Today, February 1st is St Brigid’s Day and we have taken the long overdue and commendable decision to mark and honour not just her the Christian Saint and Pagan Goddess but the importance of Women. It’s an acknowledgement of the way both the State and Church have undervalued Women, and in many ways still do. It’s a National Holiday now but why oh why is it celebrated as yet another Bank Holiday Monday, 4 days later on the 5th? It’s very confusing.

January always drags bloatedly by but finally its over and you can almost sense and even feel the shifting and change in the Earth.

Imbolc marks the start of Celtic Springtime. Bird song returning , snowdrops up and daffodils almost here and sure there’s even a grand stretch in the evening.The Celts knew about the rhythm of the year, that the equinoxes and solstices were Important but that our Cross Quarter days of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, more accurately reflected our seasons because of our northern latitude.

Many factors are at play in shaping our seasons, our elliptical not circular orbit around the Sun, the fact that our planet itself isn’t a perfect sphere but most of all the tilt of the Earth on its axis of 23.5%.That tilt also marks the furthest point north and south where the sun is directly overhead at midday, the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Counterintuitively we are closest to the Sun at Perihelion on Jan 3rd and furthest away at Aphelion on July 7th. Because of our elliptical orbit, we speed up and slow down along that path and now it’s particularly noticeable as the days lengthen rapidly.
Even in the still dead cold of the night sky, under its frightening vastness, beneath the overarching dome, there is an understanding; you can feel the earth stir and sense it shift.

A few years ago my wife and I were lucky enough to travel down through France and Spain in our motorhome and on to Morocco. Just a mere 8 miles apart from Europe and Gibraltar by ferry, to not just a different country, or different continent, it’s a completely different world. Africa!

In Europe, motorhomes tend to be the preserve of the wealthy, the retired, people with a few pound to spare. Everything is very organised and under control, manicured campsites with all mod cons, sat nav, 5G, breakdown assistance, dining in fine restaurants …but what a contrast once you cross that gap. We were in the Riff mountains, where lots of desperate migrants toiled in the drug-growing fields that feed the European demand for kiff(slang for weed)  no posh restaurants here but a wonderful hippie ’60s vibe, campfires and sharing, old wrecks of vans with wood burning stoves, well tanned young families with carefree deadlocked tousle-haired kids. An eclectic mix of self-sufficient wanderers. Many were heading onward to South Africa via the west coast, Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia. Some were returning home after years away.

We were in Chefchouan. A fabulous hilltop village in the Riff mountains of blue-washed walls, winding lanes and fascinating doors. Sometimes you need to travel a long way to get a good look at yourself. Around 8.30 one morning, as we were leaving, we ran across and were surrounded by 500 schoolkids on a  protest. Singing, clapping, chanting and banging on the side of our van, all very good-naturedly, and kids being kids they were more interested in our cute little dog Pixie than anything else but I failed to understand just what they were protesting about.
Later I  discovered that King Muhammad VI had decreed a change to the country’s time bringing it into line with European time, GMT+1. This was done with no consultation and introduced at the last minute which took many by surprise. You get to do pretty much as you please when you are Monarch and the Alaouite Royal family have ruled Morocco since 1631 claiming direct descendency and authority from the prophet Muhammad himself

But these kids weren’t simply protesting the loss of an hour extra in bed, they were concerned about something much deeper and more fundamental.
It’s amazing how precisely and accurately¬† Islamic scholars were able to calculate the prayer times for different locations around the world, sunrise, noon, sunset. It led to an advanced understanding of astronomy and mathematics. Positions the planets, phases of the moon, eclipses. The mathematics involved and the knowledge are complex beyond belief. It’s a deep Wisdom that is incredibly grounding

We travelled further south, to Fez and Marrakesh then up and over the snow-capped Atlas mountains and a small walled compound on the very edge of the Sahara at the foot of Erg Chebbi, a vast sand dune that stretches almost 30k into the Sahara desert. And it was there early one morning, that it dawned on me, the penny dropped, that I understood, got the deeper meaning behind the protest.

‘Fajr’ is the first of 5 daily prayers in Islam. It is also very similar to our own St Brigid Day “Imbolc”. Fajr Al Hayat means the beginning of life.
It’s a difficult climb up a 1000ft sand dune in the dark, to sit and await sunrise. It doesn’t happen at one precise moment but rather is a gradual process. First, there’s a stirring, defined beautifully in Islam, as  “the end of absolute darkness”, there’s a  gradual strengthening as the horizon brightens from black to a blueish tinge then the light appears and the first glimpse of the Sun breaking until it fully clears, crests and rises free. We don’t often get the chance to sit and observe completely, the sun rise or set, rather we see it fleetingly in passing as we hurry about our every day but it’s well worth the effort. Too often the skies are covered in clouds and the sight is obscured. As a man said to me when I asked him if he’d seen a recent Solar Eclipse, “Sure the suns eclipsed most days in Donegal!” Even in the desert, there’s that same cold silence we get on a Donegal winter night.

But sitting alone and watching the might and glory of the earth’s revolving, feeling, hearing, seeing the enormity of it and the humbling of it… the grandeur of it, all make it so screamingly obvious that to think we are in control of time rather than time being in control of us is the ultimate Arrogance. That’s why those kids were protesting, for if the Universe is viewed as empty and devoid of meaning then is it any wonder that so many see their lives as meaningless?

Our Western materialistic and secular  understanding is very different, perhaps to the spiritual comprehension of Islam and the Celts.
Whatever view you follow may this day be a great beginning to you for the year ahead.

Perhaps the good people who decided to celebrate St Brigid’s Day 4 days later, might ponder on that.