St. Brigid – by Robert Beren
Likely you have heard of Ireland’s most famous patron saint, Saint Patrick. St. Brigid of Kildare is the lesser known, though equally as important patron of the Emerald Isle whose feast day just passed on February 1st.There are many stories and legends associated with St. Brigid. Brigid was born in the year 451 AD. Her father was a pagan chieftain of Leinster and her mother was his bondswoman, a Christian who was baptized by St. Patrick. When her father’s wife found out about his affair, she forced him to sell Brigid’s mother to a Druid while she was still pregnant. Thus, Brigid was born into slavery. As she grew older, Brigid performed miracles, including healing and feeding the poor. According to one tale, as a child, she once gave away her mother’s entire store of butter. The butter was then replenished in answer to Brigid’s prayers. Around the age of ten, she was returned as a household servant to her father, where her habit of charity led her to donate his belongings to anyone who asked.
According to tradition, around the year 480, Brigid founded a monastery at Kildare. This was founded on the site of a pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid and served by a group of young women who tended an eternal flame. Brigid, with an initial group of seven companions, is credited with organizing communal consecrated religious life for women in Ireland. She founded two monastic institutions, one for men, and the other for women. Brigid’s oratory at Kildare became a centre of religion and learning, and Kildare developed into a cathedral city. For centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, with the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as superior general of all the monasteries in Ireland. Brigid is credited with founding a school of art in Kildare, which included metalwork and illumination. The Kildare scriptorium made the Book of Kildare, a beautiful illuminated manuscript that contained the four Gospels of the New Testament, but unfortunately this book disappeared during the Reformation.
Brigid was also very close friends with Saint Patrick. The majority of the stories and legends associated with Brigid centre on her generosity to the poor, though there are accounts of other miracles as well, which relate to healing as well as household tasks.
She had a reputation as an expert dairywoman and a brewer, she was even reputed to have turned water into beer. (She is Irish after all!)
Tradition says that she died at Kildare on 1 February 525. Saint Brigid’s flame was kept burning in Kildare Cathedral and tended to by a long line of her sisters in Christ, until it was finally extinguished during the reformation. In 1993, it was rekindled by the Brigidine Sisters and is still kept burning and tended to by them in their religious centre, in Kildare.
So now that you know Saint Brigid a bit better, what is all this saying? What is the take home? Well, in true Irish fashion, I have put it into a triad, a traditional Celtic way of putting wisdom sayings into three-part verses. First, we can see that despite all the odds against her, Brigid possessed an unyielding Faith in God. She was born into slavery, yet still managed to become a great faith leader and establish the great cathedral city that became the Kildare we know today. She kept the Faith through it all. Second, she was well grounded in the material world. Though she was a woman of great heavenly qualities, she also knew how to get things done in the earthly realm. She was steadfast in her prayer and monastic life, but she also could bring about material goods to provide for her community. Third, and perhaps the most important take away from Brigid’s stories, is her habit of charity. Brigid never took anything for herself. From the earliest age she gave away anything she could to help those less fortunate than herself.
This is what we must remember about Brigid in this day, because we all have something to give. Whether it be our material wealth, our time or our talents, we can all do something to help those less fortunate than we are. So, to close this off, I will use a metaphor to help you remember this triad of Brigid’s lessons for us. Kildare means Church of the Oak, and the Oak tree was a sacred tree to the Celtic people; it’s not hard to see why. Oak possesses some of the strongest, unyielding wood, on branches that reach high into the heavens. This can be seen as a symbol of Brigid’s unyielding faith in God, and His heavenly nature. The Oak also possesses a great taproot that reaches deep into the earth for water and stability, symbolizing Brigid’s grounded nature and the earthly skills she possesses. Finally, the Oak tree produces an abundance of acorns that feed many creatures of the forest, symbolic of Brigid’s charity and generosity. Is it a coincidence that Brigid founded her first Church under an Oak tree? I don’t think so. So, let us remember Saint Brigid and her Church of the Oak with the triad of unyielding Faith, grounded earthliness and charitable generosity, as we go about our lives as Christian people of God.