St. Brigid of Ireland
Virgin, abbess, inspirer
Feast day: February 1
Brigid of Kildare
also known as Bride, Bridget, Brigit, Ffraid
Born at Faughart (near Dundalk) or Uinmeras (near Kildare), Louth, Ireland, 450. OR 453
Died at Kildare, Ireland, .524 OR 525.
feast of her translation is June 10.
"We implore Thee, by the memory of Thy Cross's hallowed and most bitter anguish, make us fear Thee, make us love Thee, O Christ. Amen." --Prayer of Saint Brigid.
Saint Brigid was an original--and that's what each of us are supposed to be, an original creation of the Almighty Imagination. Unfortunately, most of us get caught up in the desire to be accepted by others. We conform to the norm, rather than opening up to the creative power of God and blooming to render Him the sweet fragrance of our unique lives. We miss the glory of giving God the gift of who we were intended to be.
Brigid lacked that fault. She got things done. She had a welcome for everyone in an effort to help them be originals, too. She was so generous that she gave away the clothes from her back. She never shied away from hard work or intense prayer. She would brush aside the rules--even the rules of the Church--if it was necessary to bring out the best in others. Perhaps for this reason, the saint who never left Ireland, is venerated throughout the world as the prototype of all nuns. She bridged the gap between Christian and pagan cultures.
Brigid saw the beauty and goodness of God in all His creation: cows made her love God more, and so did wild ducks, which would come and light on her shoulders and hands when she called to them. She enjoyed great popularity both among her own followers and the villagers around; and she had great authority, for she was given the responsibilities of a bishop.
Her chief virtue lay in her gentleness, in her compassion, and in her happy and devoted nature which won the affection of all who knew her. She was a great evangelist and joined hands gladly and gaily with all the saints of that age in spreading the Gospel. So great was her cultus throughout Europe that the Medieval knights, seeking a womanly model of perfection, chose Brigid as the example. This theory maintains that such was the image of Brigid as the feminine ideal that the word "bride" passed into the English language. (This is unlikely, however. The word probably derives from the Old German "bryd," meaning bride.)
Historical facts about Saint Brigid's life are few because the numerous accounts about it after her death (beginning in the 7th century) consist mainly of miracles and anecdotes, some of which are deeply rooted in pagan Irish folklore. Nevertheless, they give us a strong impression of her character. She was probably born in the middle of the 5th century in eastern Ireland. Some say her parents were of humble origin; others that they were Dubhthach, an Irish chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a slave at his court. All stories relate that they were both baptized by Saint Patrick. Some say that Brigid became friends with Patrick, though it is uncertain that she ever met him. Beautiful Brigid consecrated herself to God at a young age, but reports that she was 'veiled' by Saint Macaille at Croghan and consecrated by Saint Mel at Armagh are unlikely.
The Book of Lismore bears this story: Brigid and certain virgins along with her went to take the veil from Bishop Mel in Telcha Mide. Blithe was he to see them. For humility Brigid stayed so that she might be the last to whom a veil should be given. A fiery pillar rose from her head to the roof ridge of the church. Then said Bishop Mel: "Come, O holy Brigid, that a veil may be sained on thy head before the other virgins." It came to pass then, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, that the form of ordaining a bishop was read out over Brigid. Macaille said that a bishop's order should not be confirmed on a woman. Said Bishop Mel: "No power have I in this matter. That dignity hath been given by God unto Brigid, beyond every (other) woman." Wherefore the men of Ireland from that time to this give episcopal honor to Brigid's successor. Most likely this story relates to the fact that Roman diocesan system was unknown in Ireland. Monasteries formed the center of Christian life in the early Church of Ireland. Therefore, abbots and abbesses held the rank and function that a bishop would on the Continent. Evidence of this can be seen also at synods and councils, such as that of Whitby, which was convened by Saint Hilda. Women sometimes ruled double monasteries; thus, governing both men and women. Bridget, as a preeminent abbess, might have fulfilled some episcopal functions, such as preaching, hearing confessions (giving absolution?), and leading the neighboring Christians. There is no evidence, however, that she could or did ordain priests.
Beginning consecrated life as a anchorite of sorts, Brigid's sanctity drew many others. When she was about 18, she settled with seven other like-minded girls near Croghan Hill in order to devote herself to God's service. About 468 she followed Saint Mel to Meath.
There is little reliable information about the convent she founded around 470 at Kildare (originally Cill-Daire or 'church of the oak'), the first convent in Ireland, and the rule that was followed there. This is one of the ways Brigid sanctified the pagan with the Christian: The oak was sacred to the druids, and in the inner sanctuary of the Church was a perpetual flame, another religious symbol of the druid faith, as well as the Christian. Gerald of Wales (13th century) noted that the fire was perpetually maintained by 20 nuns of her community. This continued until the dissolution of the monasteries during the Reformation. Gerald noted that the fire was surrounded by a circle of bushes, which no man was allowed to enter. Some have speculated that Brigid was a high priestess of a community of druid women, who led the entire community into the Christian faith, which would have been truly miraculous. Others have tried to claim that she was an Irish goddess, noting that the name Brig, meaning 'valor' or 'might,' was personified as a goddess, whose fire-cult took place on February 1. The connection, however, is unconvincing.
It is generally thought to have been a double monastery, housing both men and women--a common practice in the Celtic lands that was sometimes taken by the Irish to the continent. It's possible that she presided over both communities. She did establish schools there for both men and women. Another source says that she installed a bishop named Conlaeth there, though the Vatican officially lists the See of Kildare as dating from 519.
Even as a child Brigid showed special love for the poor. When her mother sent her to collect butter, the child gave it all away. Her generosity in adult life was legendary: It was recorded that if she gave a drink of water to a thirsty stranger, the liquid turned into milk; when she sent a barrel of beer to one Christian community, it proved to satisfy 17 more. Many of the stories about her relate to the multiplication of food, including one that she changed her bath-water into beer to satisfy the thirst of an unexpected clergyman. Even her cows gave milk three times the same day to provide milk for some visiting bishops.
Brigid saw that the needs of the body and the needs of the spirit intertwined. Dedicated to improving the spiritual as well as the material lives of those around her, Brigid made her monastery a remarkable house of learning, including an art school. The illuminated manuscripts originating there were praised, especially the Book of Kildare, which was praised as one of the finest of all illuminated Irish manuscripts before its disappearance three centuries ago.
Once she fell asleep during a sermon of Saint Patrick, but he laughingly forgave her. She had dreamed, she told him, of the land ploughed far and wide, and of white-clothed sowers sowing good seed. Then came others clothed in black, who ploughed up the good seed and sowed tares in its place. Patrick told her that such would happen; false teachers would come to Ireland and uproot all their good work. This saddened Brigid, but she redoubled her efforts, teaching people to pray and to worship God, and telling them that the light on the altar was a symbol of the shining of the Gospel in the heart of Ireland, and must never be extinguished, and in her church at Kildare, a flame still burns to her memory.
Brigid was called 'Mary of the Gael' because her spirit of charity, and the miracles attributed to her were usually enacted in response to a call upon her pity or sense of justice. During an important synod of the Irish church, one of the holy fathers, Bishop Ibor, announced that he had dreamed that the Blessed Virgin Mary would appear among the assembled Christians. When Brigid arrived the father cried, "There is the holy maiden I saw in my dream." Thus, the reason for her moniker. (This bishop, too, is said to have consecrated her a bishop.) Her prayers and miracles were said to exercise a powerful influence on the growth of the early Irish Church, and she is much beloved in Ireland to this day.
The relics of Saint Brigid are presumably buried at Downpatrick with those of Saints Columba and Patrick. A tunic reputed to have been hers, given by Gunhilda, sister of King Harold II, survives at Saint Donatian's in Bruges, Belgium; a relic of her shoe, made of silver and brass set with jewels, is at the National Museum of Dublin. In 1283, three knights took the head of Brigid with them on a journey to the Holy Land. They died in Lumier (near Lisbon), Portugal, where the church now enshrines her head in a special chapel.
In England, there are 19 ancient church dedications to her. The most important of which is the oldest church in London--St. Bride's in Fleet Street--and the parish in which Saint Thomas à Becket was born-- Bridewell or Saint Bride's Well. In Scotland, East and West Kilbride bear her name. Saint Brigid's Church at Douglas recalls that she is the patroness of the great Douglas family. Several places in Wales are named Llansantaffraid, which means "St. Bride's Church." The Irish Bishop Saint Donato of Fiesole (Italy) built a Saint Brigid's Church in Piacenza, where the Peace of Constance was ratified in 1185.
The best-known custom connected with Brigid is the plaiting of reed crosses for her feast day. This tradition dates to the story that she was plaiting rush crosses while nursing a dying pagan chieftain. He asked her about this and her explanation led to his being baptized. Traditional Irish (Brid agus Muire dhuit, Brigid and Mary be with you) and Welsh (Sanffried suynade ni undeith, St. Brigid bless us on our journey) blessings invoke her. A blessing over cattle in the Scottish isles goes: "The protection of God and Colmkille encompass your going and coming, and about you be the milkmaid of the smooth white palms, Brigid of the clustering, golden brown hair" (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Gill, Groome, Montague, O'Briain, Sellner, White).
She is usually portrayed in art with a cow lying at her feet, a reference to a phase in her life as a cowgirl; or holding a cross and casting out the devil (White). Her emblem is a lighted lamp or candle (not to be confused with Saint Geneviève, who is not an abbess). At times she may be shown
1 with a flame over her;
2 geese or cow near her; 3 near a barn;
4 letting wax from a taper fall upon her arm;
5 restoring a man's hand
Brigid is the patron saint of Ireland, poets, dairymaids, blacksmiths, healers (White), cattle, fugitives, Irish nuns, midwives, and new-born babies (Roeder). She is still venerated highly in Alsace, Flanders, and Portugal (Montague), as well as Ireland and Chester, England (Farmer).
Saint Brigid and the Boar
In those days the ground around a monastery was enclosed and was considered holy ground; it was a sacred place where God was worshipped. If a criminal was trying to escape, he could seek sanctuary in the monastery enclosure and no one could do anything to him until he himself agreed to leave.
Well the wild animals seemed to know about this law, too. One day a wild boar was being chased by hunters and was on the point of being caught. The boar managed to reach Saint Brigid's convent in Kildare. The huntsmen were forced to draw up outside the gates and wait. They expected the nuns to chase the boar out to them again, when they could easily kill it.
Brigid happened to see the unhappy boar stagger in, so she called to it and then sent a message out to the hunters, saying that the animal claimed the right of sanctuary just as people did. They sent back a message saying that animals are only animals and didn't have the same rights as men. Could they please have their boar? And Brigid sent back a final message that as far as she was concerned the animal had the same right of sanctuary.
The disappointed hunters rode away. Then Brigid turned her attention to the wild boar; it was lying down, exhausted from its long run and nearly frightened to death. She gave it a drink and then led it to her own herd of pigs. At once the boar became quite tame and settled down with the other swine on Brigid's farm for the rest of its life.
Brigid and the Fox
Brigid had a wonderful way with animals. One day a friend of the monastery workmen came to her with a sad tale that the friend had accidentally killed the king of Leinster's pet fox, thinking that it was a wild animal. The man was arrested. His wife and children begged the king to spare his life to no avail. The workman asked Brigid to intercede.
Although Brigid loved animals, she thought it silly that a man's life should be demanded in return for the fox's, so she set out for the court. The way lay through a wood, where the road was a mere track and the horse had to walk. Brigid prayed for the right words to speak to the angry king to save the life of the woodsman.
Suddenly she saw a little fox peeping shy at her around a tree and she had an idea. She told the driver to stop and called the animal to her. Immediately it sprang into the car beside her and nestled happily in the folds of her cloak. Brigid stroked its head and spoke to it gently. The little fox licked her hand and looked at her adoringly.
When she reached the king's castle, the fox trotted after her. She found the ruler still in a mighty rage. "Nothing," he told her angrily, "nothing in the world could make up to me for the less of my beloved pet. Death is too good for that idiot of a workman. He must die as a warning to others like him. Let him die."
The king stormed on, "It is no use whining to me about mercy. That little fox was my companion, even my friend. It was brutally killed for no reason. What hard did I do to that man? Do you have any notion how much I loved my little fox that I have cared for ever since it was born?"
The king's furious eyes met Brigid's loving ones. Yes, indeed, she could well understand it. She was truly sorry for his loss for she, too, loved all animals and especially tame little foxes. Look here . . . she beckoned forward her new pet from the woods that had been crouching behind her.
The king forgot his anger in this new interest. He and his household looked on delightedly while Brigid proceeded to put the fox through all kinds of clever tricks. It obeyed her voice and tried so hard to please her that the onlookers were greatly entertained. Soon she was surrounded by laughing faces.
The king told her what his own little fox used to do. "See, it used to jump through this hoop, even at this height." But so could Brigid's at her first sign of command! When the king's fox wanted a tidbit, it used to stand on its hind legs with its fore paws joined as though it were praying . . . why, so could Brigid's! Could anything be more amusing? When his mood had completely changed, Brigid offered her fox to the king in exchange for the prisoner's life. Now the king smilingly agreed and he even promised Brigid that never again would he inflict any kind of punishment on that workman, whose misdeed he would forget.
Brigid was very happy when the prisoner was restored to his wife and children. She went back home thanking God.
But the little fox missed her sorely and became restless and unhappy. It did not care where Brigid led him but, without her, the castle was a prison. After a while the king left on business and no one else bothered much about the new pet. The fox watched for it chance and when it found an open door, it made good its escape back to the woods.
Presently the king returned and there was commotion when the pet was missed. The whole household was sent flying out to search for it. When they failed, the king's hounds were sent to help in the search, their keen noses snuffing over the ground for the fox's scent. Then the excited king summoned out his whole army, both horsemen and footmen, to follow the hounds in every direction. But it was all no use. When night fell, the hosts of Leinster returned wearily to their king with news of failure. Brigid's little pet fox was never found again