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Brigid, and the future of the Church

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Patroness of Ireland and Belgium

29 August 2020

Saint Brigid of Kildare (c. 451-525) is one of Ireland's patron saints, along with Patrick and Columba. Unlike Patrick, she was a native-born Irish, though she shared with him the experience of slavery (in her case, from birth). Brigid also shares her name (meaning 'power', 'strength', 'vigor', 'virtue'; or even 'high' or 'exalted one') with a Celtic goddess, and her feast day, February 1, was originally a springtime pagan festival. There are many continuities with Ireland's pre-Christian past and Brigid's association with sacred fires and holy wells. A flame which had burned in Kildare for centuries, only to be extinguished in the Middle Ages, was re-lit in Kildare's market square in 1993. Similarly, the many wells named after her, or her Celtic goddess namesake, have long symbolized cleansing and healing.

It seems probable that the attributes of the goddess were grafted onto an actual person after her death. In any case, this human/divine ambiguity is certainly part of her attractiveness for the contemporary age, and its preference for fluidity in matters of religion.

Brigid’s many patronal responsibilities include a number of agricultural trades, but also: children of unmarried parents or abusive unions; children with abusive fathers; fugitives; travelers; poets; and, the poor. Biographers speak of a woman utterly rooted in the mundane agricultural world of dairy and sheep farming, of the brewing of beer and the making of jam. And, yet it is a world made wondrously fruitful with miraculous replenishments of butter and milk, of water lavishly transformed into beer.

The same legends associate her with acts of charity (usually with other people's goods, such as giving away her father's precious sword, which he had carelessly left in her safekeeping while he attempted a marriage match for her). She entered religious life, and is credited with the foundation of the monastery of Kildare in 480, on the site of a shrine dedicated to her pagan namesake.

On receiving her final vows, it is alleged that Saint Patrick 'accidentally' used the formula for ordaining priests. In any case, the foundation at Kildare was ruled for several centuries by a double line of abbot-bishops and abbesses, with Bridgit's female successors accorded episcopal honor. Under her patronage, Kildare was a center of religion, learning and the arts, especially illuminated manuscripts.

Her dealings with kings and nobility, and with troublesome men in general, suggest a female 'trickster' figure, though reliant on God's power rather than on solely her own. Nevertheless, her capacity for founding and goverance is reminscent of Teresa of Avila, one thousand years later. Historical evidence of female agency and authority is clearly of huge interest for the present day Church.  Indeed, perhaps the mutuality of the dual oversight of abbot and abbess will be even more significant for the future of the institutional Church.

Brigid is not known to us through her writing; certainly nothing to compare to the wonderful mystical testimonies of Teresa. Of Brigid's interior spiritual life we know nothing. Instead, she is known through the legends of practical compassion and zeal for God's suffering poor. If, as Pope Francis insists, the Church must be ready to be a 'field hospital', and its pastors to 'smell of their sheep', then Brigid would be a good icon for Francis' pastoral re-centering of the Church's mission.

With next to no reliable historical data about her, with no writings from her or testimony of visions or mystical experiences, Brigid is nevertheless well embedded in Irish life and culture. She is present throughout Ireland, in the names of churches, parishes, schools, and secular associations- not least Gaelic sports clubs, so crucial in the forging of Ireland's modern national identity.

In addition, there is a European dimension, as a result of the Protestant Reformation which caused so many Irish 'wild geese' to take wing to the continent. The era of desecration required the removal of Brigid's relics to Austria, Portugal and Germany.  This exportation paradoxically strengthened her cult. There is a nice story of how, after much effort, the Archbishop of Sydney in 1884 obtained part of a relic of St. Brigid for Australia. The reluctance of the parish in Cologne was eventually overcome, and his request granted, this was 'the new Christian world appealing to the old for a share of its sacred wealth.'

This appeal seems be at the heart of authentic devotion to saints in general, and perhaps in a special way to the Celtic saints, above all to Brigid. It is a request from the 'new Christian world to the old'. But, here, 'new' does not mean the geographical space of Europe's colonies. It means the modern world, looking back at the spiritual riches of a bygone age.

There are big temptations, certainly. Can a 'new Christianity' come into being, without false and debilitating nostalgia? Much of what passes for 'Celtic' spirituality and religiosity is artificial and romanticized. And yet, at its best, however, it invites us to reach out, in our poverty, for what we need:

-          for the confidence and wisdom to allow the gospel to permeate and uplift a culture, without destroying it

-          for a re-connection with the earth's powers: the healing of holy waters, and the confident fidelity of sacred fire

-          for authentic mutuality of men and women in the Church's governance

-          for courage to challenge the powerful and, with the help of God, to out-manoeuvre them

-          for a recovery of evangelii gaudium, the 'joy of the gospel' through a sustained befriending of the poor; as in the vision of an 8th prayer attributed to Brigid:

'I should like a great lake of the finest ale for the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food for the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith, and the food be forgiving love.'

by Michael Kirwan SJ


Brigid of Kildare


Born
Faughart , 451
Died Kildare, February 1, 525
Venerated by all the Churches that admit the cult of saints
Anniversary February 1
Patroness of Ireland and Belgium