Smooring the Sacred Fire

A conversation came up a while back about the gifts of Brighid in the lives of those who are devoted to her. I count myself among those folks. Every twenty days, I keep her sacred flame as part of a Cill whose members are scattered across the globe, a web of hearth-fires and forge-fires where we tend her flame of inspiration and transformation. A constellation of flickering candles that circle the earth and linger steady through the dark like stars.

I’ve always believed that when we turn to face our fears, we can accomplish great things. All through my teenage years, I faced my fears through poetry and writing — lingering in verse on dreams of loneliness, violence and grief far wilder than any I’d ever encountered as a loved and protected white girl in the suburbs. Morbidly, I’d imagine situations of pain or suffering, asking myself what I would do if I were ever mugged, or raped, caught in a house fire, lost at sea, or mired in a revolution, flirting with death and justice in a war zone. In a world where heroics were scarce between the soccer practices and the marching band competitions, I prodded at the dark places within my own mind. I rustled my fears out of the underbrush like wild animals; I ran them down like the fierce boars and ghostly white stags of the wild hunts of Celtic lore.

So when the conversation about Brighid turned to healing and care, I talked about how sometimes we don’t know what gifts we have to give until we’re challenged. How sometimes it’s when we’re at the very end of our resources and our strength that we can discover new depths to our own power. When as a young woman, Brigid the saint was at the end of her rope, about to be forced into a marriage to a man she didn’t love — she gouged out her own eye to make herself hideous and damaged. To know the dark, go dark. And when the marriage had fallen through, she healed herself and restored her own sight.

Many of the others in the forum talked about the gifts of self-healing that Brighid had given them, teaching the lesson that before you can heal anyone else, you have to be able to take care of yourself. To be honest, the idea seemed trite and overused to me. There’s a lot of navel-gazing and turning inward in the Pagan and New Age communities, as people seek an antidote to the self-sacrifice and self-denial found in so many Christian traditions. But this focus on the self can so easily become an excuse to withdraw, to flinch away from the difficult work of putting down roots and reaching out to find nourishment and connection in others. Connecting with others always means an ebb and flow of energy, a willingness to give as well as receive. Establishing healthy, porous boundaries takes work — and when a person already feels drained and powerless, it can seem like too monumental a task to face. But by turning away from that task, by refusing that connection in order to “take care of ourselves first,” we so often discover that we’ve cut ourselves off from our own deeper power. Instead of feeling rested and revived, we only end up feeling weak and even more vulnerable. Our roots are too shallow to feed our hungering souls.

Those were the thoughts the discussion provoked for me at the time, anyway. Looking back, I’m pretty sure at least some of these reflections stemmed from my own sense of isolation and disconnection, my own struggle to seek out supportive community in a culture that can so blithely promote individualism and personal success at the expense of interconnection and equality. In a thriving, soul-filled community, no one is a loser — but no one’s really a celebrity, either. American society — and so naturally, American Paganism to some extent — celebrates both equality for all and the dream of one day becoming a Big Name who’ll change the world. Trying to put down roots in such a land, it doesn’t take too long before you hit the hard bedrock of contradiction. Sometimes trying to find support and connection in a celebrity-driven community can feel like trying to get a leg up in a crab bucket.

But reflections change as the light shifts, and the days here are growing shorter as the sun slinks ever lower along the horizon. Earlier this month, I kept the sacred flame of Brighid on the night of the full blood-berry moon, lighting the candle as the sun was setting. In a few more days, I’ll keep it again on Samhain.

For the nineteen days between, the large white candle I’ve dedicated to flamekeeping — blessed with a candle lit from the fires of Kildare — sits dark on my altar. Its wick waits to be rekindled, bent and black. Part of every flamekeeping shift is the closing ritual, called “smooring the fire.” In older days, women who tended the household hearth-fire kept it burning throughout the day — but even they had to sleep at night. So they learned the art of smooring, circling the fire and smothering it with ashes, letting in only just enough air to keep the embers smoldering until the fires could be relit in the morning. On the eve of Imbolc, they would smoor the fire and rake the ashes smooth, in hopes that in the morning they might find some sign or mark that meant the goddess had visited while the household slept. As a modern keeper of Brighid’s flame, I light a candle instead of kindling a fire in a family hearth. But I still remember and reenact the ritual of smooring symbolically, acknowledging the flame of potential that sleeps within the wick. The prayer I whisper at the close of each shift is simple and traditional: “I smoor the fire as Brighid herself would smoor it.”

To know the dark, go dark.

These days, life is bustling and bright. I am a new wife and a new stepmom. My husband’s career is shifting back into high gear while I divide my time between freelancing, volunteer work and my own writing. While the #Occupy movement spreads like wildfire across the country, I do what I can for the occupiers camped out downtown in my own city. Boxes of wedding decorations clutter the living room, still unsorted. Luggage from the honeymoon sits open on the bedroom floor, serving as a makeshift laundry basket yet to be unpacked and washed. A cross-country move looms in our future as our schedule continues to fill up with conferences, business trips, and family holiday gatherings. Stepkids’ birthdays come in quick succession, filling up the freezer with left-over cake, while The Ex makes trouble over child custody. The garden is overgrown with unharvested vegetables beginning to go to rot in the chilly autumn evenings, and the neighborhood squirrels have eaten the face away from the jack o’lantern we carved last week.

There is so much I want to do, and so many things that need doing. And under it all is the haunting fear that I can’t keep up, that my work and my passion will be buried under an avalanche of irrelevancies and trivialities, that if I stop to catch my breath I will be buried alive.

The light shifts. Samhain is coming. I remember that conversation about healing and self-care. I remember my own thoughts about chasing down fear. The fear I’m chasing now is that I’m not good enough, fast enough or strong enough. It’s the fear that I have to stay “on” all the time, burning the candle brightly at both ends just to keep up, just to be noticed. It’s the fear of what will happen if I burn out. It’s the fear of the dark.

So I think I’ll take my own advice, and chase that fear where it leads. Turn my face to the dark for a while and relearn the careful art of smooring the sacred flame. After all, I guess roots that go deep must seek out the dark. There is power to be found there. The gods leave traces of their presence on the ashes while we sleep.


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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