In the Celtic world, February 1st is known as St. Brigid’s Day (also celebrated as the pagan holiday Imbolc), and is the Celtic “quarter day” – halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox – that marks the beginning and promise of the coming of spring. I wrote more about it here last year.
In this year of such social and political divisions here in the United States, I find a certain amount of solace in the ecumenical appeal of Brigid; she was adored as a compassionate mortal woman during her human lifetime, revered as both secular and saintly, embraced by both the Catholic Church and Celtic Paganism. That she embodies such a largess of spirit and wide-reaching devotion seems somehow both comforting and healing.
I have recently been thinking about a trip I made to Ireland – thirty years ago this year – that included a visit to one of St. Brigid’s holy well sites (there are a few of them scattered around the island). I wrote about that visit, several years ago, and I thought I would share it with you, here.
I take a small blue and white cardboard matchbox from my pocket, remove the matches, and fill it with soil from beneath one of the shrubs behind the statue of St. Brigid, looking around to be sure I’m not being observed in this small act of thievery. Then I put a tightly-folded pound note in the thin slot of the padlocked metal donation box at the base of the statue. Payment for my transgression. Not exactly the souvenir of a tourist nor that of a pilgrim, but something in between the two…
The metal gate at the sidewalk opens into an unassuming courtyard garden planted with low, sturdy shrubs and, on this particular spring day, vigorous clumps of bright yellow narcissus puncturing the gray overcast from the sky. A statue of Brigid gazes down from atop a central berm, housed in a protective glass booth – reminiscent of one of those carnival fortune-telling machines – and one must stop and look up, heavenward as it were, to see her properly. Brigid holds considerable sway here, and there is something that begins to shift not long after entering: the rest of the world – the temporal world – seems to fall away. No sounds of cars, of human voices. I am grateful that this is a Wednesday morning in late March, without a tour bus in sight.
Off one side of the curving path and down some shallow steps, there is the invitation of a low archway carved into the whitewashed wall and fringed with ivy. From the brightness of the day, I stoop and enter a cool, dusky interior, a small tunnel of whitewashed stone. At the far end, sunlight from an unseen opening to the sky illuminates a rough fountain cut into the wall, with the burbling sound of water.
The first thing I notice just inside the entrance is an assortment of crutches and canes, presumably left behind as offerings of gratitude and testimony by those having been healed by the taking in of water from the well. I’m not much of a skeptic in these matters really, but I still marvel that this could possibly be so, and in such numbers. Did pilgrims really come here with cane and crutch and leave no longer needing them?
As my eyes grow accustomed to the dim light I realize the length of the tunnel is lined with shelves and picture rails, and that the entire length of these sills is crowded with an assortment of mementos in the form of offerings, notes, framed pictures; some of it the detritus of everyday pocket-contents as though their owners, having been moved by their visit, were compelled to leave something, anything, that would say to the saint “I’ve been here, I just wanted you to know.” Or from an overwhelming, unplanned and unexpected desire to leave an offering to Brigid herself, and a ball-point pen, toy car, or solitary bus token rummaged from pocket or purse were the only gifts available to hand.
Some offerings were clearly planned in advance: Votive candles, an array of various-sized statues of Jesus and Mary; some huddled together in groups, lined up like a receiving line to the well, others standing alone in contemplation; and some, draped with brightly-colored beads as though they have just returned from Mardi Gras. There are framed, plaintive portraits of Christ with eyes cast heavenward, and those of the Virgin Mary with her bleeding, crown-of-thorns-enclosed heart and pale blue robe, her doe-like, soulful eyes gazing off into some unseen distance.
Tucked in amongst all the trinkets and traditional objects of religious devotion are the Notes: Scrawled in pencil and pen, on index cards or torn scraps from notebooks, matchbooks, envelopes, hotel stationary. Some simply expressing love and fealty to Brigid; some, thank you notes for healings rendered; others are heartfelt, humble-to-desperate pleas for intervention and aid. I am stopped and in awe of the nakedness of spirit that surrounds me. This collection of divinity is a treasure trove for the eye and the heart and the spirit, and as a photographer, one I deeply want to capture on film. And yet it feels so achingly personal, the emotions and vulnerability too raw. I finally manage a very few photographs, holding in my heart an attitude of respect and reverence as I record as best I can, hopefully without becoming simply a cheap voyeur to other people’s faith.
At the far end, under the opening to the sky, a sun-sweetened wall of mortarless dry-stacked flat stones holds the source of the only sound – the well itself. Water spills from an opening in a short fall down to a basin cut into the floor. The splash and streaming make the stones behind the little waterfall a shiny wet-black. As I raise my cupped hand with the small bit of cold water toward my mouth, I catch a strong odor of sulfur that almost makes my eyes water. I hesitate only a moment before sucking the water from my hand. The smell is worse than the taste, fortunately (I would have hated to gag on holy water, after all). The taste is clean, clear; almost hollow in a way, as though holding a space for something more ethereal along with its hydrogen and carbon molecules.
Leaving this tiny grotto, I am momentarily blinded by the world made bright again; birds flying overhead, cars zooming by outside the gate. Time resuming its normal progression.
The stolen treasure, my humble saint’s-relic, came home with me in my luggage, undeclared at customs. I have it with me to this day – nearly thirty years later – in a cardboard box with other collected odds and ends of memory. I encounter it from time to time and open the box to see what simply looks like a common bit of soil; but I close my eyes and once again feel the cool, dusky moist air, the profound quiet but for that whispering of the well, that scent of redemptive sulfur.
Photo: (c) Design Pics http://www.fotosearch.com Stock Photography