Eight years before the death of Patrick (see March 17th), a girl was born to a pagan Irish chieftain and a Christian slave woman from the land of the Picts. This girl, Brigid, was fostered by the druids and so learned the lore of the pagan Celts as well as the way of Christ. When her mother’s eyesight began to fail Brigid took on the task of caring for the cattle, milking and working in the dairy. Songs still exist in which the women of the Celtic lands entreated Brigid to help their cows to give their milk. Brigid was inspired by the teaching and preaching of Patrick from an early age. In her late teens she decided that she wanted to give her life to Christ and become a nun, much to her father’s disapprova,l as he wanted her to marry a young bard. Whatever her father’s thoughts of her, Brigid was a generous and deeply faithful young woman who could never refuse the poor. She freely gave away her father’s possessions, milk and flour to anyone in need. Eventually her father became so frustrated with her that he decided to sell her to the King. They journeyed to the castle, and while Brigid waited at the castle gates for her father to negotiate with the King, a beggar came along asking for alms. Brigid at once gave him her father’s jewel-encrusted sword. On hearing of this the King declared that he could never buy Brigid. ‘She’s too good for me,’ he said, ‘I could never win her obedience.’
Her father realised that the place for Brigid was a convent. When she was fourteen, she and seven others received their white wool habits from the bishop, marking the inauguration of the first formal community of Christian women in Ireland. She did not retire into solitude, but went out to help the poor. In adult life Brigid established ‘double monasteries’ of men and women living under her rule, the most important of which was Kildare, ‘the church of the oak tree’, founded in 470. Here the fire that Brigid kindled was faithfully kept alight until the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
It is said that Brigid was accidentally ordained priest (some even say bishop). She led a group of women who had also decided to become nuns, and she asked Bishop Mel to bless their taking of the veil. The Bishop saw the Spirit of God descending on Brigid and called her forward. Laying hands on her, he said, ‘I have no power in this matter. God has ordained Brigid.’ Mel then proceeded to read the rite of consecration over Brigid. In tradition Brigid is linked with the Celtic mother goddess, Brighde, whose fire festival on February 1st was Christianised as a result. Even more strangely she is also called the ‘aid woman of Christ’, as if she had been present in Bethlehem to assist Mary with the birth.
She became famous for many things, but most of all for her hospitality and welcome. A Grace for use before meals is associated with her:
God bless our food; God bless our drink. And keep our homes and ourselves in Your embrace, O God. Amen.
Lord God, you challenge us through Brigid to keep alight the fire of your compassion in our world today. Give us the will to help those in need, to turn away from selfish ambition to devote ourselves to you, and to bring all things around us under the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord. Give us the courage, if necessary, to break with existing tradition in order to do your will. Amen.