This time of year, as we begin the Advent season, we often remember Mother Mary who carried the Lord of all Heaven and Earth inside her. It is through Mary’s womb and at her breast that Jesus came into the world and was nourished in his infancy. Mary has always held a special place in Christian tradition and the early Celtic Christians had a strong sense of devotion to her. Mary was seen as the model of female sainthood, which is why Brigit, the most prominent of women in Celtic tradition, was often referred to as Mary of the Gaels.
There is a lesser known saint, who was thought of as a second Brigit in much the same way that Brigit was thought of as a second Mary. Her name was Íte of Killeedy, often called Ita which means “a thirst for holiness.” Ita was considered the foster mother of the saints as her ministry, among other things, included a devotion to the spiritual formation of young children. She was a celibate monk and so she presumably had no children of her own but she embodied the virtue of motherhood so fully that she became a spiritual to many. The most famous of her pupils is Brendan the Navigator who maintained a great affection for Ita even into adulthood.
Her role as foster mother was a literal one, in the sense that she cared for and raised many young children, teaching them faith in God with purity of heart; simplicity of life with religion; and generosity with love – but she was also a mystical foster mother. Below is a poem which tells of the mystical vision of Ita and the way in which she nursed the Christian faith on both sides of the veil. Jesukin is a diminutive (and therefore honorary) form of the name Jesus. Jesukin is the name of the infant Christ.
It is Jesukin
who is nursed by me in my little hermitage:
though it be a cleric with treasures,
all is a lie save Jesukin.
The nursing I do in my house
is not the nursing of a base clown:
Jesus with the men of Heaven
under my heart every single night.
Young Jesukin, my eternal good!
to heed him is a cause of forgiveness,
the king who controls all things,
not to beseech Him will cause repentance.
It is Jesus, noble, angelic,
not an unlearned cleric,
who is fostered by me in my little hermitage,
Jesus the son of the Hebrew woman.
Sons of princes, sons of kings,
though they should come into my country,
I should not expect profit from them;
more likely, I think, from Jesukin.
Sing ye a chorus, O maidens,
to Him who has a right to your little tribute,
who sits in his place above,
though Jesukin is at my breast
I love the way Ita associates the spiritual center of the human heart with the act of breastfeeding. To nurse a child at the breast is to hold them close to your heart, in both the literal and mystical sense. Ita saw in the children of her monastery the presence of the infant Christ and as she reared them and cared for them she was likewise caring for Jesus. Mystically speaking, Jesus as the second Adam represents all people. In the infants she cared for she saw Jesus and in Jesus she saw all the saints of heaven. It was nothing less than the whole of humanity who was being nourished at her breast and held in love under her heart.
Like any good monk, she had no need for the wealth of worldly princes. She had no desire to foster royal children and raise them in the ways of politics, commerce, and war. Rather, all the profit she could ever need was to be found in raising little Jesukins, little versions of Christ who she sent out into the world. For Ita and the monks under her care, there was no greater honour than to hold God’s children close to her heart for in them she saw none other than the king of all Heaven and Earth. May we all, this Advent season, hold God’s children under our hearts and through our prayers and acts of charity sustain them with the spiritual milk of a mother’s breast.
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