Community Imbolc Ritual
Feb. 5, 2011
What does it mean to “worship the Goddess”?
My dictionary defines “worship” as “reverent love and allegiance”, “a set of ceremonies, prayers or other religious forms by which this love is expressed” and “ardent humble devotion”.
All right then, what is the Goddess? My favorite definition of the Goddess comes from Starhawk:
For me, now, the Goddess is the name we put on the great processes of birth, growth, death and regeneration that underly the living world. The Goddess is the presence of consciousness in all living beings. The Goddess is the great creative force that spun the universe out of coiled strings of probability and set the stars spinning and dancing in spirals that our intertwining DNA echoes as it coils, uncoils and evolves. The names and faces we give the Goddess, the particular aspects she takes, arise originally from the qualities of different places, different climates and eco-systems and economies.
In the Celtic world and for ages before, the Divine was experienced as feminine, the Goddess, and She was called Brigid.
Last Saturday, as they do each year in the first days of February, Asheville’s Mother Grove Temple held a community Imbolc celebration in honor of Brigid of Ireland.
Imbolc (pronounce em ulk) is a Celtic word. When Celtic culture flourished in the temperate climates of Europe on the days that fell mid-way between winter Solstice and spring Equinox people celebrated the promise of warmer summer season to come. Today Imbolc has survived as Brigid’s Day, Candlemas and Ground Hog’s Day (it’s six more weeks till spring Equinox whether the ground hog sees his shadow or not!)
I love this holiday. I mean it. I really, really love this holiday. Winter is hard for me and the last two winters here in western NC I have felt particularly challenged to remain hopeful, peaceful and present – which is, of course, excellently fertile ground for spiritual practice. Celebrating Imbolc renews my hope each year.
I also love Brigid. For one thing she’s Celtic—and my ancestry is Celtic. For another she’s the Goddess of Smithcraft – and I’m a Smith. She’s also the Celtic Goddess of Poetry and Healing. Other symbols of Brigid’s domain include but certainly are not limited to honey, bees, wells, serpents, child-birth, cows, milk, lambs and beer. (With ump-teen micro-breweries, Asheville is definitely a town devoted to Brigid!) She’s called the Gold-Red Woman and the green rolling hills of the Celtic European landscape are Brigid’s mantel, protecting and nurturing all creatures who dwell within it.
Byron Ballard, founding Priestess of Mother Grove Temple, and Jill Yarnall, also a dedicated priestess, led the service along with Teresa, who I’m told took her dedication only last year. These women with the help of a number of others created a truly sweet and powerful Imbolc celebration in honor of Brigid.
Before entering the ceremony hall we were each smudged with the fragrant smoke from dried herbs and our foreheads were anointed with sweet-smelling essential oil. Ritual purification gestures like these help initiate the process of shifting our awareness from the mundane world into a state of attention to the Sacred.
We entered the hall and walked a “turas”, silently circling the central alter before finding our place in the large circle formed by chairs placed around the room. As I looked around at the people gathered I noticed that with the exception of a few youths wearing long cloaks, the assembly looked the same as most other congregations – more women than men, more older people than younger, everyone casually dressed except the clergy who wore formal robes, in this case red and black.
With poetic and stirring images drawn from our own western NC landscape Byron and Jill called the directions inviting the energies and elements of the South, West, North and East to be present in our hearts, our minds and our circle. Then Teresa performed the Invocation of Brigid of Cill Dara with equally beautiful and poetic words. With this, our circle was cast. As a group we breathed deeply and took our seats.
Once seated we were informed of the location of the bathrooms, thanked for contributions to the Mother Grove Food Pantry and invited to make a love offering to Mother Grove Temple as baskets made their way around the circle. Mother Grove Temple has a goal to raise a Goddess Temple in Asheville, using green technology.
Now it was time to state the Intention of the Ritual. Byron and Jill are both proud natives of these hills so the statement of Intention took the form of good old Southern Appalachian-style oratory, aka preachin’. Y’all know I love good preachin’!
We heard about Brigid’s ancient history of worship and how she was co-opted as a Saint by the Holy Roman Empire as part of the occupation of Europe. We learned that Her eternal flame had burned for 1900 years until it was extinguished by Henry the Eighth in the 16th century. We heard that it burns again now thanks to Mary Minehan. We heard light-hearted stories of miracles performed by Brigid including the one about how she turned bathwater into beer.
In a goose-bump raising moment we heard how her worship has continued in an unbroken line from thousands of years before Christ and David and Buddha across the Indus Valley to the farthest edges of Europe and into the New World until this very day. In the 21st century Brigid is honored the world over including right here in the fellowship hall of an historic Episcopal church in the French Broad River Valley of the Southern Appalachians where so many people of Celtic heritage settled.
After the preachin’ we were invited to breath deeply and instructed how to proceed through the evening’s ritual by visiting each of the three stations or altars set up in the hall.
The central altar held a small statue of Brigid the Triple Goddess of Poetry, Healing and the Forge. Surrounding the statue were other symbols of Brigid including crows, rosebuds, pussywillows and a pitcher of milk. Below the alter on the floor lay a piece of lamb’s wool. The altar also held candles with images of the Goddess and a tall arrangement of red and gold grasses.
At the South end of the hall stood an altar of candles decorated with Brigid’s Crosses. These candles had been symbolically lit from the sacred fires of the eternal flame at Brigid’s altar in Kildare and carried to our celebration across the ocean by means of a ritual called “smooring”.
Smooring is a ritual of lighting a candle from a sacred flame then envisioning the energy of the flame flowing down into the candle along with all the spiritual essence of Brigid. In this way the eternal flame may be carried symbolically to any other altar bringing those energies and essences along with it. We were invited to light and smoor our own candles at this alter so that we could carry fire from the eternal flame home to our own alters.
On the altar at the North end of the hall stood the clouty branch with clouty clothes. Clouty clothes are essentially prayer flags that are traditionally tied to a branch by a stream where the prayers are released to Spirit as they wave in the breeze or fall into the water.
I experienced these stations as symbols of Past, Present and Future. I began my ritual at the candle altar, which represented for me the Past. As I lit my candle I whispered a prayer of gratitude that Brigid’s worship had survived terrorism and persecution by the Christianist Empire that was anything but Christ-like. As my candle burned, I envisioned my grandmothers, Mamie and Bertha, with their hands on my shoulders and their mothers laying hands on their daughters’ shoulders and so on back and back and back through time. I felt their love and support enfold me like Brigid’s mantle.
At the North alter, which represented for me the Future, I offered three prayers of healing and support – one for a struggling family member, one for my beloved partner and one for the Earth herself. Then I tied each cloth to the clouty branch with three knots as I whispered the traditional words, “Brigid to the left of me, Brigid to the right of me, Brigid before me”.
Later, after everyone had proceeded through the ritual I looked with delight at the once bare branch now full of dear little pieces of cloth. After the ritual, we were told, the branch would be ceremonially left by a stream in Asheville.
Finally, I proceeded to the central altar, representing for me the Present. When it was my turn I took a moment to center myself with a deep breath as I gazed down at the beautiful altar. I placed my foot on the lamb’s wool and picked up the pitcher of milk. I offered gratitude for all the blessings of this moment and poured the milk over the statue three times in honor of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone.
I returned to my place with tears on my cheeks, feeling my connection to Spirit, my ancestors, this community and my loved ones.
When everyone had completed their visits to the three stations, the priestesses offered the ritual of Cakes and Ales, this time with pieces of Irish soda bread and milk. As we took the bread Byron offered the first part of the traditional blessing, “May you never hunger”. Jill followed with a bowl of milk completing the blessing,“May you never thirst” as we dipped our bread into the milk.
After Cakes and Ale the priestesses opened the circle by releasing the directions and inviting us to hug our neighbors in the circle.
My candle rests now on my personal altar at home along with one of the small Brigid’s Crosses. (A larger one from last Imbolc hangs over my front door). I’m using the candle in this Imbolc season to light my own candles and to remind myself that Spring must come. It has never not come. Meantime I’m blessed with a warm hearth, a resilient community and plenty of blessings to share.
Mother Grove Temple is currently located at the Park Building, 70 Woodfin Place in Asheville, where they hold Sunday Devotionals, workshops, private counseling services, and house food for the Mother Grove Cornucopia Food Bank. Public rituals are usually held at All Soul’s Parish Hall in Biltmore Village during the colder months, and at public parks during the warmer months.
Michelle Smith, Minister and Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant