Every year around this time, I start seeing posts pop up exploring Brigid as a triple deity. Which is brilliant, except at least half the posts explore her under the Maiden/Mother/Crone construction – which is problematic as far as I’m concerned. And it’s for a few different reasons. Even worse, I then start seeing “Celtic maiden mother crone”, but I am less qualified to address than. I will try, but less qualified.
Maiden mother crone in Irish lore
First off, the “maiden mother crone” construction isn’t one we have in Irish deities. If you google “Irish triple goddesses” you get mentions of Brigid, the Morrigan, the three sovereignty goddesses: Éire, Banbha and Fódla. Mary Jones suggests that Lugh is the lone survivor of triplets and mentions the sons of Tuireann and the sons of Cainte as potential male triple deities. So the idea of triple deities isn’t out of the question in Irish lore. It’s just the construction of the triplets that doesn’t conform to the Roman notion of the “maiden mother crone” construct. (I’m using “construct” here because I can’t think of a better word. It’s not intended to indicate “made up” or otherwise “not authentic”).
We have powerful deities in Ireland, and Brigid is just one (or three) of them. Cormac’s Glossary outlines three sisters, a woman of healing, a woman of wisdom/ protector of poets and a smith. And this is fundamentally where we get the idea of the triple deity from in Ireland. It also leads me down roads of “why call three sisters by the same name”, but that’s for another time! There is no notion that any of the three (poet, healer or smith) conform to maiden, mother or crone.
If anything, Brigid is definitely a mother. She loses her son Ruadhán in Caith Maigh Tuireadh, which is one of our foundational snippets of lore about her. There is a hint that she might be the mother of the sons of Tuireann. (Although other possible mothers are Ana or Danu depending on the source you read.) And, spoiler alert, the sons of Tuireann all die in the end as well. As a mother, I sincerely hope she had daughters or less famous sons rather than losing all her children to heroic deeds. However misguided said heroic deeds might appear from a distance of a few millennia.
Do I think Brigid can appear as a maiden, mother or crone as she chooses? She’s a bloody deity, she can appear however she wishes. And yes, I have experienced her at most adult ages at this point. I’d suggest if you want to limit how a deity appears to you – well just warn me so I can get out of the way, alright? But trying to understand Brigid through the construct of “maiden mother crone” would be very difficult. The history, the folklore, the traditions just aren’t there to support it. For Brigid or any of the other Irish deities.
Maiden mother crone more generally
So there’s my issues with Brigid as maiden mother crone. But I also have some issues with the maiden mother crone concept itself. Now, if you use this construct and it works for you – that is brilliant. Good for you! I’m delighted. If that’s the case, you may wish to skip the rest of this post. So… fair warning.
Now, obviously, my own experience as a woman and with Brigid and other deities/ divine figures will influence the discussion that follows. I make no apologies for that. I am writing this post as a white, Irish, cisgendered, able bodied, reasonably healthy, fat woman. (Admittedly one who wears glasses and has ankle issues, but nothing that majorly impacts on my life choices.) I’m also writing as a woman who can’t have children, for no apparent medical reason. (I don’t want advice on that one by the way!)
And one who has done a lot of work on menstruation spirituality and getting in tune with my body. So while I might managed the maiden and crone bit, the mother bit will be a push. And yes, I know it’s not necessarily a “physical mother who has born children of her body”. I know it can be creative mother, spiritual mother, the energy of the mother. I still have problems with the whole construct.
Plus, it’s my blog, which gives me freedom to outline my thoughts here 😊
The first way this construct annoys me is this: it’s limiting women to their reproductive stages in ways we don’t really limit men at all. Maiden is traditionally innocent, virginal, awakening. New-start energy, enthusiasm, that sort of thing. Mother is fertility, fecundity, growth, caring, homemaking and other adjectives along those lines. The Crone is wise woman, the hag, the moving closer to death. Now, I understand that this can relate to creative pursuits, innovation and all sorts of other things. I get that part. But this still accounts for women by their reproductive season in life.
We don’t do this with men – who have similar stages in their reproductive cycles, it’s just not as pronounced. Or at least the end date isn’t as pronounced.
For me – this construct of the maiden, the mother and the crone is putting me in boxes I never agreed to. Or want to agree to. My chosen career possibly influences this – I’m an engineer and spend a lot of my time with men. I can be in touch with my female power and still not think about my reproductive stages. In fact, it’s preferably in many cases. It’s another way to limit my career if I draw too much attention to my reproductive cycle. In fact, very often in work, I need to forget about my reproductive cycle and work with it outside of work, to support myself in work.
I’m never going to be a mother, unless the Divine presents a miracle. It’s a kick in the teeth to tell me I’m in my fertile phase of life. I think as well, this minimises the effect that older women, post menopause, who contribute so much to life, society, families, work, etc. It minimises women in the “maiden” stage as well, limiting their impact as youthful enthusiasm, when much of the time, our young women are the ones with energy to do things. And yes, I know – I can already hear the proponents of maiden mother crone yelling at the screens. I know it’s not intended to limit people. I know technically we can all feel the “energies” of the different stages at any time. Hell, it’s used in menstruation spirituality to describe the phases of the menstruation cycle. I get it.
It’s still limiting women though. It’s still putting us in boxes. We’re more than all of this. And we deserve to be more than our reproductive stages. The construct appears to have it’s roots in Robert Graves’ work, rather than anything more ancient – which is not necessarily a bad thing. New doesn’t always equal bad. Old doesn’t always equal good. (Just go look at some of the Brehon laws dealing with rank!)
Finally, I’ll come on to the issues with the “celtic maiden mother crone” thing. Basically, no more than it appears in Irish lore, the construct doesn’t appear in other “Celtic” lore as well. First off, “Celtic” as a word usually is best reserved for languages, i.e. Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Breton and Cornish. There are many arguments about why Celtic should or shouldn’t be used in terms of anything other than language. For myself – describing something as “Celtic” is similar to describing something as “European” or “African”. It’s squishing an entire continent into one culture. Frankly, all you have to do is taste food from Ireland and compare it to the tastes in France (one of our nearest European neighbours) to see how different things can be.
And the word “Celtic” has sometimes been used with racist undertones (or with outright racism in mind) in recent history as well. I’m not going to link to site that use the word in that way, for, I hope, obvious reasons. The Celtic cross has managed to become a racist symbol of hate. I don’t think every depiction of the Celtic cross is a racist symbol (see picture below). Various hate groups have co-opted the cross as a symbol. That doesn’t mean using the word Celtic as a word is racist, but it’s just something to be aware of.
And when it comes to “maiden mother crone” there’s nothing specifically Celtic about it. Sure, if you wanted, you could pick Irish deities to fit in the maiden category, the mother category and the crone category. Although I would warn you, Irish deities like being put in boxes just as much as I do! For me, it would be more important to reach out and learn out lore about these deities.
So, if you’re interested in Brigid – look at the lore of the region you’re in first of all. I know there are Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Manx legends anyway about Brigid. People all over the world honour the saint. If you’re interested in the maiden mother crone construct – use it. Just don’t try and squish every goddess you meet into that framework cos, let me tell you, some of them will react strongly to that. And don’t assume all goddesses fit the mould you’re most comfortable with. Spirituality, faith – they’re not meant to be comfortable all the time. If you are feeling so comfortable all the time – are you really working at things?
While any deity is more than a construct we humans put about them, Brigid in particular is more than these three phases suggest. I have a basic introduction to Brigid class over at the Irish Pagan School, as well as some more at the Brigid’s Forge School. And the lore is free online as well – check out UCC Celt for any Brigid lore translated into English. There’s only 4 bits in the Irish pre-Christian stories. While the written copies we have today were recorded post Christianity’s arrival in Ireland, it’s obvious from the context of the stories that they happened pre-Christianity.
It’s always important to question our beliefs and work through our thoughts on particular issues. And you may read this and think I make perfect sense, but still find the maiden mother crone construct useful, whether in a Celtic context or not. That’s all fine. But don’t try to push Brigid into that structure – she won’t fit easily and she will let you know!
I had a really interesting conversation with my parents at the weekend. My darling niece was baptised and I was honoured to be allowed to be her godmother. so I paid more attention to the ceremony than I usually would. And I wasn’t sure the child would be baptised, but her parents decided it was important to do so. (Which is entirely their choice and business) But I was surprised by the ceremony – it was far more relaxed and inclusive of the people in the church than I remembered from the last baptism I attended.
Now in case this is your first time here, I consider myself a Pagan Catholic and this was a Catholic baptism. Also, if you’re not Irish, you may not understand the role the Catholic Church plays and has played in our society and culture, so check out the other posts I have on that. It might help with background.
Before I get into the details of the faith vs religion conversation, I do want to talk about Brigid in the ceremony as well – because there is a part of the ceremony where the priest calls on various figures to pray for us, in this case: Mary, Jesus, Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Patrick and St. Brigid. (So I was feckin delighted with that!) Then there is a part of the ceremony where the child’s baptism candle is lit from the Paschal Candle (the big candle, usually on its own holder, standing on the altar towards the back usually when it’s not being used) to symbolise the light of faith being passed on. And I got the job of lighting that candle, which probably seemed less important to others in the church, but to me, that was hugely important. Here is a ceremony, where we’re calling on Brigid to protect a child and using water and fire to bless the child… And then people wonder why I say I’m a Pagan Catholic!
But anyway, on to the conversation about faith vs religion. For me it’s simple: faith is the belief and religion is the structure and the system. So for me to say I believe in God, in Jesus, in Mary – I do. But my opinions of the Catholic Church as an institution, as an organisation, as a structure – well, suffice to say my opinion wouldn’t be high. Individuals within the church have done some good, I will not argue that, but at this point I would say, it’s in spite of the church rather than because of it.
So it was easy to say to my parents that my faith is strong – it is. That’s not to say I don’t have doubts, but I believe there is a Divine power out there to help us in this life. I have had too many incidents in my life that I should not have survived to say otherwise. But the religion, well now that’s a different thing. And my parents have a different view on it as well. I commented at the weekend that I wanted to go to mass in a particular building because it always lifts my spirits. My Dad is of the opinion that it’s the man saying mass should lift the spirits, whereas my Mam agrees that architecture helps the whole experience along. For me, my respect for and opinion of the man saying mass affects my experience of the ritual. For me Dad, it’s the spiritual experience itself that matters, not who facilitates it. Perhaps my Dad is the better Catholic for being able to sidestep the physical representation of the experience and go straight to the source… I don’t know, but I know right now, it’s easier to go to mass with a priest I don’t know and will probably never speak to rather than one that I know has what I consider to be hideous opinions or a belief in maintaining the status quo.
So what is more important? Faith or religion? For me it’s faith. We can create our own structures and systems to support our spiritual life and as long as we’re not selling them as the One True Way, no harm, no foul. The structure should never be mistaken for the faith. Faith is something that can be easily faked using systems and structures, in public view anyway. But a firm belief in the divine, a faith that there is a higher power of some description, is something that can’t really be faked to oneself. And that faith for me is the feeling inside me that there is something looking out for me. That something is far outside my ability to comprehend fully, so I divide it into saints, deities, powerful beings, but yet ones that I can comprehend.
It’s like thinking of space. I get panic attacks at night sometimes thinking of the great blackness of space, that massive, unending, emptiness, from which we came and to which we shall return. It’s simply too big for me to think about, and my mind closes over. It’s the same with the Divine. It’s too big to think about and so I break it up. But the faith is still there, underpinning my actions and life.
This is how I can call on Mary for patience or Brigid for help in times of need. It’s why I don’t often have the perfect prayer, but I have the shape of a thought to throw at the divine. It’s why I know that while my prayers might not seem to be answered, or might not be answered in the way I want them to be answered, they will eventually be answered. It’s how I know that somethings I won’t understand in this life and that’s alright. Maybe I don’t need to. But I have faith that I have what I really do fundamentally need in this life.
Religion can be a community; it’s usually rules and strictures and man-made restrictions. Faith is a power force linked to the divine that can move mountains.
St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Ireland, and indeed all over the world, on 17th March, or your nearest day off, depending on whether you’re lucky enough to get the day off or not. And there’s “controversies” every year about the day, with Irish people moaning it’s yet another holiday associated with a religious holiday, pagans moaning that dear, old Paddy wasn’t all that great, and history experts (the real sort, not the internet sort) getting caught in between.
And after one of my recent emails to my fans (or at least people who agree to sign up to receive emails from me, click here if you’re interested) people came back asking what my thoughts on the day. So here you go…
I’ll be the first to admit that, for a lot of my life, Paddy’s was celebrated as a day off work or a day on double pay when I was in college. In my early years post-college, it was a chance to meet up with friends in Dublin, see the parade, or the tail-end of it, and then hit the pubs for the day. It was a day to relax and let our hair down, and drink quite a lot. So, having been in that tradition myself, I don’t really condemn those who celebrate in this way now. I can’t bring myself to be that hypocritical and, really, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself.
Where I do get a bit annoyed is when people start saying that because it’s Paddy’s Day, there’s almost an onus on us to get plastered, sure cos aren’t the Irish all mad drinkers anyway? Alcohol causes a lot of problems in this country, so don’t be using that rhetoric to justify or excuse letting your own hair down. I drank for problematic reasons for years, beginning far younger than I really should have, I recognise now, even if it was the norm. I also know there are plenty of my friends who started drinking around the same age I did who didn’t end up with the years long dubious relationship with drink. So, that comes down to the individual (and I should add, the laws of the land. I’m not recommending anyone go breaking laws now!)
And the whole dying rivers green thing and the lighting up buildings green and all the rest – it’s great advertisement for Ireland and fair play to those places doing it. I did feel sorry for poor Micheál Mairtín though, getting COVID so he couldn’t meet with Joe Biden. Paddy’s being a chance for our politicians to go promote the Irish tourism industry all over the world – take advantage of it, if it brings in more money to deal with the problems we have at home!
The things I don’t like seeing? Well there’s the annual “Paddy is a druid-killer” debate, seeing as how he drove the snakes out of Ireland. As far as I’m aware, the whole “drove the snakes out of Ireland” thing was invented to explain the distinct lack of snakes on this island – apparently we’re too wet and cold for them. More joy to us, in that case! Also, Paddy wasn’t going around killing people as a general rule. He was a lone man in an isolated country, where he’d been a slave a few years previously, before escaping. He also wasn’t the first Christian on the island either, there were Christians before him, or so Pope Celestine 1’s letter to Palladius in 431 would indicate, referring as it does to Palladius being “first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ.” So, he wasn’t the first, he wasn’t the last, he was just the one with the best propogandist.
He also didn’t eradicate paganism from Ireland. I can’t find anyone daring to specify a date from which we can consider Ireland to be Christian, but most academic resources outline a syncretic process happening over centuries rather than at the point of a sword over a single generation. I have read in various places that a few outbreaks of famine where the monastic settlements had more food than non-monastic settlements helped a bit as well. (Oh yeah, there’s way more than 1 famine in Irish history!!) And some would say, myself included, that Christianity in Ireland was always a thin enough veneer over a deep bedrock of paganism. In comparison to the more fundamentalist Protestant religions, Catholicism is often considered pagan anyway, but it is monotheistic officially, whatever about the realms of saints…
I also dislike intensely people from outside Ireland telling us how we should and shouldn’t celebrate the day. Let’s face it, for many of us, it’s a day off work or a day we get double pay for working. There’s few people would give that up just to satisfy other people’s notions of how we should celebrate our country. And for many of us, Paddy’s isn’t even a religious occasion any more. It’s a time for relaxing, maybe for venturing forth to your local parade, which will be extremely different to the big on in Dublin in most cases, for spending time with family, for catching up on housework or just relaxing and chilling. It’s a day off.
And it’s a day we can celebrate being Irish. Not that we can’t celebrate 365 days of the year, but there is a buzz about the day of the year when it seems the whole world turns green. It’s also fantastic in (very) recent years to see the communities of emigrants celebrated in the national parade, and this year was the first time I have seen the Travelling Community represented in the national parade (although they could have been there in previous years and I didn’t notice? Or did I imagine that? Either is possible and firm answers either way are welcomed.)
This is the day we can turn out our best image possible and let the world admire us.
It doesn’t take away from all the issues in the country – direct provision, homelessness, violence against women, poverty, hunger… All these things will still need to be dealt with. And I don’t mind St. Patrick having his day after all, haven’t I said plenty of times before, he has his day, but Brigid supports the people throughout the year? Patrick is our immigrant saint, the one that we have claimed as our own, as we have claimed other immigrants and invaders over the years. We now need to learn to extend that to the more recent immigrants, extend it to those who maybe don’t look quite like us? (Yes, I’m talking about non-white immigrants here, we need to be better about racism in this country. As in eradicate it and listen to the lived experience of those BIPOC in our society to do so).
Colmcille is our emigrant patron saint, who paved the way for so many emigrants over the centuries, some more willing than others. Brigid is our homegrown and stayed saint. No wonder she’s special!
But back to Patrick. This year, I slept in, no alarm clock. Read a bit. Watched the parade on the telly. Tried to moderate a bit online, but frankly, I’m unsure whether anyone was willing to listen. I didn’t even bother having a drink this year, cos I was looking forward to my bed!
If you’re Irish – no one really has the right to tell you how to celebrate our national holiday. People can give opinions all they like, but it’s up to you. If you’re not Irish, then maybe listen to the Irish around you. And remember, just because one Irish person once told you X was ok, doesn’t mean it is acceptable to any and all Irish people.
If you’re not Irish and if you want to celebrate Irish food and cooking – brown bread, fruit scones, bacon and cabbage, spuds with plenty butter, don’t go skimping now… If you want to celebrate Irish drink – the big named brands are all pretty much foreign owned. Try some of the smaller distilleries, Slane whiskey (distilled not far from where I grew up) is nice, as is Connemara whiskey. There are also some beer/ ale breweries around the country as well, just do your research because big names like Jameson are owned by Pernod Ricard (just as an example) There are also plenty of Irish food producers, whether you’re looking for chocolate or seaweed. Do your research and see what locals think of them – that’s usually your best bet.
Be respectful, don’t talk over native voices and listen to what’s being said. The Irish, no more than any other group of people on earth, are not a monolith and what I’ve said above may not pass for any other Irish person. But seriously – a day without the alarm clock going off, who’d refuse that??
Part one of this series is here (Intro to Catholicism); part two of the series is here (The Problems)
In the last two posts, I covered a (very, very brief) introduction to Catholicism and the problems inherent with mixing Catholicism and Paganism. Now I’ll sort through just how I mix the two. And I’ll be honest, it was hard to pick this apart…
Lighting candles is so much a part of both Brigidine practices and Catholicism, it’s difficult to tell which in which practice the candle is lit. And yet, lighting candles for specific intentions is a part of my day-to-day activities (well maybe, week-to-week). I ask my parents to light candles for me for important meetings or interviews, I’ll light them myself to ensure the internet stays working during a class or to help focus my mind on something specific. The candles I light myself are done with little ceremony, a tea light, a match (although the search for a match that bloody works has become a ceremony in itself at this point!), a quick “please let the internet stay stable for the next X time” and the candle placed in front of a statue of either Brigid or Mary. Weirdly, I rarely if ever use St. Therese for this.
I’ve said a lot previously that I believe the physical reflects the energetical and vice versa, so a lot of my energy cleaning work looks extremely similar to normal housework. I mean, if I’m washing the windows to improve my outlook or my vision, the windows of my house still get washed. As well, if I’m hoovering up dust to clear out some energy, or clearing clutter to remove stagnation, the house ends up looking nicer afterwards. From the outside, there’s no real difference in these activities. And yet, I believe that regardless of whether I’m thinking of it or not, clearing out clutter from the corners does help the energy to flow around the house more. Bringing light (i.e. clearing all the crap) away from the corners bears light on the hidden or unnoticed issues, but also means the room looks better. House designers and decorators speak of creating moods with lighting, textures and fabrics – how is this not magic?
Taking some straw from the crib at Christmas to ensure wealth or at least financial comfort during the year is obviously Christian in origin, but with real hints of pagan practices. A lot of the Irish folklore practices are like this and for more, there area few courses on the Irish Pagan School on this. Or indeed, go look at Dúchas. Lots of the traditional practices there.
From a practical point of view, despite long holding out that I don’t have an altar in my home, I realised the other day that I keep the altar below. So, the first picture on the left hand side is a picture of St. Therese. The Russian dolls were given to me by my mother and the little bottle of solid perfume by my Nana. The purple painting at the back I bought from a friend, it says: Faith makes all things possible. Hope makes all things brighter. Love connects us all together. It’s bedecked with little gems and I’ve had it nearly 10yrs now. There is a bowl of crystals and stones in front of this painting – I don’t buy crystals anymore now that I’ve learned about some of the horrific practices involved in mining them, not to mention the stripping of wealth from countries who need it. But I won’t throw out the ones I already have either – if people died so I could have them, it’s not right to try and forget that. The candle is a random tealight that got dropped there and the cross is on that was given out at Easter (2yrs ago now cos I’ve not been to church since COVID hit). The glass statue was a gift from my husband before we got married and says: love; 1. vb. to have great attachment to and affection for. 2. an intense emotion of affection, warmth and strong feelings of fondness. Next to that is a carving of a cat I got in Gambia for my Nana and I got it back after she died (it stood on her mantlepiece until she went into a home and then it was on her bedside table). The wooden statue in front of that is also from Gambia and one I bought for myself – it always reminds me of strength and power. Hiding behind that statue is one of St. Therese again. The mass card is a recent one for my Aunt Maura who passed away about 18months ago. The cross was from my parents and the rosary beads are from a man I used to visit in hospital – they’re from Jerusalem, so extra holy (hence why they’ve not been taken out of the packet yet!)
Now as well as this, I also have my Brigid statue next to my desk (surrounded by clutter right now, I really need to do a tidy up!!) The card stuck in the back of the statue is one I got after an initiation a few years ago, outlining what that group of women saw as my gifts – something I like to read every now and again to remind me that there are people out there who see gifts in me. And to remind myself how far I’ve come in my spiritual journey
So with the altar-that-isn’t-an-altar, we have remembering my ancestors and where I come from, along with St. Therese and reminders of the important things in my life – family, love, work. And it’s very strange but that bookshelf that is my altar rarely gets dusted, but also rarely has dust on it. I like to think of my Nanas popping in to clean the place up every now and again, tutting at my lack of housekeeping at the same time as being really proud of me that I have a job supporting my family. My Aunt Maura wouldn’t be too impressed with the place either!
I’ve often said before that a lot of my work for Brigid is in the realms of being a female engineer and being a role model, an example for those coming after me. It’s not always comfortable or easy, I’m not someone who likes being the centre of attention really, but it has to be done. The more women we have in engineering, or I suppose the more people who aren’t men we have in engineering, the better! Diversity leads to better problem solving and solutions…
Teaching and educating people is another important aspect of my practice. This comes from educations people about Brigid as I know her, what the hell Catholicism in Ireland is all about and about what engineering can mean. I mean, the Tuatha de Danann were people of skills and crafts – none of our Irish deities could be limited to just one skill at all – why would they expect the same from their followers?
There are areas that I mentally rule out because of mixing the two (Catholicism and paganism). I abohor violence. Not that I don’t think it’s useful and necessary at times, but my deity and my saints don’t ask me to start fights, participate in them, that sort of thing. They do ask that I am clear on what will engage my violent tendencies and that I support heavily those that do engage with the enemy, whether monetarily, moral support, physical support, whatever. My deities and saints realise sending me in to fight will be a last resort because of my reactions to violence, but that doesn’t excuse me from supporting the necessary conflicts in our lives. That means you may see me sharing things on Facebook (other social media are available 😉 ), I give money to The Bail Project , rape crisis centres, homeless charities, and others. It’s not constant or consistent, but there are times I am called to support a specific charity by a direct intervention by a deity/saint or by something in the news. I use Kiva to support women in other parts of the world develop businesses or education routes – things that will better their lives and the lives of their families. My mother told me when I was younger that education women, allowing women to earn money means that money will be reinvested in their families and communities – something I have since seen proven by various studies. There is also an element here of supporting areas that have been forcibly converted to Christianity, as a sort of paying back for the injustices and wrongs done by my spiritual ancestors. And yeah, anything on Kiva for me goes to women. Other choices are definitely available! (Although I should note, I’ve not seen nonbinary options here, if someone has, please let me know – I think I auto-choose women at this point because the link is in my browser history)
Supporting the poor and in need is a fundamental requirement in Catholicism, although I don’t subscribe to the Church’s view that there are worthy and unworthy poor – if someone is hungry, feed them; homeless, house them; unclothed, clothe them… It seems pretty simple to me, came straight from Jesus. And yet, the Church has used poverty and hunger to force conversions and/or adherence to strict moral codes it doesn’t always follow itself (other Christian Churches do this as well, just fyi, but it’s Catholicism I’m focusing on here). Anyone who has taken any of my classes will have heard of Brig Ambue, Brig of the Cowless, so there is a vital interest there for Brigid in the poor and the hungry as well.
I also devote time to learning – both Irish history, Irish language and Catholic history. And not just the highlights – yeah, most people in Ireland can tell you bits and bobs of varying degrees of accuracy on An Gorta Mór (the Great Famine, officially 1845 – 1949, but starvation prevailed in the country for a few years after that as well). We also lost between 135 and 20% of our population in the 1740-1741 famine. There’s an entire book from Cork University Press devoted to the subject – and yes, that book is winging it’s way towards me now after reading about it in detail…. possibly along with a few more…. And it’s important to realise that there is more to the history of Ireland than English/British colonisation. We covered a lot of stuff in school of course, one of the reasons Red Hugh O’Donnell (Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill) is a hero of mine, from the story of him escaping from Dublin Castle, in the snow, wearing only his nightshirt and then legging back up to Donegal. You have to understand, when I was growing up, even driving to Donegal took about 6-8hrs, depending on whether we needed to avoid going through the North or not, so imagining someone setting off on foot really tickled my imagination. But of course, there’s more to the story than is told to 11yr olds in school and this is where the learning comes in. For me, understanding where my nation and the Catholic church came from is important in understanding how things came about the way they are today. There have been many mistakes made in both areas, and if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we repeat them.
My husband has recently started a practice of feeding the rabbits and birds in our vicinity – well not directly, but any scraps of food he thinks will help them is going in specific places around the house – outside, I mean, now, not inside. We don’t invite crows and rabbits inside the house. I mean, they have been known to try and get in anyway, but I have a reasonably strict “no wild animals in the house” rule. It gives us both great pleasure to look at the animals, the birds, crows in particular in our house, and rabbits move about and aren’t in any way tamed by this by the way, but it’s supporting our local wildlife. Now, there’s always a danger of rats, who can and do get in houses, but the food locations are away from the house and well, rats serve their purpose too in this world. (No, I can’t think what it is off the top of my head, but I’m sure they have one. Everyone having a purpose in the world is probably a Catholic idea, but it’s there in the Irish lore as well…) Now on the one hand, this is a practical use of our compost heap for later use in fertilisation. But it’s also a way of supporting wildlife without making them dependent on us. And if you said to him this was a spiritual practice, he’d be confused at best. Allowing space for the wild things is important!!
I don’t subscribe to the Christian view of “my body is a temple” thing (although most people I’ve heard say that aren’t what I would consider Christians either…) but I do believe in taking care of and developing the gifts that the G/gods give us. This can be tied into my scholastic work, my teaching, my job, but also the physical body I have. I spent years living through eating disorders, abuse, generally pretending any pain signals my body were sending me were fake or non existent. It’s left me with long term issues, I now have to deal with. But I can do this. So this looks like doing my physio exercises daily or nearly daily. It means eating a mostly balanced diet and paying attention when my body tells me something isn’t working. It means making sure I get enough sleep and water. It means constantly and consistently looking at what’s working, what isn’t and what needs to change. Right now, I’m limited in the movement I can do – an ingrown toe nail (that has grown back FIVE TIMES at this point!) is being sorted out (nail bed excised) on 12th July and I can’t wait cos right now, I can’t walk properly at all. By this I mean, I’m trying to walk without putting any weight on that big toe, which is causing my knees, hips and back to struggle and inflicting a lot of pain on me. Add to that the jumping about every time anything even touches the bloody toe, which further causes pain and it’s a recipe for disaster. But I have an goal for myself to be able to walk 4 miles in an hour without pain by the end of the year, which means once the toe is healing, I have a plan for re-learning to walk. And ok, the Catholic platitudes of “offering up pain for the holy souls in Purgatory” may not suit everyone, but it’s nice to think of my pain causing someone else some good…. So the pain can go to the holy souls and the walking is part of my deal with the deities/saints to look after the physical body. This paragraph more than any other might outline my approach to mixed spirituality….
So there you go. I’m more than 2500 words in here, so I’ll leave it here for today. Any questions or further requests – hit the comments!
(The first part of this post is here: here in case you missed it. That one was an intro to Catholicism)
For this post, I’m going to be looking at some of the Big Issues with combining a Catholicism and Paganism. I mean, I could probably write a book on this one (but I won’t!!) I’m going to start from a Catholic side since we’re on a roll with this.
Now, most of the people working with paganism are looking towards polytheism, so Commandment 1 is a bit of an issue. And many would say the way I work this into my personal gnosis is semantics at best, but here we go. My belief is this: there is a divine force in this world and there’s one divine force in this world. But we as humans can’t conceive of the whole of this force, any more than we can mentally encompass what “eternity” really means (like seriously, I am the only one who just get’s the feeling of a completely empty chest trying to conceive of eternity?) Because we can’t encompass all of what this divinity is, we can, at best, capture sub spectra of the force – like as if light was passed through a prism and separated into its colours. Those sub spectra are the deities we can encompass through paganism.
I mean, to be clear, I think the Patriarchal God supported by most of the Christian Churches is bullshit anyway, those ideas have been filtered through men’s minds and I can’t imagine any force of nature gives a shit about most of the things the Catholic Church considers sins. I have real issue with the image of “God” as presented by Catholicism, but I suppose it does fulfil the requirement to be awe and terror inspiring…
But this patriarchal approach permeates Catholic thinking – from the clerical side anyway. In the (very recent) past, clerics were (and still are in many ways) powerful men in their communities. And in Ireland, they are in pretty much all communities even now. They have a say in what teachers are hired, even though the teachers are hired by the department of education. They have a say in how our hospitals are operated. They have a say in our politics. And this has been the way for most of our recorded history in Ireland – while we were oppressed and colonised by the English, the priests and Catholicism could be a source of strength and support in the community: everyone was so oppressed anyway, that a lot of the problems with Catholicism didn’t really apply.
Here is where I separate the Catholic Church and its teachings and the Catholicism that I grew up with. I don’t know how my parents managed it, but their fundamental approach to religion is very similar to my own right now: you look after those who need looking after. People aren’t on different tiers of being fundamentally more or less worthy of respect (their actions might lead you to believe they are less worth, such as a dirty politician or a dishonest shopkeeper, but each human being is in and of themselves equally worthy of respect). This extends to animals as well in our family – animals aren’t family, but regret is expressed if a rabbit was hit by a car accidentally. Pain would not be inflicted on animals unnecessarily (and by this I mean that say cattle and sheep would be treated as necessary by a vet, which sometimes means an injection, which leads to distress for the animal, but would be inflicted anyway because of the benefits to the animals health). The approach is, and it’s one I’ve seen over and over again in Irish farming communities, that due respect is paid to God’s creations in terms of land and animals. Ireland is still a fairly rural country and this respect for the land and the animals is inbuilt into most of the practices of farming even today. Ireland’s farms are still predominantly run by families, not corporations. This notions of care of land and people are very core to the ideas of paganism for me – and it’s a good example of how the thin veneer of Catholicism in Ireland covers a deep well of paganism…
I also grew up not knowing a lot of the inbuilt inequalities in Catholicism officially speaking. I mean under official Catholic teaching, all human beings are born equal but…. But baptised babies and children are that bit more equal than non-baptised and boys are that bit more equal than girls. (The notion of transgender people existing is something the Church is only recently beginning to address, and it’s doing it badly.) People are not considered equal really in the Catholic Church. For a religion that started off appealing to the poor, the oppressed, the lowly, the Church has risen very high in the world and I think at times, it forgets its origins.
But that respect for people and land and animals permeated the practices I grew up with. And here is where I really begin to intertwin my pagan and Catholic practices. I leave the Church as institution out of it completely really. Because that institution is about control of the masses, not about bringing people along a spiritual journey. Let’s not underestimate that problem. While some priests take a vow of poverty at ordination, many do not and it is said that the vow of obedience to their bishop is considered more important. For an institution that’s based on a man who told us all “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”, the Church has amassed a LOT of wealth over the millennia. Now, giving beautiful things to honour God is grand – but there’s a lot of religious folk out there who aren’t listening to the words of the man who supposedly is the foundation of our religion.
The use of that money is suspect as well. the Church has not moved well in the modern world – it has fallen behind in women’s rights, gender rights, bodily respect and rights, poverty, hunger…. many of the things they have done in the past are now particularly suspect. Take a look at some of the issues with Mother Teresa in India here for an example of how the initial appearance looks good but the devil is in the detail, as the saying goes. The practices that were enforced in her places were not supporting people and helping people beyond the absolute bare necessities for life. Spiritual life was ignored there for a start and some very unhealthy, and indeed anti-health, practices were enforced.
Then we need to address the scandals. We in Ireland used to think the scandals in the Catholic Church were a particularly Irish problem. As it turns out, it’s more of a colonialism/ elitism/ clericalism problem. Women and children in particular were open to being abused in institutions with very, very little appropriate oversight, in the blatantly false belief (in hindsight anyway) that religious people would do the “right thing”. The thing is, the Church is always more interested in the soul and the life to come rather than the here and now. And when they get under their control someone they feel is a black sinner, with little to no hope of redemption, they will act accordingly to save the soul not the person. I’ve written before about the scandals in the Church and it’s a hugely upsetting and distressing subject – as it bloody well should be – so I won’t go over them in detail again. However, in the interests of transparency, here’s a brief list (from Ireland) of the major Church related scandals that have come to light in the last few decades:
Mother and Baby homes
Control of health and education
If you look at the Catholic Church, the institution, the institution is in no way compatible with pagan practices. However… however, the basic principles of Catholicism, when you clear away the teachings implemented by man, when you clear away the dross of custom and practice, there are some very solid values underlying the Catholic ethos. Look after the people, uplift the lowly, bring down the high, everyone is equal in the eyes of God…
The problems are the clericalism, the hierarchy endemic with the institution, the belief that certain people have better knowledge of the issues at hand than those people who are actually experiencing them. And that elitism, that certainty that by virtue of their office, they knew better than anyone else, is what led directly and indirectly to the above scandals in Ireland (and elsewhere) In 2018, Pope Francis even admitted clericalism is an issue:
Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.
There can be a tendency in paganism, from what I can see, particularly in the US/ North America, to veer towards elitism and exclusion, but seriously people, the Catholic Church has been doing this a lot longer and they have this shit down pat. Even the leader of the institution recognises the problems inherent with this sort of practice. He is encouraging his people to listen and learn from others – the problem is, he’s trying to overturn 1500 yrs of solid practice.
For me, the root of combining a pagan and Catholic practice, particularly in the work with Brigid, is about taking the root good that is there in Catholicism and ignoring the institution and their elitist views. There are many, many people out there who don’t agree with this and think anything linked to the Catholic Church should be wiped out, particularly in the face of the scandals from the Church. That’s grand, there is no One True Way in this world. We each choose our own path. I’m explaining mine here, but yours will almost certainly be different!!
My next post will go into the detail of how this translates into the daily practice of my life.
Fair warning here, I started this thinking it would be one post. Then I hit 3000 words and thought I’d better split it! I’ve gone through it to see if there are any references to other parts that have now moved to another post, but apologies if I’ve missed any!! And for this first post, if you are Catholic, you can probably skip this one 🙂
I’ve been asked in different guises a few times lately about how to respectfully and non-appropriatively combine Catholicism and Paganism (and in particular in relation to Brigid). This is coming from both people who started out Catholic, moved to Paganism and now want to combine the two as well as people who either started as something other than Catholic and moved to Pagan or who were always Pagan and want to start looking at Catholicism. It’s an interesting one and not something for which I necessarily want to outline definitive answers. There’s so much of my practice that’s wrapped in both Catholicism and Paganism, it’s hard sometimes for me to separate. But there’s people interested, so here’s my attempt to outline what’s respectful and what’s not.
It’s important to note as well that the specifics of what I’m talking about are Irish focused. The Catholic Church is not homogenous in all things (although there are unfortunate aspects in which it seems to excel at homogeneity for some reason) Practices can and do vary from country to country. For example, no one in Ireland takes much notice of bare arms or lower legs in Ireland (I mean hot pants would probably raise an eyebrow or two, depending on the age of the wearer, but knee length or just above knee length skirts would be grand in most parishes) However, I know when I was in Rome, elbows and knees had to be covered on entering a church. Covering hair hasn’t been a requirement for Mass in Ireland for 70 yrs or more, but elsewhere I believe it still is. So, while what I’m saying here is applicable to most sacred spaces, I will outline what’s needed to stay respectful in Catholic churches and when dealing with Catholic entities.
I’ll start with the basics. This is for people who have never been Catholic (anyone who has been Catholic, you can probably skip most of this!) The Catholic Church is a monotheistic religion, believing there is One God. It also, as with a lot of other religions, believes only the adherents of the One God can get to Heaven and that the suffering we experience here on earth is part of the human experience and the more suffering here on earth, the less suffering after death before being allowed into Heaven. There are a few places you can end up in after death in Catholicism: Heaven and Hell are the most known ones, Purgatory is reasonably well known, Limbo has been put to bed so to speak in recent years. Heaven is where those who are in a state of grace and in friendship with God end up. Purgatory is for someone who is friendly with God, but not fully in a state of grace. (It’s assumed by most people who believe that they will spend a period of time in Purgatory, unless they manage to confess directly before death or receive Last Rites) Hell is for those who turn from God. Limbo was for those who died in a state of original sin (i.e. hadn’t been baptised, such as unbaptised babies) but the Church softened its stance on this about a decade ago and admitted that really, ours is a forgiving God and frankly, there are plenty of theological reasons why unbaptised babies can get to Heaven. The whole “we are worthless scum without the grace of God” thinking permeated Catholic thinking for centuries, although it was worded very differently, but has been changing for decades at least among the practitioners if not the leaders of the Church.
The One God is a triune God as well (cos why would it be simple!!) God the Father (or God), God the Son (Jesus Christ, who is the son of God and Mary) and God the Holy Spirit (who’s hard to pin down, but who is often mentioned as possessing various holy figures in the Bible) Catholicism is a patriarchal religion, with only men being allowed to be priests/ bishops/ archbishops/ cardinals/ pope/ people of power. This wasn’t the case in the early church, in the first few centuries of the church, there are plenty of documented powerful female figures, but that was changed at some point. We do have holy women, who live lives devoted to God, called nuns. They can be both wonderful and terrifying, sometimes at the same time. I mean, they’re human, come in all shapes and sizes, both physically and spiritually. Think of the episode of Family Guy where the battalions of nuns are the shock troops of the Vatican… And I say that having known some truly wonderful women who were also nuns. There are also groups of men who devote their lives to God but under similar guise as nuns, called monks. These are not priests. Honestly – google again. Try some of the official websites rather than Wikipedia. This is the Vatican website for a start: http://www.vatican.va/content/vatican/en.html There are orders of both nuns and monks, with different focuses in the world. Some look at education, which is where most of Ireland gets their first experience with them, health, prayer, seclusion from the world… the list goes on and on. And these orders can be rich and powerful, although most of the individual vows include some sort of poverty promise. Nuns and monks tend not to own much for themselves. Clothes, rosary beads, maybe some photos or a teddy or something. All else is owned in common with the order.
There are a few established sacraments for Catholicism, some of which you go through once, some of which you do on the regular… Baptism is usually carried out as a baby in the Catholic Church and is usually only done once. It’s the sacrament through which you are welcomed into God’s family essentially. Confession (Sacrament of Penance) and Communion (Sacrament of the Eucharist) happen usually about 6-8yrs of age. Confirmation (sacrament of Confirmation) happens usually around 12-13 ish. Most Catholics go through these sacraments. First Confession precedes Communion, at the age when kids can tell right from wrong, so that you can receive Communion in a state of grace (i.e. free from sin). In Communion, we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church believes in transubstantiation, that the bread and wine transforms through the sacrament of the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Jesus, when consecrated by an ordained priest. It’s a reminder that Jesus gave his life to save us as well. Confirmation is when the gifts of the Holy Spirit are conferred on the young Catholic. (Have a google for the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit given at Confirmation). Marriage is also a sacrament and is the only sacrament where it is not conferred by a priest, although a priest usually facilitates the sacrament. The man and woman (yeah, the Catholic Church hasn’t gotten the letter on non-heterosexual partnerships yet!) confer the sacrament on each other. And, very strangely for those who know the Church, the appearance at least of consent is hugely important in this sacrament. Both parties are asked a few times, in different ways, do they consent to this marriage. Holy orders are conferred on men only when they become priests. Last Rites (or Extreme Unction) is for those who are looking at a serious illness. In modern times, we tend to associate this with people on the point of death, but that’s not correct. Old age or serious illness, as long as someone isn’t persevering in grave state of sin (that last bit of wording is a big dodgy in my opinion, but there are and have been priests who have refused this sacrament to people because they feel they are “obstinately persevering in manifest grace sin”… (“Code of Canon Law, canon 1007”. www.vatican.va) The eagle-eyed among you will have figured out that women can only receive six of the seven sacraments, seeing as how Holy Orders is for men only. Women aren’t consecrated as nuns essentially.
This isn’t even a brief overview of Catholicism, but it’s a start. Now, most people, if you’re looking to dip a toe into Catholicism, or dip a toe back into Catholicism, you’re going to encounter a church. Catholic churches comes in many shapes and sizes, but they tend to have a lot in common when you break things down to the basics. It’s a sacred place for a start. It will usually be quiet, peaceful and in the older stone churches, definitely cool. As in temperature. Great on a hot day, not so great in winter. The altar is the focus of the church and on the church the focus is the tabernacle, which is usually a very fancy looking locked box or cabinet in which the hosts (the bread that transforms into the body of Christ during Mass) are stored. The presence of the Body of Christ is indicated by a (usually red) lamp or light shining on the altar. It is common practice to genuflect to the altar (or more accurately to the host) on entry to the church or when you walk past the altar. Genuflecting is going down on the right knee for a second or more and getting back up again, usually accompanied by the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross is where you take your right hand, lift it to your forehead, then to your heart (ish, somewhere on your lower chest/ sternum) then to your left shoulder, then to your right shoulder, as you say “In the name of the Father (touch forehead), and the Son (touch chest) and the Holy (touch left shoulder) Spirit (touch right shoulder) Amen”. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us can complete the sign of the cross can do this in about a second and usually with a final touch to the upper chest on the line between the two shoulders. So describing both genuflection and the sign of the cross takes so much longer than it actually does to complete these actions. If genuflection isn’t possible or you don’t want to, you can also bow, usually with hands clasped at the chest for a brief second. The point is to show respect to the host, the Body of Christ, in the tabernacle on the altar or behind the altar.
On either side of the altar there are usually a few statues, to the Virgin Mary (mother of Christ and very important in the Catholic Church), sometimes to Joseph (Jesus’ foster father to all intents and purposes) or to the saint(s) to whom the church is dedicated. Usually, but not always, there are banks of candles here. Lighting candles to saints is a big practice in most Catholic communities. There is usually a charge for this to allow the church to continue supplying said candles, but it’s usually on the honour system as well. People usually wouldn’t light a candle without dropping something in the offering box, but really, if you’re in a position where you have nothing, go ahead. Most of us throw in extra when we have it, or when we have no change. You don’t blow out a candle that’s already lighting, nor do you replace it. Place your candle in an empty slot, say your prayers and off you go. Sometimes, beside the candle banks, there are posters or writings to outline suggested prayers. One of my favourites for Mary is the Memorare:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but gracefully hear and answer me. Amen
There’s a modern version of the prayer as well, with none of the thees and thous, but that the version I learned and it’s the one that comes most easily to my tongue.
If you’re wanting to engage with a Catholic saint or the Virgin Mary or even Jesus himself, lighting a candle (whether in a church or not) and saying a prayer is no bad way to start.
I was asked as well how I use the rosary in my practice. The Virgin Mary, Mother Mary, Mary the Mother of Christ has appeared to many of the faithful over the years and one of the things she always says is to pray the rosary. The rosary consists of sets of prayers called decades: 1 x Our Father, 10 x Hail Marys, 1 x Glory Bes. For each decade of the rosary (one round of the prayers above), you’re meant to focus on one of the 15 Mysteries and the idea would be that each mystery would help you reap the fruit mentioned below. I have to admit, most of the time when I’m praying the rosary, I don’t have the mysteries in my head and I’d be hard pushed to recite them off like a good Catholic should, but they’re an important part of the rosary. Not the only part and I like to believe (massive UPG alert here!!) that one of the reasons Mary constantly highlights the rosary is that it is essentially a prayer to her, in the midst of a very patriarchal religion. She is the closest we have to a Divine Feminine in Catholicism, although some would now own Mary Magdalene in that role as well. Mary Magdalene would require a few posts on her own, so let’s put her to one side for now. Although if you Google her, check the sources. There’s a lot of crap out there as well.
There would usually be a fair few decades of the rosary said at a wake for example, and they would usually come from the Sorrowful Mysteries. Also in Ireland, in my family at least, it is common to say the rosary as Gaeilge, particularly if the deceased was someone who loved the Irish language. That is the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be beome the Ár n-Athair, Sé do bheatha, Mhuire agus Glór don Athair. Funnily enough, one of the ways to refer to the rosary in Irish is as an Choróin Mhuire, the crown of Mary. (Mary transalted into Máire in Irish means a normal person, Mary translated into Muire in Irish always refers to the Virgin Mary)
The rosary, and the veneration of Mary as the Mother of God is one of the things that sets Catholicism apart from most of the Protestant religions (I didn’t say all here, before people start yelling!!)
Back to the church building. If you meet a man dressed in black with a white collar, he’ll be the priest. I’ve put a pic of the collar (sometimes and slightly disrespectfully in an affectionate way, called a “dog collar”) below, since it’s the single easiest way to identify them. The respectful way to address a priest is as “Father”. Don’t need to know his name, Father does the job. Some of them in more modern times, as they get to know you, might invite you to address them with their name, but at times and places and circumstances when respect is fully due, Father is always best. It’s meant to indicate the priest is as a father to his flock (or congregation) As any cursory google search will tell you, this hasn’t always been the case, and the abuses conducted and condoned by priests and other religious authority all over the world are myriad and unfortunately common. But I have also known some good, conscientious, hard working and caring men who are truly hurt by the actions of their brethren and superiors. That doesn’t excuse the institution, mind, but I suppose #notallpriests?
If you meet a nun, the correct form of address is “Sister”. There’s no sure way to identify them I’m afraid. The robes and massive crosses of the past are no longer ubiquitous and many orders allow modern dress these days. I mean, it’d be hugely unusual to see a nun in a bikini, but skirts, blouses, cardigans, low heeled or flat shoes…. Usually grey or navy, depending on the colours of the order, but even that isn’t a given. Honestly, unless someone tells you they’re a nun or someone close to them tells you, it’s nearly impossible to be sure. It’s a similar case for monks and friars (a monk is a religious person who lives in a self sufficient community with other monks, a friar is more likely to live and work among lay or non-religious people). The friars more often have the robes to identify them when they want to be identified, otherwise we’re back to the same problem as with the nuns. They don’t have giant haloes or special inbuilt signs to identify them. Unless they tell you, or someone close to them tells you, there’s no way to know for sure. If someone is introduced to you as Sister Jane or Brother David, best to address them as Sister/Brother. Otherwise, first names as you usually would address a layperson would be grand.
A last paragraph on the basics then: angels and saints. I’ve written elsewhere that Catholics are known as the “communion of saints”. It caused some trouble, since there are blatantly plenty Catholics out there that couldn’t be considered saints by any measure. I’ll try and explain better here. Calling the Catholic community a “communion of saints” is meant to indicate the aim of all Catholics to get to Heaven. Simply put, anyone who gets to Heaven is a saint. I said up above, most practicing Catholics expect to spend some time in Purgatory before going to Heaven, to atone for sins not accounted for on earth. But once that time is done, Heaven it is. We venerate those people who we’re fairly certain reached Heaven – and I’ve discussed that in a previous post, how it works and the changes over the millennia. But this is why I feel no bother in asking my grandparents for help, since I feel certain they’re in Heaven and would be closer to God than I am. It’s not ancestor worship, it’s more ancestor – helpdesk. Kinda.
Angels are different. Angels are pure spirits created by God. They’re not human. Not traditionally anyway. Also, they are usually used as messengers by God – think of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to tell her a) she was pregnant and b) God was the father of the child. Poor Mary. In fact, apparently the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Bible have words that translate to “messenger” for where we have “angels” in English. I think the Greek version is “angelos” but I’m not 100% sure and Wikipedia is the only source I can find for it this morning! This is obviously very different to the modern actions and beliefs around angels, but in the Catholic Church, this is what angels are.
So that’s the Catholic part of it. Now, how to respectfully engage in a Pagan Catholic practice. It’s hard. It’s easier as an Irish person, to be honest, because as I’ve said elsewhere, Catholicism in Ireland is a thin veneer over pagan practices. Much of the attitude of farmers for example, would be of respect to the land and the living made off the land. The Sí are a real presence in this land and disruption to their abodes or frequented places is viewed as pure daft, cos they will get you back. Bad luck will only follow you for engaging in this sort of thing. Even our saints, Brigid in particular, can sometimes be linked back to pre-Christian entities. But as pagans, how can we engage with Catholicism or Christianity?
I might do that on the next post, since we’re nearly at 4000 words here now!!
Following some questions in the Brigid’s Forge Facebook group, I decided to write a post on saints in the Catholic Church. So I dug out my copy of the Catechism and started looking at what the official teachings of the church are and then I’ll follow on with the general Irish habits around saints and then some more specific stuff from me or my family. Fair warning, the Catechism is almost a thousand pages long and deals with many different aspects of Church teaching, so I’m not going to cover all of it in this post. In fact, if I wanted to cover the whole Catechism, I’d need to start an entire new blog and well, I’m busy enough with Brigid.
In the Catechism, a saint is defined as: the “holy one” who leads a life in union with God through the grace of Christ and receives the reward of eternal life. The Church is called the communion of saints, of the holy ones. The process of being officially designated a saint by the Church is called canonisation: the solemn declaration by the Pope that a deceased member of the faithful may be proposed as a model and intercessor to the Christian faithful and venerated as a saint on the basis of the fact that the person lived a life of heroic virtue or remained faithful to God through martyrdom.
The Church has an official stance on the intercession of saints between human and God: “being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in Holiness. They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus. So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.” (paragraph 956 on the Communion of the Church of Heaven and Earth)
There is loads more on how we can interact officially with saints according to the Catechism, but this holds the nuts and bolts of the matter. The closer eyed among ye may have noticed, that actually, canonisation is only the formal recognition of sainthood. Anyone who reaches heaven is a saint, it’s just that the official saints are the ones the Church is reasonably certain are there in Heaven. (There’s a bit of the HUGE sense of superiority here, which is strange, or maybe not so much, coming from a religion that started with the most downtrodden members of society in Rome – obviously speaking to the Roman Church here and not anywhere else!)
In the early Church, many martyrs, those who died for their faith, were canonised, on the basis of their heroic witness to Christ, not denying him and choosing to die and join him rather than renounce him. (This was red martyrdom, due to the blood spilled). But of course, that violence and campaign against the early Christians didn’t last long, so the Church started looking for other evidence of holiness. Enter white martyrdom: the daily living of a Christian live that was so close to the perfection of Christ’s example that it was noted by the community. (note that no human can ever reach perfection, that’s solely the province of God). The white martyrs were famous for their holy living – there’s plenty examples of these in the Irish chronicles, seeing as our land converted to Christianity peacefully and about five centuries after the birth of Christ, there were no red martyrs in Ireland that I can remember now. (There may have been a few, but they were small in number!) Our own Brigid would be an example of this. It was almost canonisation by popular acclaim – people knew this person was holy and living the Christian life, so it was deemed appropriate to consider them heading straight to heaven instead of pausing in Purgatory for a while first. It was only in 1170 that it was officially determined no one could be declared a saint without the official approval/ permission of the pope. (This was Pope Alexander III and was brought about by the public acclaimation for a Swedish saint by public acclaim who was killed while drunk and so could not be said to have been a truly, 100% willing witness for Christ…)
A final type of martyrdom, extensively practiced in Ireland in about 5-7th centuries (ish) was the green martyrdom. Now the earliest mention I can find of this is from the Cambrai Homily (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambrai_Homily – yes I know, it’s a wikipedia source, but it’s a decent enough starter for ten and it’s written in reasonably accessible language. Also there is some doubt as to whether the Cambrai Homily was actually a homily or actually an extract from a longer text/ gathering of texts). I should also not at this point that I’m not a scholar, so there could be many, many other sources out there for the green martyrdom. But essentially, the green martyrdom was through the physical deprivation in an attempt to get closer to God or possibly an extension of the older practice of fasting to gain justice. Here is where we get the Irish hermits. The ones that ended up on Skellig Michael of Star Wars fame, or out in the wilds, subsisting rather than existing, fasting and doing penance in order to become closer to God.
It is interesting to note though, that in any reference to martyrs I can find on Vatican websites, the shedding of blood is closely related to the idea of martyrdom.
Anyway, to sum up – while all Catholics are considered potentially saints, and once you get to Heaven, you are by definition a saint, the Church limits those who are officially designated saints to those they are sure, as close as can be, are in Heaven. So while, for example, on the occasion of my Grandad’s death, many called him a pious man and a saint, and while I might privately pray to him (and all my dead relatives at time to be honest), since I’m fairly certain if anyone is in heaven, he is, I can’t publicly venerate him or create a cult around him, since the Church doesn’t recognise him as a saint.
Every official saint in the Catholic Church has an official feast day. The practices around such feast days in folk tradition vary from nation to nation, tradition to tradition, region to region (and in some instances, parish to parish!) The Church practices though don’t as such vary. There is a special liturgy (this would be the celebration of Mass with particular readings relating to the saint usually, or a bit of the Bible that ties in with them, with a sermon or homily being delivered that is linked to the saint), sometimes novenas (series of prayers/activities over days), but that’s usually it.
In the folk tradition though, there can be other celebrations. The making of Brigid’s crosses throughout Ireland is a very common thing around the 1st February. The wearing of shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day would be common. The pattern day for many saints in rural Ireland mostly (in my life time anyway, presumably it was more widespread previously) were celebrations of the patron saint of the parish or area. The pattern day usually started at the local church with Mass, then moved on to a local shrine or holy well. (Seriously you can hardly walk 2 miles in Ireland without falling over some holy well or other!)Even today, pattern days are very popular among a subset of society, although the reforms enacted by the Church in the years following the famine removed much of the drinking, fighting and other non-religious activities. To be fair, the Church hierarchy also has an issue with the magical nature attributed to the shrines and wells, seeing as how they were seen as healing places for various ailments. None of this coincides with proper church teaching. However, even today, if you hit down near Liscannor in Co. Clare, around the time of the Feast of the Assumption in August, you’ll find a grand crowd in the area, visiting the well as they have done for generations. Not joking here – I forgot what day it was last summer and we got caught in the traffic jam… Liscannor is still reasonably famous, but there are other wells in this country that have similar traditions.
So, as an overview, saints can be used as intercessors for the faithful. It’s not exactly that we pray to the saint, technically speaking, it’s more that we ask for their support and help in making our prayers to God. Most of us though, will speak of praying to the saint for help or intercession. Some of the more common saints to be asking for help: St. Jude – lost causes, hospital workers; St. Anthony – lost items, native Americans, amputees, asses, barren women, elderly people, harvests, hogs/pigs/swine, mail, monks, oppressed people, poor, Portugal, shipwrecks, starvation/ starving people swineherds, travelling people, hostesses; St. Christopher – travel; Patrick – snakes, Ireland, engineers(who knew???) Nigeria and a few USA dioceses; St. Brigid – blacksmiths, cattle, dairy workers, fugitives, healers, Ireland, nuns, poultry and chicken farmers, printing presses, scholars; St Colmcille (3rd of our patron saints for Ireland) – Ireland, poets, exiles (although it should be noted that St Colmcille is known as St Columba in many records); St Therese of Lisieux – AIDS patients, aviators/ aviation, florists, foreign missions, France, missionaries, tuberculosis/consumption.
There are loads of lists on line for saints and what they’re patrons of, but do some research on it as well and make sure it’s the right saint you’re asking to intercede for you 🙂
On to my personal practice with saints now.
Above are two photos that sum up my devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux. I took St Therese as my confirmation name (Google it, it’s a sacrament of the Church), mostly due to the influence of my Dad, who gave me both the statue and the book in the pictures above. The statue is a small tin statue that was gilded long ago, but has faded. It was given to my Dad by his grandmother in the early 50’s when he went away to school so he’d have someone to look after him. He then gave it to me in the early 90’s for the same purpose. For the years I was in school, St. Therese sat on my bedside table and I would often kiss her goodnight as I went to bed. These days, she usually sits on our kitchen table at home, and I often pick her up to kiss her as I pass by – something I only realised when my husband pointed it out the other day! St. Therese is famous for her Little Way – this idea that living Christian life is not in the big acts, but in the small everyday things we do. How we act with others, how we treat others, how we interact with the world around us. St Therese is a modern saint as well, having been born in 1873 and dying young at age 24 in 1897. She was canonised in 1925.
She was born in France to two parents who both themselves wanted to enter religious life, but refused. She lived a life of small devotions, but her impact on the world, and most particularly on me, was huge. Seeing her relics as they toured Ireland a while ago was a very big deal to me. When I look at my statue, I see not only my Dad, but my great-grandmother as well (although she passed away long before I arrived on the scene!) I see the tradition of devotion in my family to this saint, that goes back generations. I see the practice of living life well, in right relationship, of doing the right thing as best we can, although it would be unusual for any of us to use those terms.
Through St Therese a lot of my feelings about daily life come to the fore: do the right thing, live as best you can, be ethical, examine what ethics mean to me, set up my life so it is easier to be in compliance with this goal. I will likely never have the influence of St Therese on this world, but I do have influence on those around me on a daily basis and so I try to follow her example as I live my life. I might go days, weeks, months, without consciously thinking of St. Therese in my daily life, but the little statue is always there on the kitchen table and I do, unthinkingly, regularly pick her up and kiss her.
On some occasions, I have asked for her intercession – now, there are specific prayers to St. Therese, but I can never remember them, so it’s more a case of ordering my thoughts as best I can and laying out my request to her. They’re not usually connected to the items listed in the paragraph above either, seeing as how I’ve never been called to serve France or go on a mission. I hate flying! I do take to heart though, that it is by living our lives in the right way, the good way, that we are an example to others and that is what I try to do. While my belief system is not the same as hers, there are massive overlaps.
It could be said I have a devotion to St Therese – in Ireland, this means a person is known for contacting a particular saint above all others, no matter what the circumstances. This is part of building that relationship that we often speak of in paganism. Why would I bother St Anthony to find something when I never speak to him otherwise? St Therese might know me at this point…
Relationship with the saints is a complicated thing in Catholicism and we accept and absorb much of it as we grow up. Most of us think nothing of mentioning St Jude when times appear dark or St Anthony for when something is lost. I’ve seen St Anthony being invoked at 3am on Harcourt Street in Dublin. To describe Harcourt Street – well… there’s more than a few nightclubs there and the image of a reasonable well oiled college student down on his knees in the middle of the street calling out to St. Anthony for his wallet is one that won’t leave you. He found the damn thing a few mins later as well! I’ve heard people mutter to themselves to various saints on different occasions. Official Church teaching doesn’t always match what’s actually happening on the ground.
But I hope this gives an insight into how this Catholic (however pagan) related to saints and how they work in the system of worship. Any questions that come out of this, post them in the comments 🙂
It’s possibly the week I’ve had, but I’ve seen a lot around the place declaring Christianity to be fake, weak, not healthy, not for strong people, abusive, patriarchal and a whole lot of other things as well. And, there are Christian religions that are fake, weak, unhealthy, not for strong people, abusive and patriarchal in nature. It’s not something inherent in Christian spirituality itself though. That’s as a result of the structures and systems and people in power of each Christian church and religion.
I’m getting a strong sense of moral superiority for people who are no longer part of a Christian church or have never been involved in one. And it’s… well bluntly, it’s not nice.
I posted in one group that Christianity was once the religion (or actually, a cult really at the time) for the oppressed. For the poor. For those without power or money or free will. The first people who were enticed to Christianity, who were actively recruited in Rome in particular? Women and slaves. And women were very definitely not equals in Roman society.
Christianity, Jesus, preached a message of love. Of unconditional love. This was radical at the time. In the modern world, we almost take the notion of unconditional love as a given, but really it’s not. It’s a huge and powerful gift. And it doesn’t make one weak to need that gift. Just knowing that there is a being out there, anyone at all, that loves you unconditionally, is a huge part of keeping hope alive.
Now, that’s not to say that modern Christianity doesn’t have faults. The patriarchal structures, the abuse, the oppression, the elimination, the rigid thinking… all of these things are problematic and need to be addressed. But they are not connected to the original message of Jesus.
I regularly say I’m a Pagan Catholic as far as religion goes. This is because I was baptised Catholic, but also reach back to my pagan forebears and their practices (as best I can, there is frustratingly little there in the lore about the day to day practices!) One of the reasons I started down this path was because of the abuses within the Catholic church that came to light in Ireland in the 90’s. And if I’m honest, we thought it was just us. It was only in Ireland that women were locked up on flimsy excuses, that babies were torn from mothers, that fathers sometimes didn’t even know they were fathers, that children had the supposed sins of the parents heaped on them. But we weren’t. In recent decades, such abuses have come to light in most, if not all, Christian countries, and definitely the Catholic ones. The restriction of women’s rights over their bodies by the Catholic Church is something that causes immense pain and anguish every year, although thankfully modern governments are shaking off the control of the Church and at least passing legislation to allow for such rights to be enacted in law (I mean, in case it’s not obvious, the Catholic Church’s stance against abortion is what I’m talking about here and the widespread effects this has on women’s health in countries where that stance is held as law).
Early penitentials from the 5th Century on in Ireland show a lesser penance being enacted for an abortion that for carrying a child to term, or for anal or oral sex. Seriously. Although, to be fair, said penitentials appear to take all aspects of human life and apply a penance to it. It is my belief that these penitentials may not have been applied to the whole population, but possibly to religious communities alone (please note the word belief there though, not fact!) The current Catholic Church stance on abortion stems from 1869. Yeah, you read that right – 1869. Just about 150yrs ago…
In Ireland, the Catholic Church did a lot of good along with the bad. Our education systems, our health care system would not exist if it wasn’t for the religious orders. There have been some deeply devoted men and women in my own life who have lived a spiritual Christian life, even within Catholicism, and are examples to me of how best to live life – giving to others of their time, energy and knowledge. Not judging people. Not accusing people.
I’m lucky to have had those examples, and perhaps it colours for me the role of the Catholic Church in my life. I think the institution and structures should be razed to the ground and the great wealth that the Church hold distributed to the poor. I think the princes of the Church – for indeed, they are called princes – should be held accountable for the abuses that have occurred under their watch. I think they all , every single one, should spend some time engaged in the type of life they condemn many of their followers to. the whole thing about it being easier for an elephant to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven is something they have preached for centuries, to keep control of the masses, while side-stepping the issue with their vows of poverty, and claiming not to own any of what they use on a daily basis.
My rage at the Catholic Church could go on for a while.
But Christianity, as a religion, is a shorthand for the followers of Christ. Not the followers of St. Paul or St. Augustine, or the latest Pope. For the followers of Jesus Christ. Read his messages. He spoke of that love, that great divine love, that encompasses us all. He didn’t speak of those who were more deserving or less deserving. He didn’t speak of paying to enter Heaven. He actively overturned those who were using his Father’s home, the temple, as a marketplace. He consistently and continually recognised those who were oppressed, even tax collectors, who were despised then, as probably now. He was a left wing, radical socialist, who argued and demonstrated his commitment to gender equality, to supporting children, to treating people with decency and respect.
When we, as modern pagans, look at Christianity, we need to look at it’s origins, it’s belief structures and the differences between the message of the founder – Jesus – and the limitations and rules and oppression that those who followed after him implemented. Think back to how the gods were viewed in antiquity – they were to be obeyed, and frankly, it was only those who were rich or powerful might have been allowed the gentler service or higher service. A slave serving in a temple had about as much control over their lives as a slave serving in the fields or in someone’s house. An abused woman won’t really care if she is working in a temple or a marriage. Being continually and consistently told, by deed and word, that you were worthless and helpless and you are forever condemned to this state, with no hope of escape.
The prospect of a happy-ever-after, an after life that might be better than our current one, is not something the oppressed could depend on. How can you impress the gods when all you do is shovel shit all day? The unconditional love of a divine being a massive help to the oppressed, to those who humans say are worthless. There is a power in knowing someone loves you, no matter what.
The early messages also say we need to strive to be worthy of that love, now. We, no matter how oppressed or judged worthless by other people, have a responsibility as a result of that love. We have a responsibility to be the best we can be. There are days when that means dragging ourselves out of bed. There are days when that means taking the time to speak to someone who looks lonely. There are days when it might just mean acknowledging another person exists. The early Church was built around community, supporting each other, helping each other, teaching and learning from each other. Exploring Jesus’ message and showing that love to each other.
People underestimate constantly the power of love. It’s nothing to brush off lightly. And yes, the modern Christian Churches we see are hotbeds of abuse of power, abuse of people, patriarchy, etc. But that’s the fault of the people who set up these structures, the politicians in priests robes, the controllers and the oppressors. Those who converted populations at the point of a sword. This was fundamentally wrong. But the love that Jesus preached is still available to us.
Christian Churches have a lot of faults and it would be difficult to reform most of them I think. Any time a priest turns from leading their people by questioning to leading their people by providing both permittable questions and answers, there is power imbalance problem there. There is the point when the congregation turns from community to flock.
But that’s no reason to look down at those who practice spiritual Christianity. They are not weak – that is the fault our forebears had of Christians as well. They thought those who spoke of love were weak, when love can drive you to do things fear never will. I believe that Brigid loves me, as I love her. I believe Jesus loves me as I try to love him. I believe there is power in that love. It’s not passive, gentle or weak. It’s fiery, bright and strong. But it is still love.
So I would ask that as the popular people about you look down on those following a Christian spiritual path, look at the path those people are following. Look at the difficulties and obstacles they deal with. See what, if any, difference there is to your own. Don’t assume the meek have no power available to them. Don’t assume someone who shows a different form of respect to their deity is weaker than you are. Don’t assume you’re better. Don’t be like the people who decided that Christianity was too weak and needed to be made stronger.
Be true to yourself, your path and allow others to be true to theirs.
There is yet another scandal rocking my country at the minute. Well, technically, this isn’t a new scandal as such, but it’s a new chapter in an old scandal.
For many years, after the foundation of the modern Irish state, Church and State worked hand in hand to keep women in their place. (Said place was not one I would have chosen to be and I thank deities regularly for not being born in those godforsaken times)
This particular aspect is particularly gruesome – and yes, I know I’m using “particular” and it’s derivatives a lot. It’ll be grand.
Unmarried mothers were seen as a scandal for many decades in modern Ireland. The shame on the family of said unmarried mother was tremendous (the shame on the unmarried father on the other hand was less so…) Where possible, of course, the ideal was to get said woman married off to someone who would accept the baby and raise it themselves. If that was not possible for whatever reason, then step in your usually not-local and usually unfriendly Mother and Baby home. These were places where women, sluts and harlots as they were, were sent to have their babies, out of sight and unable to shock the more respectable members of society. The women in these places, which were run by religious orders (nuns), were treated horribly. They were fallen women. They were worked without regard to their health or well being. They were given new names on entry to the home, not permitted to speak to each other or make friends, forced to labour in laundries, in heavy housework, making money from these women, who were after all, free labour.
Babies were taken from their mothers after a few weeks, to be raised in the homes and later on in industrial schools (another scandal, if you feel like googling it), if they weren’t given up for adoption, with or without the mother’s permission. Many of these women stayed in the homes or in places like them for fallen women, for years after the birth.
The article also has links to previous articles on this topic.
Brigid has a care for mothers, babies and mistreated women – all issues at stake here. Please look into this. Please see what you can do. If you’re not in a position to do anything in Ireland for this issue – look around in your own country. We’re not the only places who have treated unmarried women this badly. Even in the modern day there are people who treat the powerless in society poorly at best and viciously at worst. Please look into it. Do something. Let’s shout out from the rooftops about these injustices, scream at your local government representatives, raise money, don’t let these things be swept under the carpet as they always have been before.
If we’re looking at working for/with Brigid, we need to do the work she asks of us…