St Brighid was born to an Irish nobleman and a slave, and showed signs of great holiness even as a young child. According to an early Irish Life, a druid gazing at the stars at midnight ‘saw a fiery column rising up from the house’ where St Brighid was staying with her mother (Davies, p. 140). Cogitosus, in his 7th-c. Life, writes, ‘Chosen by God, the girl was of a sober disposition, modest and mature and constantly increasing in virtue’ (Davies, p. 123). Once, when she was given milk and sent to churn butter, she gave all she had to some poor folk. Asked to produce the finished butter, St Brighid prayed and found that the Lord had filled her vessel (Davies, pp. 123-4)
Soon, the time came when her parents wanted to find a suitable husband for the young maiden:
But filled with heavenly inspiration, she wished to offer herself as a chaste virgin to God and sought out the most holy bishop Macc Caille, of blessed memory. Seeing her heavenly desire and modesty and such a love of chastity in such a virgin, he placed a white veil and pure white garment over her saintly head. (Davies, p. 124)
Now clothed as a nun, the miracles performed by St Brighid seemed to increase in number, and both the Life of Cogitosus as well as the early Irish Life of St Brighid Davies has translated are filled with stories of her miraculous feats. Indeed, as her virtues grew, so did her power, for as both Davies (p. 32) and Fr Seraphim (Rose) have pointed out, ‘The very word virtus in Latin signifies both “virtue” and “power”, which in the Lives of saints is often “miraculous power”, often translated simply “miracles”’ (‘A Prologue of the Orthodox Saints of the West’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988], p. 20).
Although I hope to keep this manageable, I shall allow myself one or two other stories of these wonders, since we can see in them ‘the breaking into this world of the entirely different laws of the spiritual, heavenly world, which at the end of time will entirely triumph over the laws of this fallen world’ (Fr Seraphim, p. 21). Cogitosus tells us of an instance when St Brighid was approached by some lepers asking for beer. Although she had none, she blessed some water ‘in the strength of her faith and turned it inot the very best beer, which she generously dispensed to the thirsty. It was indeed he who turned water into wine in Cana of Galilee who turned water into wine here through the faith of this most blessed woman’ (Davies, p. 126). It is likely such miracles that cause her to seem a likely author for the famous lyric, ‘The Heavenly Banquet’ (available here, trans. Sean O'Faolain):
I would like to have the men of Heavenin my own house;with vats of good cheerlaid out for them.
I would like to have the three Marys,their fame is so great.I would like peoplefrom every corner of Heaven.
I would like them to be cheerfulin their drinking.I would like to have Jesus, too,here amongst them.
I would like a great lake of beerfor the King of Kings.I would like to be watching Heaven's familydrinking it through all eternity.
The Irish Life tells of St Brighid visiting another, presumably small, community of virgins. While she was there, a terrible thunderstorm occurred, and the abbess said, ‘Which of you virgins will go today with our sheep into this terrible storm?’ None of them wanted to, until St Brighid said how much she enjoyed pasturing sheep and insisted that she be allowed to do it. The Life tells us:
Then she left and chanted a verse as she went:
'Grant me a clear day
For you are a dear friend and royal youth;
For the sake of your
mother, loving Mary,
Banish rain, banish wind.
'My king will do it for me,
Rain will not fall till the night,
On account of Brigit today,
Who is going here to the herding.'
She stilled the rain and wind. (Davies, p. 154)
Cogitosus tells us that St Brighid’s monastery, eventually a dual one for women and men, became ‘the head of almost all the churches of Ireland and holds the place of honor among all the monasteries of the Irish’ (Davies, p. 122). According to one tradition, admittedly, a late one, the nuns there tended ‘an eternal flame’, signifying their vigilance and ardor (Edward C. Sellner, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints [Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 1993], p. 69). St Brighid fell asleep in the Lord in the third decade of the 6th century, and I shall close with a poem that may well be a work of the 7th, ‘and thus be one of the oldest hymns in the Irish language’ (Davies, p. 31; text of hymn, p. 121).
Brigit, woman ever excellent, golden, radiant flame,
Lead us to the eternal kingdom, the brilliant, dazzling sun.
May Brigit guide past crowds of devils,
May she break before us the attack of every plague.
May she destroy within us the taxes of our flesh,
The branch with blossoms, the mother of Jesus.
The true virgin, easy to love, with great honor,
I shall be forever safe with my saint of Leinster.
One of the columns of the land with Patrick preeminent,
The adornment above, the royal queen.
May our bodies when we are old be in sackcloth,
From her grace may Brigit rain on us.
We pray to Brigit by the praise of Christ
That we may be worthy of the heavenly kingdom. (p. 121)
Finally, I’ll just mention a personal anecdote. St Brighid is my wife’s patron Saint, and the first time we were in Greece a friend who also had a Western Saint’s name gave us a photocopy of a brief Life of St Brighid in Greek. At one point, while we were staying at a monastery on the island of Thasos, there was a blind woman visiting there who had a machine with which one of the nuns would ‘read’ to her, typing keys which would raise Braille characters to her fingers. Anyway, this nun read the Life of St Brighid to her (which at the time my wife and I couldn’t follow), and she began to get very happy, saying, ‘Very beautiful! Very beautiful!’ The nun asked if we understood the story, and then told us that it mentioned a blind woman whom St Brighid had healed. Apparently, after seeing for the first time, the woman said something to the effect of ‘Thank you for giving me my sight, but I can see God within my heart and I do not need to be able to see visible things!’ I have no idea of the source of this story, and our little Greek photocopy is probably buried in a box somewhere. I’ve probably garbled it quite a bit, but I think the gist of it is there.