The unity in purpose and mission of the Father and the Son in our readings this morning (I John 1: 1-4; John 10: 7-16) is in very sharp contrast to the values and attitudes of Saint Brigid of Kildare, whom we commemorate this morning, and those of her father, Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain.
Saint Brigid of Kildare (Bríd or Naomh Bhríde) is one of Ireland’s patron saints, alongside Patrick and Columba or Colmcille. As with many of our Irish saints, her biographical details are confused and confusing, and the lines between oral tradition and written tradition have become confused. But tradition says Brigid was born at Faughart, near Dundalk, Co Louth, around the year 451, and that her parents were Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain, and Brocca, a Christian Pictish slave baptised by Saint Patrick.
She may not have been raised as a Christian, for it is said she was inspired by the preaching of Saint Patrick at an early age, and that she was converted in the year 468, about the age of 17. This young woman was so enthusiastic about living out her new-found faith that her charity angered her father when she gave his milk, his butter, and his flour to the poor and the needy. Finally, when she gave away his jewel-encrusted sword to a leper, Dubhthach realised his daughter had something special and that he would go on losing his possessions unless he dropped his opposition to Brigid’s determination to become a nun.
She may have been only 19 when she founded Kildare Abbey, a double monastery for nuns and monks, in the year 470. According to legend, the elderly Bishop of Ardagh, Saint Mel, who was blessing her at the ceremony making her Abbess of Kildare, inadvertently read the rite of consecration of a bishop, and of course this could not be rescinded under any circumstances – once a bishop, always a bishop.
One of the most surprising images of Brigid I came across was a statue at a holy well on the Wicklow/Kildare borders, with Brigid wearing a mitre and holding a crosier. She must have been a good shepherd: she was known for her combination of holiness and commonsense; Kildare became one of the most prestigious monasteries in Ireland and in Europe; and it is said that Brigid and her successors as Abbesses of Kildare had authority equal to that of a bishop until the Synod of Kells in 1152.
Brigid died in Kildare in 525 and was buried in the cathedral, although her body was later moved Downpatrick, where she is buried beside Patrick and Columba (Columcille).
It was a custom in many Irish houses to make a new cross from straw or reeds each year on Saint Brigid’s Day and place it in the thatched-roof to protect the home from fire. It is too easy today to dismiss these practices as superstitious. But in a time when thatch was the best insulating roofing available, the fear of fire and the threat to families was real, and – in an age before slate and fire brigades – placing the homestead and the family under the protection of Christ’s Cross in prayer was the best a family could do.
Separating myth and history is always difficult. But the stories about Brigid are inspiring: her determination against the opposition of her father and her family to put her faith into action, her determination to commit herself to her vocation and her calling to ministry and religious life, despite the opposition of her family and friends are inspiring.
I like to think that old Mel of Ardagh might have less remiss and more mischievous in providing Ireland and the Church with a good model of women’s ministry, including Episcopal ministry.
And I like to think that there is a kernel of truth in an old rural practice: Brigid reminds us of the need to constantly renew our commitment to placing our lives and our families under the protection of the Cross, in the care of Christ the Good Shepherd.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. These reflections were shared, at the Eucharist in the college chapel on Saint Brigid’s Day, 1 February 2008