took another year before I also saw a stone sculpted Bridget by the hearthfire of a friend's home in Wells, Somerset, England. The artist was more than a shannachie-he claimed to be a Faierie changling! After a year of travelling with him I was inclined to beleive him! Through that alliance I became very close to the Brigantian followers and still to this day, put my ribbons out to catch the Spirit of Bride on the eve of Imbolc, also putting out a small pitcher of milk and a piece of bread to be eaten the following day. I tell Brigit stories merging the Goddess with the Saint, and wait upon Bridget for her many blessings! Slainte Vas, Wecome Bride! Ruth Canonico, Singer*StorytelleR*Folklorist

    2. Thank you, Jo and Ruth for your thoughts and stories here. May we all have rich, creative years.

  2. Please forgive my typos above, I am better at Oral traditons than typing!


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