Blessed are We: Keepers of the Light

This post is adapted from a message originally shared at the Islands Community Church on Bailey’s Island, Maine on February 2, 2020. It was well received there and I am glad to share it here as well.

This weekend, we celebrate St. Brigid’s Day, honoring birthing and new life, and we celebrate Imbolc, the ancient Celtic celebration honoring the Goddess Brigid’s return to the land at springtime, bringing light and life to all that is dark and frozen. The Goddess Brigid and the Saint Brigid share many of the same qualities — generosity, compassion, creativity, and birthing. Their domains are the hearth, the forge, wells, and poetry.

As I prepared for this morning, I studied up on these two iconic figures. I tried to keep the stories of the Saint and the stories of the Goddess separate. I wanted to share one of the stories of Brigid’s miraculous capacity to feed the hungry by turning well water to beer or nurture a cow until it gave a lake of milk rather than a bucket. I wanted to tell of how Brigid delivered an imprisoned man from the cell where he was held to the threshold of his home in the instant he muttered her name. But I couldn’t remember whether the Goddess or the Saint was the heroine of each story. These mythic figures insisted on mingling in my mind.

Eventually, I came to believe that is probably how it should be anyway. Brigid, whether goddess or saint — was an elemental figure, associated not only with earth as bearer of spring’s fertility, with the air as breath of life, with water as a source of purification, and also with the fire as summoner of the sun. It is this last element, the fire, that we will spend a little time with this morning.

In what is now known as the village of Kildare in Ireland, a sacred fire burned for centuries, an offering to the Goddess Brigid for protection of herds and harvest. The ritual flame was tended for an entire day by one of nineteen priestesses. On the 20th day, the goddess Brigid herself tended the sacred flame. Centuries later, when Christianity moved into the region, St. Brigid built her monastery and church in that exact location. She continued the custom of keeping the fire alight. Now nineteen nuns were the flame keepers and on the 20th day, Brigid tended it herself. The sacred flame is believed to have survived up until the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th century when it was extinguished. In 1993, the Brigadine Sisters of Kildare relit the perpetual flame and there are communities of flame keepers throughout the world that maintain perpetual flames dedicated to Brigid’s honor.  

What delights me about this story, is the continuity. What a wonder to consider a single flame persisting through storms and wars, changes in government, changes in religions, major shifts in human behavior. And it seems that, even in the 300 year period when the flame at Kildare was extinguished, a flame somewhere (or perhaps in someone) was kept alive. The memory of Brigid remained strong, ready to resurface when and where it was safe enough to do so.

This is a literal story but it is also a wonderful metaphor for our own lives and faith journeys. Spiritual traditions throughout the world honor light as an expression of the Divine. In Quaker tradition, we talk often of the Light, as in I am holding you in the Light or I recognize the Light of God within each one of you. Consider that if there is the Light of God within each one of us, that means it is here in me too. I suspect I am not the only one in the room who finds it easier to recognize and honor the Light in others than it is to honor it in myself… 

In the spirit of Brigid’s flame, in the next few minutes, consider how you tend to the Divine Light that burns within you. For it is that eternal, internal flame, that leads each one of us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly in our hearts, our homes and in the wider community.

    • Tending to the divinity within us and around us is an act of devotion. It requires commitment and it requires community. Remembering that there were 19 priestesses and then 19 nuns keeping Brigid’s flame burning, how do you enlist help to tend the burning flame within you?
    • Tending to the divinity within us and around us is an act of courage. Remembering the profound systemic changes that the perpetual flame at Kildare survived, how do you lean into the eternal divine light that permeates the roller-coaster of your finite, terrestrial life?
    • Tending to the divinity within us and around us is an act of creation. Remembering that Brigid fed and nurtured, healed and transformed with a generosity that was without limits, how do you sustain a flame that offers compassionate heat and light to those who need it most?

As we close, I’d like to share with you a simple practice that helps me welcome and nourish my own Light. It can be a particularly potent practice today. Imbolc is the half-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This time, when the increasing light becomes more noticeable and the earthbound plants and critters (including us) begin to peek out from our winter retreats, is thought to be a time of union between light and land.

If you are comfortable, close your eyes and notice the points of contact between your body and the earth. Notice that the wood of the floorboards and the pew connect you physically to the church which stands upon the living earth. As you take a long, slow deep breath, imagine pulling the breath up through the earth, through the soles of your feet, through your legs, up into your heart space, and finally into your head. Release the breath with a long, slow exhale.

As you open your eyes and take another long, slow breath in through the soles of your feet, know that through your very life — in words, in actions and, quite simply, in breath — you bridge the divine and the earthly. May you know that you are whole and holy.