Thursday, April 11, 2013

Online Paper: Brigit of Kildare and the Liminality of Women's Spiritual Power

Many of you will know the American theologist Edward C. Sellner through his books on Celtic saints ( eg Wisdom of the Celtic Saints) and on the anam cara (Celtic Soul Friend). Here is a paper by him that you may find of interest: “Brigit of Kildare, Golden Sparkling Flame: A Study in the Liminality of Women's Spiritual Power”.

Posted on Ohio State University's Monastic Matrix (a scholarly resource for the study of women's religious communities from 400 to 1600 CE), it was first published in Vox Benedictina: A Journal of Translations from Monastic Sources 8/2 (1991): 265-296.

An excerpt:

"Sometime in the 1180’s, the mediæval churchman, pilgrim, and story–teller Gerald of Wales visited Kildare in Ireland, made famous, he says, by the “glorious Brigid.” There, as he tells us in the controversial book he wrote after his tours of Ireland, he found Brigit’s fire, said to be inextinguishable:

"It is not that it is strictly speaking inextinguishable, but that the nuns and holy women have so carefully and diligently kept and fed it with enough material, that through all the years from the time of the virgin saint it has never been extinguished.

"Gerald of Wales, of course, was not the first pilgrim to visit Kildare, but he has provided us with one of the most vivid accounts of that monastic site and the legends associated with it centuries after the death of its foundress. Judging from his books on Ireland and Wales, he evidently discovered, as many of us do when we travel to foreign shores, that the holy places and the tombs of the saints often provide “a location for the healing, forgiving, and guiding powers of God.”

"Pilgrimage is one of the oldest spiritual traditions, shared by all the great religions of the world. The practice of pilgrimage has been a part of Christian spirituality since the first apostles, after the death of Jesus, returned to those places in Galilee associated with his memory and learned, as they fished and ate meals together on the seashore, that he was still very much alive. While pilgrimages may result in encounters with the Holy One, they can also be painful journeys into the unknown, far from family and friends and all those things that give us a sense of self–worth and identity. This experience of being in the wilderness, of being betwixt and between, is described by Joseph Campbell as characteristic of “liminality,” a state in which the person striving for maturity and wisdom crosses a threshold into the unknown, meets many obstacles as well as helping spirits along the way, and returns home as “master of two worlds” with a “treasure” or “blessing” that is shared with the community. According to Campbell, all the great myths of humankind have these elements describing how a person becomes a hero, which is to say, more fully human (and, from the Christian perspective, more god–like). Victor and Edith Turner, authors of Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, describe pilgrimage in those terms: as a “liminoid phenomenon,” a boundary experience that applies not only to foreign travel and rites of passage, but “to all phases of decisive cultural change.” “It has become clear to us,” they say, “that liminality is not only transition but also potentiality, not only ‘going to be’ but also ‘what may be.’

"With that understanding in mind, let us take a pilgrimage to Celtic lands and to the home of Brigit, who was considered the patron saint of travelers and pilgrims during the Middle Ages. As a soul friend with whom that ancient tradition of spiritual guidance is very much identified, she has something to teach us about women’s leadership as it emerged in the early Celtic Church. Her legends and stories also reveal much about the actuality and potentiality of women’s spiritual power in our own churches today. Brigit, the powerful Christian saint associated with a Celtic goddess, is a study in liminality, for she lives on the boundary between pagan mythology and Christian spirituality, between what was and what will be. Described in one of the most ancient Christian Celtic hymns as “ever excellent woman, golden sparkling flame,” and by the Irish poet Padraic Colum as “she who had the flaming heart,” Brigit will show us that not only is her monastery associated with flames of fire, but her life and ministry as well—a flame of holiness that continues to blaze and give us light even though the fires at Kildare of which Gerald of Wales wrote have now been extinguished."

For those who have the original version of Wisdom of the Saints and would like the updated introduction, this is available through Northumbria Community for four pounds. For an online article by Sellner on soul friendship (anam cara) visit the site of Aisling magazine.

Monday, April 08, 2013

St. Brigid's Skull

St. Brigid's skull has done some travelling, apparently. This may be appropriate for a woman who travelled widely when she was alive, visiting many areas in Ireland and, according to legend, establishing a number of religious communities.

Say the writers at Orthodoxwiki:
"She died at Kildare around 525 and was buried in a tomb before the high altar of her abbey church. After some time her remains were exhumed and translated to Downpatrick to rest with the two other patron saints of Ireland, St. Patrick of Ireland and St. Columba of Iona. Her skull was extracted and brought to Lisbon, Portugal, by two Irish noblemen, where it remains."

But in fact, if this is indeed her skull, not all of it remains there. Wikipedia informs us that a "fragment of this skull was brought to St Bridget’s Church, Kilcurry in 1905 by Sister Mary Agnes of the Dundalk Convent of Mercy." The website of St. Brigid's Parish of Killester, Dublin tells of a portion of St. Brigid's cheekbone that is housed there:

"In 1929 a small portion of St. Brigid’s skull was brought back to Ireland and placed here for the veneration of the people. At the time it came as a great surprise to the majority of Irish people that this relic existed, and that it had been carefully preserved in Portugal, where for hundreds of years the Portuguese had almost made St. Brigid their own.

"The Holy Relic is preserved in an unpretentious church in Lumiar, a small town outside Lisbon. King Dinis had a small convent of Cistercians founded there during his reign, at a place called Odivelas, a few miles outside Lisbon and quite near Luimar.

"In 1276 the Bishop of Lisbon decided to build a church at Luimar and he placed it under the patronage of the nuns at Odivilelas. When King Dinis heard that three Irish knights were bringing St. Brigid’s head to Portugal, he wanted to have it preserved in the convent of Odivelas, but Divine Will decreed otherwise; it was placed in the church at Lumiar, where it remains to this day.

"The three faithful knights remained with the Holy Relic for the rest of their days, and when they died they were interred in tombs let into the wall of St. Brigid’s chapel.
The inscription reads:

Here in these three tombs lie the three Irish knights who brought the head of St. Brigid, Virgin, a native of Ireland, whose relic is preserved in this chapel. In memory of which, the officials of the Table of the same Saint caused this to be done in January A.D. 1283

"A portion of the skull was given to the Rev. Father Traynor of Killester, under seal of the Cardinal of Lisbon, on November 16th 1928 for Killester Church. The Archbishop of Dublin approved it on November 26th 1928, and on Sunday 27th 1929, the solemn ceremony of translation took place."

In January 2012 the relic was removed from the reliquary, which was undergoing maintenance, and locked away in preparation for St. Brigid's Day ceremonies. The reliquary was subsequently stolen; it is only by chance that the relic itself remained at Killester for the faithful.

A short video on YouTube takes us to the chapel in Portugal which houses the larger portion of the skull attributed to St. Brigid. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Online Study Group Starting: The Rites of Brigid: Goddess & Saint by Seán Ó Duinn

Ani Greenwood will be leading a women's study group of Seán Ó Duinn's The Rites of Brigid: Goddess & Saint beginning very shortly. Ani has been a member of the Daughters of the Flame for twenty years, and a member of a much newer flame-tending group, Nigheanan Brighde, for the last year. Wishing a more active investigation of the aspects and culture of Brigit with her sisters, she has set up a Yahoo group Brigid Study for Flamekeepers, which will commence in mid April.

For more information, please contact Ani through her Yahoo group. To purchase a copy of the book, go to (this link leads to The Rites of Brigid at

"We will take the next six weeks to get an overview of the material covered in this book, then reflect on the process in the seventh week, offering feedback, suggestions for going forward and naming any particular learnings we have received in the process.

"My role will be to read - and take the conversation into corners of the book for closer reading of areas that I imagine would be of particular interest for women tending the flame of Brigid either as a solitary, or as part of a flame-keeping group of women, or of men and women...

"Whatever we raise for consideration, we each strive to listen deeply to one another, through asking questions, speaking our truth or observing/comparing what we find in the material to our experience, other reading or observations of nature and culture. Comparisons and observations from outside of the celtic
cultural context are welcome, please identify your sources. Personal gnosis is part of the mix here, and I invite you to speak freely, simply noting when what you are saying is verifiable through studies in archaeology, cultural antrhopology, history, literature, and so on.I would invite anyone with specific
areas of expertise to identify that along the way, or in your introduction...

"I hope that our readings as a group will nurture respect for our diversity of opinion/understanding, respect for the sources based on an understanding of their verifiability, and inspiration for our personal cultivation of Brighid in our lives. I hope we will share along all of these lines in our conversations."