On the feast of St. Brigid

Brigid

I have so many thoughts racing around, it will be a challenge to organize them, but I’ll give it a try.

Remember how I mentioned blog synchronicity? I’m having lots of it today. I have started and trashed a number of posts where I try to express some of the “bigger” thoughts I’ve been thinking. Some days I think maybe it’s just not something anyone else wants to hear, but usually it’s just that words fail me. Inevitably I give up, exhausted and frustrated. And then along comes Gordon over at Runesoup and, as he so often does, he writes what sound like my own thoughts but better and smarter. More than any other blog, that one seems to almost always be about what is already on my mind. It inspires me to keep trying to say what needs saying, even as I feel that by the time I get around to saying it, it doesn’t seem very original anymore.

Also, today is the the feast of St. Brigid, and tomorrow is Candlemas (the day when the infant Jesus was first presented in the temple, according to the Western Church calendar, and traditionally celebrated as a blessing of lights), and that is so relevant to what’s going on in my mind. I wrote about the feast of St. Modmnoc last year, and by the way his feast is coming up on 13 February, and you might be wondering what’s with all this saint stuff, anyway? I’m not Catholic, not even Christian. I am also not atheist or pagan, in case you were wondering. I hate to say I’m “spiritual,” because that word has been bandied about so much that it seems pretty meaningless at this point, but I don’t have a better one. I honor these saints’ feast days for a couple of reasons: first, as people (even possibly purely mythical people) they did stuff or stood for stuff that I admire; second, the saints of early Christianity in Britain and Ireland, the so-called “Celtic” Church, are where the magic is at. Incidentally this is another thing that Gordon has expressed more beautifully than I (and also chronologically earlier), so I shall link to his post because you should just read it in its entirety to get the full context. These Celtic saints blur the boundaries between pre-Christian deities, land spirits, faeries, philosophers, and of course, humans wise in the salvational message that you personally actually matter to the universe. This was an all too often overlooked high point in Western culture, not just because some Irish monks preserved some texts while most of the rest of Europe was trying to sort its post-Roman arse from its Imperial elbow. But also because the message was radically uplifting and inspiring for every human that heard it, coming at a time when they needed to hear it.

Anti-Christians will now be quick to point out that there was a lot of oppression going on in the early days of Christianity, as pagan temples were burned and churches plopped down on their smoldering ruins, and people were forced to convert at the point of a sword. But–in a pattern which should be totally recognizable to us today–there were really two separate things going on: there were hermits and small monastic communities doing their thing, and there were kings converting to Christianity because it suited their political aims and then forcing everyone else to go along with the pogrom program. It’s the difference between the message of Jesus and the message of Constantine. Both are “Christian,” but only one is worth living by.

One reason I find it hard to express my thoughts (and I know you may be doubting that given how long I’ve gone on already) is because I increasingly see analogies and metaphors visually and then my verbal brain just is not able to translate these images well. What I see right now is almost 8 billion lights in the world, going out one by one. They’re not extinguished, but being hidden from view by a dark fog of disinformation, misinformation, manipulation, and censorship. So they are not visible to one another anymore.

Some of this fog is perpetrated by our “betters,” but all too often we are complicit. One of the trends I see today that is most distressing for me is the total breakdown of civil discourse. As Gordon points out in his post today, we live in a time when knowledge that was once available only to the richest of the rich can now be accessed–for free–by anyone with a smartphone, and yet rather than the internet being a light unto the world, it’s partitioned off into opinion-ghettos where petty ideologues go for personal validation. Not very long ago I witnessed and was to a small extent involved in a discussion on vaccination. Whoa. Never doing that again. At first it seemed like it might be a civil discussion but that pretense was soon dropped. You have one camp accusing the other of being wild-eyed ignorant conspiracy theorists, and in return being labeled shills for government, Big Pharma, and “mainstream” science-and-academia. It is truly terrifying. Babies being thrown out with bathwater left and right.

I could go on and on with examples of this if I really wanted to depress myself, but suffice it to say that I hope we all know that we don’t grow by surrounding ourselves with yes-people who already agree with us. It’s comforting, and sometimes we need to get away from the plain viciousness that is so abundant nowadays–because in the absence of civil discourse, everything has devolved into simple, but extremely nasty, personal attacks–but it’s not a place to stay.

I read an article yesterday about how public opinion in the US is increasingly diverging from that of scientists. The researchers were unable to find any underlying pattern to this divergence–it differed depending on the topic, and it wasn’t (as scientists and science afficionados often believe) reducible to the public’s failure to grasp the concepts involved. I think one factor is that people are beginning to associate scientific materialism with forces in society that oppress and exploit ordinary folk. Because make no mistake: materialism in the philosophical/metaphysical sense–i.e., the proposition that only physical matter exists and all phenomena are reducible to physical processes–is historically and politically inextricably intertwined with materialism in the colloquial sense–i.e., excessive interest in and valuation of possessions.

Scientists haven’t seen this coming because they (and I used to be one of them) have expected people to spontaneously arrive at the conclusion that science and scientists exist for their benefit even as we/they were ignoring (at best) or belittling (at worst) the issues that matter most to people, many of which are not material and therefore not subject to examination via the scientific method. Here we would do well to remember that “science” as a particular (materialist) outlook and method, as opposed a handy shorthand for the sum of all knowledge, is a relatively new definition. Nuance and subtlety being scarcer than hens’ teeth in a world where we have “reality” cable shows about couples having sex in a box (link is in case you thought that was hyperbole on my part), critical thinking about certain scientific studies and the source of research funding has too often resulted in rejection of science in general. It’s as if people are unaware that they can want more transparency in testing of vaccinations or the details of climate change predictions yet still allow that vaccination is basically a good idea and climate change is really happening; that it does not necessarily follow that because you wisely distrust the modern surveillance state and its banker overlords you must believe extraterrestrial anthro-lizards built the pyramids. Again, babies and bathwater.

My concern is not that science or materialism retain the hegemony they have enjoyed for the past 200 years or so, but rather that reason and compassion should trump ideology; that we should aspire to and honor wisdom wherever we find it; and that the important part of “thinking for yourself” is the “thinking,” not the “for yourself.”

So, as I see it, letting our light shine through the fog is our mission and our playbook. I do not mean this in an “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” sense. That is a pernicious lie. If you want to exist in the society of other humans, you are only entitled to an opinion you can support with argument in a dialogue that involves other viewpoints. The claim that every opinion matters equally is part of that dark fog that veils the lights of other minds around us–it masquerades as freedom and tolerance while totally dismissing both, and knowledge at the same time.

This brings me back to why I am honoring the feast of St. Brigid today. (And by the way I don’t think it matters at all whether St. Brigid is actually the goddess Brighid, or was a human to whom aspects of the goddess of the same name were later ascribed.) At the church Brigid founded at Kildare, women maintained an eternal flame. It might be that tending your flame means finding some like-minded believers and establishing your own “monastic” community. But Brigid can be a model in other ways. She was a healer, a protectress of women and the poor, and patroness of metalwork, manuscript illumination, and beer brewing. Sometimes tending your flame means making things of beauty and becoming the “place” where it is safe for others to safely explore and then achieve their highest potential. Sometimes it is dangerous–it always requires speaking truth to, and more importantly, about power. Being a light means being visible; being visible can mean being a target. And it is always very difficult, not least because that flame will go out if you ever listen to the many voices that will tell you that you and your way are crazy, weird, or ugly. Remember, you are a light to them also. They will certainly never arrive at wisdom or compassion if they don’t see others living them. Recognize that these voices are sick with a leprosy of the soul, and remember this story about St. Brigid:

“One Easter Sunday, a leper had come to Brigid to ask for a cow. She asked for a time to rest and would help him later; however, he did not wish to wait and instead stated he would go somewhere else for a cow. Brigid then offered to heal him, but the man stubbornly replied that his condition allowed him to acquire more than he would healthy. After convincing the leper that this was not so, she told one of her maidens to have the man washed in a blessed mug of water. After this was done, the man was completely cured and vowed to serve Brigid.” [more]

With all this in mind, I made a Brigid’s cross today out of the only plant that would lend itself to such an application, chives. Hey, we start where we are and we work with what we’ve got, right? It is far from perfect, but its meaning is beautiful.

Brigid's cross

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2 thoughts on “On the feast of St. Brigid

  1. Wow! You did it: you said what I’ve been thinking. I have grown increasingly despondent about the lack of dialogue. Even more so about the lack of DESIRE for dialogue that runs rampant in our nation today. It saddens me because if we could just cut through the hate and anger and needing-to-be right we’d discover that we have so much more in common than we don’t. It seems everyone wants an argument anymore, and that being right is more important than being connected.

    This paragraph grabbed it all for me: “My concern is not that science or materialism retain the hegemony they have enjoyed for the past 200 years or so, but rather that reason and compassion should trump ideology; that we should aspire to and honor wisdom wherever we find it; and that the important part of “thinking for yourself” is the “thinking,” not the “for yourself.””

    Well done!

    • Aw, shucks! Thanks! I’m happy to know that there are others noticing this lack of dialogue (or as you say, even desire for dialogue) too. One thing I have learned, but have to keep learning over and over, is that it’s totally reasonable to sometimes be horrified or profoundly depressed by a crazy world, as long as we don’t give up.

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