· Sweden’s great saint and the co-patroness of Europe ·
On my bookshelf, I have a cheese dish inherited from my grandparents. It is square, made of wood, with the carved date “6 May 1794” and the initials of its maker. On the inside bottom, there is an intricate pattern, supposed to decorate the cheese when it was removed from the dish and turned upside down for serving. There are small holes, for the whey to seep out during the maturing process.
Cheese-making in rural Sweden did not change much between the 14th and the 18th centuries. So the image which St Birgitta (1303-1373), the only Swedish saint formally canonized by the Catholic Church, had in mind when she let Christ compare the soul to a cheese and the body to a cheese dish cannot have been too different from the dish I am looking at while writing this.
Birgitta has been ridiculed for this down-to-earth comparison. But it is an image rich with explanatory power. Like the cheese in its dish, the human soul must spend a certain time maturing in the body, gradually freeing itself from impurities like the cheese from the whey. But the ultimate purpose is for the cheese to leave the dish, mature, perfect.
Birgitta is the first great writer in the Swedish language. Her creation, the convent at Vadstena, was for 200 years the cultural centre of northern Europe. Ebba Witt-Brattström, feminist and professor of literature, claims that written Swedish was in fact born from the translation activities of the Brigidine order.
Birgitta’s cheese image is just one among many, all of them colourful. She compares popes to butterflies and baby birds, a bishop to a gadfly, an abbess to a fat cow, kings and queens to monkeys, snakes and apple-cores. But she can also evoke courtly elegance. The Virgin Mary, Birgitta’s patron and main conversation partner in her Revelations, appears majestic, richly dressed in golden cloth, a sky-blue cloak, with a crown adorned with ”seven lilies and seven jewels”.
Erich Auerbach, author of the literary classic Mimesis, points out that this movement between high style and low, between sublimitas and humilitas , is, in fact, a dimension which Christianity added to Western literature and which separates it from antiquity. It is based on the incarnation of Christ, his suffering, ignominious death and glorious resurrection. It began in the 12th century, but points towards Dante — Birgitta’s contemporary — and modernity.
Birgitta amply fulfilled Virginia Woolf’s requirement for a female writer: “a room of one’s own and an income of 500 pounds a year”. She was an aristocrat, related to the Swedish royal house. Her family was immensely rich. She grew up and lived her married life in great houses. Arriving in Rome in 1350, she was immediately offered a cardinal’s palace, and later a palace in Piazza Farnese, today’s Casa Santa Brigida, where you can still see her bed and writing room.
But of course, Birgitta’s aim is not literary. Her mission is prophetic. Far from obeying St Paul’s advice to women to keep silent, she aims to set clerics and princes on the right course (her own lineage and position was of course helpful here). She is deeply humble before God. But she is relentless in her criticism of the great of this world. The late Birger Bergh, professor of Latin at Lund University, compares her to a police officer with an arrest warrant, confident that the authority, not hers but her principal’s, will be respected.
The times were turbulent. In Birgitta’s Sweden, princes were murdering each other right and left. Pestilence, the “black death”, haunted Europe. Emperor and kings struggled for power. The Pope, Christ’s vicar, was almost a prisoner of the French in Avignon.
Birgitta takes on the political conflicts of her time. She attempts to broker peace between England and France. She tries to influence the succession in Sweden. She prompts two Popes, Clemens vi and Urban v, to return to Rome.
But her ultimate aim is the salvation of souls. Her lasting heritage is her humanization of Christianity, through the Virgin Mary — not an obedient girl but a strong, intelligent and merciful defence counsel for humankind before the court of Christ. The prosecutors are devils; always logical, honest (sic) and theologically trained. Though evil, they are servants of Christ and obey him. They get a fair hearing and occasionally win a soul. But they cannot see that there is something beyond reason and the law — grace and mercy.
Birgitta was canonized in 1391, on 7 October — her nameday in the Swedish calendar. In 1999, she was made patron saint of Europe by Pope John Paul II. She was fearless, immensely gifted, determined to engage with history. Possibly not easy to get on with, but with a concern for suffering humans and a deep love of God and the Church. A Catholic friend says, when I ask her about her views on St Birgitta: “I admire her enormously. I wish the Church would appreciate the many brave, intelligent women who, like St Birgitta, justly love and strive for a living Church today”.
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