Sunday Morning ~ Imbolc and Saint Brigid
Kacirombo kofula m’njira katama mano. ~ The insect that digs a hole on the path must trust it’s teeth.
February 2, 2020
Yesterday was the feast of Saint Brigid, the Irish patron saint of dairy, lambing, midwifery, the return of spring, and the printing press. She had quite an eclectic list, I must say. I haven’t thought much about this woman until yesterday when she popped up all over the place. I decided to read up on her, wondering if she’d provide a lesson I needed to learn. There are so many saints! It’s hard to keep them all straight. I have my favorites, of course. Saint Anthony has come through for me many times, though I try not to take advantage of his generosity and remember where I put things, but a couple of necklaces whose clasps have failed have been recovered in the most unbelievable of circumstances after he and I had a chat. And Saint Christopher with all the solo travel I do, he and I talk a lot, too. But I did not know there was a patron saint of midwifery. I wonder why this has never come to my attention before.
I recently spent a month roaming through churches and cathedrals in Sicily, Spain, and Portugal and have seen depictions of many saints. I’ve even seen some (creepy) remains lying in glass tombs. There are arrow-pierced, beheaded, mutilated saints painted all over the place. Those poor people. I’d stare at their artist-depicted, mangled bodies, stunningly detailed and anguished, and think, “How devoted to a belief they must have been. What would have driven a human to be that staunchly devoted? Must it truly be divine?” That was along side the thought, “How did they ever get that painting up there?”
In Italy when I entered a sacred space filled with mind boggling, breathtaking art: mosaics, paintings, marble inlay, whatever, I got filled with a sense of overwhelming awe at the artistic magnificence. The detail! The monumental accomplishment! It speaks to me of devotion. The wealth that went into the churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, the architectural masterpieces surviving through all these centuries despite bombings, earthquakes, and neglect, all seemed miraculous to me. I’m a benefactor of that wealth, I get to experience what it produced, enjoy it, marvel in it, post pictures of it on Facebook even. The monstrous wealth of a few went into supporting the arts in a sense. They still stand. It is incredible. But when I got to Spain my first thought at the sight of the silver studded altars was, Oh my God: the pillage, the conquests, the massacre. It was obscene. Yes, the workmanship and artistic genius was there, but my God. Where did all that silver come from? We know where it came from. The saints were there though, oiled and tucked in between swirling golden orbs that, to me, mocked the goodness they represented. There was too much idolatry of conquerers, clad in silver armor with drawn swords. In God’s name, sort of, but God was just a ruse. It screamed greed. It was obscene to me and I couldn’t get by that. And I thought, it’s happening now.
I had a lot of time to think on this trip. I wondered about devotion and how often it takes being killed or maimed to stand up for truth and justice. Were these people just born with that kind of inner strength? And why is this even necessary? Why doesn’t everyone just believe in what’s right, because I know what’s right, right? In my college philosophy class we had discussions about this. Why do we think we are right? We discussed justice and whether those most powerful prevailing was justice. The professor said it was. I said it was not. I had no argument aside from regurgitated dogma to support my beliefs. I was coming from a small mill town where most of us were Catholic and had similar rituals and belief systems. No one at home challenged those. My philosophy professor was a bisexual Jewish lawyer from New York, getting his PhD in Philosophy at a Jesuit University. It was like shooting fish in a barrel for him. I left that class crying a lot. I wanted to believe that there would always be a just and therefore, happy, ending. That meant the way I wanted it to end. Just wait three days and he’ll rise from the dead and everything will be fine. Okay, sometimes it’s a little longer than three days. Hang in there.
After so much pondering about the grisly end to so many of the saints I was happy to read about Saint Brigid who died of natural causes after leading a life of chaste devotion. Phew! What a relief. It’s debated whether she actually existed; her character possibly fused with the pagan goddess Brigid who divined over Imbolc, the celebration of the return of light and seedlings and spring cleaning. Saint Brigid was a champion for the poor, a female Robin Hood of her day who took riches from her chieftain father (who abducted her from her slave-mother) and gave them to the poor. How she got away with that unscathed had to have been divine intervention, that’s all I can say. Whether it’s true or not, I love the story, I love the history of pagan rituals being integrated into christianity, I love imagining the people celebrating the return of light and looking forward to something green to eat again. I love imagining a strong woman fighting for the poor and what she believes to be right, taking a jewel-laden sword and handing it to a beggar to buy food. Nice gesture, though he was probably immediately killed for it. I wonder if she thought that one through.
I used to think the saints lived in barbaric times: chariot races, bullfights, public beheadings…what un-evolved humans! If only they’d had the resources for education we have now. Think of the insights, the technical advances, the studies identifying causes of disease and scientific remedies. Cures! Vaccines! Then I think of the ways barbarism still exists in modern dress. I shake my head and tsk tsk, basically glad I don’t live in Saudi Arabia or wherever else public flogging is legal and think I’m doing my part by refusing to buy a ticket to a bullfight. I wonder how all of this can shift and how where we live won’t protect us anymore.
I heard snippets of news while I was traveling but I was mostly blacked out by choice, hoping justice, as I believed in it, would prevail. I got home in time to make frantic calls to my congresspeople, dismayed that justice is not quite taking on the form I envisioned. Was my philosophy professor right? If the most powerful prevails is that justice? I think of strong and powerful as two different things. The most powerful may prevail in the short term, but the strongest endure until the power shifts. Looking at it that way keeps me from losing hope.
And so here we are, struggling for justice in a very unjust system with a chaotic jumble of frustration and noise swirling around. How to keep clear? I’m intrigued by the saints, if not for guidance, then for insight into what it means to really believe in something and fight for it. To stay strong. I have no desire to hand my severed breasts on a platter to God, so Saint Catherine is out of my league, but Brigid is a bit of a role model I’d say. She believed in her mission to serve the poor and marched (or maybe glided in a saintly way) toward it. I love the images I found of her looking serene and confident. That must be what it is like when you have no doubt about being on the right path. I love what Joan of Arc said when asked what she would do if no one followed her: “I shan’t look backward to see.”
Onward with our teeth digging, digging, digging. The light is returning.
Love to all,