Wednesday, 30 January 2013

St. Brigid of Kildare

February first is the day that the Anglican Calendar invites us to remember St. Brigid of Kildare. Some Christians run a mile when they hear talk of Saints days, afraid perhaps that it is a bit too Catholic like lighting candles or praying to the dead. I must admit to feeling that way at one time until I realised that when I read the Bible and felt inspired by people like Moses or David or Ruth I was in fact remembering saints. The fact that folk like Brgid or Teilo are not mentioned in the sacred pages does not take away from the fact that these men and women of God were every bit as inspired or Spirit-led as Paul or Barnabas.

This is certainly true of Brigid - also known as Bride or Bridget - who is one of my favourites. As with many of the early saints like her there are lots of miracles associated with her life and therefore many secular and Christian scholars have cast doubt on how much of what we have been told about her is fact and how much is fiction. So what I will just share is a few bare bones and add a couple of comments.

First, there are lots of biographies about her life and these generally agree on the following:

She was born around 451 probably in Dundalk, in County Louth in Ireland to a slave mother and a druid father who was probably a nobleman with royal blood. At an early age she decided to become a Christian—possibly after hearing St. Patrick preach—and eventually aged 14 (marriageable age) took vows to become a nun. With a group of other women she formed a nunnery in Kildare which was later joined by a community of monks. Kildare had formerly been a pagan shrine where a sacred fire had been kept burning continually as some kind of tribute to the gods. But instead of putting it out Brigid and her nuns kept it going but gave it a Christian interpretation instead, terming it a “fire of resurrection”. We are told that the fire—called St. Bride’s fire—was kept burning for a thousand years—with one brief interlude in 1220—until it was extinguished by order of King Henry VIII during the suppression of the monasteries.

This practice of taking pagan things and investing them with Christian meaning was a common practice by many of the early Celtic saints whenever they evangelised an area. For example many of the early churches were built on pagan sites and some of today's Christian festivals were plonked onto pagan ones - see Christmas and Easter - as a way of stamping out the old with the new. It was also a recognition that the ancient pagan religions had some grain of truth about them as they, in their ignorance, tried to reach out to the creator in worship.

The nunnery in Kildare became a centre of religion and learning and developed into a cathedral city. Brigid founded several monastic institutions and appointed another saint—St. Conleth as a spiritual pastor to them. And Brigid herself became a very influential figure in Christianity in Ireland.

She died on February 1st 525.

There are lots of miracles associated with her. Some are pretty straightforward like the healing of a leper on Easter Sunday. He had come to her to ask for a cow which she said she would help him with after she had a rest. But he wouldn't wait and said he would get one somewhere else. She offered to heal him but the man said that he would earn more money begging as a leper. But she convinced him otherwise and asked one of her nuns to fetch a mug of holy water which she poured over him and he was healed. From that day on he followed her.

Easter Sunday seems to have had a particular resonance with Brigid because miracles associated with her seem to have taken place on that day.

David Adam in his book The Cry of the Deer points out that many of the stories about her life link her with the Christ child. The most famous is when Brigid was young. There was a great famine in the land and Brigid’s parents were forced to leave home and look for food. She was left to look after the house with only a single stoup of water and a bannock of bread. Before they went the parents had warned her to be careful with the food—because that’s all there was—and not to let any strangers into the house. Later that night, as the light faded, two travellers came down the road, one an old man and the other a maid. It was said that the old man had brown hair and a grey beard. They asked for food and a place to rest. Brigid felt sorry for them but she knew she should obey her parents and not invite them in. But she shared with them her water and her bread and took them round the back of the house to the barn and helped make them comfortable.

When she returned to the front of the house she found the bannock of bread was whole again and the water stoup full. She then knew in her heart that she had been dealing with more than mere man. Then she looked out again, night had fallen, but the stable was surrounded by a brilliant golden light for Christ had come to earth.

And whatever we want to say about the authenticity of this or any of the miracles let’s stop and think for a moment before we become too dismissive and superior in our 21st century sophistication. There is a lot we can learn from St. Brigid's life:

First, are they any less credible than the miracles that Jesus performed in the gospels and the disciples performed later in his name in the book of Acts? Didn't Jesus promise in John 14:12: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Throughout the centuries therefore we find many other saints and Christians performing miracles of healing etc. right down to today.  

Second, if we believe that Jesus rose again from the dead doesn't that open the door for us to believe in other miracles in his name. Certainly Brigid—and the early Celtic saints—had a very firm and sincere belief in the resurrection and therefore had no problems believing in a God of miracles. The resurrection sets the bar at it's highest and makes every other miracle look very tame by comparison.

Third, hospitality is at the heart of the Christian message because of Jesus’ teachings. Remember in Matthew 25 where Jesus said to the righteous: “I was a stranger and you received me in your homes.”  Their reply was to ask when and where was that? And Jesus replies that when they did something for the least of his brethren then they did it for him. It’s that very close identification with the poor and the needy that underlines the story of Brigid and the two strangers and makes it very powerfully authentic to me.

In fact as I was reading and typing out the story I was so deeply moved I had to stop for a few moments which leads me to:

Fourth, what makes this 'true' for me is the way that the story resonates with my spirit. There is more to truth than literal truth. An example is Tolkien's attitude to his book "The Lord of the Rings" which he described as true. Not in the literal sense that there is a Middle Earth and the characters are real people, but that in some way the whole story embodies deep truths about God and about us. When we read of Brigid's encounter with God in the above account there is a "Ring of Truth" (J.B.Philllips) about it that goes beyond the story and moves us to gasp in awe and wonder at God. It inspires us - it did me - to look at life differently and to be more generous and loving to others as a result. In that case whether it was literally true or not is incidental to the story. What really matters is that through it I have glimpsed God as he calls me - like Brigid - to follow and obey Him and show my love to Him through my actions towards others. (Note: I do happen to believe it is literally true because it feels right somehow).

Fifth, the Celtic Christians had a wonderful belief in the Incarnation, that it was not just historical but contemporary and that God was always present in the various people or strangers they encountered. There is an old verse that captures this:

I sought my God
my God I could not see.
I sought my soul
my soul eluded me.
I sought my brother
and I found all three.

That idea has been a vital part of Christianity ever since as we find here from Michael Mannion a priest and friend of Mother Teresa:  "She was totally immersed in the experience of seeing Jesus Christ in the poorest of the poor and worshipping God through her love of them - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, athiest, all childen of God."

So thank God for St. Brigid and her example to us today. Let me end with a poem attributed to her which speaks of her longing:

I long for a great lake of ale
I long for the meats of belief and pure piety
I long for the flails of penance at my house
I long for them to have barrels full of peace
I long to give away jars full of love
I long for them to have cellars full of mercy
I long for cheerfulness to be in their drinking
I long for Jesus too to be there among them.

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