Throughout history, man has needed heroes – those who stand out in special ways, who inspire, whose behavior we want to imitate. Often, man has chosen the wrong heroes – those whose behavior is notorious or who inspire only to selfish materialism. But if we cooperate, God leads us to choose as heroes those of his choosing, those he has sent to lead and direct his straying sheep into the right pasture. St. Brigid, Abbess of Kildare, was such a hero for the Irish people and, eventually, for all Christians.
The historical facts of Brigid’s life are difficult to ascertain. As the Irish are great story-tellers, so the tales of this Irish saint’s life have been much embellished through telling and re-telling. We know that she was born around the year 452, when Irish Christianity was still very young and fragile. Her mother was a devout Christian – a slave, some say – but her father was probably still a pagan.
Brigid may have been baptized by St. Patrick and, even as a child, she was known for her charity and kindness to others. She always gave some of what she had to the poor and was quick to help those in need. Her gifts as a wonder-worker were apparent from an early age. A story is told of how she helped her mother, who was working on the farm of her master, by praying that the butter produced from the milk of the cows would multiply greatly, thus helping the master to prosper and be pleased with his servant.
Another story is told of Brigid who, while comforting a dying peasant man, absently-mindedly handled the straw rushes on the floor of the man’s cottage. When she finally looked down at her hands, she realized that she had woven a cross. The Irish people still make a “St. Brigid’s Cross”, woven from straw which is placed in the rafters of homes on her feast day.
A husband was chosen for Brigid, but she had already decided to devote all her love and attention to God’s work, so she refused the marriage and, instead went to Bishop Mel (St. Patrick’s nephew and disciple) to ask his blessing for her work. Seven other young women accompanied Brigid to ask permission to form a community.
It is said that Brigid, in her humility, stood last in the line as they approached the bishop to be tonsured, considering herself the least worthy for this calling. Instead, the bishop drew Brigid forward, tonsuring her first and naming her the leader of the community.
Thus, the first women’s monastic community in Ireland was founded near a giant oak tree and became known as the “church of the oak” or “Cill Dara”, eventually Kildare. Here the women spent their days in prayer and fasting and tending to the needs of the poor and helpless. Abbess Brigid’s reputation spread and many more flocked to the monastery for help. The abbess, following the example of many other saints, even sold some of the monastey’s vestments to give to the poor when all other resources were spent.
The monastery grew to become a double monastery for monks as well as nuns. It became an important missionary center and a school was established. The monastery was noted for the beautiful work of its scribes, who produced the “Kildare Gospels”, an artistic ancestor of the 7̀-9th century Book of Kells.
St. Brigid gained the title “Mary of the Gael” after an incident in which Bishop Ibor (who had never met the nun) was attending a council which Brigid was to address. The night before her arrival, the bishop had a dream in which the Theotokos appeared to him. When Brigid came into the council room the next day, she looked exactly as the Blessed Virgin Mary had looked in the dream.
In her lifetime, St. Brigid was beloved by all those who knew her or who heard of her loving deeds. Having spent a long lifetime of devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ and doing His work among the poor, St. Brigid achieved her heavenly birthday on February 1, around the year 525.
May God almighty guide us to follow the example of his heroes, the saints of the Church, among whom is numbered St. Brigid of Ireland.
[Sources: Saints of the British Isles, A. Bond and N. Mabin; Lives of Saints for Young People, Vol. 5: Saints of Holy Britain, Archbishop Lazar Puhalo; The One Year Book of Saints, Rev. Clifford Stevens; Lives of the Saints, Rev. Alban Butler.]