Sunday, 16 September 2012

Ireland - Part 1: Kildare

It's been three weeks since Ireland. I had been planning it for so many months, and so much happened while I was there, that I wanted to give it some time before writing about it. And then I found I couldn't put a lot of it in words. But I thought some people might like to see my pictures, with a few comments. 

So let's start with getting there, and Kildare. 

The gorgeous little Welsh village where my friend lives, where we stopped overnight on the way to the ferry -  little slate cottages nestled in the mountains.
We left on the Thursday, and it took us half a day to drive to the Welsh village where a friend lives. She had kindly offered to give us a bed for the night, since she lives near the Anglesey port that we were headed to. She lives in the most gorgeous cottage. My witchy friends would have been seriously jealous - and I entirely failed to take any pictures inside the cottage. This (above, far left) is the cottage from the outside. The town hall (I think) is the Tudor-style building to the right.

On Friday morning we got up at some ridiculously unreasonable hour, drove to the port, and got the early ferry to Ireland. I should say at this point that I was determined to see the whole trip, from ferry journey to hanging out in the Cork hills, as a pilgrimage. I'm sure that's incredibly counter-intuitive for most people - this is somewhere I go back to every three to five years, and given my mobility impairments, the whole thing had to be a driving trip. (I have crossed Ireland by bus and train before, and it's a different experience, but any way that I can see the country is fine by me.) That said, Ireland has been a very special place to me for a long time - and I had some specific spiritual intentions in mind. 

Three realms (OK, only two that you can *see* - but this is the view back towards Britain from the ferry),
Given my pilgrimage aim, I had a few things I wanted to stay aware of throughout the trip. The most important was not to get stressed out. Another was to seek the gods in the least likely places. We had an incredibly rocky crossing, three hours during which I was mainly focused on not falling over, but I managed to say hi to Manannan mac Lir out on the very tiny deck. Next to the small children vomiting over the side of the boat.

We arrived in Kildare in the afternoon, for our first overnight stop. It's famous as a site of pilgrimage to St Brigid. She has various sites here, including the cathedral and the holy well. I didn't get to see the church just outside the town where a woman has created a statue that reflects both the Catholic and Pagan aspects of Brighid - that would have been fantastic.

Statue of St Brigid in the town square
I went to see the cathedral on Friday afternoon. For the most part, it struck me as a cathedral like any other, but with Brighid's crosses all over the place (it was hard to get good pictures inside, but there's one example below) and touches of Celtic imagery and history woven throughout.

14th Century vault in the grounds of the cathedral - known locally as 'Brigid's Kitchen'
Inside St Brigid's Cathedral

Celtic artifacts on display in the cathedral - some authentic, some copies of the real thing housed in the National Museum of Ireland  
There was a lovely display that told the story of St Brigid - she's believed to have been ordained a bishop in the Celtic church. Given that there was far more equality for women in the Irish Celtic church than in the later Roman Catholic, it's believable that this happened to someone.

And then I found the fire temple.

The foundations of the fire temple
The remains of the fire temple are just outside the cathedral, in the grounds. All that's left now is the foundations. Apparently, fires are lit here every Imbolc/St Brigid's Day, and her sacred flame was rekindled here in the 1990s. Before that, it is said that the flame once burned for at least a thousand years. It was extinguished during Cromwell's invasion of Ireland.

Offerings inside the remains of the fire temple
If I was vaguely aware of Brighid in the huge cathedral, with all its altars and dedications to her, then she was so much more present in the tiny, bare foundations of the fire temple. Stone crosses and remains of pillars had been dragged in to form makeshift altars. Catholic prayer cards sat next to crystals, reed crosses and personal trinkets. There were beautifully arranged offerings, and there were lengths of cloth that had been ripped off shirts and improvised into votive ribbons. And there were a lot of candles.

I was meditating so long there that I got locked inside the cathedral grounds. If you go, do remember to leave by 5pm, or you'll end up attempting to climb through the fence, realising you can't get over the wall, and being rescued by accident when they come to find someone else (who they had locked inside a tower in the grounds. Possibly the Brigidine Sisters are recruiting).

St Brigid's well, Kildare
Saturday was my visit to the holy well, set in a park. A silent, deeply peaceful place, it seems to be largely overlooked by visitors. The stones leading up to the well are stations where prayers are said; the tree by the well is hung with ribbons. Not many, but enough to glimpse a community of seekers.

In good 'caught unprepared' tradition, I realised that I had already given all my offerings at the fire temple. There was a fabric belt around my dress, and I tied it around the tree with the other ribbons. Then I spent some time under the trees and at the stream.

It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to - and that's where I run out of words.

The stations, leading away from the well towards the stream

Statue and stream

If I ever get to go back, I'd like to see the perpetual flame at Solas Bhride, and to try and find the second holy well in the area - a local person told me about it, but I couldn't find it anywhere. A lot of these sites are so unassuming you can walk right past them.

I'll pick this up again soon, on the subject of the rest of the trip - which turned out to be quite different - including some much less well-known sacred and ancient sites.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

On Policing The Boundaries

When behaviour irritates me, it's often because I recognise it as a failing in myself.

That's a difficult thing to admit. Like many people, I like to think of myself as flawless. This is a defence mechanism - I obviously know that I am very far from perfection. But the alternative - being aware of your failings as well as your strengths in a mature way - is really, really hard.

Which is why, when I read a blog post today that made me deeply, profoundly angry, my first response was to draw boundaries. I am not like them. They attack and exclude others. I include others. I am a better, more spiritually mature person than them. Bullshit, of course - but that's how I reacted.

Photo of a boy drawing a line in the sand, by Wookiee (creative commons licence)

Who shut up the sea behind doors... when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? - Job 38

The blog post in question, which I won't dignify with a link, was a response to a recent article on the subject of natural polytheism by a writer who I happen to admire very much. I read that article yesterday, and I loved it - and it seems I wasn't alone, based on the positive responses when I linked to it on twitter. So when today's post emerged in response, the author dismissing this inspired, creative theology as not only immature and stupid, but also as deeply threatening to their own theological position, you can start to imagine why I got pissed off.

When I joined the Pagan community, it was partly because I was looking for something different from what I had found in the Christian religion. In particular, I was tired of all the boundary-policing. Some Christians (not all Christians) like to draw lines in the sand, and then stop people from passing those lines. These people are not like us. They are sinners. They are heretics. And, at the extremes: they are not Christians. Lots of Christians, of every flavour, decide that their theology is superior to someone else's, and then they draw the line in the sand and refuse to let the outsiders into their community. When I was a Christian, there were people who were offended by my very existence, mainly because I was a bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship who had the audacity to call myself a Christian. But I got the impression that my theology, not my relationship, was the real threat. I was blessed with the belief that God's grace and love were truly infinite. That was a threat to people who wanted to draw the boundaries - who wanted to say this far and no further. I think they believed it was a threat to their way of life. If Christianity was on a slippery slope to liberalism and inclusivity, their exclusive beliefs started to look more unacceptable, and that meant losing power. They didn't want to lose their status as the most legitimate, intellectually 'acceptable' form of Christianity.

This phenomenon is common - so common that sociologists have complex theories about it (they've studied the way that communities create 'in-groups' and 'out-groups' and then police the boundaries between them). So while I talk about Christianity here because that's the religious community I'm most familiar with, I also know that every other religious community from Islam to Hinduism has members that like to police the borders of that religion. It's a very human thing to do. Maybe it goes back to our tribal roots - maybe we want to know who is 'us' and who is 'them' because the world feels safer then. Of course, all that really happens is that the world gets smaller.

At the very beginning of my research into Paganism, I thought that the Neo-Pagan religions were naturally predisposed to do less of this. I thought that the diversity of faiths under the Pagan 'umbrella', all co-existing relatively peacefully, was a major shift in the nature of modern religious movements - and that it was a great example for inter-faith relations. I still do, on some level. But I've also been disenchanted.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love theology. I love to it a disturbingly geeky level. Meditating (and researching) on questions of the nature of deity is central to my spiritual experience. Talking about it gets me obscenely excited. (Really. If you want to see this mild-mannered little trainee academic get so animated that she ends up breaking things, ask her about her current thinking on the nature of the gods.) Theology should be something beautiful, something that gets us closer to the gods, or to the essence of spirituality. It should be intellectually, emotionally and spiritually blissful. It should not be used to police the boundaries between us and them - especially when we're all Pagans. If theology is important to you, can you not imagine how important it might be to someone else? And do you really need to feel so threatened by someone else's alternative theology that you start making accusations of oppression, of not being allowed to believe what you believe? To me, this sounds an awful lot like the conservative Christians who feel threatened by the liberal Christians. But what if we don't get to define what [insert religion here] is anymore?

I was at a disability studies conference this week. It was a great experience - I got to see how the academic community is really trying to be useful to people who are among the poorest and most oppressed in our society. Almost everyone was making a positive contribution - except for one person. This man, who is a bit of a disability studies 'celebrity', went out of his way to be dismissive of other people, to say how pointless the conference was, and generally to show how much his head was up his own arse. But he was happy because he knew he was RIGHT. What a shame for him that he didn't see what a wasted opportunity his commitment to 'right'-ness was.

A wise friend of mine made the observation that there are far more commonalities than differences in modern Paganism, and that clinging to some kind of moral high ground involves a failure to recognise that. I agree. I don't think there's much else to say. Except...

...that I keep coming back to this idea, that what irritates me most is usually a failing that I recognise in myself, on some level. I like to draw lines in the sand and say this far and no further, too. I especially like to police intellectual boundaries. Have you thought about something 'enough'? If I don't think you have, I'm probably going to dismiss you. How many wonderful opportunities, relationships and connections I miss as a result. How easily I could slide into isolation and bitterness if I continue to let myself do that.

I'm also still very afraid of having lines drawn against myself. In my Druid group, I've been afraid to say too much there about what I really believe, because I know that some of the ways I define myself and the gods could be controversial. What opportunities I'm denying to other people who might want to connect more deeply with me, as a result.
At our Midsummer ritual, I told the gods (the universe, the Divine, whatever) that I was done with fear. They're taking me extremely seriously. I refuse to be limited by the fear of being the outcast. I refuse to be limited by the threat of others' beliefs. I choose to look for the commonality, not the differences.

Picture of St Brigid's well, County Kildare, Ireland. Photo by me. 

Macha, goddess of right relationships - with the land, with the gods, with each other, within ourselves;
Brighid, who transforms everything I offer to her, including myself;
May I honour you authentically, and in so doing, honour myself.
And may I recognise how much bigger than my tight, tiny boxes you really are.