St. Brigid

February 2nd is St. Brigid’s Day, one of the few Christian holidays in which a female is remembered, recognized, and honored.

The Abbey on Iona at Twilight | Photographer Brad Ruggles

The Abbey on Iona at Twilight | Photographer Brad Ruggles

On Iona there is a wellspring on the northern side of Dun I. It is called the Well of Eternal Youth. It has pre-Christian significance and is associated with St. Brigid of Kildare, the fifth-century Irish saint who is much celebrated in the Western isles of Scotland – or the Hebrides as they are also known, meaning the islands of Bride or Brigid. Legend has it that her mother was a Christian and her stepfather a Druid priest. She combines within herself the stream of Christian devotion in confluence with the wisdom of pre-Christian religious insight. So she is often associated with sites in the Celtic world, like the Well of Eternal Youth on Iona, that were considered sacred long before the advent of Christianity.

Brigid of Kildare is the saint who straddles the Christian and the pre-Christian. Even the name of her monastic community in Ireland, Kildare, simply means the Church of the Oaks. It was a holy oak grove from Druidic times that was baptized by Brigid into Celtic Christian practice. She embodied a devotion to Christ and an honoring of pre-Christian wisdom, especially its reverencing of nature and the healing properties of the earth.

According to legend, Brigid was the midwife and wet nurse of the Christ Child. She is described as the barmaid at the inn in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph seek shelter. There is no room at the inn but Brigid provides them with space in the stable. At the moment of the birth, Brigid midwives the Christ Child and then suckles him at her breast. It is a story that points to the way in which the Christian Gospel in the Celtic world was nurtured on the nature mysticism that preceded Christianity. The myths and legends of that world were incorporated into its celebration of Christ. They were like an old testament to the new revelation. There was no concern about historical discontinuity. The anachronism of a fifth-century Irish saint being present at a first-century Middle Eastern birth did not worry the Celts. This was a story that allowed two worlds to become one.

On the island of Iona it was said that Brigid would appear at the Well of Eternal Youth on the summer solstice when, in the Western isles of Scotland, darkness does not fully come until after midnight. So, even well into the nineteenth century, people would gather in the late twilight of midsummer’s night to seek Brigid’s blessing. Not surprisingly, Brigid’s blessing was sought in the twilight, for she belongs to the liminal realm between worlds that is represented by the fading of light and the approaching darkness.

It is the time ruled neither by the sun nor by the moon but by the meeting of the two. It is the time of the two lights, twilight.

Into this liminal realm, between the known and the unknown, we are invited to enter if we are to learn more of the way forward in our lives as individuals and as communities and nations. This is why, in so much of Celtic storytelling and legend, lovers meet and worlds conjoin in the twilight. It is the coming together of the masculine and the feminine. It is the convergence of the unseen world of those who have gone before us and this present dimension of space and time in which the seen and the physical dominate. It may be a time of encountering messengers for the invisible realms of the universe that are linked inextricably to our realm, but at the same time transcend us in our struggle with unknown forces of darkness within and without. This is also why, in so much Eastern spiritual practice, the early hours of dawn are viewed as the time of meditation, when night and day are commingling in ways that more readily allow us to move from the known to the unknown and from the nameable to the ineffable. This is why I sought the predawn hours of early morning in which to begin the writing or this book each day. This is the time that is closer to dream life and the half-wakeful state of knowing in which both light and shadow come forth and all things appear as one.


Newell, John Philip. The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014. | Photography by Brad Ruggles