New York City has always been something of a touchstone for me, so this past Friday I decided to make a pilgrimage to three spiritually significant spots: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Central Park. This is the first post in the series.
While I was raised in a secular humanist family, my father also specialized in medieval French history. This resulted in much of my childhood being spent in Romanesque and Gothic churches and cathedrals all over France, as the church still holds much of the historical information for the period.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve always felt very comfortable with Catholic iconography, even if I don’t entire grok the religion itself. The soaring stone vaults and rich incense bring me comfort–a forest of stone trees sheltering both the lost and the joyful. The peace of fragrant cloisters, the damp coolness of ancestral crypts, candles lit for saints and ancestors alike, weave a fascinating tapestry of tradition and faith.
In many ways, the Catholic church sets a fine example of venerating ancestors (saints), land spirits (Our Lady of XYZ), and gods (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). I’ve been lighting candles for Jeanne d’Arc and Catherine of Alexandria since I was tall enough to reach the tapers. I’ve traveled pilgrimage routes to holy sites and drunk from sacred springs. If I ever ended up a flavor of Christian, it would like be Catholic.
In my own muddled polytheistic mind, each chapel in a cathedral is a small shrine to spiritual being–Catholics call them saints and angels, I call them ancestors and gods. St. Patrick’s has over a dozen altars to various saints, including St. Brigid, whom many view as a syncretization of the Irish goddess Brigid. Now, no Catholic will ever consider this a shrine to an ancient goddess. But I figure if the church did such a good job of absorbing the pagan gods, we can return the favor and light a few candles for those beings in honor of the good ol’ days, regardless of their current forms.
The goddess Brigid in her capacity as healer is often closely associated with the Ovate grade, and as I’ve been struggling a bit with that work as of late, I decided to pay her a visit. Brigid’s chapel (which she shares with St. Bernard–yeah, don’t even get me started on the Flowering Lady, Animal Lord symbolism in that one) is the second to the left as you enter the cathedral. There were only a couple of candles lit for her, which always makes me a bit sad. I took three deep breaths, dropped my $2 in the offering box and and recited a variant of the Druid’s Prayer as I lit her candle:
Grant me, Lady Brigid, thy protection,
And in protection, strength,
And in strength, understanding,
And in understanding, knowledge,
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice,
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it,
And in the love of it, the love of all existences,
And in the love of all existences, your love, Bright Lady, and all goodness.
In my mind’s eye, I saw her face turn to me, no longer distantly gazing towards heaven. My throat closed and tears welled up, even as I felt my heart reach towards her. She embraced me with peace and fire. Goddess or saint, it no longer mattered. She is the Lady of the Healing Well and the Smith at the Forge. She is all the fires of the Sun and all the waters that run under the Earth. She loves, simply and profoundly, each of us who come to her.
I stayed for a while, meditating on the significance of the symbols incorporated into her chapel. The knotwork surrounding the cross on the altar between the statues of Brigid and Bernard made a contemplative mandala that was wonderful to ponder. The cross itself was the equal-armed solar form, found so often in Celtic countries. The twisting vines surrounding the cross at first appeared asymmetrical, until closer observation reveals the pattern. (There are, in fact, asymmetrical elements, which makes for a fun visual treasure hunt.) A spiral graces the center of the cross on Brigid’s pedestal. In short, the whole altar seethes with the verdant power of Eire.
Perhaps the most mundane of “offering” was the ladder and old offering box that were stashed to the left of her pedestal. At first I was irritated that someone was using the chapel for a storage closet, but then I could almost feel Brigid’s amusement at the presence of such mundane items, and decided instead to view them as tributes to hard work in all its forms. The cathedral is currently undergoing renovations, and I could imagine her satisfaction at helping with that in some small way.
Brigid is a goddess of craftspeople, and with her many faces of poetry, healing, and art, she sets an example for today’s working class folk, who themselves may have two or three jobs to make ends meet. She teaches tolerance of a less-than-ideal situation, if sticking it out will improve your lot in the long run. She also kindles desire in the complacent, driving them to find something better. She will help you dig deep within yourself to find that sleeping strength, to rouse the dragon of the soul’s discontent.
Hail Brigid, Lady of Desire!
Hail Brigid, Mother of Arts!
Hail Brigid, the Survivor!
Praise be to you healing waters.
Praise be to your sacred flame.
Praise be to your joy everlasting.
Ninefold are your blessings to us,
Ninefold are our gifts unto you,
Infinite is the love between us.
4 thoughts on “NYC Pilgrimage: St. Patrick’s Cathedral”
*gets a little teary*
I was raised Catholic. I got expelled from Catholic school as a kid, but I still faithfully attended Mass for a few years after that, because I felt a connection to the sacred in church. The incense that I burn for D actually reminds me of the incense my church used. I would never return to Catholicism as a faith, but there are things about Catholicism that have stayed with me, including aesthetics.
I am glad you had that experience with Brigid there. That was beautiful.
(Psst: make a pilgrimage to Oregon and we can do Druid things with trees. :P)
Ooooo…Druid things with trees, you say? 😉
There something about the “smells ‘n’ bells” of Catholicism that really work well to get people into a particular mindset. Votive candles are another tradition I suppose I have technically appropriated from Catholic practice, but when the tech works, it works.