TOAST Magazine

A Woman's Pilgrimage | Marie-Elsa Bragg

RITUAL & REFLECTION

As we explore Flux & Flow this season, London-based Priest, author and spiritual director Marie-Elsa Bragg considers the pilgrimage, how it shapes our creative experience, uniting myth, symbolism and storytelling all flowing into one ancestral river. Marie-Elsa contemplates her own walk with nature and that of mythological Saint Bega who fled across the Irish sea to land at St. Bees, Cumbria.

Hereclitus: “You could not step twice into the same river.”

Saint Bega was a radical Celtic woman who lived as a hermit on a small island in the middle of Bathenswaite Lake, Cumbria. Originally from Ireland, she refused her father’s betrothal to a Viking prince and was awaiting the punishment of being rolled down the hill in a barrel of nails when an angel appeared to her with the gift of a sacred Iron-worked bracelet and the message to flee across the Irish sea. The story continues that as she arrived at the port of St Bee’s, the land was covered in heavy white snow. 800 years earlier, Heraclitus reflects on not putting our feet into the same river twice as life rolls on and this image of a new, soft untrodden land with all the mystery snow brings is a vivid portrait of how complete each of our momentary choices are whether they are to ignore or move forward. And that, no matter how prepared we are, there is always something unimaginable about their consequence.


The story continues that she found a cave and lived there as a hermit, known to the locals who visited her for spiritual council and a blessing, even a miracle, which came through her iron bracelet.

In my life, having spent the last 25 years working as a spiritual director with people from all faiths and none, I find it fascinating that our creativity and spiritual experiences so often come in the deep language of our culture. Bega was from a tradition of iron and woodwork as well as calligraphy and tapestry. The later Book of Kells are a vivid example of stunningly complex Celtic knots amidst nature, wildlife and mythic beasts; all hand painted in vivid pigment. For her to receive a bracelet from an angel may have been similar to receiving a poem in our era. Though the river Heraclitus talks about does continue to change as do our interpretations of spiritual experiences, water continues to be touched by everyone.

When the ports became too dangerous, Bega went inland and found the small island on Bassenthwaite lake where she was forever in the flow of the river falling from the eastern fells and racing west to the sea. There are few records of the Celtic culture as it was mostly written in craft and the place of nature was so central in their culture, all was left to the seasons. I like to think Bega’s courage was strengthened by the women in Celtic mythology as she must have been brought up knowing about Clíodhna, queen of the fairies with her three birds that ate from an otherworldly tree and her song that healed the sick.  Or the shape-shifting triple goddess Morrígan, guardian of the Earth, companion in war, who often appeared as a crow leading you to your fate. But as with a river, Bega lived when different streams vividly met, rather like the times we are in now. She was surrounded by stories of mythological women and real women who in the telling become symbolic, even mentors. The realms of myth, archetype, symbol and story all flowing in one ancestral river: their feminine voices to be found any time we bathe in it. 



When I was training to be a priest 20 years ago, I had no image of a female priest. I was asked to cut my hair short and wear a suit. I was told that I could sing the morning or evening prayers, even the poetic collects but not the Gospel as it needed the gravitas of a male voice. We were exempt from the 1967 sexual discrimination act so, ultimately, we had to be led by a male Bishop. I didn’t have the strength to dress like a man as the first wave of women had before me and after hours of walks and contemplation I took the recent symbol of a woman who had an honourable public voice – a suffragette – as my support. So, me and my Great Aunt Margret got some long black woollen material for a skirt, found a waistcoat in Oxfam, took in a jacket and put my hair in a bun. When I turned up at St. Paul’s - the only woman to be ordained to central London that year - there was shock, but I could see the faint recognition in people’s faces of something familiar and possibly acceptable. As for me, the feeling of suffragettes standing behind me (along with many un-ordained nuns) gave a much-needed strength to be the first (surname beginning with B) to be called and walk the long and lonely path into that grand dome. 


Heraclitus talks about creation being designed with the dynamic of opposites and that ultimately there is a harmonious divine fire at the essence of everything. Entering the paradox of stark opposites is inevitably creative and there, I think the river is a constant energy of creativity and life force pushing through even the hardest of times.

I go on pilgrimage to Bassenthwaite in all seasons. The island has gone now as the lake is smaller and there is a 12th century church on the shore. But I imagine through the flow of time, back to when Bega is still there and wonder what it would have been like waiting for the boat to take me across. If I had met her, would I have found that, as we see in the small records we have of Celtic monks in her era, she spent hours standing in the flow of water, arms out in prayer for the source, the Christ, to find her? Believing in a deeper river of grace underneath. And would I have found that the trees and stones were carved with knotted prayer offerings handed over to the returning winds? 

The story of her journey is always told with the note that her long walk in the snow to find a cave left no footprints. When I am on pilgrimage in winter I am aware that the untouched snow-capped mountains flow into the lake and bring their stillness with them. As I wait, my choice becomes more of a promise to the island in the midst of the flow. There, this ancient lake that has felt the footprint of many women, including mine all my life, is a great body of water connected to snow and sea. A great being, generous in its renewal and ancient in its peace. 

Marie-Elsa Bragg is a priest and writer. Her first novel, Towards Mellbreak, was about four generations of a Cumbrian Hill farming family looking at spirituality and nature. Her second book, Sleeping Letters is a compilation of poetry, fragments of unsent letters and prose facing a family tragedy. As a priest, she has worked in parishes such as Kilburn and Lisson Grove, London as well as being a Duty Chaplain in Westminster Abbey and Speakers Chaplain House of Commons. She has been a Jesuit-trained Spiritual Director for 25 years and runs workshops on creative writing, constellations, mythology and spirituality. 

Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.

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