As I’ve shared before, I grew up in the spiritually-enchanted, Christ-haunted Bible-belt of the American South, where we took our faith very seriously. At age four I had a full-on ‘born again’ experience in a Baptist Sunday school, turning from my life of nascent nefariousness and casting my lot with Jesus. I’ve since let go of many attitudes, beliefs and practices that don’t actually serve the kind of spiritual and social vitality promised by this unlikely Messiah, but I’ve always stuck with Jesus.
Turns out, I’d follow him to unexpected places!
Like a decade + ago, when I got the weirdest Facebook friend request of my life. The note accompanying it said “Hello Mike. I think I might be your birth mother. Please disregard if I’m mistaken!” This was the penultimate moment in my years-long quest to discover my biological origins as an adoptee, beginning a relationship with my birth mom, Renee, that thankfully flourishes to this day.
But it wasn’t always easy.
You see, her dad was a Juilliard-trained, Candler/Emory-educated, United Methodist minister who was active in the Civil Rights movement and penned hundreds of hymns. Like many fathers, ministers, and human beings, David Robb was at-turns wonderful and complex, gifting Renee a Christian faith that sometimes seemed more complex than wonderful.
She ultimately opted for a gift-exchange, paving her own path which included finding her place in the contemporary Neo-Pagan revival. In Asheville, the Appalachian mountain city I’d eventually call home too, Renee was one of the founders of the Mother Grove Goddess Temple (and later, Elder Moon).
And boy, that was initially uncomfortable for me, even as a “composting” and open-minded Christian.
Maybe almost as uncomfortable as she felt visiting our progressive Baptist church with me!
Many of us are, of course, only too aware of the suspicion, strife, and outright bloodshed that’s possible when we react from the most fearful and reactionary potentials of our social, cultural and religious conditioning instead living from their unique zone of genius. Pagans and Christians have taken turns persecuting each other throughout history, leaving wounds that persist in our cultural memory — from feeding Christians to lions in ancient Rome to witch hangings in not-so-ancient Salem. Sacred writings and secular histories alike can be sampled in ways that dig the gulfs between us ever-wider.
But people build “tension bridges” when they love each other. And when we actually walk across, we often find them to be surprisingly sturdy!
Mutual appreciation and growing trust was the experience between me and Renee, and I find friendships between Pagans and Christians flourishing in so many quarters these days, led by voices like Gus diZerega, Sophie Strand, John Morehead, Rebekah Berndt, Martin Shaw, Dougald Hine and Carl McColman, among many others.
When it comes to deepening my understanding of ‘pagan’ (literally meaning ‘of the land’) folkways, understandings, and rites, I know few more reliable guides than Saro Lynch-Thomason. As an award-winning singer, song leader, folklorist, documentarian, and illustrator, Saro has been studying and teaching traditional song and balladry from Appalachia, the American South, the British Isles and Ireland for over a decade, as well as leading in heart-centered activism including the international ecological anthem, More Waters Rising.
As I mentioned, Saro is launching Singing the Wheel of the Year very soon. When I asked her how this embodied learning journey through the sacred cycle of the pagan year might relate to friends and followers of Jesus, she reminded me of the unique dual identity of the enigmatic Celtic figure, Brigid, and her role as a bridge between these sacred worlds. Saro says it better than me — and teaches us a chant, to boot! So without further ado, I leave you with her wisdom:
Burning, Yearning, Blessing: Bríg, Brigid, and Divine Abundance
by Saro Lynch-Thomason
The goddess Bríg (pronounced Breej), known by many in her modern manifestation as the Irish Saint Brigid enjoys a special relationship…with herself. They are distinct beings in the annals of Irish literature and cosmology, and yet it’s almost certain they are, for all intents and purposes, the same holy woman. The deity known as Bríg was a triple goddess of smithcraft, poetry and healing. “Bríg” probably originally meant “Exalted One” or “High One.” The medieval Irish text known as Cormac’s Glossary states that she was the patron goddess of poets and afforded great honor and affection.
Then we have St. Brigid, a woman who in medieval sources is credited with founding an abbey at Kildare in the 5th century, as well as performing a great number of miracles in her lifetime. Today she is Ireland’s only female patron saint. There is much debate about the origins of St. Brigid: Was she a real historical figure? Was she generated through folklore as a way to continue veneration of the goddess Bríg? The truth may likely lie in the middle: This 5th century abbess perhaps did exist, and qualities of the goddess Bríg became attached to her over time.
There are an astounding number of attributes and stories associated with both the goddess Bríg and her later counterpart Brigid, but for me, the core of this divine woman’s gifts have to do with her abilities as a bringer of hope, a tender of flames, and a nurturer of mothers and children. We can trace these qualities through this invocation for St. Brigid, which is meant especially to be recited on her feast day of February 1st:
February 1st is also the traditional date given for Imbolc, the opening of spring in Celtic tradition. The overlap of the saint’s feast day with this ancient holiday leads many to believe that this day may have first had special associations with the goddess Bríg, with St. Brigid taking her place sometime in the middle ages.
Our lines begin:
Oh to hear the newborn lambs
Many of the miracles attributed to St. Brigid have to do with abundance: In some accounts she produces amazing supplies of milk and butter from cows, and in others she’s said to have had a limitless larder of food. These qualities would have had a special relevance at Imbolc, when the sheep were giving birth and beginning to produce milk that their hungry human caretakers would have also deeply needed in the starvation-prone period of late winter.
Oh to see the sun so early
May your fires burn away
Sin and sorrow, oh we pray
Saint Brigid has strong associations with fire: Hundreds of years after her death, a 12th-century traveler described that an eternal flame was still being tended in her honor by 19 attendant nuns at her religious house in Kildare. Her associations with fire are also reinforced by her feast day at Imbolc, a time when the strength of the sun is slowly returning. Her counterpart Bríg, with her associations of the forge, also hearkens to the comforts of hearth and home during the winter months.
This night as you make your way
Bless us as we’re sleeping
From Cornwall to Ireland to the Hebrides of Scotland, St. Brigid is said to visit and bless local homes on the eve of her feast day, and one can tell if she has passed through the house by looking for disturbed ashes in the fireplace. The tradition of this annual domestic blessing is also a reminder of her close guardianship of mothers and children. In Scottish folk tradition, St. Brigid is said to have been a midwife to Mary and the foster mother of Jesus. In those same traditions, she’s credited as providing easy and healthy births for mothers whom she favors. And in one account of her from Ireland, she also uses her divine powers to make the fetus of a pregnant nun disappear, furthering, in some ways, Brigid’s qualities as a midwife, since such women historically also often aided in birth control.
Bríg/Brigid’s many qualities of flame and hearth, returning abundance, and nurturer create a powerfully soothing image for us at a time when we descend into winter. Though her feast day- and the returning spring- are many months away, this invocation can serve as a balm as we enter into what is often a frightening and desolate period of the year. This flame keeper, this bringer of fresh milk, this potent master of fertility, invites us to nestle in by the fire and accept her hospitality and protection. Saint or goddess — she may not mind what form she takes — as long as the gifts she so eagerly and easily dispenses are accepted with gratitude.
If you’d like to explore deeper natural-world attunements and devotional practices for every season of life on our planet, Saro’s offering Singing the Wheel of the Year is likely for you.
Starting next week, this year-long, song-based exploration of the eight neo-pagan holidays helps you learn traditional and modern songs for each holiday, sharing these songs in ritual.
Saro will teach a mix of ballads, rounds, chants and layered songs ranging from proto-Celtic to middle English to new compositions by Saro and other amazing song leaders. You can sample ritual songs by Saro here (this is a song for the casting of circles) and here (a song for Beltaine).
This course is for anyone who’s interested in bringing consistent, powerful seasonal ritual into their lives, learning new songs that go beyond pagan classics, and getting a grounding in many of the traditions associated with the old holidays. You can take the course as part of an online cohort, or in-person if you live in Western North Carolina. Students will receive practice tracks, liner notes and bonus materials throughout the year. You can learn more and register right here.
In any case I hope you continue bridging the differences in your circles, with courage and verve.