Brigidine sister Rita Minehan profiles her here.
A great resurgence of interest in all aspects of our Celtic heritage is leading many individuals and groups to rediscover – and draw inspiration from – the lives of the early Irish saints. St Brigid, the patroness of Ireland, is emerging as one whose life has relevance and inspiration for us as we try to face the issues that confront our country and our world at this time. When we look at the life of Brigid and at some of these issues we can see more clearly why she continues to be relevant to us today.
Carer of the earth
The feast of St Brigid on the first of February is a celebration of the wonderful springing back of the earth from its winter sleep. It is the season when we celebrate new beginnings and new life on earth. The sod is turned. The day lengthens. Seeds are sown and sails are hoisted.
Many of the stories about Brigid tell of her milking the cows, churning the milk, making up the firkins of butter, shepherding her flocks of sheep, helping with the harvest and even brewing the ale!
Brigid, in keeping with her Celtic traditions, was wonderfully attuned to the seasons and cycles of nature. She valued the elements of nature: earth, air, fire and water.
Light the fire
Today, we are becoming more aware of the fragility of our planet. Lands are becoming barren, skies fouled, waters poisoned. Many individuals and groups concerned about the environment draw inspiration from the reverence and respect which Brigid had for the land. She is often referred to as the Saint of Agriculture.
In a new hymn, composed by Fr Liam Lawton, Brigid is invoked ‘to heal our wounds and green our earth again.’
‘A Life of Brigid’ (Vita Brigitae), composed by Cogitosus about 650 AD, places great emphasis on Brigid’s faith, her healing powers, her hospitality, her generosity, her great skill with animals, and her compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Twenty three of the thirty two chapters tell of her extraordinary concern for the poor. One of the Brigidine legends illustrates this very effectively.
Woman of compassion
One day when Brigid was on a long journey she stopped to rest by the wayside. A rich lady heard about this and brought her a beautiful basket of choice apples. No sooner had she received them than a group of very poor people came by and begged her for food. Without a moment’s hesitation, Brigid gave them the choice apples. The rich lady was utterly disgusted and she complained to Brigid, ‘I brought those apples for you, not for them.’ Brigid’s reply was: ‘What is mine is theirs.’
This Brigidine legend poses a challenge to all of us in terms of our world today, where forty-five thousand people die from hunger and hunger-related diseases every day and where twenty percent of the population own and consume about eighty percent of the earth’s resources.
The poverty gap continues to widen both within and between countries, as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. This legend challenges us to work for a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources.
Model of equality
It is generally accepted that Brigid established her abbey and church in Kildare around 480 AD, on the site now occupied by St Brigid’s Cathedral. Brigid held a unique position in the Irish Church and society of her day. As Abbess, she presided over the local Church of Kildare and was leader of a double monastery for men and women.
Tradition suggests that she invited Conleth, a hermit from Old Connell near Newbridge, to assist her in Kildare. Cogitosus tells us that ‘they governed their Church by means of a mutually happy alliance.’
What emerges from many of these stories and legends about Brigid is the portrait of a strong and gentle woman, a powerful leader, a good organiser, a skilful healer and a wise spiritual guide. Brigid has become – for men as well as women – a potent symbol of Christian womanhood, showing us in so many different ways the feminine face of God.
Woman of peace
There was no lack of domestic strife in the Ireland of Brigid’s day, where feuds between clans were commonplace. She is often depicted as a peacemaker who intervened in disputes between rival factions and brought healing and reconciliation. Folklorists tell us that in some parts of Ireland a St Brigid’s cross was often used as a token of goodwill between neighbours, indicating a desire for peace and friendship after a local quarrel.
One of the best-known stories associated with St Brigid is that of her giving away her father’s precious sword to a poor man so that he could barter it for food to feed his family. Thus, a sword, a weapon of war, was transformed into a life-giving instrument. This story offers an important lesson for our world today where every minute thirteen million pounds is being spent on weapons of war. One wonders what links Brigid would make today between the massive expenditure on arms and the welfare of the poor people of the world?
Woman of contemplation
Brigid emerges as a woman of action in the stories, legends and poems about her. If one, however, were to seek the source from which she drew her strength and energy, one could probably find the answer in this story.
One day, Saint Brendan the Navigator stood on a cliff top and watched two whales engaging in fierce combat. Suddenly, the smaller whale, in a human voice, cried out for help not to Brendan but to Brigid, who was not even present. The cry was answered immediately, and the combat ceased. Brendan was puzzled as to why he had been ignored. ‘Do you always think about God?’ asked Brigid, when the two met. ‘Yes,’ replied Brendan, ‘except at times when my boat is caught in a storm at sea and I have to concentrate on keeping it afloat.’ ‘That’s the explanation,’ Brigid answered. ‘From the moment I first knew God I have never let him out of my mind, and I never shall.’
An old Irish poem, written in the seventh century, speaks of her contemplation of the Trinity:
Woman of inspiration
Even today, poets, writers and artists still find inspiration in the symbols, customs and folklore surrounding Brigid. One writer recently referred to her as ‘the woman who, above all others, embodies the spirit of pre-Christian and Christian Ireland’. In a beautiful leadlight window in Kildare College Chapel, Holden Hill, South Australia (see image below) the artist depicts Brigid dancing the dance of the new life of creation, carrying the Spirit of Jesus into the twenty-first century. Many of the values associated with Brigid are captured in this delightful poem:
What a lovely image to carry with us into the future!