This weekend is not only the birthday of Thomas Merton, but the feast day of St Brigid. This time of year has become one of the most powerful weeks for me in the calendar year.
Brigid’s feast day may have a shorter history with Christianity, but for 7000+ years the Imbolc festival, Là Fhèill Brìghde, was celebrated in honour of the goddess Brigid. It represented the hope of spring and fertility. It was also a looking back, as people celebrated the miracle of making it through the most dangerous time of winter. A festival of threshold times... of in between times... of praying for lambing, and calving, as the livestock swells toward spring.
In this week’s song, So Far to Go, there is the sense that we’ve come a distance on our journey, and that now, it can’t be reversed. That we’ve somehow stepped into the unknown, and quite clearly, are in new territory, but it is such a very liminal place that we have no compass for.
As James Finley says in the spoken word portion of the song:
I’m betwixt and between two worlds.
I'm on a path not of my own making
There is a tension there. It is being in that place where nothing is resolved. Nothing is tied up in a neat bow. And there is the risk of doing violence to the slow unfoldment, by trying to wrap it up too quickly. Like if you open up a cocoon too early, before it is time, all you will see is goo. And the lesson is, don't be goo. Keep going... in your waiting.
Being patient with metamorphosis, with unresolve, is hard. This tension is one of the the reasons I am so grateful for having been introduced to contemplative practice.
And as with all of my other recent writings on this album Sanctuary, I am spending time really thinking about how these personal journeys can expand, into the Big Story so I don't lead any of us into a neurotic corner.
Interestingly, we can see this idea of being betwixt and between two worlds, in both St. Brigid and Thomas Merton.
Brigid is actually the saint of thresholds, and tradition tells us that she was born in at the entrance to a dairy barn, so, both outdoors and indoors. Her father was a chief in the druidic tradition and her mother was possibly one of his Christian slaves, who worked in the dairy. So, also, both slave and free. Both Christian, and Pagan.
St. Brigid eventually became a Celtic Christian Abbess in Kildare, Ireland, and it is said that she had a special way with both the Christians and Celtic pagans. That she could stand in both worlds. She called Christ her Druid, for instance, which was the highest compliment that could be given in her world. And, on the other hand, she, along with St. Patrick, could be seen as abolitionists, because they both spoke against slavery, (which had originally been more of a bartering system in ancient Celtic culture, but had evolved in the Celtic world, by the influence of the far off, but far reaching Roman influence.)
Thomas Merton, was born to an American mother and a New Zealander/European father, and grew up in both America and Europe. He experienced French and British boarding school, American life, and a sort of avant garde, vagrant artist’s life.
His conversion to Catholicism was a deeply sincere conversion, and his baptism was a mystical experience.
Then, as he waited to find out if he would be drafted into the war, or if Gethsemani Monastery would have him as a monk, he found himself in that liminal space, nearly tormented by unanswered questions.
At one point, he asks St. Therese of Lisieux (Little Flower) to pray for him, asking her to show him what to do, telling her he would “be her Monk”. While he asked the Little Flower to pray for him, he could hear the bells of Gethsemani ringing, even though he was on the grounds of St. Bonaventure University in New York.
Reading his journals from around this time, you can really sense the humanity, the deep longing, that reveals itself, out of that in between place.
Throughout his life, as he deepened his search, he began to dialogue with Buddhist teachers, Sufi teachers, beat poets, and with jazz, as a sacred experience. He had a profound way of building a bridge between two worlds. And... interestingly, he was born on the Eve of St Brigid... and the Eve of Imbolc, a great turning point of the year, a festival that builds a bridge between winter and spring.
So, even as we may find ourselves in a place that is not resolved, let us be inspired by Brigid and Merton... and practice being in that place of tension, for ourselves, but also for the whole world. Because you never know… this practice in sitting without resolve, may be conditioning you for a time when you are asked to hold a tension in the world, that is not going to reach a conclusion, even in your lifetime.
In the end, all of this lack of culmination, is really about a lack of consummation with the great Lover. The ache you feel, is really a longing, for the depths of who you already are, to be realized. What this is about is exactly the quote of Merton’s (and as I write this it is Merton’s 105th birthday!), where you hear James Finley’s spoken word at the end of this song…
Thomas Merton once prayed to God,
O how far I have to go to rest in you
In whom I’ve already arrived
I only wish it were over
I only wish it were begun
This week also marks the Christian festival of Candlemas, which is the feast of the presentation of the Jesus, and the ritual purification of Mary in the temple. Traditionally, people would bring their beeswax candles to the church to have them blessed for the year, to place in the household, as a symbol of Christ, as the the illumination of all things... the Light of the world. And, in the Celtic Christian tradition, Brigid was known as the foster mother of Christ, or "Mary of the Gael".
Here is an excerpt from an oral tradition Gaelic hymn, passed down through the centuries, collected by Alexander Carmichael,
Glowed to him wood and tree,
Glowed to him mount and sea,
Glowed to him land and plain,
When the foot of the Child had touched the earth.
This glowing... this Light of the world... this illumination of all things... was easy to "get", for the Celtic eye, when Brigid built the bridge.
Where is it in our own lives, could we become more expansive, to fall in love, and build a shrine to hold our glowing places sacred? To heal from our own personal traumas... to symbolize the healing of all trauma... including the trauma that is happening to Christ incarnate as this planet herself.
Also... here is a little track I recorded on the Eve of St. Brigid's Day, Merton's birthday... an ancient song for Brigid, in Irish Gaelic.
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on a regenerative farm on the Canadian prairies.