01 February 2022

With the Saints through Christmas (38):
1 February 2022, Saint Brigid of Kildare

Saint Brigid of Kildare … a modern icon

Patrick Comerford

Today looks like being a busy day. I have travelled to Dublin for a dental appointment later in the day. But, before this busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I have been continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during the Season of Christmas, which continues until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation tomorrow (2 February);

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Today (1 February 2022) is the Feast Day of Saint Brigid, one of the three patrons of Ireland – alongside Saint Patrick and Saint Columba – and the patron of the Diocese of Kildare.

Saint Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Traditionally, Irish people regard 1 February, the feast of Saint Brigid of Kildare, as the first day of Spring. There is a saying that Irish people start using at this time of the year: ‘There’s a grand stretch in the evening.’

Saint Brigid is a much-neglected saint in the Church of Ireland, although she is one of the three patrons of Ireland, alongside Saint Patrick and Saint Columba, and she gives her name to Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare.

If that neglect of Saint Brigid in the Church of Ireland is a response to some of the ‘new age’ myths and fantasies that have been created around her life and story, then the Post-Communion prayer for today invites us ‘to lay aside all foolishness and to live and walk in the way of insight.’

Three relevant points about Saint Brigid are worth considering on Saint Brigid’s Day:

1, Firstly, there is a lot of legend, a lot of myth, and a lot of ‘New Age’ style writing about Saint Brigid. But, in fact, we know very little about her. Some stories say she was baptised by Saint Patrick. She may have taken her vows as a nun from Saint Mel of Ardagh, who also gave her the authority of an abbot. Some legends say he made her a bishop – the only female bishop in the early church. But whether she was a bishop or not, what we know of her makes her a good model for those who would be shepherds and pastors in the church.

Saint Brigid was buried in Kildare Cathedral, but then, about the year 878, because of the Viking raids, her relics were taken to Downpatrick, where she was buried alongside Saint Patrick and Saint Columba, and they were reinterred in Downpatrick Cathedral in 1186.

The Book of Armagh claims that ‘between Patrick and Brigid, the columns of the Irish, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her Christ performed many miracles.’

But the legendary nature of most of the accounts of her life means there is little we can say with certainty about her life. The earliest Latin ‘life’ of Saint Brigid was written around the year 800, so we can hardly regard it as a primary source.

However, if we confine Brigid to the shelves of ‘New Age’ books in airport shops and supermarkets, alongside crystal healing and Bigfoot, we take from Irish spirituality an interesting role model for women’s ministry.

2, Secondly, Brigid is not marginal: her legacy is part of our shared Irish cultural heritage. Hundreds of placenames in Ireland and Scotland honour her memory – places such as Kilbride, Brideswell, Tubberbride, Templebride, and so on. Several places in Wales are named Llansantaffraid, which means ‘Saint Bride’s Church.’ And in England, there are 19 ancient church dedications to her, including Saint Bride’s, the journalists’ church in Fleet Street, and Bridewell or Saint Bride’s Well, the parish in which Saint Thomas à Becket was born.

Her small foundation in Kildare became a centre of religion and learning that developed into a cathedral city. According to Giraldus Cambrensis, nothing he had seen ever compared with the Book of Kildare, every page of it was so beautifully illuminated. He says the interlaced work and the harmony of the colours left the impression that ‘all this is the work of angelic, and not human skill.’ Various Continental pre-Reformation breviaries commemorate Saint Brigid, and her name is included in a litany in the Stowe Missal.

But the rich insights of the monasteries are not only for men, nor for one tradition on this island; they are part of our shared, common Christian heritage, from long before the Reformation.

3, Thirdly, Saint Brigid is an interesting role model for the full place of women in the ministry and mission of the Church. From the sources for her life, we can see that – despite the legends and the myths – Brigid was celebrated for many reasons:

● She converted to Christianity at great personal cost, giving away her personal and inherited wealth.
● At a young age, she gave her life to God, choosing to serve God and to serve the poor.
● She balanced wisdom and common sense – something most of us find lacking in equal measure, most of the time.
● She was a spiritual guide to both men and women.
● She is known for her humility.
● She served the wider church as the main pastoral figure in a large geographical area.
● She built the church, laying both the physical and mission foundations.
● She was one of those Celtic saints who insisted that a vital component of the spiritual life is having a soul friend (anam cara).

More than anything else, though, Saint Brigid is known for her hospitality. When the poor and the infirm came to her in their multitudes, she provided for them, tending to the poor, the lowly and the forgotten, living out the Beatitudes in her daily life. She saw that the needs of the body and the needs of the spirit are inter-twined. And that to me is good enough reason to remember Saint Brigid this morning.

Saint Brigid depicted in a window in Saint John the Baptist Church, Kilcornan, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 10: 7-16 (NRSVA):

7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.’

The west window in Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, is dedicated to the three patrons of Ireland – Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid and Saint Columba – and is a memorial to Archbishop Edward Benson of Canterbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (1 February 2022) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Anglican Council in Malawi and their newly launched Church and Community programme.

Yesterday: Bishop Charles Mackenzie

Tomorrow: Simeon and Anna

Saint Brigid’s Well, off the road between Kilcornan and Stonehall, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org