731 Brigid is the bridge, crossing the threshold from Goddess to Saint, Celtic to Christian
Day 731: Thursday, March 17, 2022
Brigid is the bridge, crossing the threshold from Goddess to Saint, Celtic to Christian, North and South, winter and spring, water and fire, masculine and feminine, ancient and modern.
But before Brigid we have great news from our own Steve Lyman. He writes:
Hi everyone, I came through the surgery great. I feel much better already. We’re back at the hotel and back home tomorrow. Hugs and kisses and a grandiose thanks for everyone’s prayers. Oh, where’s the 🍕 pizza. I’m starving. Lol
On March 17, the world celebrates the feast day of St. Patrick, a zealous British bishop of the fifth century who became famous for spreading Christianity in Ireland. Patrick is Ireland's main patron saint.
But as a medieval historian, I suggest that we also pause to remember another of Ireland's patron saints, the nurturing, compassionate St. Brigid.
“ Brigid is the bridge, crossing the threshold from Goddess to Saint, Celtic to Christian, North and South, winter and spring, water and fire, masculine and feminine, ancient and modern.”
This year, following a three-year campaign by a feminist organization, herstory.ie, the Irish government finally acknowledged Brigid's importance by declaring a new national holiday on her feast day of Feb. 1. Until now, Ireland counted her among their official three patrons, along with St. Patrick and St. Columcille, or Columba, but gave workers a day off only on St. Patrick's Day.
The discovery that sparked a movement
In contrast to the handful of women we learn about in Irish schools, Herstory discovered that there are over one thousand fascinating women featured in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. The amnesia of women’s stories is not just an Irish problem - this is a global phenomenon.
Women’s achievements and struggles have been lost in the shadows for too long, resulting in global inequality and a regression of women’s rights. That’s why Herstory is harnessing the alchemical power of light, to celebrate women and equality, spotlight inequality, and create visions for a World of Equals.”
— - Melanie Lynch, Founder of Herstory
So who is St. Brigid? Brigid was born in Ireland, sometime around A.D. 450, the child of a slave and a king in the province of Leinster.
Unfortunately, Brigid left no historical record of her missionary work. All information about Brigid comes from biographies of saints written long after she lived. A churchman named Cogitosus was the first to write about Brigid, in about A.D. 650, or approximately 200 years after her birth.
Cogitosus recounted Brigid's many purported miracles: As a girl, she gave away the household's butter and bacon to hungry beggars and dogs, then miraculously replaced the food for her family. Later in life, she turned a wooden column into a living tree with one touch and hung her cloak on a sunbeam.
After she founded her monastic community at Kildare and became its abbess, she also traveled, preached and was said to have cured Christians of serious debilities such as blindness and muteness, all in imitation of Christ. While many early female saints have miracles attributed to them, few of them actively proselytized.
Cogitosus tells us that Brigid worked some other unique marvels. She miraculously ended the unwanted pregnancy of one of her fellow sisters, "causing the foetus to disappear without coming to birth and without pain," as Cogitosus put it. She tamed both domestic and wild animals, which was handy when her cows went astray. She could also, according to Cogitosus, manipulate the landscape. Once when her kinsmen were building a plank trackway through the bogs, Brigid moved a river to make it easier for them.
Instead of battling wrongdoers, she found peaceful resolutions to violent situations. Once, for example, she deterred a band of bloodthirsty murderers by making it appear as if they had committed a killing that never even happened.
Even after her death, miracles supposedly continued to occur at her shrine. In fact, Brigid's intervention from beyond the grave helped builders gather materials to build a new and magnificent shrine for her at Kildare. She guided an immovable boulder down a hill to her community for their new millstone. She caused a problematic door to hang correctly. These were minor but useful miracles — typical, I would argue, of the sensible saint.
Brigid's cult center at Kildare became one of the wealthiest and most powerful religious communities in Ireland. Cogitosus wrote that Kildare was "the head of virtually all the Irish churches and occupies the first place, excelling all the monasteries of the Irish. Its jurisdiction extends over the whole land of Ireland from sea to sea."
Throughout the Middle Ages, Leinster elites continued to donate land and goods to Kildare. They vied to place their female kinfolk as abbess of Kildare until the community closed during the 16th-century dissolution, when the occupying English Protestant government of Ireland shut down all monasteries.
Brigid's devotees resigned themselves to Kildare's secondary status as "one of the two pillars of the Kingdom, along with Patrick the pre-eminent," as one medieval hymnist put it.
This is despite a tale, circulated by a ninth-century hagiographer, that Brigid was accidentally ordained as a bishop — apparently, Bishop Mel was so "intoxicated with the grace of God" as he prepared to veil Brigid that he read the wrong prayers over her. "This virgin alone in Ireland … will hold the episcopal ordination," Mel declared, and a column of fire shot from the saint's head. Unfortunately, other clerics refused to take the story seriously.
Brigid was venerated as "Mary of the Gael," a saint for women, shepherds, beggars, refugees and those in childbirth. Her feast day, Feb. 1, is the same day as Imbolc, an ancient holiday celebrating the start of spring, season of fertility. Indeed, her associations with Imbolc have long raised suspicions about the possible pre-Christian origins of her cult at Kildare.
Today, some people keep St. Brigid's Day by weaving a special reed cross or visiting a holy well whose waters, blessed by Brigid, are believed to heal illness. The Brigidine Sisters of Kildare attend their ever-burning flame for Brigid, as nuns did in the Middle Ages.
This year on March 17, when you're wearing the green and singing "Dirty Ol' Town," take a moment to whisper thanks to St. Brigid, the compassionate, sensible, native-born patron saint of Ireland, and ask if Ireland's premier patron saint should be a woman.
By Lisa Bitel, a professor of history and religion, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
On Brigid’s Day, Herstory journeyed into the heart of Ireland to help heal the heartbreak of the Mother And Baby Homes scandal. Iconic buildings illuminated to witness & honor all who suffered. Filmmaker Peter Martin captures this pilgrimage of light in Solas, a hauntingly beautiful film.