At my first Brigid ritual I had an experience that was so unexpected and life changing that I fell silent. I didn’t speak about it to my friends and I didn’t write about it. I didn’t even mention it in my journal. What happened felt familiar, much like the experiences I had as a Christian, but it was also different. The differences left me confused and I asked myself if I had just had an encounter with a new deity. At the same time the familiarity of the experience made me wonder if Jesus and Brigid were actually the same, like aspects of an all encompassing deity.
The more I thought about it, the more excited I became to find an answer. But Ostara came, Beltaine, and Lammas, and the question remained. The wheel turned and Brigid came around again. An entire year had passed and I still hadn’t written anything. I decided to rededicate myself to the question and find the answer on the event’s one year anniversary. So I wrote a piece about Jesus and Brigid being the same. Then I wrote a piece about Jesus and Brigid being different. They were both good pieces but I couldn’t decide which one was true and I ended up deleting them both.
And so another Brigid ritual came and went and then it was Ostara again and Beltaine and the solstice and the days grow shorter. Again. I still didn’t have an answer. And so the wheel has turned to Brigid once again. I have already been to two Brigid rituals and I still haven’t written about her. Two years I waited to write an answer, but today I choose to write the question.
My first Brigid Ritual
I am walking through a part of San Francisco that seems like prime mugging territory. My friends aren’t interested in rituals, so I am traveling alone. I am determined to finish out at least one full year of rituals with the Reclaiming tradition before committing to this path. It’s been a lonely road so far, but at least I expect to recognize some faces tonight. Still, I am nervous, because I know practically nothing about Brigid or Imbolc. I googled both, but couldn’t find any information about what kind of ritual awaits me.
I assume it will be a small event, like Mabon, a circle of twenty, maybe thirty. I wonder why we can’t celebrate in the park and what this venue is going to be like. I double check the address as I walk through this unfamiliar part of the city. Yes, I am going the right way. At least when it comes to finding this venue, I am on the right path. The streets are far too empty and quiet for my liking.
Finally I see a few people getting out of their cars. They are wearing colorful robes, corsets, and cloaks. I have come to the right place. The venue itself is dark with high ceilings and much bigger than I had expected. I am smudged at the door and waved into an open space where well over a hundred people are beginning to form a circle. I greet the few people I know and then find a place to stand, close to the entrance. I always choose places close to the entrance when I am nervous.
A circle is cast, we call in the elements and we invoke Brigid. A beautiful cauldron sits in the center and a fire is lit inside. The fire sizzles and I am awed at seeing a flaming cauldron cast small shadows across the altar. Then the drums begin and immediately people start dancing and singing, Welcome Bridh, O Bridh is come, Bridh is welcome! I don’t know the song, but it is fairly easy to pick up and I join in, stumbling over the order of the words. The singing gets louder, the dancing faster, and I take off my coat.
There is a commotion on the other side of the circle and I see a group of Witches carrying something. A bouquet of flowers, no, much bigger, a bundle of branches? I reposition myself to get a better look. It is a beautiful arrangement of heather, greens, and lilies on a pole. As people approach and kiss the flowers, touch the branches, I understand that it is a representation of Brigid herself. An idol, I think, this is what idol worship looks like in real life! A dozen bible verses come to life and I shudder. I am torn between all that I was taught and yielding to the beauty of this moment.
People come forward to touch Brigid, to kiss her, bow to her, sprinkle her with the sacred waters of the world. I stand on the outside of the crowd, taking it all in. Eventually the dance and the song cease and Brigid is stationed next to the central altar, keeping watch over the cauldron. Then we are invited into a walking trance and I groan. A silly concept, that. I can’t even enter a trance lying flat on my back with my eyes closed wearing earplugs. Walking in a circle with dozens of strangers and expecting to enter a trance is sure to be an exercise in futility. I resign myself to failing at trances and the inevitability that I will be walking around a circle pointlessly.
The purpose of the trance is to find our pledges for the year. I start walking and struggle with frustration. I imagine everyone else having transcendent spiritual experiences talking to the gods while I am busy avoiding stepping on their feet. I give up on any semblance of trance and distract myself by thinking about what I should pledge.
Maybe something about music, playing more music is always a good idea.
Or maybe it should be related to my business, the chocolate factory I own. I reject that idea, it is too mundane, I should really try to come up with something more spiritual.
Maybe creativity. Creativity is a pagan-y spiritual thing. I’ll just say “I pledge my creativity” and get it over with. Except that it’s a very uncreative way to phrase it, isn’t it? I should at least come up with creative wording for my creativity pledge. I bounce words back and forth, wording, dismissing, re-wording, dismissing again. Am I really incapable of committing to creativity creatively? At least so far I have managed not to step on anyone.
“I pledge… I pledge… I pledge… I pledge—-“ And suddenly a word rumbles through me and finishes the sentence. Heat rushes through me and I lose track of my surroundings. I can’t hear anything except my beating heart. No, I think, no, not that! The word thunders through me again, deep, strong, irresistible. It threatens to consume me, it takes over my body, my mind, until there is nothing left but that word and my racing heart. NO! I think directly at it. NO! I take a deep breath. I reach for my rational mind and look around to anchor myself in my surroundings. Apparently I have stopped walking and people are walking around me like a river splitting around a boulder. I take another breath and shake my head to clear my thoughts, then I rejoin the walking.
It’s nothing, really. It’s just my mind playing tricks. It’s nonsense, complete nonsense. I wish my heartbeat would slow down. I feel as if I am waiting to be called into a doctor’s office to receive a diagnosis. Dread and anticipation and the desire to make it all go away, mixed with an insatiable curiosity. The moment I allow myself to feel the curiosity, the word presses against me again. This time I don’t let it overwhelm me. I keep walking and I push it away. It is nothing. It is nonsense. Creativity is what I will pledge. I just need to find the right wording.
I look up from the flowing river of trancing Witches and stare at the fire in the cauldron and at Brigid. The trance journey is ended and people are forming a circle again. Everything is overwhelming, the darkness of the space, the sparse lights, the sounds and the silences in between. I fight to regain composure and back away from the center, hoping to fade toward the edges of the circle. There is an empty space between two lines of blue tape on the floor and I retreat there. Someone steps into the center and tells us to form three lines and wait for our turn to come to the center and speak our pledges. I am not sure that I want to do this part.
Everyone is moving around now, but I don’t know where to go. I search for the areas where the lines will form so I can avoid them. Suddenly I notice that a line of people has formed right behind me. Why? I wish my mind was a little clearer! And then I understand, I am standing on the very spot that marks the beginning of a line. Panic seizes me and look for a way to back out, but just then someone walks up, points at me and two others, announcing we are the beginning of the lines. I am officially doomed.
There is an energy pulsing through the room and it feels like a long lost powerful friend, familiar and strange. I feel held and supported even while fighting my panic. Someone from the first line steps into the circle. She speaks her pledge and a hammer hits an anvil. I jump. Before I can gather my wits again, it is my turn.
Somehow I find my way to Brigid and the cauldron. I run through the carefully crafted words in my head. I hear the sizzling of the fire and step closer even as my heartbeat drowns out all other sound. I glance at the Brigid effigy and tell myself that I can do this. Then I place my hands over the cauldron and look into the fire and as I do, time shifts. I lose the ability to differentiate between seconds and hours. I wonder if I have always stood over this cauldron and if I always will. Something in the back of my mind tells me that there are people waiting, so I open my mouth to speak the memorized words. “I pledge—-“ and in that moment an energy surges through me and takes hold of me. The edges of my vision shimmer and my focus tunnels into the fire. I feel the molecules in my body dance and my spirit catch fire. I wonder if I could resist it, but I no longer want to, so I let it take me. I tremble as I become the fire and the fire becomes me. I become one with the molecules around me. Everything becomes more real, more alive. Joy rushes through me, but it is not a light joy, it is heavy with experience and wisdom.
Isee myself stand taller and speak the word I didn’t want to speak, the same word that pressed itself upon me earlier. The word I thought was nonsense, because it scared me. I hear myself pledge it and it feels right. There is nothing else I could have said.
My first pledge
Imbolc wasn’t the first time I made such a pledge. Fifteen years earlier I was at a large Christian festival in Germany and where the Jesus Freak movement was holding a public service. I was raised in a conservative Christian church, and the Jesus Freak movement offered excitement, a way to live my faith without being restricted by as many cultural norms. I couldn’t wait to go to the service and arrived early, but to my disappointment a crowd of hundreds, maybe thousands was already gathered. The service was to be an open air event inside the walls of a bombed out church. The setting was beautiful, but it was clear that the space within the walls would hold less than a quarter of the crowd. Security was already busy turning people away.
In proper German fashion I elbowed my way to a burly security guy and asked if there was any chance of getting in. He shook his head and told me to leave. I was so disappointed, I couldn’t help but tear up a little. I really felt like I needed to be at the service; it was the highlight of the entire festival for me. As I turned to go, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the security guy. He smiled at me and said: “you really want to get in, don’t you?” I nodded. “Well, hold on then” he said. He grabbed my shoulders, and lifted me up unto the wall, through the open hole where a window once had been. He pushed me through the hole and gently dropped me on the inside. “Go!” he shouted, as he continued to push back the crowds.
I was ecstatic. I felt like God had provided a miracle for me to be here. The leader of the Jesus Freak movement preached a fiery sermon and I cheered when he asked who was excited to follow Jesus. Then he asked who felt called to pledge their career to Jesus, to enter a life of full time ministry. As much as I loved Jesus, I never thought to enter the ministry. It was clear to me that I would pursue a normal life with a normal job and that I would evangelize, preach, and lead worship in my free time. But suddenly I felt an energy rush through me, fire and light and life, and my arm shot into the air. I didn’t mean to raise it. I tried to take my arm down, but my muscles obeyed only the energy, so fierce, so passionate, so connected with all that is. I couldn’t bring myself to withdraw my pledge. I yielded and let the energy take me and I was counted among the pledgers. And just like at Imbolc so many years later, it was the only thing I could have done.
Two pledges, two stories. I can’t think about one without thinking about the other. So much changed in the years since that Jesus Freak service. One pledge made by a teenager in Germany, the other by my 33 year old self in San Francisco. A fiery cauldron and a sunny church ruin. Two rituals, two deities, Jesus and Brigid. Are they the same or are they different? I still don’t have an answer. For now I have made my peace living with the question.