Monday, 1 February 2016

The Life and Legend of Saint Brigid

Rev. S. Baring-Gould Lives of British Saints 

To celebrate the Feast of Saint Brigid, below is an account of her life and legend from a redoubtable Victorian lady author, Mrs Arthur Bell. I was initially confused by the attribution of her work at the Internet Archive to 'N. D'Anvers' but learnt that this was a device to make her sound like a male author, the pseudonym being composed of the elements 'N' for Nancy, her own first name, and Anvers for the Belgian birthplace of her father. Bell was a pioneer in the popularisation of art history and had an interest in the depiction of the saints in art. Thus in her account of Saint Brigid below, she ends by describing the symbolism associated with depictions of the Irish patroness. In general her account takes an uncritical and straightforward narrative approach to the life of Saint Brigid, recalling most of the more famous episodes from her hagiography. I note also in her opening description of the 'simple, child-like faith' of the Irish patrons a typically Victorian belief in these supposed 'Celtic' attributes, which contrasted, of course, with the supposed hard-headedness of the Anglo-Saxon. So enjoy the recapitulation of all our favourite stories about Saint Brigid on this her feast day!



THERE are few more romantic legends than those of Saints Patrick and Bridget, two Saints of the fifth century, whose memory is peculiarly dear to the Irish, though they are also greatly honoured in the rest of the British Isles as well as in France. Very little is really known of either of them, but there is absolutely no doubt that they lived and were both earnest workers in the cause of their Master, suffering much for the truth, and, although they did not work all the wonderful miracles with which they are credited, achieving many spiritual victories through their simple, child-like faith... 

...Full as is the legend of St. Patrick of romantic beauty, it is equalled if not excelled by that of St. Bridget, who ranks with him and St. Columba, the Apostle of Scotland, as one of the most revered Saints of Ireland. The daughter of a great Irish chieftain named Dubtach and a beautiful slave, Bridget, or Bride, as she is sometimes called, was brought into the world under a cloud of disgrace, for her mother is said to have been driven out of the house of her lover and master by his legitimate wife, just before the birth of her little one. In spite of this unpropitious beginning, however, the future Saint was brought up as a Christian, and when she was about three or four years old she was received into her father s house. She was often, it is said, taken to hear St. Patrick preach, and on one occasion fell asleep during his sermon. Before she was fourteen she had resolved to dedicate her life to God, but her father opposed her and wished her to marry a wealthy suitor. To escape from what she considered a desecration, Bridget prayed to God to destroy the beauty that made her so attractive to men, and it is said that her petition was answered by the loss of one of her eyes. Some claim that she received the veil from the hands of St. Patrick himself, whilst others assign that honour to St. Mel, the nephew and disciple of the great Apostle of Ireland. Who ever was the officiating Bishop on the occasion, three very re markable incidents are said to have occurred at St. Bridget's consecration: a column of fire descended upon her head as she knelt at the feet of the holy man, hence her name of the Fiery Dart; when his hands had touched her, and the dedica tion to God was irrevocable, her sight was restored to her; and when she laid her hand upon the altar, which was of wood, it sent forth a living green shoot. This last miracle is, however, by some assigned to a later period, when certain aspersions had been cast on the reputation of the Saint, and her innocence was proved by the sprouting forth of a branch on the altar at which she knelt, praying God to vindicate her by some sign of His favour.

After her consecration St. Bridget withdrew with two or three companions, who had also taken the vows, to a grove of oaks on the site of the present Kildare, the name of which signifies the cell (or church) of the oak, and the holy women had not been there long before the fame of their wonderful piety spread far and near. On one occasion, when a tame wolf belonging to the chief of the district had been shot by mistake by a peasant, St. Bridget saved the culprit from death by calling to her side a fierce white wolf, which after she had touched it became as meek as a lamb, followed her to the palace, and took the place of the lost pet. This was but one amongst many instances of the power of the saintly maiden over wild animals, and her home in the oak grove was soon sought by all in need of her intervention with the dumb creatures. The little community at Kildare quickly became the nucleus of a great community of virgins, who lived in separate cells, meeting for meals and prayer only, and looking up to St. Bridget as their head. The Abbess, though undoubtedly an excellent guide in all things connected with the spiritual life, seems to have been a very indifferent housekeeper, the result, perhaps, of the fact that, even when she was in her father's home, miracles had been performed to save her from the effects of her improvidence, for, when she had given all the milk and butter under her care to the poor, her stepmother always found the right quantity in the pans when she went to inspect the dairy. All through her life St. Bridget met with similar good luck, if luck it could be called. When a Bishop came to her settlement in the grove with a long train of attendant priests, and the larder in the big oak was bare, the Abbess merely milked the one cow owned by the community three times and all their wants were supplied. Again, when St. Bridget came in from an excursion wet through and sought in her cell for somewhere to hang her dripping cloak, a sunbeam, strong enough to sustain its weight, darted in at the slit serving as window, and on this sunbeam the cloak remained until it was dry. Throughout her long and chequered career there was never any need for the favoured saint to take thought for the morrow; she was so hedged about with love, both human and Divine, that every need was supplied as soon as it arose.

As a matter of course, the fame of all these wonders spread far and near, and the 'Fiery Dart', or, as she was sometimes called, the 'Mary of the Irish', because a certain holy man who had seen the Blessed Virgin in a vision had hailed Bridget as her living image, soon rivalled even St. Patrick in the number and zeal of her followers. The white-cloaked sisters of the Order of St. Bridget were to be seen all over Ireland, and many were the churches and monasteries which were built through their initiative. The rule given to these holy women by their revered Abbess was, though extremely rigid so far as individual conduct was concerned, remarkably unconventional with regard to the relations of the nuns with the outside world. They sought to serve God rather by going out amongst the poor and suffering than by shutting themselves away from all human intercourse, and St. Bridget herself seems to have led quite an exciting life; driving about in her chariot and pair to preach in the open air, or to visit some royal convert. On one occasion she nearly lost her life through her naive endeavour to do two things at once. The driver of her chariot was also the chaplain of her nunnery, and, St. Bridget having asked his advice in some spiritual difficulty, he forgot to guide his steeds as he answered her. The result was that one of them ran away, and the other slipped partly down a precipice, dragging the chariot after him. Nothing dismayed, the charioteer continued to hold forth and the nun to listen, never recognising their peril, till a rush to their rescue from some passers-by brought them face to face with the reality.

Before his death St. Patrick had asked that his shroud should be worked by St. Bridget, and it would seem as if the very spirit of the great Apostle had remained with her, for after her sacred task was completed her power over evil was greatly increased. Even the mad and distraught are said to have recognised her superiority at a glance, and as long as she was present their ravings would cease. Once a dangerous lunatic who had escaped from confinement dashed in amongst the white-cloaked nuns, who, led by St. Bridget, were proceeding  to some service. All except the Abbess fled at his approach, but she addressed the sufferer calmly, calling upon him to quote some words of his Master and her own. At once he became calm, and replied in a steady voice: 'O holy Bridget, I obey thee. Love God and all will love thee . . . fear God and all will fear thee'. The recovery was, however, only temporary, and the next moment the glimpse of reason was gone. The poor man fled away again as mad as ever, but the nuns never forgot the incident.

St. Bridget, like St. Patrick, is said to have lived to a great age, but nothing certain is known of the date or manner of her death. She is supposed, however, to have drawn her last breath in her convent at Kildare, surrounded by her sister nuns, and a fire was kept burning there in her honour until it was quenched in 1220 by order of the Bishop of the diocese. Later, St. Bridget's fire was re-kindled for a time, but at the Reformation its continuance was again forbidden. No human veto could, however, quench the fire of love for the maiden saint, which still glows in the hearts of her votaries. More churches have been built in her honour, more children have been named after her, than after any other Irish saint, and her memory is preserved in many a village remote from the scene of her earthly pilgrimage. Kilbrides are nearly as numerous in Scotland as in Ireland ; Kirkbride, Bridekirk, and Brigham in Cumberland, with Bridstow and Bridge-Rule in Devon shire, are all memorials of her, and the church of St. Bride's, in Fleet Street, as well as the prison of Bridewell, prove that even in the time of Wren she was still held in honour in Protestant London.

St. Bridget is generally represented wearing the picturesque dress of her order, with the long white cloak and hood forming a becoming framework to the face. She holds a large bowl in her hands, and a cow is introduced beside her in memory of the miraculous supply of milk and butter, alluded to above, on account of which she is supposed to be the special patron of cows, especially in certain districts of Belgium, where the peasants bring rings and other small articles to be blessed by the priest on her fete day, February 1, in the belief that their sick cattle will be healed by being touched with them. Some times St. Bridget holds a crosier as Abbess, sometimes a green branch, the latter in allusion to the miracle of the altar. More rarely a column of fire is seen above her head, or it is introduced over the cell in which she is praying. Instances also occur of a goose being placed beside her, the reason for which is obscure, but it has been suggested that it is because that bird is the type of the end as well as the beginning of winter, and in the South spring begins about February 1, the fete day of the saint.

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