The Irish Chaplaincy in Britain (ICB) has claimed St Brigid of Kildare as its patron saint on this, her feast day, 1st February. Fr Gerry McFlynn from the ICB said: “The choice is well made. Brigid of Kildare ('Mary of the Gael') may have lived in the fifth century, but she was a woman well ahead of her time. Far from being a figure consigned to folklore, she emerges as someone who has much to say to us today about such contemporary concerns and issues as work for peace and justice, equality, care for the earth, as well as being a model for a contemplative life.”
The bare facts of her life are soon told. She was born at Faughart, near Dundalk, Co Louth, in 452, the daughter of parents who were baptised by St Patrick with whom she developed a close friendship. Despite receiving many offers of marriage, she became a nun and with seven others settled at Croghan Hill for a time before following St Mel to Meath. There is a strong tradition that she took her vows from St Mel around 468. Brigid may well have been the only female bishop of the early Celtic church, for it is said that upon receiving her vows, St Mel was inspired by God to make her a bishop.
Sometime around 470 Brigid moved to Cill Dara (Kildare), where she founded a ‘double monastery’ (one for men and one for women) over which she ruled as abbess. She appointed St Conleth as bishop and, according to an early biographer, “they governed their church by means of a mutually happy alliance” establishing a practice which was to last for centuries of a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, with the abbess of Kildare as the first among equals. Given the controversies today surrounding issues of equality over women priests/bishops and church politics, we surely have much to learn from this model of governance in the early Celtic church. Brigid died at Kildare in 525, leaving a cathedral city and school that became famous all over Europe.
A Woman for our time
Brigid of Kildare was one of the most remarkable women of her time and despite the legends and myths surrounding her name, she emerges as a strong and gentle woman, a powerful leader, a good organiser, a skilful healer and a wise spiritual guide. She has become for many men and women a potent symbol of Christian womanhood, showing us in different ways the feminine face of God.
What makes her particularly relevant for us today is the range of issues and concerns she embraced and the manner in which she dealt with them. She was a peacemaker who intervened in disputes between clans and factions and brought healing and reconciliation. Folklorists tell us that in some parts of Ireland St Brigid’s cross was often used as a token of friendship after a local quarrel. One story tells of her giving away her father’s precious sword to a poor man so that he could barter for food to feed his family, thus transforming a weapon of war into a life-giving instrument. One wonders how she would respond to peacemaking today with the countless national and international conflicts, the arms race (with its budget of $20m per minute on weapons of destruction), and the ongoing plight of the world’s poor.
In Brigid’s life the active and contemplative lived in harmony. She was no stranger to hard work and there are stories of her milking cows, making butter, shepherding her flocks of sheep, helping with the harvest and even brewing the ale. But she was also a woman of contemplation, given to long silent periods of prayerful reflection from which she drew her spiritual strength, confidence and courage.
‘A Life of Brigid’ composed sometime around 650, places great emphasis on Brigid’s faith, her healing powers, her hospitality and generosity, her great skill with animals, and her compassion for the poor and oppressed. In fact, no fewer than twenty-three of its thirty-two chapters tell of her extraordinary concern for the poor and marginalised.
Brigid, in keeping with her Celtic traditions, was wonderfully attuned to the seasons and cycles of nature. It is no accident that today many individuals and groups concerned about the environment draw inspiration from the reverence and respect which Brigid had for the wonder of creation.
Thanks to the influence of people like the late John O’Donohue, recent years have seen a great resurgence of interest in all aspects of Celtic theology and spirituality, leading many people to rediscover and draw inspiration from the lives of the early Irish saints. St Brigid, the patroness of Ireland, is emerging as one whose life has relevance and inspiration for us today as we confront the great issues in our society and world.
Philomena Cullen, Director of the ICB, said: “Through our work with prisoners, Travellers, and older people, the ICB works with some of the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised Irish people in society. St Brigid is the sort of person from whom those involved in this work can draw inspiration, hope and strength. It is for these reasons and especially her legendary concern for the poor and marginalised, that the ICB has decided to adopt her as its patron saint”.
For more information see: www.irishchaplaincy.org.uk/