St. Brigid of Kildare

There are some really interesting women whose names come down to us through history from the Dark Ages, and Brigid is one of them. Born in 451 AD in the north of Ireland, in County Lough, she,  along with Patrick and Columba, is one of the patron saints of Ireland. She is also known as Brigit or Bride (pronounced more like breed than bride).

As is the case with many of the people whose stories come to us from this period, caveats abound in the recounting of their stories, and in Brigid’s case, there are more caveats than most.

The biggest caveat is that there is some controversy as to whether she even existed at all. She shares a name with an important goddess of the Celtic pagans who lived in what is now known as Ireland. This goddess was associated with healing, smith-craft, and fertility; some of these are also associated with St. Brigid, in terms of the miracles attributed to her. Some suggest that the Celtic god Brigid was Christianized into the Saint we know as Brigid. It is true that the Christian church did appropriate pagan sites for their churches, and superimposed their own religious festivals on top of the existing pagan ones. So it is possible that some of that has gone on in the stories that come down to us about Brigid.

However, I tend to think that she was a real person, and although some of her story might be mixed up with the pagan god Brigid I am going to proceed under the assumption that she did, indeed, exist.

The main details of her life come to us from a few sources, mainly hagiographies*. The earliest of which was written around 625 AD, about a hundred years after Brigid died in 525 AD, by St. Broccan Cloen (said to be the nephew of St. Patrick).  Another was penned in the 8th century by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare. There are a couple of others, referred to in a forward added to Cloen’s biography, by an Irish bishop in the 8th century.

It is worth noting, on the question of whether or not Brigid was a real person, that scholars have found eleven people mentioned in her biographies who are independently verified in other sources. So that lends a little veracity to the story of her life included in her biographies.

Brigid, by all accounts, was born a slave. She was the daughter of the Pict Brocca, a Christian, who was the servant to Brigid’s father, Dubthach, a pagan chieftain of county Leinster. It seems that Dubthach’s wife was not too impressed when Brocca became pregnant, and forced him to sell her (and her unborn child) to a druid. There are various stories of miracles surrounding Brigid as a child, including that she was unable to eat the food provided by the druid (because of its unclean nature, one presumes) and a white cow with red ears appeared to provide for her (in milk and cheese) instead.

Saint_Brigid's_cross

St. Brigid’s Cross. Tradition says that she was tending to a pagan chieftain (perhaps her father) on his deathbed, and she picked up some rushes from the floor and began weaving them into a cross in order to explain the Christian gospel to him. He was so enamoured of her words he accepted the faith and was baptized before he died. Traditionally, every year on the eve of her feast day (Feb. 1) Irish Catholics will weave a cross and put it up on the inside of their house, over the door. Image from Blarney.com

She was returned to her father at around the age of ten as a household servant, and impressed all by her acts of charity. However her father wasn’t too pleased, as being a servant Brigid had no property to speak of, and so the items she gave away to the poor were in fact his. The final straw came when he got fed up and tried to sell her (or in some stories, marry her) to the king of Leinster and while they were negotiating the deal, Brigid tried to give away her father’s jewel-encrusted sword to a leper. The king recognized Brigid’s holiness and persuaded her father to grant her freedom, that she might become a nun.

Around 480 AD, when Brigid was around thirty, she built an oratory (place of prayer) at  Kildare. This name is Anglicized from the Celtic, Cill Dara, “church of the oak”. This is because the it was established on the site of an older, Celtic druidic shrine, which featured a large oak tree, sacred to the Celts.

It’s fascinating to see the intersection of pagan and Christian beliefs, and how the  Celtic Christians attempted to not just eradicate the old ways, but to fold them into the new beliefs. It seems that along with the sacred oak, pagan women would tend to an eternal flame at this site, the goddess Brigid being associated with smith craft, which took fire, of course.

Brigid the Abbess did not quench this flame, but instead had a group of her young nuns tend it, after being consecrated to Christ, one assumes (some stories say this started after her death, in honour of her). Amazingly, this flame was kept burning until the 1200s, when it was put out by the Archbishop of Dublin, due to his fears that it fostered superstition.

The small oratory soon expanded. The Celtic Christians were unique in that they allowed for women and men to serve in monasteries together (although in separate buildings) and the monastery at Kildare was the first of these in Ireland, presided over by Brigid as Abbess, who appointed the hermit Conleth to co-rule with her (and presumably take care of the monks). Kildare thus became the first organized centre of spirituality for women in Ireland.

Kildare quickly became an important centre for religion and learning, which drew students not only from Ireland but from all across Europe. Brigid is credited with founding a school of metal-working and art on the site, and although the illuminated manuscript produced there, known as the Book of Kildare, disappeared during the Reformation (grrr) by all accounts it was exceedingly beautiful. The church itself was also said to be very beautiful and lavishly decorated with embroidered tapestries and pictures, and featuring elaborately carved windows and doors.

Brigid did not just rest on her laurels at Kildare, however. She travelled extensively through Ireland, founding many churches. It is said that she had a great friendship with St. Patrick, who was her contemporary.

She died at Kildare in 525 AD. Tradition says she died on February 1st, which became her feast day. That may or may not be true, I’m a little suspicious about that. Simply because February 1st is also Imbolc, the pagan festival celebrating spring. Possibly this is one of those times when the Church added a Saint to a pagan festival to Christianize it.

No matter what the actual date was, it is said that as she lay dying, she was given the last rites by a priest named Ninnidh, and  that afterwards, he encased his hand in metal, so as to never again touch anything with the hand that had touched Brigid, becoming known as “Ninnidh of the Clean Hand.” The patron saint of all those who swear never to wash their hands again after touching someone famous, I suppose!

440px-KildareCathedral

This is the cathedral at Kildare today, a restoration of the medieval buildings destroyed during the Reformation. Brigid’s original buildings would of course been made out of wood, or wattle and daub. Image from Wikipedia

Brigid’s remains were interred at the altar of Kildare, with a costly tomb adorned with jewels and precious stones raised over her. But due to the Viking raids, her relics were taken from there and re-buried in the tomb of Patrick and Columba, which shows the high esteem the people of Ireland had for her. Today, she is known as the “Mary of the Gaels.”

There is a prayer purported to be Brigid’s, which I really like. It’s impossible to say whether or not this does actually come from her, but nevertheless it gives you an idea of either her own perspective or how she was seen by others:

I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.

I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.**
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that I should suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.

From Brigid or not, this definitely belongs to the Early Middle Ages, however. The last couple lines comes straight from the mead hall, evoking the scene of the warriors drinking and celebrating after a battle, with the ale flowing liberally. So if that is how an earthly king’s victories is celebrated, how much more should we celebrate the victories of the King of Kings? With a lake of beer, of course, and drinking throughout eternity!

The Celts had a culture in which there was considerable equality between men and  women, and where women were involved in positions of power, even so far as to going to battle and being judges and Queens. It was a much more matriarchal society than those which came from the Greek and Roman tradition. So it’s not surprising that the Celtic Christians incorporated this into their church structures, allowing for double monasteries, and powerful women church leaders like Brigid and Hild of Whitby.

Brigid, by all accounts, was a strong but humble leader, generous and hard-working, devoted to God. She left an indelible impression on Irish society which remains to this day.


* A hagiography is a biography of a saint. In the rest of this post I will use the word “biography”, as it is the more familiar one. But that word gives us the modern connotation of objectivity. A hagiography most certainly was not.  Generally they were not written with an eye for exact historical details, but rather to extol the virtues of that particular saint, who likely was the founder the monastery to which the author belonged. In other words, you have to take these with a grain of salt. There was a lot of “my saint is better than your saint” involved. They are similar to the stories of the kings and other important people that come down to us from this era and earlier ones, except these try to extol spiritual strength, not worldly.  It was more about proving that your “guy” (or gal) was the best – the strongest, the most heroic, the most virtuous, the most whatever. It’s not to say that these don’t have any nuggets of historical truth in them, though. You just have to sift through some of the flowery details to find them. 🙂

**The three Marys appear in Scripture and in church tradition, referring to the three Marys at the crucifixion and/or the three Marys at the resurrection.  Mary was a common name at the time, and so in Scripture you find Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary Madgelene; Mary of Bethany; Mary, mother of James the Less; Mary of Cleopas; Mary, mother of John Mark; and Mary of Rome. Some of these may be the same person.

Featured image is from St. Brigid’s Parish, Gisbourne, and is an icon of Brigid. I like that she is holding the flame!

St. Patrick’s Breastplate

As you all likely know, St. Patrick’s day was celebrated yesterday, so I thought it would be appropriate to delve into his story on the blog today.

St. Patrick was an important person in the history of Ireland, and many know the legends surrounding him – that he brought the Christian faith to Ireland, that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, that he explained the Trinity to the people using the three-leaf clover.

But his story involves so much more than these legends, and it is actually a fascinating one which includes a small glimpse into the world of the British Isles in the 5th century.

First, a word about dates. There is nothing conclusive to fix the year of Patrick’s birth or death, so scholars disagree about when exactly he lived, other than that he lived during the latter part of the 5th century.

Interestingly, Patrick himself wrote a memoir of sorts, called the Confessio in Latin, meaning “Confession”. It begins,

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon, his father was Potius, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. 

There are several things to note in this remarkable introduction. First of all, Patrick was not Irish. There are debates about where exactly Bannavem Taburniae is, but most agree it is a Romano-Christian settlement in Britain. His father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest. Despite his disclaimer that he is a “simple country person” it seems that his family was probably a higher class family, by these references to his lineage.

We learn from this, secondly, that there was an established church in Britain, that continued even after the Roman troops were recalled away from Britain in 383 AD to defend the Empire on the continent from the barbarian hordes, never to return. During the Saxon invasions in the mid 5th century this Romano-British church (and the society it thrived in) was gradually eroded, replaced by the Germanic polytheism of the invaders. But the church was not completely destroyed, it was pushed out to the fringes in the west and north and continued to flourish among the Celts who were never really conquered by the Romans nor the Saxons, and it is during this period of relative isolation that the Celtic Church and it’s slightly different practices from Roman Christianity began to develop.

But back to Patrick. As the Roman troops left, lawlessness began to seize the island. Legend says the British warlord, Vortigern, invited some Saxon troops as mercenaries to help keep the peace, a plan that backfired as they liked what they saw and invited many more of their compatriots, triggering the Saxon invasions. And indeed, in the beginning of Patrick’s Confession we see an illustration of the lawlessness that was rampant at the time. The Irish swoop down on the unprotected Roman settlements and carry away many into slavery, 16 year old Patrick amongst them.

450px-Slemish_mountain_County_Antrim

Slemish Mountain, County Antrim, Ireland (photo on WikiCommons. This is the area associated with where Patrick was held as a slave. In his Confession he writes, describing his time as a shepherd for his master, Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in once day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. 

There are many other fascinating tidbits of Patrick’s life to be found in the Confession, including how this slave to the Irish eventually escapes and yet later decides to come back to be a missionary amongst them, but I will save that for perhaps another time.

Today I wanted to share with you one of the legacies of St. Patrick that is not often celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day, and that is the lorica (deer’s cry) or Breastplate prayer. There is a whole legend about why Patrick wrote this prayer which space doesn’t permit me to go into here, but if you are intrigued go look it up!

Now, it is possible that this prayer does not originate from St. Patrick himself. Like just about everything that might originate from this time period, it is difficult to say if Patrick himself penned it. There seems to be some agreement that the prayer actually originates from the 8th century, not the 5th. But wherever it comes from, it is a beautiful prayer that once again is a small window into the worldview of the Celtic Christians from so long ago.

Here is the prayer. It is long, so bear with me. I would encourage you to read it slowly, and let the phrases sink in. I will have a few comments at the end.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.


I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.


I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.


I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.


I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.


I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.


Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.


I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

There is much in here that relates both to the pre-Christian beliefs as well as the Celtic Christian worldview. It is in the style of a Druidic incantation, which of course would make sense as the Druids were powerful at the time of Patrick’s mission to Ireland. And you see in there the Celtic Christian’s love of creation (which also relates to their Druidic traditions), with the references to the sun, moon, lightning, wind, etc. And as I mentioned in a previous post, the repetitive phrases you see here are classically Celtic in style.

I also love the glimpse into the world of the author, whether it be Patrick or someone else. Surrounded by pagans, heretics, idolaters, false prophets, poisons, devils, spells of witches and wizards, and even his inward temptations, he seeks God’s protection.

Breastplate-Prayer-of-St.-Patrick

Ok, that made me laugh. From catholic company.com

But the heart of the prayer is the “Christ with me” section. Here you see a person who seeks to be surrounded by Christ, to see Jesus in every eye that looks at him, who implores Christ to be with him coming and going. This sense of the nearness of God, who permeates all, is also a classically pre-Enlightenment worldview. After the Enlightenment people tended to think of God being “up there”, in heaven. This way of looking at life as exemplified in the prayer is a very different one.

This is a morning prayer –  “I arise today” – meant to be prayed in the morning as the person wakes up and faces the day ahead. Not a bad way to start the day, in my opinion!

So here’s to St. Patrick and his legacy of faith, missionary zeal, and devotion to Christ. He left a great impression on the society of his time, so much so that even all these centuries later we are still talking about him. That, if nothing else, tells me he must have been a most remarkable man.


 

Featured image: Statue of St. Patrick near Saul, by Albert Bridge, on geograp.ie