A few months ago a professor asked my colleagues and me to practice Lectio Divina with nature. Lectio Divina, or divine reading, is a spiritual way of reading scripture in order to listen for the whispers of God. It involves reading a brief passage several times while noticing with each pass which part seems to shimmer at the reader, draw the reader in, or ask something of the reader.
My professor wanted us to do this with nature. To go outside with God and discern that which God was asking us to see or to sit with.
Goosebumps still stand on my arms to remember the way matter and Mystery communed and communicated together that drizzly afternoon.
My experience went like this:
After dragging a weighty chair outside, I sat down and gazed up at a tree just outside my divinity school. The tree looked like a woman, like Mother Herself to my imagination. At first I had a difficult time finding the specific place at which God and I were looking. As I gazed at the lady-tree I felt like a voyeur, like I was beholding something I should not, and then it was like the tree was too bright. My eyes settled more comfortably farther down the trunk. I tried to identify with the tree and her bark began to swirl into an infinity symbol. I felt very heavy, indeed, and saw a woman bearing the weight of infinity upon her back.
It was my back.
In a blink, however, the image changed. Where the first woman had been bent low under the weight of existence, I saw another woman emerge. She was tall and exultant. One arm she had around the shoulders of another person while her second arm was raised high, as if showing her companion the wonders, the visible love, of God.
I knew in my breath that this woman was me.
Over my shoulder, then, I saw a trail of other women and angels doing the same work that I was doing through the passes of time. Our train of exaltation extended up into the infinity symbol, which now, it occurred to me, looked like a womb. The line of women and angels came from the infinite womb of God.
Where I saw the weight of history on my shoulders, God and the lady-tree invited me to the truth that I am not alone—and that it is God who labors this world into being; wholeness, newness, and freedom come by the grace of God. My vocational work is to respond to the grace God births in me and in the world. It is to draw attention to the liberating wonders of Holy Mystery.
As I remember this dear episode with God and creation today, I am drawn to the chorus of holy women—and angels, apparently—of which I am a part. Sometimes I truly do feel as if the world is on my shoulders. Sure, my vocation has its right demands and challenges, as do many others, but I am not alone in this work.
Connection with the great cloud of witnesses through time and space, especially my sisters, has become so important to me. And I think this stirring of devotion and kinship has been at the behest of God.
This week is the feast of St. Brigid of Kildare.
Brigid (450-523) is a powerful Irish Christ-follower with whom I have felt a certain kinship recently. I find rich inspiration and grace for the journey through her stories—it is beautiful and good to see the ways she raised her arms in service and revelation of the nearness of God.
She is the patroness of Ireland, midwives, fire, chickens and cows & their keepers, fugitives, children whose parents are not married, scholars, poets, and many, many others for good reason. Brigid was born the daughter of a woman in slavery and a man in power—she experienced both realities of poverty and the halls of chieftains. Brigid knew something of liminality, of being between two worlds and two ways of being. Thus, her compassion was deep and understanding.
Though legend upon legend lay upon sister Brigid, she is renowned for her hospitality and practicality.
When she was in her father’s house as a young woman, she was ever giving away food and other resources to those in need. Her father, greatly annoyed that his possessions kept disappearing, set out to sell Brigid to the high king of Ireland. Legend has it that while in conversation with the king, Brigid’s father saw her giving away his sword—the only bit of worth he left with her in the carriage—to a beggar asking for alms! In seeing this, the high king said, albeit with a glimmer of delight in his eye,
“She is too good for me—I could never win her obedience.”
Brigid’s father soon set her free. Brigid went out with joy and found other women the Holy Spirit had been stirring in love for the people of Ireland. These women bonded together and founded a holy order. They promised themselves in service to Christ “in the least of these,” for the spiritual and physical well-being of others.
There are stories of Brigid and her circle of friends:
- Being conduits for physical healing—praying for the forgotten, touching the untouchable.
- Supplying enough beer for some umpteenth parishes during a shortage at Easter—that one barrel never went dry!
- Cleverly working with (around?) the powerful for the good of the least advantaged.
- Helping with others’ household chores so that busy housekeepers and mothers could step out to worship.
- Sharing wisdom that comes from a close walk with Christ—there is even one tale of Brigid helping a married couple find fulfillment again!
These fifth-century women founded a church and mixed monastery called Kildare, “church of the oak.” It was the first of many such communities Brigid and her people seeded in Ireland.
When Bishop Mel came to help the women make their vows of commitment, he noticed that Brigid hung back. He also noticed something else. Bishop Mel asked Brigid to come forward and he laid his hands upon her: “I have no power in this matter. God has ordained Brigid.”
And that is how Brigid, a woman, was recognized as a bishop of Christ’s church in the fifth century.
Perhaps you can see why I love Brigid. Maybe you, too, feel inspired—or at least have an itch to know more about our sister.
Her feast day is February 1, otherwise known as Imbolc (pronounced "im-MOLG") in the Celtic tradition. It is the first day of Celtic Spring. Imbolc means “in the belly,” referring to the pregnant ewes carrying their little bundles of life until birthing.
St. Brigid’s day is a time of noticing, noticing what is “in the belly” in your own life or the world. What is taking shape in you? What is Christ calling from you? What subtle growth do you sense in your community? Where do you see God at work? How is God laboring this world into being?
These are beautiful questions to ponder and wonder about in the days to come.
May you know that you are not alone, but that you, too, stand in a line of women and men and angels coming from the infinite womb of God.
Raise your arms not to the weighty work of shouldering the world alone, but to the exaltation of grace—God’s love made visible in the world. Revel in what God has done.