Tess Ward is a hospice chaplain and writer of prayers and liturgies. She facilitates both traditional Christian services and more personal, spiritually focussed ceremonies. Her books include The Celtic Wheel of the Year and Alternative Pastoral Prayers.
Imbolc has always been one of my favourite festivals. I’m sure this is partly because my birthday is the following week and so long before I ever knew about Imbolc, snowdrops have heralded excitement and new things. Their defiant energy emerges from the slumbering cold earth with both strength and fragility reminding us year after year that life , however tender, can overcome. Their colour too – green and white, such a magical combination, pure snow white skirts lifting to reveal the peeping green heart. They somehow combine the milk of Brigid and her green mantle. [It is said that Brigid was milking a cow and a poor woman came by and she gave some milk and another and she did the same and when she ran out, the cow produced some more for her to take back to her mother.]
We gathered in the dark at St Frideswide’s well in Binsey or “Treacle well”. [St Frideswide is the patron saint of Oxford. She had fled to Binsey in a bid to escape marriage to a king of Mercia, whose pursuit of her was halted when he was struck blind at the gates of Oxford. Frideswide’s prayers brought forth a healing spring, whose waters cured his blindness, and the spring was walled into a shallow well which became a focus for pilgrimage, the mediaeval sense of the word ‘treacle’ meaning ‘healing unguent’.]
It was the perfect place for Imbolc, given that we couldn’t get to Kildare to go to Brigid’s well. It was a healing place where a woman had stayed true to her womanly spirit in a world where expectations were set by men. We came with our lanterns and called the directions in this sacred place under the bright full moon (and Jupiter) with the shadows of ourselves against St Margaret’s church wall and the bare trees flickering.
We shared the people, places and situations that needed healing – these included personal and global things. Imbolc to me is a particularly feminine festival because of Brigid and it is also Candlemas which is about Mary coming to the Temple, for purification – sadly because religious purity laws deemed childbirth unclean. On the day when Islamic men thought they were cleansing the world by burning an innocent man alive in a cage, it seemed more important than ever, to hold fast to women’s ways of healing the world – which both men and women can inhabit. It is more hidden and doesn’t carry guns but it requires daily attention to the opening of our eyes ears and hearts. As we knelt to put our faces under the arch of the well to touch the water and each well wrapped bottom stuck up in the air, we asked for healing and cleansing and flowing of Spirit through all the troubled and painful lives and places. I was warmed by our prayers and the only thing we could do in the face of such horror and violence. We hummed and offered silence and then one by one gathered up our lanterns and walked back into the moonlit night.
O Caring one,
nurturing, generous and milky kind,
yet defiant as the snowdrop in a cold climate,
come with your healing and your balm
so we might be gentle and strong
and part of the flow of peace.