Brigit, celebrated by pagans and Christians alike on February 1, is a goddess who knows how to incarnate. When Christianity came to Ireland, she became a saint without missing a beat and without giving up any of her reputation for healing, poetry, or smith crafting, for being the keeper of the sacred flames and wells. The verse above is one of my favorites from “The Blessing of Brigit,” several versions of which are recorded in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, Hymns and Incantations Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last Century (which is to say the nineteenth!)
I adapted the verse and sang it in memory of author, educator, priestess, and visionary activist Patricia Monaghan who died November 11, 2012. Dawn Work-Makinne offered a beautiful tribute to Patricia’s life and work. Today I want to reflect on Patricia in relation to Brigit, a goddess Patricia researched and celebrated (look for the forthcoming anthology she edited with her husband, Michael McDermott Brigit: Sun of Womanhood)—and whose spirit she embodied as vigorously as the legendary Saint Brigit of Kildare.
Patricia and I met first through reading each other’s writing. At my daunting virgin experience of Book Expo America, I met her in the flesh. She took me under her generous wing, as she did many people, or to borrow a phrase from “The Blessing of Brigit,” “under her shielding. “ Several years later, Patricia invited me to become a fellow of Black Earth Institute, a progressive think tank that she and her husband Michael McDermott were founding.
The newly gathered fellows met at Brigit Rest, Patricia and Michael’s home in the driftless area of Wisconsin. Whenever I think of Brigit Rest and picture looking out over the prairie hills where Michael and Patricia have been restoring native grasses and trees, I think of Brigit’s mantle, the goddess’s mantle of protection that she once hung on a sunbeam to dry—and the saint’s. In one legend Saint Brigit went to the King of Leinster to ask for land for her convent near a forest where they could collect berries and firewood and a lake surrounded by fertile land. The King refused outright. Divinely inspired, Brigit asked if she might have as much land as her mantle would cover. When the king gave his scornful permission, four of Brigit’s friends took a corner each of her mantle and walked for miles in every direction. She and her nuns became famous for their blueberry jam.
Patricia, who grew and preserved much of her own food, had a passionate relationship with the land, planting a vineyard, extensive gardens, and a circle of each of the thirteen trees sacred to the druids. With her book The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit, she pioneered a literary form she called spiritual geography. When fellows arrived for the annual meeting, our first task was to gather something, butternuts one year, apples another. Each year we went on field trips: to the Blue Mounds, sacred to the Hotcak (or Ho-Chunk) people, and to other significant local sites. Each year, we planted another tree in the fellows’ grove.
A good Celt, Patricia knew the magic of the number three. Black Earth Institute rests on this triad: earth, spirit, and society, connected through the arts, arts not as something commercial or elective but as essential as breath or blood, essential as dreaming is to the whole human psyche. Patricia held an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Science and Literature. For her brilliant exploration of physics through poetry, see her collection Dancing with Chaos. She invited to the institute visionary scholars and scientists of all kinds. Poet, scholar, teacher, mentor, gardener, craftswoman, Patricia’s ultimate medium was the very fabric of our collective life. She deplored the dragooning of spiritual values by the political right and hoped through the work of Black Earth Institute to reclaim for artists the kind of moral and spiritual authority of a druid who could bring down the reign of a corrupt ruler with the sacred power of words, words that spoke not just for the poet, not only for the people, but for the land itself, whom the Celts revered as the Goddess of Sovereignty.
This February 1, whether you celebrate Brigit as goddess or saint, think of our comrade-woman Patricia Monaghan and the three-fold, manifold gifts she gave without stinting, as a poet, as a healer of the body politic, and as smith whose craft was to re-forge our connections with each other, the earth, and the spirit. Ask yourself: how do I embody the divine? How am I a comrade or guide? What is my song?
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known for The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is nobody’s disciple. An ordained interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also the director of the Center at High Valley where she celebrates the Celtic Cross Quarter Days. She lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley. For more: www.elizabethcunninghamwrites.com.