14 February 2009

'The Mary of the Gael'—St Brighid of Kildare


Today, 1 February, the Holy Church celebrates the memory of our Venerable Mother, Brighid of Kildare, Ireland (452-526?). Greatly beloved by the Irish people, according to Michael Staunton, St Brighid is ‘second amongst Irish saints only to Patrick’ (The Voice of the Irish: The Story of Christian Ireland [Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2003], p. 47). She is often called ‘the Mary of the Gael’, for once, an old Irish bishop had a vision of her, which he described, saying, ‘I thought that I saw the Virgin Mary last night in my sleep, and a certain venerable cleric said to me: “This is Mary who will dwell among you”’ (Oliver Davies, trans., Celtic Spirituality [NY: Paulist, 1999], p. 142).

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)


According to the Irish Life, ‘Mac Caille’ was a pupil of Bishop Mel, and the latter, during her initiation into the monastic life was intoxicated ‘with the grace of God’ and consecrated St Brighid a bishop. The Irish Life also tells us that she was tonsured along with seven other virgins (Davies, p. 144-5).

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 Heaven
in my own house;
with vats of good cheer
laid out for them.

I would like to have the three Marys,
their fame is so great.
I would like people
from every corner of Heaven.

I would like them to be cheerful
in their drinking.
I would like to have Jesus, too,
here amongst them.

I would like a great lake of beer
for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven's family
drinking it through all eternity.

Indeed, Cogitosus also refers to St Brighid being ‘caught up in heavenly meditation, as was her custom, and her thoughts were raised from earth to heaven’ (Davies, p. 127). It’s no wonder that, experiencing theoria so frequently, her divine sense of hospitality should become mingled with it!

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)

According to the Life of St Brighid in the Book of Lismore (15th c.), on another occasion when certain bishops were visiting her monastery, the Venerable Mother found that there was no food. Angels, however, encouraged her to milk the cows for the third time that day, and they produced so much milk that it overflowed and made a lake called ‘Loch in Ais’, ‘Lake of Milk’. ‘For everything that Brigit would ask of the Lord was granted her at once. For this was her desire: to satisfy the poor, to expel every hardship, to spare every miserable man’ (Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh, eds., Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness [West Stockbridge, MA: 1987], pp. 67-8).

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).

Ultán’s Hymn

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)

Last year plus thirteen extra days, the Orthodox blogger at Codex Justinianus boldly proclaimed the truth about St Brighid (which I shall deal with in a follow-up post!), and also posted an Orthodox troparion and kontakion in her honour. Also, one can find all sorts of information about her and her feastday at this comprehensive St Brigid page.

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.

2 comments:

The Ochlophobist said...

Excellent post.

Brighid is also my wife's patron, as well as the patron of my second daughter.

We recently discovered that my wife's first ancestors to immigrate from Ireland on her paternal side were named Owen and Brighid O'Boyle. I was given the name Owen at birth and kept it when entering the Church, but my wife took Brighid not knowing about this aspect of her own history. We were very pleasantly surprised when discovering this.

We celebrated their feast a fortnight ago as we are on the Mason influenced calendar. Following your blog and reading these entries on saints we celebrated a couple weeks ago reminds me of the stupidity of the multiple calendars in our faith. May that unfortunate experiment soon come to an end.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the comment. That's a neat story about your names!

I too would love to see an end to this 'unfortunate experiment', as you aptly call it! To borrow a phrase from Esteban, however, it has warmed the cockles of my heart to see folks whose churches follow the Masonic/papal calendar enjoying my blog despite our liturgical separation.