Patrick may be the best known of the Celtic saints, but for many people, the heart of the Celtic tradition belongs to Brigid.
Born in the middle of the fifth century, Brigid is according to legend the daughter of a pagan chief and his Christian slave. The story goes that Brigid's mother worked in the dairy of her master's household, and that she gave birth at dawn on the morning of February 1, precisely at the moment she was stepping over the threshold into the dairy.
_ Statue of St. Brigid, Liscannor, Ireland. Photo by Carl McColman _
So Brigid is very much a child of the thresholds: she was born neither in the day or the night, neither the winter nor the spring (February 1 corresponds to an ancient pagan holiday that marked the change of the seasons), neither indoors nor outdoors, neither slave nor free, neither pagan nor Christian. But you could turn this around and say that Brigid encompasses all of the above. She is a figure of inclusivity and hospitality.
The beginning of February corresponds to the pagan holiday of Imbolc, one of the four great agricultural festivals of the pre-Christian Celts. Perhaps it is no surprise that the goddess whose cult was most associated with Imbolc was Brigit, the daughter of the great father-god, An Dagda. An Dagda was a "Santa Claus" figure, an archetype of abundance and generosity, a big fat man with a jolly disposition who represented the desire of the ancient Celts for prosperity and abundance. So it's not surprising that Brigit (the goddess) also had a reputation as a prosperity-deity, and those qualities spilled over onto Brigid (the Saint).
Some historians even question if there ever was a Saint Brigid. Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, famously wrote "it is obvious that St. Bride, or St. Bridget, is an old heathen goddess of fertility, disguised in a threadbare Christian cloak. Probably she is no other than Brigit, the Celtic goddess of fire and apparently of the crops." That may be a bit unfair. Perhaps it makes just as much sense to see the historical Brigid as either a woman named for the pagan goddess who embraced Christianity, or perhaps even a priestess of Brigit who embraced the spirituality of Christ. But this is all speculation. In the mists of what we do not know, the line separating Brigit-the-goddess and Brigid-the-saint is barely discernible. And perhaps that's the way things should be.
Anyway, the folklore surrounding Saint Brigid is rich and evocative. She embraced the spirituality of her mother, and even as a little girl developed a reputation for generosity and hospitality, particularly to the poor. She worked in the kitchen, where apparently she would give food or milk or whatever she could spare to any beggar who happened to stop by. We can assume that word got out among those who relied on the kindness of strangers, and her opportunities for giving would have become more, rather than less, frequent. So the story goes that eventually her father forbade her from giving any more food away. One day her put her in charge of frying some strips of bacon, and the story goes that an emaciated hound appeared at the back door to the kitchen. Overcome with compassion for the stray, Brigid immediately gave the dog three of the five strips of bacon she was cooking (and which her father had counted just a few minutes earlier). Realizing her disobedience, she then prayed over the remaining bacon, and when he father stepped into the kitchen to check on her a few minutes later, he was stunned to find seven slices of bacon in the pan, rather than the original five!
Imbolc was a festival honoring the lactation of the farm animals, and Brigid has a lot of associations with milk - beginning with her mother's work in the dairy and her own birth on the dairy threshold. As a child, she would be put in charge of churning the butter, and she would divide the butter into thirteen parts, representing Christ and the 12 apostles. The "Christ" portion she would give to the poor, saying "I feed the poor in the name of Christ, for Christ is in the body of every poor person." She would pray over the churning as she worked, and legend has it that she could fill all the vessels of the region with the butter she churned! Even as an adult, Brigid was associated with an otherworldly cow - milky white but with red ears - that gave an endless supply of milk.
Despite these miracles of abundance associated with her, her father soon grew tired of the girl giving so much away, and so he resolved to marry her off (or sell her off as a slave, depending on which version of the story you hear). He took her to the high king, and left her sitting in his wagon with his own arms (a chieftain would have to disarm before presenting himself before the king). As her father consulted with the king, Brigid, waiting obediently in her father's wagon, soon saw a beggar walking along the road. She had nothing to give him... but her father's sword, which she promptly handed over, instructing the poor man to go straight into town and sell it promptly. Eventually her father and the king came out to see the girl, but when he noticed his sword was missing, he asked Brigid what happened, and no sooner had she said "there was this beggar..." when he raised his hand to strike her in anger. The king intervened, saying "This young lady is too holy to live under my roof, I am not worthy of her." Although what he may have been thinking was something like "I'll not have her giving away my possessions!"
As she grew up, Brigid discerned a call to enter religious life, but her father had different ideas. He would arrange for potential suitors to come visit the attractive young woman. Finally she took matters into her own hands - literally. One day when a suitor arrived, before presenting herself to her caller, Brigid gouged one of her eyes out of its socket, using only her bare hands. Presenting herself to the youth, he understandably turned away in horror. Once he left, Brigid promptly healed her eye, and the defiance in her gaze made her father understand that she simply would not stand for marriage. So with his reluctant blessing she left home to establish her monastic community in Cill Dara - what is now known as Kildare - or "the Cell of the Oak" (Perhaps the oak is another pre-Christian allusion, suggesting the tree traditionally venerated by druids).
Numerous remarkable folktales surround the establishment of the monastery in Kildare. One of the most remarkable involves how Brigid came to possess the lands for her community. She turned to the local chieftain and asked for land. He was not a particularly generous fellow, so he rather rudely suggested she could have as much land as her mantle could cover. Undeterred, Brigid took of her cloak and threw it on the ground - and the garment magically grew and grew until it covered nearly 5000 acres! Indeed, this land became known as the Curragh, and it remains common land where livestock is raised and racehorses are trained.
Soon it came time for the Bishop to come and consecrate Brigid as the abbess of her community (like other Celtic monasteries, the community in Kildare included both men and women, making Brigid a woman with spiritual authority over men - a remarkable status for the church of the 5th century). The old bishop, Mél, came to Cill Dara with an acolyte, and performed the consecration ritual outdoors (presumably under the oak tree for which Cill Dara is named). Just as he began to pray, a gust of wind blew the pages of his missal, turning from the blessing of an abbess to the consecration of a bishop. Despite the protestations of the acolyte, Bishop Mél recited the words of episcopal consecration over the young nun. When finally the acolyte pointed out his error, the phlegmatic bishop assumed that it must have been the doing of the Holy Spirit.
Even into the present day, Brigid is typically depicted in icons or statuary has holding a bishop's crozier. Of course, the crozier is also the staff of an abbot (or abbess), so in itself it doesn't signify much, but it does seem to reinforce the idea that this saint was not only an abbess, but even a kind of proto-female bishop!
St. Brigid of Kildare Stained Glass (photo by Fran McColman), St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Macon, GA.
As the abbess of Kildare, Brigid soon became renowned for her holiness and spiritual leadership. The stories told about her are both charming and illuminating. Perhaps my favorite story about Brigid involves the season of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter when Christians fast in preparation for their high holy days. The story goes that Brigid, and two other nuns from Kildare were traveling during the Lenten season, and at nightfall came to the estate of a pagan chieftain, who offered them hospitality for the night. As the three sisters sat down to share a meal with their host, they were surprised to see that their plates were filled with pork. Without a second's thought, both of the younger nuns protested, saying that their rule of life would not permit them to eat meat during Lent. Upon hearing this, Brigid stood up, grabbed each of the younger women by their arms, and escorted them out the front door of the house. She returned to the table and said to the dumbfounded pagan lord, "My apologies, good sir. My sisters are under the mistaken impression that their fast matters more than your hospitality."
One fascinating story involves Sister Dara, a blind nun who asked for Brigid's prayers. The saint obliged, and Sr. Dara's eyesight was indeed miraculously restored. But the nun discovered, to her dismay, that the ability to see physically actually hindered her mystical ability to "see" God in her soul. Distraught, the nun asked Brigid to pray for her again - only this time, to reverse the healing of her eyes, thereby consigning her to the beauty of darkness - a beauty in which the supernatural light of God shone.
But don't make the mistake of thinking that all of Brigid's miracles are pious in nature. Perhaps the most surprising - and yet, profoundly Celtic - story, only mentioned briefly in The Irish Life of Brigid, of a woman from Kells who "hated" her husband - after Brigid intervened with prayers and some blessed holy water, the woman "loved him passionately." Some have interpreted this to suggest that Brigid is a patron saint for those who suffer from sexual dysfunction! That may be reading a bit much into the text, but we can safely assume that Brigid's ability to heal includes, at least for the couple from Kells, the ability to help a husband and wife to love, joyfully and passionately.
Another charming story tells of Brigid's compassionate understanding of justice - along with her love for nature. The king of Munster had a special pet fox, that had been trained to perform tricks. One day the fox got loose from the palace, and ran off into the woods, where a local hunter killed the beast. When the king found out what had happened, he angrily had the man imprisoned. Hearing of this, Brigid herself went into the woods and found a wild fox; she prayed over it and the animal became docile, allowing her to carry it to the palace. She presented the fox to the king, claiming there had been a mistake and the hunter must have killed some other fox. To everyone's delight, the new fox even performed all the same tricks as the old one! Mollified, the king released the hunter from prison. Sadly for him, though, once Brigid and the hunter left the palace, the fox itself reverted to its wild nature and ran off into the woods!
Some stories also link Brigid to other well-known saints of her time. One tradition suggests that she was baptized by Patrick himself; which is not entirely unbelievable, given that Patrick is said to have lived into the second half of the fifth century, whereas Brigid was born circa 451. But the most charming encounter between Brigid and another saint involved Brendan the Navigator. Legend holds that the two knew of each other, and one time Brendan traveled from the west of Ireland to Kildare to meet the renowned abbess. When he arrived at her home, Brigid had been out in the fields tending to the sheep, and was caught in a rainstorm while returning to the abbey. When she arrived, the sun came back out, and she took off her soaked cloak and hung it to dry on a sunbeam, shining into her room. Surprised at this, Brendan took off his own cloak and placed it next to hers on the sunbeam - only to have it fall down onto the floor. Again he tried to hang it on the sunbeam, and again it fell. When it fell for the third time, he asked Brigid why here cloak hung on the sunbeam. With a twinkle in her eyes, she said, "All things are possible with prayer."
Brigid was also known as the "foster-mother of Christ." I suspect this may have something to do with the esteem by which she was held among the early Celtic Christians - no woman was more honored except Mary herself (indeed, the Celts sometimes referred to Brigid as "the Mary of the Gaels"). Since Mary was Christ's actual mother, wouldn't it make sense for the second most saintly woman in all Christendom to be the Lord's foster-mother? A variation of this was that Brigid was Christ's wet-nurse, which seems to hearken back to the association between Brigid (or the goddess Brigit) and milk.
Of course, charming as these folktales might be, it doesn't take much of a grasp of history to recognize that Brigid was born about 475 years too late to actually be Christ's wet-nurse or foster-mother - let alone the unlikelihood that an Irish woman could care for a baby born in Palestine. Never mind - the legend goes on to suggest that angels actually came to Brigit and carried her over the miles from Ireland to the Holy Land - simultaneously traveling backwards in time! - To deliver her safely to her calling to nurture Jesus in his infancy.
The Scottish painter John Duncan (1866-1945) captured a striking image of the angels carrying Brigid across the sea in his painting Saint Bride (1913), now on display in the Scottish National Gallery. Colorful and dramatic, with seagulls and a seal accompanying the heavenly beings (who look like they are on loan from a pre-Raphaelite painting), while Brigid, dressed in white with flowing long red hair, rests in their arms, eyes closed and hands folded in prayer. It's a fanciful image, but striking in its almost otherworldly beauty.
Saint Bride (1913) by Scottish Painter John Duncan (public domain)
One of the most striking stories surrounding Brigid - and her community of nuns in Kildare - involves the tending of a sacred fire. According to Gerald of Wales, who visited Kildare in the twelfth century (centuries after Brigid's life), the nuns kept an eternal flame burning in Brigid's honor. The flame was tended on a twenty-day cycle, with one of nineteen different nuns keeping the flame burning for a 24-hour period. On the twentieth day the flame was left unattended for the saint herself to watch over it, and Gerald reported that the flame never went out even when left in Brigid's care. Of course, Gerald would have had to take the nun's word for it, as men were not allowed in the building where the flame was kept lit.
The parallels between this and pagan practices - such as the Vestal Virgins, who kept a sacred flame lit for the goddess Vesta in Rome - are obvious, and apparently bishops occasionally would instruct the nuns to extinguish the flame; but the nuns would relight it as soon as they could. It is possible that the flame was kept lit up until the time of King Henry VIII, who suppressed the monasteries as part of his program of religious reform. However, nuns in Ireland today re-lit the flame in 1993, and it continues to burn in Kildare today.
I've saved my favorite Brigid story for last. A poem/prayer, attributed to Brigid but probably written sometime around the tenth century, embodies a joyful, earthy and playful spirituality. Many translations and versions of this prayer have been made over the years; here's my paraphrase:
I want to give a lake of beer to God almighty,
And may the heavenly host imbibe there eternally.
I'd love the Heavenly host to live, and dance, and sing with me,
And whatever they want, I'd give to them, even casks of misery.
Radiant cups of love I'll give to them, my heart more than full,
And pitchers of mercy as well, for every one to swill.
I would make Heaven a cheerful place, where happy hearts dwell,
I'd make every one satisfied - and may Jesus love me as well.
May all the hosts of heaven gather from every land and place,
The women I'll greet with special joy, the Marys of fame and grace.
All of God's lovers will join me there, by the lake of ale;
With each sip we drink a prayer to God, for ever life so hale.
Some folktales associated with Brigid suggest that she could miraculously turn water into beer. Apparently turning water into wine was a miracle reserved for Christ alone, but Brigid could do the next best thing!
So what are we to make of Brigid today? What can we say about her, apart from the legends, folktales and vestigial pagan myths? One way to answer that question might be to consider the ministry of the Brigidine Sisters, a Catholic women's order founded in Ireland in 1807. This is the community of sisters who still live in Kildare, where they maintain the sacred flame, operate a retreat center, and sponsor a festival dedicated to Brigid each year at the time of her feast day on February 1. The festival focusses on issues related to peacemaking and justice. I can't help but think that Brigid approves of her sacred flame still burning with an eye to hospitality, reconciliation, and community. Perhaps when we work to foster greater justice and mercy in our own communities - wherever we may live - the spirit of Celtic wisdom is embodied in our lives and our actions.