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Celtic Christianity : St. Brigid of Kildare - Part One

Quoted through Cill Dara Ministries - A Modern Expression of an Ancient Faith - All rights reserved

Confirmed historical facts about St. Brigid (Brigit, Bride/Bree, Bridget, Ffraid) are few because the numerous accounts of her life include many miracles and anecdotes deeply intertwined with pagan Irish folklore. Nevertheless, these accounts taken together give us a strong impression of her character and her importance to countless generations of Celtic women and men. Brigid was born in approximately the year 453 in Faughart, a few miles from Dundalk, county Louth. Some say her parents were of humble origin; others that they were Dubhthach, an Irish chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca (or Brocessa), a slave at his court. Shortly after Brigid's birth, she is sent away to Murroe in East Limerick to be put to fosterage.

When she comes of an age to be useful, Brigid returns to her father's house, taking her mother's place in the usual bondswoman/house servant duties - minding the livestock, cleaning, serving at meals, etc.
Even as a child it was already apparent that Brigid had a calling as she showed a special love for the poor. She kept a secret store of clothes and food for them, and on one occasion when her mother sent her to collect butter, the child gave it all away. She even makes gifts to the poor from her father's property when there is nothing else available. Dubhthach and his wife are less than tolerant of this behavior, and together they seek ways to make Brigid someone else's responsibility.

One day Dubhthach takes his daughter in a chariot to the King of Leinster to see if he can strike a deal to make her a member of the King's court. Brigid is left outside in the chariot, and while there, a leper approaches her, seeking alms. Without hesitation, Brigid hands over her father's sword, an item of great value. In the warlike province of Leinster, this says more than words can capture about Brigid's system of values. Needless to say, these values do not correspond with her father's, and he is furious when he discovers her action. Fortunately for Brigid, the King of Leinster is present as Dubhthach begins to chastise her, and he checks Dubhthach rage, saying: "Leave her alone, for her merit before God is greater than ours." Thus Brigid returns home, and through this incident of being praised by the king is also delivered from bondage.

In time, Dubhthach tries to arrange a marriage for his daughter (another way of making her someone else's responsibility), but she isn't interested. Beautiful Brigid consecrated herself to God at a young age, choosing a life of virginity, dedication to God and service to the poor.
Brigid's sanctity drew many others. When she was about 15 she settled with seven other like-minded girls near Croghan Hill in order to devote herself to God's service. Along with these seven also seeking the veil, she approaches St. Maccaille for guidance. At first, Maccaille is doubtful of the wisdom of Brigid's decision, thinking it a case of misdirected zeal. However, the more time he spends with Brigid and her postulants, the more he comes to see that the hand of God is guiding them. When Brigid and her virgins appear before Bishop Mel, various accounts tell that a miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit occurred. For humility Brigid had sent herself to the back of the line so that she might be the last to whom a veil should be given. But a fiery pillar appeared to rise from her head to the roof ridge of the church, inspiring Bishop Mel to call her forth: "Come, O Holy Brigid, that a veil may be on thy head before the other virgins." As a result of this supernatural intervention, the form of ordaining a bishop was read out over Brigid.

St. Maccaille protested that it was not proper that a woman receive Holy Orders as a bishop. But reportedly Bishop Mel replied: "No power have I in this matter. That dignity hath been given by God unto Brigid, beyond every (other) woman."
Another possible interpretation of this story relates to the fact that the Roman diocesan system was unknown in Ireland. Monasteries formed the center of Christian life in the early Church of Ireland. Abbots and abbesses held the rank and function that a bishop would on the Continent.

Evidence of this can also be seen at councils, such as the Synod of Whitby, convened by St. Hilda. Brigid, as a preeminent abbess, might have fulfilled some standard episcopal functions, such as preaching, hearing confessions, and serving as pastoral leader for a large geographical area. There is no evidence that she ever ordained any priests.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a lovely summary of St. Brigid and events that happened in her life! Thanks for sharing. She has inspired me immensely these last few years toward a greater love for my neighbor--and I hope others can also find her story encouraging...


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