The Divine Mother
I remember having a brief exchange with a vegan acquaintance at an online gathering about cows and motherhood. She commented to me that she doesn’t drink milk because she believes motherhood is sacred. I have a dairy cow because I share her belief. With the recent crisis in powdered milk and the conversations about pregnancy and abortion in this country, I’ve been thinking again about motherhood, lactation, and God. I will not attempt to address any of these three concepts in depth here (these being veganism, abortion, or human lactation), but I would like to share some reflections on our first homestead birth and on St Brigid, patron saint of dairy farmers, midwives, and lactation.
John Duncan - St Brigid is Carried by Angels
In the Celtic tradition it was a widely known fact that Brigid (a 5th century saint) was carried by angels to Bethlehem, where she served as the wet-nurse for Christ at his birth. (Linear time and physicality hold no power over the Celtic imagination, and if you have an Irish relative, especially a grandmother, you know this already.) Brigid is also the patron saint of dairy farmers because of her connection to Christ as his wet nurse and because of her careful tending of her parents' dairy cows. Because of this connection, on St Brigid’s Day (Feb 1st) we engage in an elaborate blessing of our home cow, Mocha. She is showered with treats, rubbed down in sweet lotions and oils, and given the best hay we can find. Then she is serenaded with a prayer from the Carmina Gadelica and a straw “St Brigid’s” cross is placed on her horns. It is a joyful and festive occasion in the Hollow, and along with Michaelmas in the fall, it is probably the biggest observance on the farm.
On Sunday the day after she calved, it was holding her massive head in my lap as her body was wracked with fever and convulsions, post-calving, that the magnitude of her presence on the farm landed in my body in a completely new way. She had given birth to a beautiful bull calf (jersey/angus cross) the morning prior just at sunrise, and by mid-day Sunday she was experiencing a massive shortage of minerals in her body that caused a chain-reaction of events. Losing her was a real possibility, and we could not get ahead of the fever or the convulsions for 24 long hours. As her recovery started, we noticed that her milk supply was shockingly low. This is not entirely alarming since her food intake was so low, but a significant dip in milk supply can signal to the mother that her production is not necessary; in essence, it is a signal that her calf does not need the milk. So there we were. We’d waited over a year for her to be in milk again, and she was sick, her calf was hungry, and we were not sure if we’d have milk to feed him, us, or our patient milk customers.
As she has slowly begun to recover, the future for her, her calf (Mochachino), and our dairy production is still unknown. What I have learned in a deeper way, is the degree to which our lives, Jonathan and mine, are woven together with hers. Sponge bathing her, massaging mint lotions onto her udder to relieve the pressure, and sitting with her for long hours to listen to her breathing, it felt like attending to the needs of an elderly or sick relative. This being, who normally is strong, capable, and even providing for the community being rendered helpless and unable even to feed themselves is as alarming as it is tragic. For me, sitting in that straw-filled birthing shelter squeezed between Mocha and little Chino, the knowledge that Mocha is, in a real sense, my mother became as certain to me as it was certain to the celts that Brigid nursed the Christ child. There she was providing from her body the food that all of her children needed to survive, and I could feel the glory and the pain of her lactation as we navigated mastitis (milk infection). This birthing and raising of young is a messy, painful, and dangerous business, and here she was speaking to me with the same “Mooooah” she used to talk to Chino. Jonathan and I are, as best we can tell from her perspective, her children.
I have no conclusions to offer, no program for societal reform, but I have this knowledge. This knowledge in my body of the generosity and the peril that comes with feeding another creature from your own body. Of being fed by another, and of the cost that comes with all parts of that relationship. I can only imagine the honor of having Brigid present to suckle the Christ child, as well as the fear and gratitude from Mary of watching another woman feed her child from her body. Mothering and lactation are messy, painful, dangerous, powerful, intimate, tender, and so much more. My gratitude through this process of birthing at our Hollow is for Mocha. For her generosity of heart, body, and spirit, and for the incredible community of support that has materialized around her. May every mother, every nursing person, be surrounded with such fierce and powerful love.
Spiritual Practice - Imaginative Prayer
As alluded to in the story of St Brigid and Mary, the celtic imagination is vast and wild. This practice invites you to open the eyes of your imagination to allow whatever might emerge to come forward. Begin by sitting in a comfortable place, a place with low distraction and stimulus. If you’d like, find a quiet area in the woods to be present. In this moment imagine the flow of energy that moves through a mother’s body into her child. That mother could be Mary or Brigid - mother or wet-nurse. That mother could be our cow Mocha or a cow that you know. Sit with that feeling of nursing, or being nursed. The feeling of a warm belly full of good food. The release of pressure and the satisfaction of knowing that you are keeping another being alive. Allow whatever images need to arise, the space to arise. At the end of this practice offer a gratitude for all creatures that freely give of themselves for the nurturing of others, and for the strength and courage to do likewise. Finally, here is a prayer from the Carmina Gadelica to be prayed while milking:
Bless, O God, my little cow,
Bless O God my desire;
Bless Thou my partnership
And the milking of my hands, O God.
Bless, O God, each teat,
Bless, O God, each finger;
Bless Thou each drop
That goes into my pitcher.
This blog is a collaboration with the Retreat House at Hillsboro. To learn more about the Retreat House please visit their website: retreathousehillsboro.org. The mission of the Retreat House is to share God’s abundant love in the world by holding a sacred, compassionate and inclusive space. We offer an experience of the Divine by supporting all who come to journey with God.