Brigid the Saint of Abundance and Light

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Readings for the Feast Day of St. Brigid

Judges 4:4-9

Psalm 138

1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Matthew 6:25-33

This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on January 31, 2016 (the Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast Day). 

Today we are celebrating the feast day of one of my favorite saints and one of the most beloved saints of Ireland: St. Brigid. Two years ago, the five parishes of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group organized a celebration of my ordination, which fell on St. Brigid’s feast day. And in a Celtic spirituality class I taught, I used her as the example of a marriage between Celtic paganism and Christianity.[1] Although most scholars agree that there was indeed an historical St. Brigid, the accounts that we have of her life are so contradictory and full of legend (and hagiography) that we really cannot say much about her with any certainty. During this last week, I have been immersing myself in stories of Brigid and in prayer. And what emerged from this immersion was a story about Brigid, based on historical facts, legends, and hopefully a prayerful imagination. So as a homily this morning, I offer this story.

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Before England was called England, when it was just an island at the outermost edge of the known world, there lived a tribe of people known as the Brigantes, at the northern tip of the island. They were called the Brigantes because they worshipped a goddess of abundance and light named Brigid. Many of the rulers of the Brigantes were strong women, including a woman named Cartimandua who impressed the Romans with her power and fiery passion.[2] And because the Brigantes were such an impressive and dominating force on the island, some people think that they are the very ones from whom the island derives its name: Britain.[3]

As other tribes moved into Britain, many of the Brigantes migrated west, across the ocean, to another island named “Ire.” There, they continued to worship their goddess Brigid by building temples, wells, and especially enormous bonfires, which were tended to, day and night, by priestesses. Men were not allowed to tend the fires and those who tried ended up going mad.[4] One of these bonfires was built along with a temple next to a giant oak tree in a part of east Ireland known as Leinster. At the time, they called this fire temple “Kildare,” which means the Temple of the Oak.

At around the middle of the fifth century AD, a young girl was born among the Brigantes near Kildare to a woman named Broicsech (pronounced “Brocksheh”) who had recently been spiritually moved by the teachings of a holy man from Britain named Padraig. Broicsech worked as a servant to one of the Druid priests of the Brigantes named Dubhthach (pronounced “Doobthug”) and she was put in charge of milking the cows and churning the butter. Still devoted to her native religion, she named her beloved daughter after the goddess Brigid and taught her daughter about the beliefs of the Brigantes as well as the teachings of the holy man Padraig. Young Brigid loved learning about her namesake goddess, but prayed most often to Padraig’s God, who seemed to care deeply for the poor and the sick. Although many of the other servants adored young Brigid, the Druid priest Dubthtach found her to be a real handful. She would often steal his food and belongings and give them away to lepers and beggars. And she also became a very picky eater and would only have milk and butter produced by a white cow with red ears. All other food her body would reject.[5]

Dubhthach first tried to marry her off to several suitors, but Brigid, although very beautiful, found creative ways to repel men. One time she plucked her eye out of her face to frighten a suitor and after he ran away she put it back in.[6] Dubthach then tried giving her away to another Brigante chief, but he refused to take her when he saw her giving away all of Dubhthach’s belongings to a leper who was passing by.[7] Finally, Dubhthach made plans to have her become a priestess to the goddess of the Brigantes. And to his surprise, Brigid happily agreed to this.

When they arrived at Kildare, she ran to a circle near the great bonfire that Dubhthach could not approach because he was a man. Since she was a girl, the priestesses did not chastise her, although they still looked at her with some concern. As she peered into the flames, young Brigid saw an image of a woman in the fire, dazzling with radiance like the sun. The woman spoke to her and said, “Daughter, you are the delight of God.” Brigid stood in awe and then asked, “Who are you?” The woman answered, “I am known by your people as the goddess Brigid and by others as the Virgin Mother of God. I am here to tell you that I will always provide for you, even when everything seems to be scarce and I will always show you the light, even when everything appears to be dark. I want you to be my arms of love in this world. Feed the poor, heal the blind, nurse the sick and kindle the flame of my Son’s love everywhere you go.” And at these words, everything around Brigid, including the night sky, dazzled with the brightest light she had ever seen. Everything seemed to be pulsing with God’s light and affection as she felt the woman’s power and love beaming into her.[8] She then fell on her knees and began praying to the Son of the Virgin Mother.

One of the female tenders of the flame noticed a great radiance around Brigid[9] and approached her and said, “Daughter, the fire has spoken to you. You have been called to tend the flames.” So young Brigid trained as a priestess and as a tender of the fire of Kildare. She was also put in charge of the dairy production at Kildare because of her training and upbringing. However, to everyone’s initial dismay, she continued to give away all of the milk and butter to the poor; but now every time she gave food away, more food would miraculously appear.[10] She began to perform wonders by healing the sick and the blind and miraculously turning water into milk.[11] On one occasion she turned water into beer[12] and said, “I’d like to give God a lake of beer and every drop would be a prayer!” People also noticed that she had a unique relationship with light. On one rainy day, after tending sheep, she returned to the temple in Kildare and placed her wet clothes on a sunbeam, which held them for her like a clothesline.[13] When the other priestesses inquired about these wonders, she told them about Padraig’s God and the Son of the Virgin Mother, Jesus Christ. She taught everyone not to worry about food or clothes but to trust that God would provide for them as long as they cared for one another, especially for the poor among them. She also told them about her vision of the goddess Brigid who appeared in the flames and said she was the Virgin Mother of God. So all the priestesses of Kildare began to understand their goddess in a new way. The temple became an Abbey and Brigid became the Abbess and the holy community began to welcome men who joined as monks, thus establishing the first double-monastery of Ireland. They kept the great fire ablaze, seeing it as a visible sign of God’s light in the midst of darkness and of God’s abundance in the midst of scarcity. The double-monastery of Kildare grew and became a safe haven for all people in need and a destination for pilgrims and seekers. It is said that even Padraig visited Kildare in his old age and became dear friends with Brigid. And one day, when a Christian bishop visited, intending to bless Brigid, he became so “intoxicated with the grace of God” in her presence that he accidentally ordained her as a bishop.[14]

When her mother Broicsech was dying, Brigid returned to the house of Dubhthach to visit her. When they spoke, Broicsech shared a dream in which she saw her daughter serving as a midwife to the Virgin Mary, helping to bring Christ into the world. Broicsech then said, “Brigid, I am so proud of you. You have brought such abundance and light into my dark world. I ask that you now bring light into your father’s dark world.” Brigid never knew anything about her father and so asked, “But who is my father?” Broicsech said, “Your father is Dubhthach and he has grown severely ill, physically and mentally. Please visit him.”

Although shocked and overwhelmed, Brigid agreed and visited Dubhthach, on what appeared to be his deathbed. When she walked in, he started yelling at her and cursing her. But she sat down next to him, silently. And as he continued raving at her, she quietly picked up some reeds that covered the floor and started folding them together. Eventually, Dubhthach grew tired of yelling and became curious about she was doing and asked her. She said, “I am weaving a cross, which is a sign of God’s love for you. It is also a promise that we are held in the loving arms of God no matter what; a promise that God’s life overwhelms death just as the light of the dawn overwhelms the night.” She then handed him the cross. He began to weep and, with a tear-stained face, asked, “Will you baptize me?”

Brigid baptized Dubhthach and hundreds of others over the years and when Brigid eventually died on the first day of February, all of Ireland seemed to weep. And yet at the same time, everyone rejoiced because Brigid had taught them that God’s light shines even when all seems dark; that God’s abundance flourishes even when all seems lost; and that God’s life overflows even in the midst of death.

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[1] “Bridget…was both a pagan Celtic goddess and a Christian saint. In herself, Bridget focuses the two worlds easily and naturally. The pagan world and the Christian world have no row with each other in the Irish psyche, rather they come close to each other in a lovely way.” John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World (London: Bantam, 1999), 220-221.

[2] Tacitus, Annals 12:40, 2-7 “Carti(s)mandua” in The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe & Early Ireland & Wales, ed. John T. Koch and John Carey, 4th ed. (Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies, 2003), 45-46.

[3] Most scholars suggest that the name Britain comes from the name Prettani used by Diodorus Siculus, a name that is generally believed to mean “the tattooed folk.” Diodorus also mentions that the Pretanni ate human flesh. Diodorus Siculus 5.27-32, trans. Philip Freeman in The Celtic Heroic Age, 14. Also see Barry Cunliffe, The Celts: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University, 2003), 86.

[4] “Brigid’s fire is surrounded by a circular hedge that no man may cross. And if by chance some presumptuous male does enter, as certain foolish ones have attempted, he does not escape unpunished. Only women are allowed to blow on the fire, and not with their mouths but with bellows or winnowing fans…In Kildare there was a certain archer from the family of Richard who leapt over the hedge and blew on Brigid’s fire. He jumped back immediately and went mad. Thereafter he would go around blowing in people’s faces and saying, ‘See! That’s how I blew on Brigid’s fire.’ He went around to all the houses blowing on whatever fire he might find and saying the same words. Eventually he was captured and bound, but asked to be led to the nearest water. When he was brought there his mouth was so dry that he drank excessively, so that his belly ruptured and he died still in their hands. Another man began to cross the hedge but was restrained by his friends while only his lower leg had crossed the boundary. That foot immediately shriveled up, and for the rest of his life he remained lame and feeble.” Giraldus Cambrensis, Topographie Hibernie 69, 77, trans. Philip Freeman in The Celtic Heroic Age, 286 – 287.

[5] “She vomited anything he gave her to eat…Then a white cow with red ears was assigned to sustain her.” The Irish Life of Brigit in Oliver Davies, trans. Celtic Spirituality (Mahwah NJ: Paulist, 1999), 141. Davies invites comparison to “the white hounds with red ears that occur in the story of Pwyll in the Mabinogion, where they are clearly linked with the Other World (J. Ganz, ed. The Mabinogion [Harmondsworth, 1976], 46-47) in Davies, Celtic Spirituality, 507, n. 1.

[6] “The Irish Life of Brigit” in Oliver Davies, Celtic Spirituality, 144.

[7] “The Irish Life of Brigit” in Davies, Celtic Spirituality, 143.

[8] There is no account of such a vision in the legends of Brigid as far as I know. This was my attempt to respectfully fuse together the goddess, the Virgin Mary and the saint. It seems that Brigid was much more of a wonder-working saint than a visionary mystic.

[9] According to “The Irish Life of Brigit,” people witnessed a “fiery column” ascend from Brigid’s head on more than one occasion. Davies, Celtic Spirituality, 140, 145.

[10] “The Life of St. Brigit the Virgin by Cogitosus” in Davies, Celtic Spirituality, 122-139.

[11] “The Irish Life of Brigit” in Davies, Celtic Spirituality, 146.

[12] “The Irish Life of Brigit” in Davies, Celtic Spirituality, 147.

[13] “The Life of St. Brigit the Virgin by Cogitosus” in Davies, Celtic Spirituality, 125.

[14] “The Irish Life of Brigit” in Davies, Celtic Spirituality, 145.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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