Brigid of Kildare was a saint and founder of monasteries in Ireland. Along with Patrick and Columba she is said to be one of the three patron saints of Ireland. Her legacy and impact on Irish and Scottish Christianity are profound. Her legends are likely the amalgamation of a medieval abbess and a pagan goddess both bearing the same name.
The goddess Brigid was a triune goddess who was the wife of Bres and the daughter of Dagda. She was a goddess of poets, spring time, and fertility. She had two other sisters in her trinity: a goddess of healing and one of metalworking. The saint Brigid was one with an extreme amount of miracles attributed to her and a great deal of veneration surviving up to modern times. She was often called “Mary of the Gaels” though when you read her life story she acted more like Jesus himself.
There are a few different historical sources for information about Brigid. In this article I will mostly be using the version written by Cogitosus who was a monk at the monastery Brigid founded in Kildare. You can read the text HERE. Cogitosus opens his description of the blessed saint Brigid and her importance and impact on the Irish people like this:
“The woman of whom I tell, then, grew in virtue, remarkably, and the fame of her good deeds attracted innumerable people of both sexes to come from all the territories of Ireland and gather to her, willingly making their votive offerings. Because of this, she established a monastery on the firm foundation of the faith in the open expanses of the plain of Life [north Co. Kildare]. It is 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. Her interest was to provide in all matters for the orderly direction of souls, and she was concerned about the churches which adhered to her in many territories.”
This emphasis on her vocation as one who is concerned with “the orderly direction of souls” places her firmly in the role of anamchara. In fact, she is famously quoted in the Martyrology of Óengus as saying that “anyone without a soul friend (anamcara) is like a body without a head.” Brigid was famous for caring people without question and for being especially fond of those society ignored. There are many stories of her giving away food and money that didn’t even belong to her to the poor. She also helped and protected young women.
In one story a young woman was being sexually harassed by a local man with wealth and power. He had lent this young woman a silver brooch and then snuck into her room at night to steal it back and threw it into the ocean. When she was not able to return it to him the following day he demanded that she become his slave under the law as payment so that he could force her to lay with him. When Brigid discovered what was happening she had the local fishermen in the area cut open the stomachs of their catch for the day and one of them uncovered the brooch. Brigid brought the young woman, her abuser, and the brooch to the court and publicly shamed him and paid the young woman’s debt by returning the brooch.
In another instance, one of the young women in her monastery had broken her vows of chastity and gone out to lay with a man. She had gotten pregnant and did not know what to do, so Brigid blessed the young woman and the baby growing inside her disappeared without coming to birth and without pain. Brigid then returned the young woman to complete health and gave her penance to perform in the manner of an anamcara.
Brigid performed many miracles and a large number of them were centered around an endless abundance of food. Much like Jesus multiplying the bread and fish to feed the hungry masses, Brigid would give away all the food in the monastery and then it would miraculously reappear as if none had been taken at all. She even turned water into beer to give drink to thirsty lepers, healed the deaf and blind, and continued to be a presence that people relied on even after her death.
These miracles resemble the miracles of Jesus very closely and Cogitosus specifically points that out. He tells us that Brigid had faith like a mustard seed and because of her faith and her perfect life she was able to perform miracles on what seems like a daily basis. She did this because she became the vessel through which God acted for the people. Cogitosus also tells us that God knew Brigid beforehand and predestined her to be molded into the image of God. She was no ordinary saint.
She loved and cared for people but she also had a close relationship with all of God’s creatures. There are many miraculous stories of how the animals, rivers, and trees would obey her and honour her. Whether she was taming wild boars with her words, feeding hungry dogs the finest meat in the kitchen, speaking to cattle and having them listen, or milking a cow for far more than it should have been able to produce, God’s creatures obeyed her, loved her and protected her. Cogitosus said of Brigid:
“See, brothers, how brute beasts and animals could withstand neither her bidding nor her wish, but served her tamely and humbly.”
While most of her miracles were gifts of food for the hungry or help for the downtrodden, there is one miracle which Cogitosus recalls which shows how easily Brigid crossed the veil which separates Heaven and Earth. Upon returning home one day Brigid had gotten soaked in the rain. When she entered the house she saw a sunbeam shining through the window which at first glance looked to her like a wooden beam. She removed her wet cloak and hung it on the sunbeam to dry without noticing. All the people in the house were amazed when her cloak hung suspended in thin air draped over a beam of light. It was an accidental miracle, one which casually happened by mistake and did not serve any purpose of healing or feeding.
Brigid’s miracles continued after her death and she remained with the people she loved so dearly, close in spirit if not in the flesh. People began to pray to her for help and healing and she continually answered them. Near the end of her biography Cogitosus tells us:
“Many miracles were performed in her lifetime, before she laid down the burden of her flesh; many later. The bounty of the gift of God never ceased working wonders in her monastery, where her venerable body lies. We have not only heard tell of these marvels; we have seen them with our own eyes.”
Brigid’s legacy is not one of profound theological treatises, we do not have any surviving rules from her monastery or details of her teaching. What we do have is an example to follow, an inspiration to remember that there is more to life than meets the eye, and someone to pray to who is a wise anamchara and a gifted miracle worker. She still lives in on the other side of the veil which separates Heaven and Earth and she crosses that veil with as much ease now as she did when she was living among us. If you have an open heart she can be your anamchara and heal you and teach you and show you the path to holiness.
If you would like to learn more about Brigid, check out this video taken from our virtual retreat Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.
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