By Sister Michelle Gorman
Why should we pay attention to the feast of St. Brigid, one of Ireland’s three patron saints (the other two being Patrick and Columba)? We know nothing factual about her life. Supposedly born in the province of Leinster (eastern Ireland) around 450 CE, the child of a Christian slave and a pagan chieftain, nothing was written about Brigid until about 650 CE, when a churchman named Cogitosus wrote quite bit about her many purported miracles, such as ending an unwanted pregnancy, taming animals, moving a river, and even after her death helping builders gather the materials for her new and magnificent shrine at Kildare (to name just a few). One of her most well-known miracles is the story about her asking the King of Leinster for some land to build a convent. Not wishing to give her any land, he said he would give her as much as her cloak would cover. So, four of her sisters picked up the cloak and moved with it in four directions, extending the cloak to the whole of the king’s territory. Regretting his stinginess, the king negotiated with her for a decent plot of land.
Whatever the facts about Brigid’s life, her spirit has remained in the Irish psyche, despite Jansenism, patriarchy, misogyny, and the dominance of St. Patrick, and her feast day has always been quietly celebrated on February 1. However, in 2022, following a three-year campaign by the feminist organization, Herstory, the Irish government has declared a new national holiday on February 1 in her honor. Interesting that the saint is honored by the secular society and is merely given the title virgin in the Catholic calendar while the feast of St. Patrick is a solemnity (bishop)! Perhaps the church wished to distance themselves from the ninth-century tale that Brigid was accidentally ordained a bishop by St. Mel who, as he was bestowing on her the religious veil, was “so intoxicated by the grace of God,” that he read the wrong prayers over her! She is often depicted with a crosier, and some maintain that the crosier was also used to indicate the pastoral leadership of an abbess, and that she was not a bishop (Catholic Encyclopedia).
The Catholic Encyclopedia declares that Brigid founded a monastic community at Kildare, actually a double-monastery of both monks and nuns, with Brigid the leader of both. This monastery became a center of pilgrimage after her death (February 1, c. 525 CE). Or did the church Christianize the pagan goddess Brigid who was celebrated on Imbolc, February 1, which occurs more or less halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, celebrating the beginning of spring and the notion of rebirth? The pagan goddess Brigid was evoked in fertility blessings and oversaw poetry, crafts, and prophecy. She was said to have been born with a flame in her head and that she drank the milk of a mystical cow from the spirit world. Thus, Brigid is associated with fire and milk.
Whether we intend to refer to the pagan goddess or the Christian saint, the St. Brigid’s Cross continues to be a spiritual symbol for both Christians and pagans alike. Traditionally made from rushes (a bog plant with hollow, cylindrical stems), the cross can also be made from straw or reeds. The crosses are often blessed by a priest and hung throughout the house as a protection from various dangers. The Brideog is a less well-known symbol these days. This was a corn doll decorated with ribbons, shells, or stones. A bed was then prepared for the Brideog, symbolizing hospitality, and young girls would stay up all night on January 31 to welcome in the feast of St. Brigid. On February 1, the girls would then carry the Brideog from house to house in honor of the saint. It was also believed that Brigid travelled the land on Imbolc Eve and people would leave a piece of clothing or a strip of cloth outside for her to bless as she passed by. These cloths were then considered to have healing and protective powers.
Healing and protection of the vulnerable—those were also the values of Catherine McAuley. One wonders how she and Brigid would have gotten along—both being courageous with those in power and compassionate toward the needy. Catherine considered it a joy that all the sisters would meet in heaven. A tenth century poem has Brigid wanting to share a “lake of beer” with God in heaven!
I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the Heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity…
I’d sit with the men, the women of God
There by the lake of beer
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.
What a wonderful image! In the meantime, let us continue to do the good works of Catherine and Brigid, and look forward to that heavenly reunion around the lake of beer-or our favorite beverage! St. Brigid, “Mary of the Gael,” and matron of Ireland, pray for us.