St. Brigid of Ireland: Fearless Mercy

“Brigid is her name?”

The King of Leinster eyed the skittish Kildare chief, Dubhthach. He rose from his majestic seat and moved to the casement overlooking the courtyard before his castle.

“Yes,” Dubhthach said, “Brigid, my daughter by my old bondswoman, who is now the slave of a druid. She is one of those who worship the God of that man called Patrick.”

“Why do you wish to sell your own daughter to me?” the king continued, gazing down from his fortress. “Is she not industrious in your service?”

“By all means, King,” the chieftain was quick in his reply, “Brigid is a good worker. She grinds the corn, churns the butter, brews the beer, tends to my cows, sheep, and pigs, and is also attentive to guests. She would serve you well, King.”

“But there must be something amiss, or you would not be so eager to part with her.”

Dubhthach said nothing, gnawing at his shaggy beard.

“Can it be,” said the king, still at the window, “that Brigid is overly liberal with your goods when it comes to beggars?”

Dubhthach rose to his feet in anger and astonishment.

“My king,” he growled, “I admit she has a way in that regard which is of great annoyance to me. But how could you have known this?”

“I believe I see her below giving your sword out of your chariot to a leper. That is your chariot, is it not?”

In a roaring rage, Dubhthach dragged Brigid from his chariot and threw her before the king, demanding what right had she to dare offer such a priceless object as a gift to a mere mendicant.

“A priceless object,” responded the calm, beautiful girl, “is not unbefitting as a gift to God.”

“Be still, Dubhthach,” the king said as the chieftain’s wrath frothed. “This milkmaid’s worth before God is greater than any sword.”

“Will you take her, then?”

“I think not. No. Take her back home with you. Give her her freedom.”

*          *          *

Holiness is humble, but that does not mean holiness cannot be shameless. There is a brand of virtue that bravely responds to human calamities with an immediacy that disregards human consequences and conclusions. There is a sort of charity that acts first and asks questions afterwards. There is a mode of purity that is unapologetic when given the chance to honor Christ, whenever that chance may arise. There is a type of saint whose sanctity tries the patience and demands the forbearance of those who struggle to see all things in the unerring light of the Gospel. This holiness was the very holiness of St. Brigid of Kildare, Patroness of Ireland, who never hesitated to perform her duties to God at once as they were presented to her.

Brigid was born between 451 and 453 near Faughart, Ireland, though much of her early life—indeed, her entire life—is the subject of wondrous legends, leaving scholars split on many of the details of her history. Daughter to a Christian slave named Brocca who was baptized by St. Patrick, and a pagan chieftain named Dubhthach, Brigid was raised in her father’s household after her mother was sold to a druid priest. Brigid’s pedigree was part vassal and part royal, and she responded to the poor with a princess’s power. She commanded a perfect balance of obedience and authority—of dedication to those above her and devotion to those beneath her, and in this, her lore is undisputed. And the Lord looked after her propensities with care. If Brigid gave milk to a widow, there was, mysteriously, milk enough for her master. If Brigid gave butter to a poor vagabond, there was, somehow, butter enough for her master. If Brigid gave food to a knot of urchins, there was, nonetheless, meat for her master’s board. If Brigid gave a sheep to a starving beggar, her master’s flocks, miraculously, never grew thin.

Brigid was marked and blessed in her determination to do what was right despite repercussion. A tale is told that she requested from her father permission to visit her mother, which request Dubhthach denied. Nevertheless, knowing that her request was honorable, Brigid boldly set out to the house of the druid priest, where she found her mother in sickness. She immediately undertook her mother’s duties for the priest, tending to the cattle, the milking, and the churning—and kept to her ways of providing generously for any needy people who crossed her path. One day, when the priest heard that Brigid had given away his entire store of butter to the poor, he came to her with a large butter basket and demanded that it be filled. Brigid prayed to God, and found the barrels packed with butter again. She gave her mother’s master a full basket to his amazement, causing the priest to release Brigid’s mother from his service.

Returning to her father, Brigid learned that he had, in desperation of being quit of her, arranged a marriage. Having already given herself to Christ alone, Brigid met with the young man her father had chosen and told him that, though she herself could not marry him, if he were to enter the woods behind her father’s house, there he would find a beautiful damsel that would be his bride. The man followed Brigid’s advice, found the woman she had spoken of, and was married to her soon after. It was then that Dubhthach followed the advice of the King of Leinster and gave his extraordinary daughter her freedom. Brigid set forth at once and gathered about her women who had promised themselves, under the disdain of their masters and families, to a life of service and sanctity in Christ. As their numbers grew, Brigid determined to form a religious community in the footsteps of St. Patrick. Brigid and her companions made their first vows before St. Mel, a nephew of St. Patrick, and struck out together to establish a home for their sisterhood.

Legend has it that Brigid then went directly to the King of Leinster to beg for land where she could build a monastery. Standing before the king on a field of green in Kildare, Brigid told him the very place where she stood was ideal for her convent, being by a forest for firewood and a lake for water. The king refused her request. Brigid asked God to touch the king’s heart as she smiled and said, “Will you at least give me as much land as my cloak can cover?” The king, thinking she was in jest, agreed. Brigid handed her purple-red robe to four of her sisters, who, instead of spreading it on the ground, walked with the corners of the cloak in opposing directions, stretching the cloth before the king’s eyes over many acres. He was terrified at the sight and offered a fair plot of ground to Brigid on the spot. The king soon became a Christian himself and commissioned the construction of Brigid’s convent. Springing from this legend of Brigid’s miracle is the custom of eating blueberry jam on St. Brigid’s February first feast day.

Brigid’s foundation was well built with stone, earth, and thatch. Smithies, carpenters, kitchens, hostels, chapels, libraries, and monastic cells lined the paths of Brigid’s settlement, and served as a thriving center of industry and artistry. Brigid’s community grew in renown for producing bells, chalices, crosiers, patens, missal stands, and illuminated manuscripts of sacred scriptures which many scholars believe to be none other than the glorious Book of Kells. But for all this fame, Brigid remained a monument for the simple, pastoral life: milking cows, tending sheep, making rich butter and sharp cheese and good ale. Though the legends of her life abound, Brigid was ever a milkmaid who loved her God before all else and did His holy work despite the hedging of human affairs. One such legend tells well how Brigid aimed to clear a path for heaven on earth. The story goes that the Mother of God was visiting the villages of her poor Irish children and was pressed upon by multitudes marveling at her beauty and grandeur. Meeting Brigid, Our Lady pleaded, “Can you deliver me from these throngs?” Then and there, Brigid produced a winnowing rake whose prongs flashed like fire, and, in plying it, she distracted the crowds from following the Blessed Virgin so closely. When asked afterwards by Mary what recompense she would have, Brigid replied, “Only that my day stand before yours.” And so it is that the feast of St. Brigid stands before the feast of the Purification of Mary. On the first of February crosses were woven from bulrushes, as St. Brigid was said to weave at the deathbed of her father, and hung over doorways while housekeepers distributed butter among the farmhands.

Brigid’s was the joyful, holy courage to do what was just even if it entailed the annoyance of others. She knew well that the will of God must be performed with the regularity and immediacy of chores on a farm. Like the cows that need milking when the time comes, God does not always wait for His children to answer the call of grace in their own time. Some tasks must be done as they arise, even if it means the acceptance of inconvenience. This is often the challenge of the Christian life: to react well to the challenges that Christ gives in the moment, and to respond to Christ Himself as He is met in others possibly a hundred times a day. When confronted with the chance, no Christian should turn aside from an opportunity to honor Christ, and, as St. Brigid was known to say, “Christ is in the body of every poor man.”

image: By GFreihalter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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