The Generosity of Saint Brigid

The Generosity of Saint Brigid

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Her mother, like St. Patrick before her, was a Christian slave. Her father was a pagan chieftain in Leinster, east Ireland. Brigid was born in ~453 (451-453) and grew into an open-hearted girl whose abundant generosity plagued her father. Multiple stories agree that she was constantly passing out milk, butter, and meat to the beggars who came to their door. Her father decided it was time for her to marry.

According to legend, they traveled by chariot to meet the King of Leinster. Her father left his sword and its bejeweled bronze scabbard with Brigid in the chariot while he went inside to negotiate the marriage. You cannot bring a sword with you when you meet with a king! While the two men conferred, a leper approached Brigid for food. The chariot was empty. So Brigid gave him the sword, knowing that he could sell it.

Her father returned and was furious to find his sword missing. The king asked Brigid, “Will you also give away my riches?”

“I would give all the wealth of Ireland away to the poor to serve the King of Heaven.”

“You are too good for me,” the King replied.

Thus Brigid received her wish to become a nun. In time, she became abbess at Kildare, Ireland. The King of Leinster himself gave her the land, today about an hour’s drive southwest of Dublin. A cathedral town arose around this site.

The monastery in Kildare was a dual house, with both monks and nuns, and the community was renowned in medieval Ireland as a center of learning and craftsmanship, including metal-working and illumination. In the Twelfth Century, the cleric and historian Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) visited Ireland, and he described the Gospel book of Kildare as so beautiful that it must be the work of angels. The book of Kildare has been lost to history, although some speculate the exquisitely illuminated Book of Kells, now on display in Trinity College, Dublin, is either the lost book of Kildare or another equally stunning Gospel manuscript made in Kildare.

St. Brigid Cross from the collection of the authorAnother legend tells us that once St. Brigid visited a pagan chieftain who was dying. In that era, homes had no carpeting, and floors were strewn with rushes. Brigid picked up the straw from the floor and wove it into the shape of a cross. As she wove, she told the chieftain about the love of Christ, and he converted before he died. Today, straws or reeds braided like a pinwheel into a cross are known as a St. Brigid Cross. Traditionally, these crosses were made annually by devout families on her feast day, and were said to bring protection to their thatched-roof cottages.

A poem attributed to St. Brigid is preserved in a manuscript in a Brussels library and dated to the eighth century:

I should like a great lake of the finest ale for the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food for the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast, for they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast, for they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
and the sick dance with the angels. . .
(quoted in Van de Weyer, Celtic Fire)

St Brigid Cross wreath handmade by the authorSt. Brigid reposed in peace in Kildare in the year 525. She remains today one of the most beloved Irish saints, second to St. Patrick in devotion and popularity. Her feast day is celebrated on February 1.

I pray that I may learn to embody the faith, hospitality, and generosity of Brigid.

Sources:

Bladey, Conrad. Brigid of the Gael. “Tales From a Source of 1625. . .Abridged from Cogitosus.” St. Brigid website. Cbladey.com. 27 Jan 2015. <http://cbladey.com/brigid/saintale.html#1625>

“Brigid of Kildare.” Orthodox Wiki. Last updated 3 August 2014. Website. 27 Jan. 2015. <www.orthodoxwiki.org/Brigid_of_Kildare>

Curtayne, Alice. St. Brigid of Ireland. N.Y.: Sheed and Ward, 1954. Print.

Grattan-Flood, William. “St. Brigid of Ireland.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 27 Jan 2015. <www.newadvent.org/cathen/02784b.htm>.

Minehan, Rita. Rekindling the Flame: A Pilgrimage in the Footsteps of Brigid of Kildare. Kildare, Ireland: Solas Bhride, 1999. Print.

Van de Weyer, Robert, ed. Celtic Fire. N.Y. Doubleday, 1990. Print.


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Cynthia Long

Cynthia Long is a librarian, folklorist, and writer with a focus in Celtic folklore, mythology, and history. She earned her M.F.A. in Fiction from Rosemont College in Rosemont, Penn., in May 2016. In August 2017 she presented at Doxacon, the Orthodox Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, on the topic of fairy tales and the famous C.S. Lewis quotation that says, "Some day you will be old enough to read fairy tales again." Cynthia was Chrismated in September 2012 and attends St. George Church in the Philadelphia suburbs, where she tends the parish library.